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Introduction: Of Numbers and Narratives—Indicators in Global Governance and the Rise of a Reflexive Indicator Culture

Abstract

There is a pervasive sense in which we seem to be living under a new avalanche of numbers, and in particular an avalanche of indicators beyond the state and purporting to create knowledge on a global scale. As much as our indicator culture engenders a “faith in numbers”, the very expansion of the power of numbers and their role in (global) governance over the last 20 years has brought with it a heightened sense that quantification, indicators, and rankings are a way of doing politics that must be engaged with from within and without the specific disciplinary knowledge (such as statistics and econometrics) that underwrite their claims to objectivity. The chapters collected in this Handbook aim to capture the contemporary indicator culture, with all its discordant and contrasting orientations. The present introductory chapter considers three main dimensions. First, no chapter in the Handbook adopts a naively metrological understanding of indicators as simply “measuring” reality. Second, the normativity of measurement is a consistent theme of the contributions by both scholars and practitioners. Third, despite their popularity and seeming capacity to shape debates, the power of indicators remains highly contextual and dependent on how they are enrolled in particular, situated, networks of actors and influence.

Keywords

  • Global governance
  • Quantification
  • Indicators

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Poovey notes that “liberal governmentality” depended on self-rule rather than rule by coercion. Administering self-rule in a market society “involved understanding human motivations ... [and] as a consequence, the knowledge that increasingly seemed essential to liberal governmentality was the kind cultivated by moral philosophers”.

  2. 2.

    For example, the now accepted notion of “national income” comparable across vastly different territories and peoples was once considered by economists to be an implausible object of measurement, susceptible to too many problems of data and conceptual validity to be tractable. As a result, the meaning of the numbers was closely contested, and the many judgements involved in quantifying national income were highly controversial until the matter became “settled” through its regular production and use in policy discussion—despite no real answer being provided to the scientific doubts about the numbers.

  3. 3.

    Desrosières refers to this as “accounting realism”. Those without detailed knowledge of the way in which the number is made could easily slip into metrological realism—mistaking the number as a measure of a real thing in the world.

  4. 4.

    Broome and Quirk refer to “global benchmarking” as “an umbrella term for a wide range of comparative evaluation techniques that systematically assess the performance of actors, populations, or institutions. This can include techniques such as audits, rankings, indicators, indexes, baselines, and targets, all of which work on the basis of standardised measurements, metrics and rankings” (p. 815). They go on to argue that “global benchmarking efforts almost invariably draw upon a common portfolio of normative values, assumptions, and agendas, such as liberal or neoliberal models of the rule of law, freedom of speech, democracy, human development, environmental protection, poverty alleviation, ‘modern’ statehood, and ‘free’ markets” (p. 829).

  5. 5.

    The sources of this authority could be the power of the state producing the indicator (such as in the case of the United States’ Trafficking in Persons’ “Tier”-based ratings) or its incorporation into a form of conditionality, such as the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which uses certain third party-generated composite indices as benchmarks to evaluate whether a state is eligible for some kinds of development funding.

  6. 6.

    “[Q]uantifying social phenomena requires translating things understood in idiosyncratic, systemic, or situational terms into things that can be counted. In making them commensurable, they must be viewed as, in some ways, the same, pulled away from their embeddedness in a holistic cultural and political context. Some features must be considered; others must be ignored.”

  7. 7.

    The term “neo-liberal” has diverse meanings and connotations and may not denote exactly the same thing in its various uses. Here, we use it to refer to the political and economic policy agenda that gained strength in the late 1970s, which insisted on the rationalisation of public expenditures, the reduction of state regulation of economic activity, and the expansion of market dynamics in decisions concerning the allocation of public and private resources.

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Bhuta, N., Malito, D.V., Umbach, G. (2018). Introduction: Of Numbers and Narratives—Indicators in Global Governance and the Rise of a Reflexive Indicator Culture. In: Malito, D., Umbach, G., Bhuta, N. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Indicators in Global Governance. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62707-6_1

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