Properties of Units and Standards

We are constantly surrounded by measuring systems ranging from pedometrics and timesheets to carbon footprints, credit ratings, or happiness indicators. Quantity-assessment systems are always at work to allocate value to our actions.

The ERC-funded “Properties of Units and Standards” research project sets out to study valuation regimes with an emphasis on their material and conceptual linkages with the worlds they measure. The project studies the properties of different units, measures, and standards to analyse the ways in which the choice of base units affects the numeric representation of human values. It approaches this task through a primary focus on ethnographic data from Oceania, but employs a comparative research design that extends the analysis from small-scale, ethnographic data to global issues. It may be evident that numeric representation reduces the complexity of social worlds to a fallacious level, but how to analyse and conceptualise the operation and its consequences?

This project proposes a unit-centred approach. It assumes that any yardstick of valuation requires a point of comparison: a basic unit or standard equivalent that serves as the basis of a scale. “Properties of Units and Standards” research project sets out from the commonplace observation that the units used for measuring value are specific rather than universal equivalents, and as such possess properties and affordances that hook up with people’s social worlds and material surroundings in various different ways. This, in turn, makes the choice of measure a consequential act with material, economic, and eventually more far-reaching socio-cultural effects. In short, the project assumes that there are no “neutral” units, and that by focusing specifically on the base units underlying numerical representation on any scale, we can call attention to the material and the moral, political, even cosmological ideas linked to particular measures. A measuring scale highlights some phenomena but omits or obfuscates others: it has consequences beyond the simple act of creating numbers.

Focus in the South Pacific

Properties of Units and Standards looks to accomplish its objectives through a primary A man on a small outrigger canoe on the sea, in the background a forested hillside.ethnographic focus on quantification systems in Oceania. Over the course of the project, this focus will gradually expand, ultimately to encompass the political economy of measuring on a global scale as well. But the groundwork will be conducted in three locations in the South Pacific: Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. The three countries feature a number of cultural links and similarities in the way people in them navigate multiple quantification systems in their lives, but also significant differences in the way these link up with the wider national and international valuation processes.

  • Papua New Guinea, for instance, is a resource rich country where the mining, plantation, and forestry industries have arrived with new appraisal systems, which in turn has drawn in various ecological and developmental standards, too.
  • Vanuatu is a tax haven with few natural resources, but where land surveying, development metrics, and sustainability measures are highly significant, though in connection to tourism and immediate livelihoods rather than the work of multinational companies.
  • Fiji has a history of plantation-type economy, but whose sugarcane industry is gradually making way for a fast-growing tourism industry. Due to layers of colonial and postcolonial-era administrative and legal protections, Fiji has in practice created an ideological dichotomy of subsistence-oriented indigenous culture and Indo-Fijian sugarcane farmers and wageworkers.

All three locations deploy value-allocation systems based on compensations, royalties and levies connected to large infrastructural projects, and comparatively rigid (centralised) price regulation regimes. They typically combine a range of indigenous, post-colonial and global measuring systems, some of which are overlapping and others restricted to particular usages, but all displaying the relative absence of coordinated standardisation which Anna Tsing associates with the peripheries of global markets.

Read more on about the Project Design.