The Seductions of Quantification
The Seductions of Quantification
Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking

We live in a world where seemingly everything can be measured. We rely on indicators to translate social phenomena into simple, quantified terms, which in turn can be used to guide individuals, organizations, and governments in establishing policy. Yet counting things requires finding a way to make them comparable. And in the process of translating the confusion of social life into neat categories, we inevitably strip it of context and meaning—and risk hiding or distorting as much as we reveal. With The Seductions of Quantification, leading legal anthropologist Sally Engle Merry investigates the techniques by which information is gathered and analyzed in the production of global indicators on human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. Although such numbers convey an aura of objective truth and scientific validity, Merry argues persuasively that measurement systems constitute a form of power by incorporating theories about social change in their design but rarely explicitly acknowledging them. For instance, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries in terms of their compliance with antitrafficking activities, assumes that prosecuting traffickers as criminals is an effective corrective strategy—overlooking cultures where women and children are frequently sold by their own families. As Merry shows, indicators are indeed seductive in their promise of providing concrete knowledge about how the world works, but they are implemented most successfully when paired with context-rich qualitative accounts grounded in local knowledge.

Add Remove

via Isabel Guenette Thornton on 5/23/2019, 3:18:30 PM

authored-by Sally Engle Merry on 5/23/2019, 3:23:43 PM

excerpt With the turn to evidence- based governance, responsibility for decision making is shifted from individual, discretionary judgment to systems of measurement established by experts. Indicators displace the capacity for judgment from those assessing performance to the creators of indicators used to assess performance. This shift reduces discretion and private decision making, opening governance up to greater public scrutiny. At the same time, it moves responsibility from judicial and political decision makers to the experts in quantification who develop and implement measurement systems. Ultimately, indicators place responsibility on the governed to conform to the indicators, regardless of who has created them. 12 on 5/23/2019, 4:11:01 PM

excerpt The process of measurement tends to produce the phenomenon it claims to measure. 12 on 5/23/2019, 4:14:03 PM

references The Audit Society on 5/23/2019, 4:15:33 PM

excerpt Changing categories requires a new regime of data collection and undermines comparison over time. 15 on 5/23/2019, 4:16:50 PM

tag-as Three types of indicators. Counts, which refer to numbers of things. Census data are a good example. The categories -- the boundaries of the measurement - shape what is counted. Ratios, which compare two numbers, facilitate comparison among countries or organizations. (Attempt to do some rudimentary parameterization and make the metric directly comparable). Also what is baseline population? Composite indicators are the third type, which merge counts and ratios together, bundling different data sources into a single score or rank. Multiple attributes are fused into the measure of a single concept. on 5/23/2019, 4:28:21 PM

excerpt Naming a composite indicator is important since the name defines the concept. In effect, composite indicators construct a concept by naming and measuring it. 16 on 5/23/2019, 4:29:06 PM

references Human Development Index on 5/23/2019, 4:30:05 PM

excerpt The history of the HDI reveals several key features of a successful indicator. First, it is the product of a long period of research, analysis, and experiment. Second, it is promoted by a leading, powerful institution and formulated by development economists and international policymakers located within prom- inent academic and policy centers. Third, it expresses, but does not test, a the- oretical position. Indicators typically embody, but do not explicitly articulate, a theory of social change. Fourth, it is recognized by its creators as a very sim- plified representation of a far more complex body of data but is promoted for policy makers who want a convenient and quick summary. Indicators are quite distinct from the underlying statistical data that constitute them since they are single numbers or ranks designed for ease of comprehension and use as well as accuracy. 18 on 5/23/2019, 4:30:59 PM

excerpt In the end, those who create indicators aspire to measure the world but, in practice, create the world they are measuring. 21 on 5/23/2019, 4:36:05 PM

references Sorting Things Out on 5/23/2019, 4:38:27 PM

excerpt To stitch together local systems of classification, it is necessary to find ways to make diΩerent things commensurable (Bowker and Star 1999) on 5/23/2019, 4:39:09 PM

excerpt The technical is always political because there is always interpretation and judgment in systems of classification, in the choice of things to measure, in the weighting of constitutive elements, and in decisions about which denominator to use for a ratio. The political hides behind the technical. 21 on 5/23/2019, 4:39:43 PM

excerpt Making things commensurable depends on identifying a core principle that they all share and that renders them var- ious instances of the same thing. It means specifying points of similarity and ignoring other features, unbundling the whole entity under consideration into discrete, countable parts. ... The process of translation homogenizes populations, actions, and practices and strips them of context. 27 on 5/23/2019, 4:53:29 PM