Respect for Numbers

Lively Forms and Accountable Engaging in Multiple Registers of STS

  • Catelijne Coopmans


This paper explores an episode of numbers appearing on a screen and being read/spoken, looked at and received as numbers, by people who work together to achieve a particular goal. The events happened in Singapore, in 2012-2013, as part of periodic reporting on diabetic retinopathy screening in the context of efforts to innovate such screening. I tell of two parties at odds over how to engage numbers accountably. This question of ‘engagement’, of what can and should be done with numbers to secure their participation in organizational affairs, is worked out in how numerical forms are performed and sustained as working numbers. Using three STS analytics to analyse the episode – Helen Verran’s (2001) work on number as a relation of unity/plurality, John Law’s (1994) work on modes of ordering, and Steve Woolgar and Daniel Neyland’s (2013) work on mundaneity and accountability – I argue that numbers are brought to life in very different ways, each mobilizing a certain recognition of what numbers are and what it takes to respect this. In the conclusion, I comment on the article’s use and juxtaposition of these STS analytics, using the metaphor of a kaleidoscope.


Download data is not yet available.


Asdal K (2011) The Office: The Weakness of Numbers and the Production of Non-Authority. Accounting, Organizations and Society 36(1): 1-9.

Beaulieu A, Scharnhorst A and Wouters P (2007) Not Another Case Study: A Middle-Range Interrogation of Ethnographic Case Studies in the Exploration of E-science. Science, Technology & Human Values 32(6): 672-692.

Bhargava, M, Cheung CYL, Sabanayagam C, Kawasaki R, Harper CA, Lamoureux EL, Chow WL, Ee A, Hamzah H, Ho M, Wong W and Wong TY et al. (2012) Accuracy of Diabetic Retinopathy Screening by Trained Non-physician Graders Using Non-mydriatic Fundus Camera. Singapore Medical Journal 53 (11):715-719.

Callon M and Law J (1995) Agency and the Hybrid Collectif. The South Atlantic Quarterly 94(2): 481-507.

Callon M and Law J (2005) On Qualculation, Agency and Otherness. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(5): 717-733.

Daston L and Galison P (1992) The Image of Objectivity. Representations 40: 81-128.

Goh SY, Lee CH and Bee YM (2015) Diabetes Care in Singapore. Journal of the ASEAN Federation of Endocrine Societies 30(2): 95-99.

Guyer JI (2014). Percentages and Perchance: Archaic forms in the Twenty-First Century. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 15(2): 155-173.

Holtrop T (2018) 6.15%: Taking Numbers at Interface Value. Science & Technology Studies 31(4).

Latour B (1999) Circulating Reference: Sampling the soil in the Amazon Forest. In: Latour B. Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, pp. 24-79.

Law J (1994) Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Law J (1996) Organizing Accountabilities: Ontology and the Mode of Accounting. In: Munro R. and Mouritsen J. (eds). Accountability: Power, Ethos & Technologies of Managing. London: International Thomson Business Press, pp. 283-306.

Law J. (1997) The Manager and His Powers. Published by the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University., Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK, Available at: (accessed 3.11.2018).

Lippert I (2018forthcoming) Lunches are no Flights: Of Narrating a Number, Qualculation and Ontologising Troubles. Science & Technology Studies 31(4).

Lury C. (2012) Going Live: Towards an Amphibious Sociology. The Sociological Review 60: 184–97.

Martin A and Lynch M (2009) Counting Things and People: The Practices and Politics of Counting. Social Problems 56(2): 243-266.

Miller P (1994) Accounting and Objectivity: The Invention of Calculating Selves and Calculable Spaces. In: Megill A (ed.). Rethinking Objectivity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mol A and Mesman J (1996) Neonatal Food and the Politics of Theory: Some Questions of Method. Social Studies of Science 26: 419-44.

Munro R (2001) Calling for Accounts: Numbers, Monsters and Membership. The Sociological Review 49(4): 473-93.

Nafus D (2014) Stuck Data, Dead Data, and Disloyal Data: The Stops and Starts in Making Numbers Into Social Practices. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 15 (2): 208–222.

Neyland D (2012) An Ethnography of Numbers. In: Caulkins D and Jordan A (eds) Companion to Organizational Anthropology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 219-235

Nguyen HV, Tan GS, Tapp RJ et al., Mital S, Ting DS, Wong HT, Tan CS, Laude A, Tai ES, Tan NC, Finkelstein EA, Wong TY, Lamoureux EL (2016) Cost-effectiveness of a National Telemedicine Diabetic Retinopathy Screening Program in Singapore. Ophthalmology 123(12): 2571-2580.

Porter T (1995) Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Quattrone P (2009) Books to be Practiced: Memory, the Power of the Visual, and the Success of Accounting. Accounting, Organizations and Society 34: 85–118.

Stapel D (2012) Ontsporing ("Derailment"). Prometheus Books .

Teh SN (2012) Technology and Thinking People (Productivity Matters section). The Business Times Singapore, Tuesday December 18 2012: 11.

Verran H (2001) Science and an African Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Verran H (2007) The Telling Challenge of Africa's Economies. African Studies Review 50(2): 163–182.

Verran H (2010) Number as an Inventive Frontier in Knowing and Working Australia's Water Resources. Anthropological Theory 10(1–2): 171–178.

Verran H (2012) The Changing Lives of Measures and Values: From Centre Stage in the Fading 'Disciplinary' Society to Pervasive Background Instrument in the Emergent 'Control' Society. In: Adkins L and Lury C (eds.) Special Issue: Sociological Review Monograph Series: Measure and Value 59 (s2): 60–72.

Woolgar S (1991) Configuring the User: The Case of Usability Trials. In: Law J. (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge, pp. 58-97.

Woolgar S and Neyland D (2013) Mundane Governance: Ontology and Accountability. Oxford: Oxford University Press./