Funny Numbers


  • Theodore M. Porter University of California, Los Angeles, USA



Funny numbers, history of mental hospitals, history of statistics, standardization of statistics, statistics of mental illness, technicality, thin description


The struggle over cure rate measures in nineteenth-century asylums provides an exemplary instance of how, when used for official assessments of institutions, these numbers become sites of contestation. The evasion of goals and corruption of measures tends to make these numbers “funny” in the sense of becoming dishonest, while the mismatch between boring, technical appearances and cunning backstage manipulations supplies dark humor. The dangers are evident in recent efforts to decentralize the functions of governments and corporations using incen-tives based on quantified targets.


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How to Cite

Porter, T. M. (2013) “Funny Numbers”, Culture Unbound, 4(4), pp. 585–598. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.124585.



Theme: Objectification, Measurement and Standardization