What the hell is metrology?

Hypothetical restitution of an Iberian balance and its set of copper alloy weights, after POIGT 2021

What is metrology? The metrology represents one of the most important concept when dealing with trade, institutions and economics. Metrology can be defined as the science of measures, in other word, the ways humanity quantified his surrounded world. This need of quantification is not trivial.

Metrology can be understood as a language, the necessity to share a common ground for communicating information. It is composed by two main features: a metrological unit and a counting system (the same way language is composed by a vocabulary and grammatical rules).

The metrological units are arbitrary values to which one attributes the value one on an analogical scale in order to transform it to a numerical one. Historical and anthropological researches show that these units often derive from natural elements: body parts for length measures as the foot, seed for their mass as carat or grain, usual containers for volumes as the pint or the barrel, etc. Nevertheless, these units are first and foremost social consensus, cultural abstractions, and they consequently exist only in an certain sphere of acceptation.

The counting systems are closest to cognitive routines. If anyone understanding the arithmetical principles could theoretically count in any system (base 10, 20, 60 or others), it is truly extremely hard to do so. They represent cultural constructions of the mathematical knowledge and rules aimed to organize it. For this reason, even if most of us are mainly used to the decimal counting system, we still use binary system for digital applications and the sexagesimal system (basis 60) for expressing angles and time measures.

One of the most popular ideas is that metrological systems are first and foremost adopted in order to facilitate trade between foreign groups of people. From a certain point of view, it is true. We know many administrative and political actions aimed to unify metrological standards on larges scales to fulfilled this objective: the equivalences of the Hammurabi’s Code (18th c. BCE), the Solon laws (6th c. BCE) to define the ratio between minas and drachmas, Charlemagne attempt to define a common weighing standard (8th-9th c. AD), the Metric System wish to establish an universal metrological system (18th c. AD). We could even mention the claim to have a unique volumetric norm for the wine trading containers during the 19th c. in Europe. All these actions share the same will for metrological unity. All these attempts also failed to do so.

Why that? If sharing a common metrological system is so advantageous for trading, why so many political authorities have defined their unification a cornerstone of their agenda. In my opinion, it is probably because more than facilitate trade, the strong definition of measures units is a powerful administrative tool. It allows to objectively quantified the productions flows and stocks, the taxes and royalties to collect and to rationalise the redistributive processes. Adopting normative metrological systems can transform an analogical and approximative representation of the economy by a numerical and mathematical one.

Is that to say that the existence of metrological systems implies a strong administrated society? Clearly not. The most ancient metrological instruments of the continental Europe must be date to beginning of the Late Bronze Age (v. 13th c. BCE) at least. However, the humans groups who lived there probably had a very loose administrative structure until the end of the Iron Age (9th-1st c. BCE)  even if processes of taxes collects and redistributions could have exist. But we can observe that the societies developing a strong metrological practice, based on the production of many instruments and a daily use of them – as the ones from the Bronze Age Near-East or Aegean – are also the ones who produced evidences of a systemic administrative construction reinforced by the use of the written archives.

Metrologies are social consensus who exist only in a certain sphere of acceptation and their creation and use are the results of social, political and economical needs. They must not be perceived as a step in logical and evolutionist processes of progressive complexification of societies. At the opposite, they consist in the experimentations of social connexions proxies which can be adopted, adapted or rejected through time and space.

Thibaud Poigt


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Thibaud Poigt (November 20, 2020). What the hell is metrology? TIE : Trade, Institutions, Economics. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/urf4


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