Sub-theme 39: The Dubious Role of Numbers in Organizations

Christian Huber
Helmut Schmidt University, Hamburg, Germany
Martin Messner
University of Innsbruck, Austria
Tobias Scheytt
Helmut Schmidt University, Hamburg, Germany

Call for Papers

Numbers are ubiquitous phenomena in organizations. Whether we look at the 'classics' of calculative practices, like accounting or budgeting, or whether we look at practices like performance measurement, the evaluation of product quality, the assessment of strategies, or the identification of high potentials as future leaders – we can identify a seemingly endless and growing stream of numbers that swamp all kinds of organizations and action nets.

Numbers can have an orientating and ordering effect, helping organizations to discover opportunities, to evaluate success, but also to distinguish between different qualities of its activities. Hence, numbers are a powerful resource in organizing and decision making. However, they can also play a critical role in shaping organizational and societal life more generally. Accounting studies have significantly added to our understanding of the production and consumption of numbers as a specific, intricate and subtle procedure. Counting and calculation put organizational entities in relation to each other (Power, 2004). By referring to a common signifier, like units of money, such practices transform incommensurable entities into abstract, but comparable quantities which then often lie at the heart of many contemporary organizational practices (Vollmer, 2007).


The field of organization studies is surprisingly silent when it comes to the discussion of numbers and related practices. Given the practical importance of numbers, we think that it is time for the community of organizational theorists to re-consider the role of numbers and calculative practices in the assemblage of organizations and action nets.

We thus invite submission of papers that elaborate on the critical role of numbers in organizational life, assembling, transformation and reassembling. Both empirical and purely theoretical papers are welcome, as long as they offer surprising, interesting, novel stories or conceptualize the use of numbers, and the practices of counting, calculating and quantifying, in innovative ways. Topics and questions that we are interested in include:

  • Numbers and reassembling: What is the contribution of numbers, numbering systems, counting and calculation to the (re-)assembling of organizations? How do numbers intervene in such processes, whether deliberately employed or as a more hidden power resource?
  • Numbers and change: if we consider that organizations permanently change – why do numbers and the practices of counting not change to the same degree? I.e. why do (changing) organizations sometimes employ the same odd calculative practices that have been employed for decades? Does the "trust in numbers" (Porter, 1996) also imply a trust in particular calculative techniques for producing numbers? What new or innovative calculative practices are emerging in organizations? What helps some fashionable (Abrahamson, 1991) classic concepts to succeed and radical new forms to fail regarding their translation from the level of ideas into actions (Czarniawska & Joerges, 1996)?
  • The masquerade of and with numbers: Are numbers camouflaging the reality of organizations or do they help us better understand such reality? How and why is objectivity often ascribed to numbers in (re-)assembling organizations and action nets? What does really happen to qualities – of an individual, product, organization or whatever – when transformed into quantities? What role do numbers really play in legitimating organizational activities and in connecting them to wider institutional logics (Scott, 2008)?
  • Numbers and gender: Empirical research shows that tasks like counting and calculation in organizations are to an overwhelming degree done by male members of organizations. Hence, is number crunching a male business – and why? What social mechanisms influencing the role of gender in organizations are fostered or hindered by numbers?
  • Aesthetics, emotions and numbers: How do numbers influence everyday organizational practices and the way they are carried out? Do they purify such practices from emotions and aesthetic connotations? What emotions, if any, are associated with numbers?

The above list of topics and questions is of course not exhaustive. Hence, papers that highlight other aspects of the role of numbers in (re-)assembling organizations are appreciated. We are looking forward to challenging and likewise interesting discussions in Gothenburg.


Abrahamson, E. (1991): "Management Fashion." Academy of Management Review, 21 (3), 254-285.
Czarniawska, B. & B. Joerges (1996): "Travels of Ideas." In: B. Czarniawska & G. Sevón (eds.): Translating Organizational Change. Berlin: de Gruyter, 13-48.
Porter, T.M. (1996): Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Power, M. (2004): "Counting, control and calculation: Reflections on measuring and management." Human Relations, 57 (6), 765-783.
Scott, R.W. (2008): "Approaching adulthood: the maturing of institutional theory." Theory and Society, 37, 427-442.
Vollmer, H. (2007): "How to do more with numbers: Elementary stakes, framing, keying, and the three-dimensional character of numerical signs." Accounting, Organizations and Society, 32 (6), 577-600.


Christian Huber 
Martin Messner 
Tobias Scheytt