Measuring Matters: Histories of Assessing Inequality

5 July 2017 - 7 July 2017

Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


Pedro Ramos Pinto (University of Cambridge)

Poornima Paidipaty (University of Cambridge)



As economic and social inequalities continue to raise global concern, the framing and understanding of inequality as a problem is fundamentally linked to the way it is measured.  Whether it is the use of GINI coefficients, multi-component indices for measuring human development, or the increasing use of bio-metrics in the contemporary and historical study of inequality, how we gauge and measure disparity defines both the shape of our concerns and the sites of future interventions.

Measures of inequality have a history that matters. Contemporary understandings of inequality are connected to contingent past choices about measures and objects of measurement. Such choices took place in specific historical, social and political contexts. This conference aims to ask how such contexts influence the making and nature of measurement. What kinds of measurement are created in more or less equal sites of production, and how does the ownership of measurement influence the knowledge that is produced? Equally, how do different contexts influence how measurements are interpreted and used?

Once available, how do measurements of inequality gain broad political and ideological acceptance, and where do they face resistance?  When and how are “counter-measures” produced?  How do measures that are devised in particular and possibly exceptional contexts travel and find acceptance in other social and historical locations?  How and why did income come to play such a central role in our accounts of disparity?  How are ideas about citizenship, rights, and political subjectivity shaped by our metrics for gauging inequality?

Exploring these questions will help us develop more effective means to chart and question inequality. The conference will be organized around three themes:

  • Historicising inequality: the contemporary concern for inequality should itself be analysed and historicised.  The history of measurement offers a productive framework for examining wider shifts in discourses about poverty and disparity. How and why do societies in different places and times frame issues of distribution, particularly through its measurement? When do popular and policy discourses choose to invoke measures of absolute poverty, and when is deprivation framed as an issue of equity? How do different framings of the political subject of disparity condition how societies approach and measure them? And finally, what kind of political identities and subjectivities have been made possible by particular forms of measurement and their uses?
  • Abstraction, intelligibility and political power: the rhetorical and political power of quantification rests with its capacity for abstraction and generalisation in ways that are intelligible to its audience. Yet, the process of aggregation and abstraction comes at a cost of portraying complexity and granularity. For instance, 19th century social reformers notably produced narratives in which the particular or the personal came to stand in for broader social processes. What are the benefits and costs of such generalisations? How do particular abstractions, from the GINI to HDI come to define issues, and what is obscured by these metrics? Can the past offer any insights on how to produce measures and generalisations (including the visualisation of inequality) that are more transparent, take into account causal and contextual diversity and yet retain their rhetorical power?
  • Disparity, the body and health: the human body is a recurrent site for the measurement of disparity and its effects. Anthropometry, IQ and experimental psychology have all been used at different times to measure, justify and legitimise, or condemn social and economic disparities. Even abstract economic indices developed out of earlier attempts to gauge physiological need. What are the histories and consequences of such embodiments of disparity? How are biological fundamentals mobilised to establish both equality and inequality? And what are the biological consequences of such choices?  How do embodied measures influence our notions of health and illness?  What, for instance, are the histories of creating nutritional standards and comparative frameworks for measuring life expectancy?  How do such measurements frame health disparity in ways that importantly distinguish it from income inequality?


Conference Format

The conference will combine intensive closed workshops with two public events on the topic. One will be a keynote address by a leading scholar in the field: Professor Alice O’Connor, author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton 2001), who has accepted the invitation. The second public event will be a round-table aimed at engaging with current practice and policy, engaging with a wider academic and non-academic public, and bringing into the conference other perspectives, debates and questions. 




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the Ellen McArthur Fund (Faculty of History) and the Humanities Research Grants Scheme at the University of Cambridge, the Economic History Society, and the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme. 


Administrative assistance: