Historicising numeracy

Research Programme Scheme for 2012/13

Making Bristol Count: Historicising Numeracy

Team Leaders: James Thompson, Roger Middleton, Richard Sheldon, Alexander Bird

Team: Hugh Pemberton, Robert Bickers, Leon Horsten, John Mayberry, Richard Pettigrew, Andrew Pyle

Outline and rationale of the project and associated events:

 This project explores the comparative history of numeracy.  Historians and social scientists have long investigated the social and cultural history of literacy, and, increasingly, orality. Yet there is no equivalent body of research into numeracy.  This is not, however, merely a matter of filling a scholarly gap; but rather of advancing a major theme in human history. The rise of mathematical modes of thinking and the growth of numerical skills amongst populations is absolutely fundamental to the world we live in. While, however, there are specialist literatures devoted to the internal history of mathematics, and some more wide-ranging work on statistics, we know extraordinary little about the broader social, cultural and intellectual history of how numbers helped make the modern world. 

The real history of numeracy is far too important to be left to mathematicians, but its recovery requires a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach, ranging widely across the Faculty of Arts and beyond. Psychologists, educationalists and anthropologists have done important work examining mathematical cognition and the uses of numbers in everyday life. Specialists in literature and science have increasingly turned to the significance of mathematics in artistic production, especially the place of geometrical thinking in the nineteenth-century novel.  Historians are beginning to compare the distribution of ‘threshold numeracy’ across populations as a way of gauging human capital and understanding economic growth in the long run.  Now is very much the time for Bristol to tackle this theme.  It offers a wonderful way to engage researchers across the Faculty in a common pursuit; but equally it supplies an opportunity to foster links right across the University in a dynamic research programme led by and housed in the Faculty of Arts. 

These claims about the potential of numeracy are evidence-based.  In 2010/11, supported by IAS funding, Thompson ran a preliminary series of workshops that were well attended from within the Faculty of Arts, and also drew researchers from four other Faculties. As well as demonstrating broad interest in numeracy in Bristol, the workshops consolidated links with key researchers outside Bristol, particularly in London, Oxford and Glasgow.  This first tranche of activity flows into the workshops proposed here, but also underpins the outcomes – such as an AHRC network application – proposed below.

The project builds upon established faculty research strengths in history and philosophy especially. Middleton is the general editor of the multivolume British Historical Statistics project, of which Thompson is a chapter editor. Thompson and Sheldon have written on statistics and the public sphere in modern Britain. Both Pemberton and Middleton have written about the role of numbers in the construction of narratives of economic decline. Bird has written on Hobbes’ ideas about geometry, and is working on the history of statistical techniques in medicine. Horsten has written on the philosophy of arithmetic, and is currently working on the philosophy of mathematics more generally as part of a three-year AHRC project with James Ladyman.  Mayberry has written extensively on the foundations of mathematics, and his 2000 book contains a sustained treatment of the meta-mathematics of numeral systems. Pettigrew has written on Aristotle's account of geometry, the philosophy of mathematics, and the meta-mathematics of arithmetic.

Numeracy is a major concern for public policy makers, evident in the relentless focus upon testing numerical skills evident in curricula around the globe.  The proposed programme has considerable potential to generate subsequent funding bids, to engage with the public policy agenda, and to achieve impact.  It also has an urgent intellectual justification. 

The final workshop of the project will take place on 28th May 2014.