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How do numbers matter?

Read the complete article, published open access in Organization Studies.

1, 2, 3, 4. . . These are not mere black marks on a white background. It could be a jazz band about to begin playing, the tempo of a military march or the number of students that are missing from class this morning. 4, 3, 2, 1. . . and here we switch to the countdown prior to the launch of a space ship or the explosion of a bomb. So innocent, and yet so meaningful, so diffuse and yet so unquestioned.

Indeed, if, ‘in the beginning was the Word’, according to the Prologue of the Gospel of John (v.1), ‘today there is mostly the number’, or more precisely a boundless ‘ocean of numbers’ (Ortoli, 2018, p. 7). The seemingly infinite quantification of virtually every aspect of human and non-human life into some form of statistic, percentage, ratio, metric, fraction or numeric value no longer comes as a surprise to us, now that the world seems to have disappeared into a mere reflection of statistics (Rey, 2016).

When you stop to actually think about it, quantification, counting and ordering the world through numbers is not, as some might think, an innate characteristic. We develop, or not, depending on our background, a fascination for numbers and counting at a very young age, even before we actually understand the numeric values behind the symbols we learn to use. But it’s like there was something very reassuring about the ordering of the world that comes with numbers: knowing that 5 always follows 4, believing that being the first-born implies a certain privilege and taking great pride as children in clumsily lifting an extra finger on our next birthday when asked how old we are. And for many centuries, our societies have made sense of numbers in very strong ways. Being outnumbered in battle meant defeat even before the actual fighting had started.

Today, pressure to ‘meet the numbers’ towards the end of the quarter drives many people into a workaholic frenzy or, in some cases, even suicide. When quoting obscure statistical data to support their claims, politicians or media outlets rely on the fact that most people believe that numbers don’t lie, and it is a dominant epistemological trait of our time that what can be counted, quantified, or somehow measured is assumed to have a somewhat higher claim to truth, objectivity and indisputability. More often than not, we become contextually ‘numerate’ in a numeric-driven world, even before we become literate. But this does not seem to surprise us as much as it should: we have integrated it, taken it for granted, and let ourselves – as individuals and as societies – be moulded by the power of numbers, and the number-based processes of quantification, numericalization and more recently datafication.

Numbers are everywhere. Numbers matter. But how, and most importantly, why?

These are the questions raised by Caleb Everett’s (2019) Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures. And these questions have driven us, within the scope of this book review Symposium, to conclude our term as Book Reviews Editors, by continuing the purpose we had outlined from the start (Lindebaum, Pérezts, & Andersson, 2018, p. 138) of wanting to ‘see through’ organizational phenomena in new, provocative and deep ways, thanks to the depth and richness of ideas that books can offer. Even if, or perhaps because, as is the case with Everett’s book, these ideas emanate from a discipline outside organizational theory.

Put simply, our world exists and thrives because of numbers, since numbers allowed for organizing. Let us not forget that, as far as we know, the first forms of writing were not invented for poetry, storytelling or diplomatic correspondence: they were invented for bookkeeping and accounting purposes.

This cannot but spark our curiosity and drive us to question the seemingly innocent numbers that populate our work and our everyday life, since numbers are probably the first thing we each see when we wake up in the morning on the alarm clock, ready to start our day, normed by a series of numbers: time zones, working hours, pay checks, to-do lists.

Our obsession with numbered facts and their ever more appealing and even aesthetic visualizations has come to the point that it risks drowning important information and deliberately entertaining ignorance by the overproduction of data as a sacralized end in itself.....

Read the complete article, published open access in Organization Studies.

Check out also the four book reviews we published on this topic:

by Jean-Philippe Bouilloud: here

by Ann Langley: here

by François-Régis Puyou: here

by Nanna B. Thylstrup: here

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