Techno-Scientific Numbers as fields of mobilization

By Andrea Ballestero

In 2012, Costa Rican social movements halted a Canadian corporation from going forward, with the approval of the government, to construct the first open pit gold mine in the country. Also in 2012, despite their intense mobilization, social movements failed to persuade Congress to pass a constitutional reform to declare water access a human right. Stopping a giant transnational mining corporation backed by the government’s neoliberal policies proved easier than creating consensus amongst congress representatives to promote citizen involvement and reiterate the public nature of water. In both instances, techno-scientific knowledge was at the core of their mobilization. Geological maps, hydrological flows, biodiversity extinction rates and indices, economic calculations of financial benefits—all of them ultimately circulating in the form of numerical figures—shaped the political struggles of the activists and their radically different outcomes. In this short essay I want to draw our attention in two directions. First, towards the question of “who” are the participants in the social movements that we study. And, second, to the issue of the peculiar and changing social values of numbers, the ultimate tokens of techno-scientific knowledge.  

The failed constitutional reform and the halted mining project in Costa Rica are reminders of how difficult it is to derive generalizations about the tactics that social movements rely on when involved in political struggles that are partially determined by techno-science. Specificities matter, and they articulate with broader trends in peculiar ways. In Latin America, and this is true elsewhere, sharp distinctions between social movements, government officials, and the private sector based on people’s institutional locations are risky. The Director of an Environmental Regulatory Agency can have a history as an NGO leader. The former Minister of Health might involve herself in a mobilization for gay marriage. A corporation’s research staff might have worked for the state in the past. So, if the institutional standing of an actor does not predict her political standing, how do people read the social landscape and intervene in it?

I want to suggest that one important and increasingly prevalent way that activists and social movements gauge political identifications is by looking at techno-scientific recommendations. By analyzing technical prescriptions and interpreting the political projects they stand for, activists, as well as other social actors, have turned to technical knowledge as a way to draw a picture of the landscape in which they operate. What social scientists have observed about science and technology, namely its thoroughly social and cultural character, activists have also detected. But this is not a simplistic claim to manipulation of knowledge or corruption of research practices. It is a much more complex realization of the social foundation of any epistemic endeavor. The consequence is that instead of relying on the figure of an expert, a politician, or a former NGO leader to distill the political views of a person, activists increasingly scrutinize specific techno-scientific pronouncements that cut across institutional entities to identify potential allies across government and private organization. This is an important historical shift that has occurred in the past 25 to 35 years.

During the 60s, 70s, and 80s Latin American movements were articulated around questions of civil and economic rights, and resistance to political violence amalgamated their political ideologies. From the 80s onward one sees the proliferation of movements with similar objectives but distinct tactics that usually incorporate the production and accumulation of expert and technical information. One could say that expertise and not religion, law, or morality determines some of the core worries in Latin American environmental, health, and economic politics. This shift towards expertise is of course one of emphasis and intensity, not one of radical exclusions. These days, people rely on techno-science, many times vernacularized, to also address religion, law and morality, and to broker arguments and connect actors. They do so, in large part, by focusing their attention on numbers. But, how do they do so? What political work do numbers perform and how are they being politicized?

Public policy scholar Deborah Stone (1985: 129) suggests that numbers, working in tandem with categories, function as metaphors that make people and things not only count, but more importantly, count as. Numbers provide categories with substance and recognition from subjects, experts, and policy-makers. Stone also suggests that numbers, and the categories from which they grow, tell at least four types of stories about the phenomena they quantify. First, they assert that an event or phenomena is common enough that it requires the work of counting it. Second, they aim to construct that which is counted as a bounded unity, something that begins and ends in itself, and can be easily differentiated from others in the same series. Third, numbers create a collective community of “similars” and “differents.” And, fourth, in politics, numbers have embedded in them the “promise of conflict resolution through arithmetic” (Stone 1985: 134-6).

Numbers are powerful symbolic and material objects, almost equivalent to rationality and modernity in scientific circles (Crump 1990). They have been assigned the authority to determine who holds power, to diagnose problems and solutions, to calculate infinitely, to diagnose unbearable risks, and to map the subjects, geographies, and objects of government (Ewald 1991; Guyer 2004; O’Malley 1996; Rose 1999:197; Verran 2001). Thresholds, figures, fluctuations in parameters, ideal measures, and many other forms of enumeration are centerpieces of today’s policies and politics. In the past, the power of numbers used to be so pervasive that many everyday citizens believed they could go through society uncontested. They used to be imbued with a “dazzling, single purity” (Verran 2001:109). This power is evident in water politics where they are used to measure water, distribute it equitably, communicate efficiency, announce shortages, and determine prices.

But as anthropologists and other social commentators have shown, numbers are no longer abstract constructions devoid of culture and politics (Ballestero 2012; Guyer 2004; Latour 1999; Porter 1995; Vollmer, Mennicken, and Preda 2009). In this simultaneously modest, and for some, quasi-sacred domain of numbers, social movements around Latin America are obligated to develop their tactics and creatively re-imagine techniques of numeration and calculation that contribute to their efforts. This means not only enrolling scientists and experts whose numbers speak about the movement’s concerns, but also, in many cases, developing their own figures. What many of these movements ask themselves is: if, as a union leader in Costa Rica explained, numbers speak, what do they actually say? And, if numbers can tell any story, as a water expert in Brazil told me, how can one make them tell the story one wants? Again, this is not an issue of intentional deception. It is an awareness of the range of elements that go into the production of numbers, something that is evident to the most sophisticated scientists as it is for union leaders and water experts.

Both academically and politically, the careful consideration of numbers as techno-scientific creations, shot through with human qualities and politics, is a productive area of reflection and action at the intersection of academic and activist work. Rather than taking numbers for granted as found objects opaque to cultural analysis, they can be considered a field of mobilization where different thought traditions and political projects merge. Their specificities matter, they are inventive frontiers (Verran 2010) where science, technology, and politics encounter each other. They should not be black boxed and can be very productively investigated as the very field of social mobilization.


Ballestero, Andrea. 2012. “Transparency Short-Circuited: Laughter and Numbers in Costa Rican Water Politics.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(2): 223-41.

Crump, Thomas. 1990. The Anthropology of Numbers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ewald, François. 1991. “Insurance and Risk. ” Pp 197-210 in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guyer, Jane I. 2004. Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1999. “Circulating Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest.” Pp. 24-79 in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, edited by B. Latour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

O’Malley, Pat. 1996. “Risk and Responsibility.” Pp. 189-208 in Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-liberalism and Rationalities of Government, edited by A. Barry, T. Osborne, and N. Rose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Porter, Theodore M. 1995. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stone, Deborah. 1985. Policy Paradox and Political Reason. Glenville, IL: Foresman and Company.

Verran, Helen. 2001. Science and African Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2010. “Number as an Inventive Frontier in Knowing and Working Australia’s Water Resources.” Anthropological Theory 10(1-2):171-178.

Vollmer, Hendrik, Andrea Mennicken, and Alex Preda. 2009. “Tracking the Numbers: Across Accounting and Finance, Organizations and Markets.” Accounting, Organizations and Society 34(5):619-637.

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