Counting Disability: On Foucault, Hacking, APDA, Dea, and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers

In his important article “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers, Ian Hacking (1981) writes:

The numerical manipulations of the body politic are and always were

dusty, replete with dried up old books-the “Blue Books” of the British

parliament, for example-books of ciphers. They offer no appeal to

the voyeur … Yet these very interminable countings and tabulations

beautifully illustrate the manifold ways in which knowledge is, and is

not, power. They neatly display the overt and the subversive ramifications

of knowledge.

Overt statistical study of populations comes to amass gigantic quantities

of data that are seldom effective in controlling or altering the

populations of study in the ways intended. Although data collectors

often tell why they collect this or that bit of information, why fear

the census-taker, we might ask. The census will never be able to use

what it finds out about you anyway. The fetishistic collection of overt

statistical data about populations has as its motto “information and

control,” but it would more truly be “disinformation and mismanagement.”

In the aforementioned article, Hacking is concerned to explain how seemingly innocent and indifferent statistics about people are constitutive instruments of power, that is, of power-knowledge. Although “data” collection predates the eighteenth century, the veritable avalanche of printed numbers about (for instance) birth rates, death rates, disability, public health, risk, fertility, and race did not occur until the emergence of biopower in the 1800s, that is, until the intentional and nonsubjective coalescence of vast networks of coercion and control directed at the management and enhancement of “life,” especially prompted by the revolutions of that historical moment. As Foucault wrote, “One may speak of bio-power to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculation and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.”

Foucault, you will recall, maintained that power is not merely repressive as traditional accounts of political theory have assumed, but rather is productive: it produces objects, discourse, sentences, domains of inquiry, and so on. In other words, statistical measurements, calculations, and other forms of data and their collection contribute to the constitution of the discursive objects and states of affairs that they allegedly discover, identify, and represent. As Foucault and Hacking have repeatedly endeavoured to show, the amassing of statistics and other measurements is not an innocent administrative or bureaucratic activity but rather a generative biopolitical (intentional and nonsubjective) endeavour, a productive practice of government, a constitutive strategy of biopower. Hacking has put it in this way:  

[T]here is a quite unintended effect of enumerating, and I call

this subversive. Enumeration demands kinds of things or people to

count. Counting is hungry for categories. Many of the categories we

now use to describe people are byproducts of the needs of enumeration.

What could be more inevitable than the class struggle about which

Marx hectored us? Yet the social classes are not something into which

a society is intrinsically sorted. On the contrary, it is the early nineteenth-

century counting-bureaucracies that designed the class structure

in terms of which we view society.

I contend that disabled philosophers (among others) should draw upon the work that Foucault and Hacking have done with respect to the constitutive and governmental character of statistics and data collection and measurements in order to critically examine the numerical and other claims about disability and disabled philosophers that the Academic Placement and Data Analysis (APDA) project currently produces and the data and related analysis about disabled academics in general that philosopher Shannon Dea recently advanced.

In a post on The Splintered Mind blog about elements of the APDA project, Eric Schwitzgebel presented numbers and numerical analysis designed to further diversity and inclusion in philosophy, focussing primarily on philosophy Ph.D.s of “English-speaking” departments to do so. In another context, that is, in a column of University Affairs, a Canadian publication about academia in Canada, Dea offered data and recommendations intended to promote and even expand diversity and inclusiveness in the post-pandemic Canadian university in general.

Briefly put, both Schwitzgebel and Dea seem to assume that the numbers that they offer in these contexts are inert, innocuous, and value-neutral facts of the matter which, among other things, represent categories of an apolitical reality from which normative evaluations and decisions are devised. I maintain, however, that (inter alia) the numbers which APDA/Schwitzgebel and Dea have “merely” reported are themselves active and politically charged, with constitutive and deleterious effects for disabled philosophers and disabled academics more generally, effects that stem from and will likely contribute to and reinforce systemic relations of social power beyond the university, including the neoliberal medicalization and individualization of disability.

My argument is, furthermore, that in addition to the misguided assumptions that these authors (each in their own ways) make about the metaphysical and epistemological status of both statistical data and disability, neither of them provides sufficient and informed qualitative analyses of the data or about the social positioning of disabled people that would enable them to even adequately address their findings within their own terms of reference. As feminist social scientists (such as Dorothy Smith, among others) have consistently and convincingly argued, qualitative approaches and methods to research are far more illuminating than quantitative method and analyses, or at least, than quantitative methods and analyses alone, enabling a more astute identification and understanding of the power relations that condition the configuration of given inquiries and the socially situated assumptions of the particular inquirers who engage in them.

In subsequent posts, I will endeavour to identify and assess the detrimental character that APDA/Schwitzgebel’s and Dea’s respective discussions about disability and data embody and create, as well as explain the ways in which each of these discussions should be understood in relation to the critical philosophical work on disability and underrepresentation that disabled philosophers have elaborated and the research on disability and ableism that disabled academics in general have articulated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.