School of Social and Political Science

Distrust in numbers: narratives, uncertainty and accountability in central banking

24 February 2021
11:30 - 12:30


Online via Zoom


On 24 February, we welcome Nathan Coombs(Sociology, Edinburgh) to SKAPE as part of our annual seminar series.


The sociology of quantification suggests that in times of crisis authorities will seek to shore up the legitimacy of their decision-making by taking shelter in the mechanical objectivity conferred by numbers. What happens, however, when a crisis fosters distrust in numbers, closing off this usually reliable safe harbour for expert authority? Drawing on 21 interviews with high-level regulators, financial practitioners and other stakeholders, I examine how the Bank of England grappled with this dilemma when, in the wake of the 2007-9 financial crisis, the Bank attempted to fold radical uncertainty into its financial stability operations. Aware that their forward-looking macroprudential interventions lack a secure basis in economic theory and statistics, the Bank’s response was to narrativise its interpretation of financial stability indicators as well as to conduct an increasingly narrative-based assessment of how commercial banks manage hypothetical crisis scenarios. More than just a communicative device intended to smooth over cracks in uncertain data, I argue that the Bank’s embrace of narrativization points towards a late modern inversion in the political sociology of quantification. The extension of numbers to domains resistant to precise quantification should not be understood as an immutable process of numerical colonisation but as a move that provokes increasing distrust in claims of expertise grounded in numerical mastery.

The seminar will take place online via Zoom (for link details, please email the Co-Directors - if you are already a member/associate member of SKAPE, then you will receive a Zoom link two days before the start of the event).