In recent decades, an increasing array of historical and social studies have called attention to the role of modern scientific knowledge and particularly its systems of numerical classifications in shaping political decisions on a global scale. The history of food aid and food security is a case in point, being inherently tied to quantification. Calories and dietary standards were among the novel forms of quantification that facilitated the birth of global food aid in the early 20th century by making hunger and malnutrition commensurable, leading to their understanding as problems that could be universally assessed and addressed across diverse countries, populations and food customs. At the same time, this “governing by numbers” is a reciprocal process: While quantifications form the basis of governing and shape political interventions, they are also the result of manifold processes of negotiations and political decisions. In the case of food security, for instance, different global actors negotiated different, oftentimes competing forms of measurement to make different diagnoses of food in/security and suggest different interventions, sometimes even disagreeing over the question if there was a famine or not.

The seminar uses the history of food aid and food security in the long 20th century as a lens into issues of global governing through practices of quantification and commensurability. Methodologically, it combines the history of knowledge with studies of quantification while encouraging the participants to relate to their own PhD projects.