Who Counts?

The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide

Who Counts?

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 35 illustrations Published: November 2015

Author: Diane M. Nelson

Anthropology > Ethnohistory, Latin American Studies > Central America, Native and Indigenous Studies

In Who Counts? Diane M. Nelson explores the social life of numbers, teasing out the myriad roles math plays in Guatemalan state violence, economic exploitation, and disenfranchisement, as well as in Mayan revitalization and grassroots environmental struggles. In the aftermath of thirty-six years of civil war, to count—both numerically and in the sense of having value—is a contested and qualitative practice of complex calculations encompassing war losses, migration, debt, and competing understandings of progress. Nelson makes broad connections among seemingly divergent phenomena, such as debates over reparations for genocide victims, Ponzi schemes, and antimining movements. Challenging the presumed objectivity of Western mathematics, Nelson shows how it flattens social complexity and becomes a raced, classed, and gendered skill that colonial powers considered beyond the grasp of indigenous peoples. Yet the Classic Maya are famous for the precision of their mathematics, including conceptualizing zero long before Europeans. Nelson shows how Guatemala's indigenous population is increasingly returning to Mayan numeracy to critique systemic inequalities with the goal of being counted—in every sense of the word. 


"...I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Guatemala, postgenocidal reconstruction, environmental justice movements, or the social embeddedness of economic rationality." — Rebecca Nelson, Anthropology Book Forum

"The writing is lively and playful." — Leigh Binford, Journal of Anthropological Research

"In the end, it is a meditation on both Guatemala and numbers that Nelson offers, and . . .  for me her book succeeds on both counts." — Douglas V. Porpora, American Ethnologist

"Diane Nelson has a special talent for capturing Guatemala’s complicated contradictions in artful and compelling ways.... Who Counts? is full of clever observations and insightful analysis. It is that rare academic book that is thoughtful and provocative while also delightful to read."
  — Edward F. Fischer, Bulletin of Latin American Research

"Without sacrificing intellectual rigor, the book is written in a conversational tone, making it an enjoyable read.... Scholars who study truth commissions and reparations, as well as those who investigate lived experiences of imperialism and neoliberalism, will find the book especially useful. In general, the book is highly recommended for readers interested in how numbers and counting systems organize social life and shape our understanding of the world." — Brandi Townsend, The Latin Americanist

"Who Counts? succeeds in unsettling the reader’s relation to numbers.... the overall contribution of Nelson’s book is significant: in the same way social scientists have increasingly come to focus on how states count their populations and then make them count in peculiar ways, Nelson calls attention to the after-math of state attempts to reduce a population to zero—to categorically eliminate them, in both senses of the term.... It will be hard to view math as apolitical and objective after reading Who Counts?" — Aliza Luft, Contemporary Sociology

"... a pleasure to read for its stories, its insights, and its attempts to open up the world of numbers and counts in the aftermath of genocide." — Finn Stepputat, Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe

"A must-read for scholars of genocide, human rights, and Indigenous organizing throughout the Americas. . . . In this third book of what Nelson calls a genocide trilogy (263), she masterfully crafts an expansive analysis of Maya lifeways in precarious postwar Guatemala. Readers familiar with her previous work will recognize Nelson’s almost dizzying ability to weave together seemingly disconnected and discrete quotidian experiences with divergent theories to render a cogent, layered analysis that is intensified with each page of her book. . . . An ethnography that will resonate throughout the Americas." — Brigittine M. French, Ethnohistory

"What work do numbers do in calculating catastrophic loss? What other modes of counting are needed to remake the world in light of ongoing violence? No algorithm can capture the conceptual richness or importance of this book. Diane M. Nelson’s special form of bookkeeping is nothing less than a revelation."  — Joseph Masco, author of The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

"'Life is painting a picture not doing a sum,' Oliver Wendell Holmes once said; the diversity of human experience and the complexities of culture can’t be explained by formula (no matter what our social scientists say).  Holmes's observation is wonderfully brought to life by Diane M. Nelson in her compelling new ethnography, Who Counts? Building on her previous path breaking scholarship on Guatemala, Nelson creatively and empathetically documents the many ways in which a postgenocidal society struggles against the stifling cunning of neoliberal regimentation—against, in other words, extinction by other means."  — Greg Grandin, author of Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Diane M. Nelson is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the author of A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala; she is also the author of Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala and coeditor of War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  xi

-1. Chapter Minus One  1

Part I. When You Count You Begin with 1, 2, 3

0. Bookkeeping  7

1. Before and After-Math  37

Part II. Bonesetting

2. The Algebra of Genocide  63

3. Reunion of Broken Parts  93

Part III. Mayan Pyramids

4. 100% Omnilife  121

5. Mayan Pyramid (Scheme)  157

Part IV. Yes to Life = NO to Mining

6. A Life's Worth  189

7. Beyond Adequacy  227

Notes  265

References  281

Index  297
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6005-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5973-9
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