Governing by numbers: Key indicators and the politics of expectations

Lisa Knoll (University of Hamburg & University of Halle)

From 5 to 7 October the workshop “Governing by numbers: Key indicators and the politics of expectations” – organized by Walter Bartl and Audrey Terracher-Lipinski (both Halle) – took place in the beautiful city of “Mitteldeutschland” Halle an der Saale. For all the guests from abroad, but also for some German scholars who have never been in Halle before, it was a pleasurable surprise to get in touch with the history and culture of this old German city. And, not because of that, but it helps me to find a nice bridge passage to the conference theme, historicity and culture, became the pivotal access points to the phenomenon governing by numbers during the conference. The organizers choose to have a Conventionalist framing, by inviting Laurent Thévenot (from EHESS and CREST, the Centre for Research in Economics and Statistics in Paris) and by giving Rainer Diaz-Bone (Lucerne) the possibility to present the Conventionalist perspective on Quantification outlined in the Special Issue “Conventions and Quantification – Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Statistics and Classifications”, edited by Rainer Diaz-Bone & Emmanuel Didier (Historical Social Research Vol. 41(2) 2016). The intellectual starting point of Conventionalism, being first developed in a working group with Alain Desrosières at the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), became a major theoretical and methodological focus point of the discussion.

The presented themes ranged from the historicity of macro-economic models (Tom Kayzel, Amsterdam) over the changing term structure of the interest rate (Timo Walter, Erfurt). Oliver Geden (Berlin) talked about the 2-degree-scenario in climate politics, which is kept up scientifically in the light of its political crisis. Christina Boswell (Edinburgh) presented her work (to be published in January 2018 at Cambridge University Press) on “Targets and the Production of Political Trust”, were she showed how much British politicians bind themselves to the achievement of targets as a legitimatory device. Ingo Bode (Kassel) made a broad argument on the economization in late modern welfare states, which is accomplished by the management by numbers in diverse fields. Thomas Heinze & Arlette Jappe (Wuppertal) presented a quantitative network analysis on the historical formation of the professional field of performance evaluation of and in universities. Michael Huber & Maarten Hillebrandt (Bielefeld) showed how payment schemes at German universities changed from a “pay for performer”, over a “pay by performance” to a “pay for promise”. Anne Piezunka (Berlin) studies German federal school inspections after the German “PISA shock” and their resistance at the school level. Oscar J. Maldonado & Tiago Moreira (Linköping) presented the emergence of global health metrics such as the Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY) used by the World Bank to monitor and assess “health” across territories and populations. The push for impact data in global health was also at the heart of the presentation of Sara L.M. Davis (New York & Geneva). She nicely showed how the lack of H.I.V. data corresponds with cultural taboos on issues of sexuality. Félicien Pagnon (Paris) presented his study on the reform of New Wealth Indicators, being developed as a critique of the GDP indicator. He studies two regions in France that make use of these alternative wealth indicators. Konstanze Senge & Lisa Knoll (Halle) presented a study on the ambiguity of German national public dept accounting under the reform process of the European system of national and regional accounts (ESA). Clear-cut public or private sector classifications become more and more difficult when public-private-partnerships and other forms of financial engineering are pushed as attractive tools to reduce (hide) public costs.

Laurent Thévenot

The conference showed (a) that convention theory offers an important “analytical framework of the politics of statistics” (Thévenot) to study the plurality and the historicity of various forms of governing by numbers, and it showed (b) that the growing and developing empirical phenomenon “governing by numbers” in the era of digitalization and “big data” challenges an approach that starts from the assumption of public deliberation (justice and justesse) and the normative foundation of measurement. Conventionalism plays an important role in rendering the historical divers statistical models visible (a). As Rainer Diaz-Bone highlighted, for Alain Desrosières “quantification is to implement a convention and then to measure”, which leads us to a huge diversity of quantified and potentially conflicted measurement procedures. Desrosières emphasized the interconnectedness of statistics, markets and states. The engineer state, the liberal state, the welfare state, the Keynesian State, and the neoliberal state embrace different statistical methods and constructions – different ways of governing by numbers.  Laurent Thévenot highlighted that studying governance by numbers involves two kinds of processes: “the upstream side … going back from quantification to valuations that turn numbers into key figures for actions and their government”. Here, we study processes of “reduction of the pluralism of valuations”. In the second process, “we pay attention to the downstream side”, where measurement unfolds “an executive power” – the performativity-side of governing by numbers. Governing by numbers involves a process of “closing one’s eyes” vis-à-vis the plurality of the world, and it may unfold a not “compromising”, but a “compromitting” way of combining a plurality of orders of worth (Thévenot citing Ricœur). An example for a “compromission” of plural values may be the “blended value proposition” in economics.  We are today observing forms of governing by numbers, which mostly unfold undebated and silent. This seems to be a challenge for conventionalism (b). Rainer Diaz-Bone therefore suggests to consider “conventions without semantic content”. Laurent Thévenot sees a “biological kind of capital”, a captured normative foundation of statistics, harking back on eugenics at play, referring to “surveillance“.He states that statistics and algorithms applied on data mining, however tacit or opaque they may be processed for those to be unconsciously tracked – or consciously self-tracked – “cannot operate without some formatting for equivalence”. The responsibility of the researcher lies in determining the “codified format of information”, but also the “critical openness” of each form of quantification and measurement.


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