Trust in Humanitarian Numbers? Bringing Critical Data Studies into Humanitarian Studies


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Is the data dream over? Ten years of optimism over “data revolution” and “evidence based humanitarianism” has left place for doubt. The Covid19 pandemic has brought back worries about “lack of data”, “hidden data”, “shadow numbers” or “silent epidemies”. As the historian of Sciences Lorraine Daston observes, “we’ve suddenly been catapulted back to the seventeenth century”. We are living in “a moment of ground-zero empiricism, in which almost everything is up for grabs, just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies – and everyone else — circa 1660” (Daston 2020).

This panel will offer new critical perspectives on humanitarian statistics (counting war casualties, humanitarian case loads, refugees, IDPs, children suffering malnutrition, etc.). The literature on the history, sociology and anthropology of humanitarian numbers is growing rapidely (among others: Fast 2015, Hilhorst 2015, Nissen 2015, Read, Taithe & Mac Ginty 2016, Neuman 2017, Biruk 2018, Macias 2019, Lawson 2020, Glasman 2020, Ramel et al. 2020, Sandvik 2020, Schlichte 2020). Some authors offer a positivist critique of humanitarian numbers and suggest a counter-expertise on specific data. Others offer a constructivist analysis of humanitarian statistics, showing how history, politics and contingency shape statistics. Others again argue for a materialist critique of number, emphacizing the effect of tools and technologies. This panel will bring these critical perspectives together and discuss the production, uses and effects of humanitarian data. It welcomes case studies on specific fields of humanitarian aid as well as broader papers on critical data studies and aid.

Date(s) & Time(s)

November 3rd, 2021
11:00 (GMT +1)
Room 23
Session has ended.

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Joel Glasman
Brendan Lawson