Special Issue: Measurement, Self-tracking and the History of Science

A special issue of History of Science dedicated to “Measurement, Self-tracking and the History of Science” will be of interest to AHP readers. Full details below.

“Measurement, self-tracking and the history of science: An introduction,” Fenneke Sysling. Abstract:

This article introduces the papers contained in this special issue and explores a new field of interest in the history of science: that of measurement and self-making. In this special issue, we aim to show that a focus on self-tracking and individualized measurement provides insight into the ways technologies of quantification, when applied to individual bodies and selves, have introduced new notions of autonomy, responsibility, citizenship, and the possibility of self-improvement and life-course decisions. This introduction is an exploratory history of measurement and self-making, and it provides a discussion of self-tracking in the past as part of the genealogy of present-day digital self-tracking technologies. It concludes that a focus on measurement and self-making highlights the relationship between measurement and morality, the making of the ideal of an autonomous self, capable of improvement, and the relationship between autonomy and surveillance.

“Monitoring the self: François-Marc-Louis Naville and his moral tables,” Harro Maas. Abstract:

This paper examines the self-measurement and self-tracking practices of a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Genevese pastor and pedagogical innovator, François-Marc-Louis Naville, who extensively used Benjamin Franklin’s tools of moral calculation and a lesser known tool, Marc-Antoine Jullien’s moral thermometer, to set a direction to his life and to monitor and improve his moral character. My contribution sheds light on how technologies of quantification molded notions of personal responsibility and character within an emerging utilitarian context. I situate Naville’s use of these tools within his work as a pastor in a parish of the (then occupied) Republic of Geneva and within the Genevese and Swiss pedagogical reform movement of the early nineteenth century. I provide a detailed examination of how Naville used and adapted Franklin’s and Jullien’s tools of moral accounting for his own moral and religious purposes. Time, God’s most precious gift to man, served Naville as the ultimate measure of his moral worth.

““Why do we measure mankind?” Marketing anthropometry in late-Victorian Britain,” Elise Smith. Abstract:

In the late nineteenth century, British anthropometrists attempted to normalize the practice of measuring bodies as they sought to collate data about the health and racial makeup of their fellow citizens. As the country’s leading anthropometrists, Francis Galton and Charles Roberts worked to overcome suspicion about their motives and tried to establish the value of recording physical dimensions from their subjects’ perspective. For Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, the attainment of objective self-knowledge figured alongside the ranking of one’s physique and faculties against established norms. The competitive tests at Galton’s anthropometric laboratory were meant to help subjects identify their strengths and weaknesses, ultimately revealing their level of eugenic fitness. Roberts, on the other hand, saw the particular value of anthropometric data in informing economic and social policy, but capitalized on parents’ interest in their children’s growth rates to encourage regular monitoring of their physical development. While both Galton and Roberts hoped that individuals would ultimately furnish experts with their anthropometric data to analyze, they both understood that the public would need to have explained the practical purposes of such studies and to familiarize themselves with their methods. This article argues that while anthropometry did not become a fully domestic practice in this period, it became a more visible one, paving the way for individuals to take an interest in metrical evaluations of their bodies in the coming years.

“Biometrics and citizenship: Measuring diabetes in the United States in the interwar years,” Arleen Marcia Tuchman. Abstract:

In 1936, the journalist Hannah Lees published “Two Million Tightrope Walkers,” drawing attention to the significant number of people in the United States estimated to have diabetes. Focusing on how people with diabetes should live, she emphasized the importance of recording the exact values of everything they ate and avoiding all “riotous living” lest they be unable to keep careful measurements of calories, insulin, and sleep. Employing two meanings of measured – as counted and as moderate – Lees was doing more than communicating how someone might control their disease; she was also calling for a “controlled and self-reliant citizenry.” Indeed, Lees insisted that diabetics who followed a regime of measurement “make a good deal better citizens than the average.” Drawing on the writings of Lees and other social commentators, I explore the link between biometrics, citizenship, and diabetes in the United States in the interwar years. In particular, I look at how this disease came to symbolize both the regimes of discipline thought to be necessary in a society moving to consumption as its economic motor, and the fears of what could happen if consumption ran amok. Biometrics, I argue, offered clinicians and patients a potent tool for measuring deviance and, potentially, for restoring a person to the “norm.”

“Guidance counseling in the mid-twentieth century United States: Measurement, grouping, and the making of the intelligent self,” Jim Wynter Porter. Abstract:

This article investigates National Defense Education Act and National Defense Education Act-related calls in the late 1950s for the training of guidance counselors, an emergent profession that was to play an instrumental role in both the measuring and placement of students in schools by “intelligence” or academic “ability”. In analyzing this mid-century push for more guidance counseling in schools, this article will first explore a foundational argument for the fairness of intelligence testing made by Educational Testing Service psychometrician William Turnbull in 1951, and then later taken up and employed by other National Defense Education Act-era advocates of testing and grouping. Secondly, this analysis will proceed to National Defense Education Act expert testimony, examining here assertions of the necessity of guidance counseling in schools, and an emergent and shared vision articulating the role guidance counseling was supposed to play in school life. A pattern or structure to this vision emerges here. According to its advocates, guidance counseling would not only inform the self-understanding of the measured individual, but it would also work to condition the ideology of individual intelligence across numerous layers of social life around the student: through peer group, through teachers and school administrators, and finally through home, family, and the wider community.

“Weighing on us all? Quantification and cultural responses to obesity in NHS Britain,” Roberta Bivins. Abstract:

How do cultures of self-quantification intersect with the modern state, particularly in relation to medical provision and health promotion? Here I explore the ways in which British practices and representations of body weight and weight management ignored or interacted with the National Health Service between 1948 and 2004. Through the lens of overweight, I examine health citizenship in the context of universal health provision funded from general taxation, and track attitudes toward “overweight” once its health implications and medical costs affected a public service as well as individual bodies and households. Looking at professional and popular discourses of overweight and obesity, I map the persistence of a highly individual culture of dietary and weight self-management in postwar Britain, and assess the degree to which it was challenged by a new measure of “obesity” – the body mass index – and by visions of an NHS burdened and even threatened by the increasing overweight of the citizens it was created to serve.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.