Official statistics, big data and civil society. Introducing the approach of “economics of convention” for understanding the rise of new data worlds and their implications

Rainer Diaz-Bone & Kenneth Horvath (2021)

Statistical Journal of the IAOS, Preprint

Abstract. The rise of big data and ongoing political and social transformations confront official statistics with important questions regarding its self-understanding and its role in public debates. These questions imply serious tensions that will very likely increase in the foreseeable future. This article introduces a specific sociological perspective for thinking and talking about these developments. Building on the “economics of convention”, this perspective challenges currently dominant conceptions of official statistics which do not adequately mirror the plurality of possible representations of the social world and the variety of justifiable ways of assessing the quality of these representations. Taking these pluralities into account allows to develop a fuller picture of the actual practices and institutions involved in the production of statistical knowledge and, especially, of their unavoidable entanglement with normative orders, epistemic values, and political formations. The notion of “data worlds” is presented as a means for tackling this problem of pluralities. On this conceptual basis, it becomes possible to link methodological questions to analyses of how statistical data and knowledge are embedded in wider political, economic, and social contexts. Problems of “data quality” thus appear in a different light: their reflection involves more than the usually discussed issues of the institutional independence (secured by public funding and by law) and the high scientific standards of official statistics. Instead, an institutionalist theoretical approach is needed that offers blueprints for linking the production of “official statistical facts” to (always contested and contextual) conceptions of the common good. Such a conception would allow to conceive new forms of public participation and democratic control of processes of quantification, measurement, and datafication. In sum, we believe that the specifically sociological approach outlined in this article would support official statistics in dealing with the variety of critical interventions and challenges it currently faces in a proactive and coherent manner.

Link to the article