The Social Lives of Numbers: Brian Silverstein’s new book studies the impact of statistics in Turkish agriculture

April 20, 2021

Statistics are usually seen as a tool to describe and analyze reality, rather than transform it. However, for farmers in Turkey, the recent changes in the way their country collects and analyzes data had far-reaching implications on their lives.

In his most recent book, University of Arizona Professor Brian Silverstein examines the role that European Union-inspired institutional reforms had on transforming Turkish agriculture, as well as the livelihood and practices of farmers.

“The Social Lives of Numbers: Statistics, Reform and the Remaking of Rural Life in Turkey,” published in December of 2020, is the second of his books.

Silverstein is an anthropologist and ethnographer by training, but his interests extended to the realm of statistics once he found – one day flipping through the news of a Turkish paper when he was visiting relatives – that this field had become one of the country’s key chapters for the process of integrating into the European Economic Community, or EEC.

In 1998, Turkey was declared eligible to join the EEC. This came after years of negotiations and was followed by significant changes to comply with the European Union protocols and standards. Among those standards was the way the country collected and processed data from agricultural production.

Farmers now have new requirements to report to their government frequently and in detail about their investments, yields, and sales in order to receive benefits.

“If you want to get any (subsidies) you have to be registered under this system. And you have to be updating your data pretty regularly,” said Silverstein.

While the changes promoted better record keeping and increased competitiveness, they also pushed aside those farmers that were reluctant to see agriculture as a business. This was the case for many small-scale farmers, a majority in the country; nearly 80% of rural land has less than 25 acres.

During his time in the field, Silverstein heard countless times from agriculture extension workers that the government “destroyed agriculture in the country.”

The transformation was profound, but “it didn’t just fall from the sky,” Silverstein said. There has been a trend in thinking about agriculture as a market sector, and the size of the farmer population has been shrinking for decades. In 1923, 80% of the population in Turkey was involved in agriculture. By the turn of the 21st century it had dropped to 36%, and today it is below 20% and dropping.

Today, those who were able to remain in the field constitute one of the strongest sectors of Turkey’s economy. The country is a main exporter of apricots, hazelnuts, wheat, poultry, milk, sugar beets, cotton and olives.

The latter is an old passion of Silverstein, and the focus of his latest research project.

“I’m an olive oil geek, I guess you would say,” he confessed.

A self-described foodie as well as a cultural anthropologist with a passion for statistics, Silverstein is now delving into the role of technological innovation in the world of olive oil in Turkey.

After many years of ethnographic work and close relations with farmers and agriculture extension workers, Silverstein noted that there’s been an exceptional improvement in olive-pressing and oil-storage technology that has catapulted the quality of the product.

In his observations, farmers are starting to reckon that they will have to expand and replant olive groves that might yield more produce and are suitable for getting machinery between the rows, keeping old groves for cultural and ecological reasons and making a revenue out of the new ones.

The equation is complex, he says: the population grows as farming land shrinks, so efficiency and agricultural competence has to increase. This arrangement looks hard for small-scale farmers.

“I like the idea of small mom and pop farmers growing our food.  But the fact is that what's happening in Turkey is happening on a global scale, too,” he said.

Though the country is one of the top five producers for high quality olive oil worldwide, Silverstein wonders why farmers can barely make a living.

“Why is nobody making money in this? What are they doing about it? And are there other things that could be done as well?” he said. “It would be great if my project somehow was helpful to these producers.”


Brian Silverstein is an associate professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, affiliated faculty with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the director of the Center for Turkish Studies.