The making of a population: Challenges, implications, and consequences of the quantification of social difference

Cruz, Taylor M
Social science & medicine (1982)

How do we make a difference? This paper traces the connections made between quantified knowledge, population health, and social justice by examining the efforts of population scientists to assess sexuality as a point of difference within population-based data systems, including on national health and social surveys, electronic medical records, and the Census. Population scientists emphasize the importance of measuring social difference in order to identify and remedy structural disadvantage. This evaluation requires the assessment of difference and the comparison of distinct groups across standardized outcome measures. In quantifying social difference, however, population scientists obscure or minimize several difficulties in creating comparable populations. I explore some of these challenges by highlighting three central tensions: the separation of difference from other aspects and categories of social experience, the reduction of difference through the use of one over several possible measures, and the enactment of difference as quantified knowledge loops back into society. As a theoretical inquiry into the form of social difference as it is conceptualized, operationalized, and materialized across the science-society nexus, this paper identifies the various commitments made during processes of scientific evaluation. By attending to the values and priorities that exist within and through practices of quantification, I aim to address the problem of measuring social difference as it pertains to the issues of social justice and health equity.
•Population scientists have called for data collection on sexuality for disparity work.•There are several difficulties in quantifying social difference through “population”.•Theoretical insights from the social sciences can inform social measurement practices.•Classification must be examined as simultaneously social, technical, and political.