Call for Papers: Biographies of Numbers (deadline extended!)

Nicolas Schillinger Announcement
Subject Fields
Asian History / Studies, Chinese History / Studies, Demographic History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Throughout the twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals, politicians, and scientists were obsessed with
the population number of their country. From the late nineteenth century to the foundation of the
People’s Republic (PRC) in 1949, without being able to rely on entirely accurate census surveys, they
alleged that China had 400 million inhabitants (Bréard 2019). Consequently, the narrative goes, this
made the world’s most populous country hard to govern, but also one of the most important countries
in the world which eventually deserved a leading role in international politics. Governing and
controlling the population arguably has been and is one of the most fundamental concerns of the
government of the PRC, spawning numerous social engineering projects such as the one-child policy
or the social credit system.

Biographies of Numbers will explore the life of numerically framed knowledge, such as the population
of China, from a global historical perspective on quantification, regarded as one of the most pervasive
practices of the modern world. This conference is based on the assumption that numbers have their
own biographies: they come into being, lead a life of their own, travel in time and space, have a career,
and eventually fall into oblivion. That numbers are not simply the objective reflection of reality but
socially, politically, culturally, and historically constructed knowledge has been shown extensively for
the case of statistics in the Western world (Desrosières 1993, Porter 2020). At the same time, numbers
are powerful agents which represent, transform, and recreate individual lives, social worlds, political
spheres, nature, or other entities that are taken for granted. Statistical and other numbers, invoking
mathematical reason and scientific truth, often claim universal validity and thus circulate easily from
one site to another. By following the global trajectory of a single number from its production and global
dissemination to the divergent narratives surrounding its numerical value, we can analyze the
stabilizing and destabilizing impact of numbers on individual and collective practices and imaginaries.
The aim of the conference is to trace the biographies of specific numbers. Although we will limit
ourselves to “scientific numbers”, i.e. those that are grounded on quantitative knowledge and method,
our notion of “number” is to be understood more broadly, including indicators, formulas, and statistics
as well.

By focusing on the historical emergence and circulation of numbers and on patterns of argumentation
and narration with these numbers, this conference also aims to contribute to historical epistemology
and the global history of science. Rather than pursuing a realist approach that focuses on the alleged
scientific “discovery” of numbers or claiming that they are mere “inventions” in the constructivist
sense, we see to follow the argument that numbers as (scientific) objects can be “simultaneously real
and historical” (Daston 2000:3).

Possible questions to be addressed might include: How do certain numbers or indicators become
objects of scientific inquiry or scientific entities themselves? What debates are they surrounded by,
how and when do they become entrenched in scientific practices, and how do they disappear from the
consciousness of the public or scientific experts? What powers and agency do we attribute to numbers?
What are the sources of their power? How do numbers interact with other forms of authority, for
example law, to create trust? How have instruments of quantification altered the modalities of
governing and forms of personhood and subjectivity? Who writes the biography of a number?
Although some of these questions have been examined partially in a Western European or North
American context, they have been largely ignored regarding other regions. We welcome contributions
that deal with the historical and cultural role of numbers particularly in China but also more generally
in other East Asian countries. While papers may be situated in a local context, they are welcome to
chart developments that occurred in many areas and over longer time periods.

Contributions might address the following topics:
- biomedical numbers and indicators as ideals or thresholds (such as the 7-day incidence in the
context of COVID)
- the cross-cultural dissemination and adaptation of an indicator
- governing individuals and populations by body measurements and biometrical data
- the political life of social numbers and their effect on categories such as family, gender
balance, etc. (e.g. China’s “One-Child”)
- the role of ideology in the construction and application of quantitative knowledge
- numbers as authoritative entity justifying policies
- numbers as cultural, social or political icons
- delegation processes that contribute to the fame and persistence of a numerical entity
- the dichotomy between the absolute (universal, eternal) value of a number and its narratives
or degrees of realism (variable, manipulable, etc.).

Practicalities and timeframe:
The Conference is organized with the generous support of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
within the framework of the sin-aps project at the Chair for Sinology with a focus on the Intellectual
and Cultural History of China, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. It will take place July 7-9, 2022, in the
city of Erlangen. Please send an abstract of no longer than one page and a short, one-paragraph
biographical statement to Prof. Andrea Bréard and Dr. Nicolas Schillinger by February 28, 2022.

Selected participants are expected to send in an unpublished paper draft by the end of May 2022, since
we will have discussion and reading groups based on participants’ submissions and envision a
publication after the conference.

Bréard, Andrea. “400 Millionen - Globale Wirkungen einer mächtigen Zahl.” in N. Bilo, S. Haas and M.
C. Schneider, eds., Kulturgeschichte der Statistik, Steiner Verlag (2019), 215–232.
Daston, Lorraine, ed. Biographies of Scientific Objects. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Desrosières, Alain. La politique des grands nombres : une histoire de la raison statistique. Paris: La
Découverte, 1993.
Porter, Ted. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton
University Press, 2020 (2nd ed.).

Contact Information

Andrea Bréard, 

Nicolas Schillinger,


Chair for Sinology with a focus on the Intellectual
and Cultural History of China, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

Hartmannstraße 14, D1
91052 Erlangen, Germany

Contact Email