The Seductions of Quantification: Bureaucracy and the Politics of Measurement


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photo of Sally Engle Merry
Sally Engle Merry, PhD, New York University, Department of Anthropology
Event Date: 
April 10, 2017
Event Time: 
4:00pm to 5:30pm
1014 Tisch Hall
Event Tags: 
photo of Sally Engle Merry

An intense preoccupation with numbers is sweeping the worlds of international and domestic governance, based on the idea that political decisions must be made on the basis of objective quantitative data. The use of statistics in governance was fundamental to the emergence of the modern nation-state.  With globalization, the scope of governance through quantification is growing even more. The expansion in quantification parallels the growth of bureaucracy; it is clear that bureaucracy runs on numbers.

Using examples from efforts to measure violence against women developed by the United Nations to assess the phenomenon globally, this talk shows how bureaucracy and quantification complement each other. They work with a shared approach to knowledge production based on conceptions of objectivity, rationality, and specificity. At the same time, the dependence of bureaucratic activity on quantification means that its work is shaped by the underlying cultural and interpretive work of quantification and its capacity to render the complex social world commensurable through classification and categorization. The talk concludes by asking, based on this analysis, what are the prospects that bureaucracies can resist the current trend toward nationalistic, charismatic leadership?

Presented by the Science, Technology & Society Program. Co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women & Gender.