STS and the sociology of numbers

Since the 1970s, the interdisciplinary field of ‘science and technology studies’ (STS) has brought together a variety of critical academic perspectives on science, engineering and technology. From its origins in areas such as the history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of knowledge, anthropology and public policy, STS has spread steadily across the humanities and social sciences, including a recent flurry of interest in various aspects of education research.

As we enter the 2020s, STS researchers are now addressing a diversity of topics – including a thriving literature on ‘number studies’. This subfield is developing various lines of discussion relevant to our own research – not least the epistemological and ontological implications of conceiving the world in terms of numbers and statistics.  Also of particular relevance is recent interest in addressing questions of what numbers ‘do’ and what is being ‘done’ with numbers in contemporary social settings. There is much that we can take from such studies when looking to make sense of the datafication of schools.

Lippert and Verran frame this aspect of STS as addressing the topic of ‘After Numbers’ – reflecting a temporal perspective on the ‘doing’ of numbers and data. This involves considering all aspects of what Lippert and Verran term the ‘life-cycles’ and ‘narratives’ of any piece of data.This immediately draws attention toward what happens ‘behind’ and ‘before’ a data point is encountered in a school. For example, what is the story of this number’s emergence and its preceding history as a ‘becoming-number’? What interests, motivations, commitments and expectations were invested in the expected data?

Conversely, we also need to pay due attention to the ever-diversifying roles that any data-point has ‘after’ it has been generated – especially as it finds a place within the everyday life of school. This involves studying the diverse ways that a piece of data is ‘brought to life’ within the school; the contrasting ways that actors might relate to the same piece of data; and how different people practically work with (and/or work around) the data. Such perspectives involve taking a long view of data – not least the lasting ramifications and iterations of a data point beyond its most obvious and visible uses (what Lippert and Verran describe as ‘nthorder calculations’ and social effects).

As these ‘before’ and ‘after’ perspectives imply, STS encourages us to think beyond the idea of data as a stable, fixed entity with a distinct fixed substance and character. Instead, it pushes us to approach data in relational terms. This requires thinking about what is being done with data amongst different networks of actors and interests. This includes examining the interactions and transactions that take place around (and through) data, as well as the meanings that people ascribe to data at various times and different contexts. This also involves ascribing data some form of ‘social life’ of its own – entwined with the activities of human and non-human actors. In all these ways, then, STS pushes us to consider data in terms of what data does within the social context of a school, rather than what data is (Day et al.,2014).

These questions can be addressed toward various aspects of school ‘data’. For example, we might choose to explore material and epistemic practices that shape data (and stories of data), as well as how people ‘live with’ data alongside the less conscious ways that they also ‘live in’ data (Day et al. 2014). All told, the numerical turn within STS foregrounds a distinct line of questioning that certainly relates to our own concerns around datafication. As Whitney and Kiechle (2017, p.4) summarise:

“Who quantifies, and to what purpose? Are numbers merely fact and/or rhetoric, or are they available
as meaningful bodily experiences and stories about the past, present, and future? How do conflicting social forces attempt to make different meanings from numbers? How does the practice of quantifying nature differ between corporate, state, and non-state actors? How do narratives and bodies challenge or reinforce the centrality of numbers in understanding, representing, and regulating environments?”.


Underpinning these questions are a few broader principles that we also would do well to bear in mind when conducting our own research. For example, STS has long sought “symmetry” in telling all sides of the story of any technological artefact or phenomenon (be it a single data point oran entire school system). This implies paying attention to all ‘relevant social groups’ (from the most minor influences to the major shapers). This also implies giving equal consideration to dominant and peripheral opinions, successful and failed versions of the technology.

STS studies are also characterised by a disposition to belligerently address everyday aspects of a phenomenon while also remaining creative and well-humoured. Indeed, Gunderson (2016, p.46) describes the “aesthetic standard” in STS as including a “playful seriousness, attention to thick descriptions of the mundane, pleasure in subverting common assumptions”.

Finally, is an underlying interest in identifying alternatives – particularly in terms of working out how technology might better act in the public interest. For example, there is a long-standing STS interest in ‘deliberative democracy’ – supporting the discussion and debate of significant science and technology ‘controversies’ that affect wider society. Thus, STS looks to give greater prominence to marginalized and excluded versions of what technology could be through representative means.



 Day, S., Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2014) Number ecologies. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 15:123-154

Gunderson, R. (2016).  The sociology of technology before the turn to technology. Technology in Society, 47:40-48

Lippert, I. and Verran, H. (2019). After Numbers? Innovations in Science and Technology Studies’ Analytics of Numbers and Numbering. Science & Technology Studies, 31(4):2-12.

Whitney, K., and Kiechle, M. (2017). Introduction: Counting on Nature. Science as Culture, 26(1):1-10.