Indicator Politics: Quantification measures and practices of decision-making
Location 117b
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Nuno Boavida (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) email
  • Stefan Böschen (RWTH Aachen University) email

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Short Abstract

The session highlights the importance of indicators in the construction of expertise and the constitution of problems under decision. Thesis is that risk and innovation politics are highly performed through indicator politics. Looking that way, processes of deciding can be understood more deeply.

Long Abstract

Governance by numbers is an old phenomenon (cf. Heintz 2010). Its historical emergence in modern cultures has been related to the rise of science, state and capitalism, among others, through social demand for objectivity and transparency from those governed (Porter 1995; Shor 2008). This phenomenon has been directed to the introduction of measures in a wide range of fields (e.g. new public management in universities, ranking activities), but can also be seen in reports about innovation within the context of different systems of innovation. Presently, it is easy and more frequent to use numbers (and other types of evidences) in decision processes (Rottenburg & Merry 2015; Head 2010). However, we know little about the effect of this way of deciding in society (Espeland and Sauder 2012) and, in particular, in innovative contexts where uncertainty and complexity abounds.

This session intends to discuss the importance of indicators in the construction of expertise and the constitution of problems under decision. Indicators frame the problem in a way which is in correspondence to their normative background and economic-political interests. Their selection can entail options that are not neutral, trivial or conscious, creating an implicit and sometimes controversial space for "indicator politics". Hence, this panel will address questions related to the ways indicators are constructed and to how they can help to interpret the context of the decision. Additionally, the panel seeks to understand which use of indicators can be observed in risk-policy or innovation-policy fields and how indicators steer the problem-solving process.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Responsible quantification: The use of quantitative evidence in the context of uncertainty

Author: Zora Kovacic (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

Responsible quantification should communicate uncertainty, instead of uncertain results. Three scientific approaches are presented that use numbers as heuristic tools that allow for a participatory assessment of uncertainty, rather than as information.

Long Abstract

A lot of effort is invested in producing quantitative information for policy and a lot of criticism is directed towards the use of numbers in policy. One of the cornerstones of modern science is its reliance on the scientific method: the application of the same approach to all types of problems is supposed to ensure objectivity and reproducibility, to produce "matters of fact" (Shapin and Schaffer 1985). However, solving differential equations for calculating the risk of an earthquake may lead to mathematically sound results, but may be irrelevant in advising policy. If the goal is to advice policy makers about real world situations, how helpful is it to provide lab-created evidence? Providing real world evidence entails dealing with uncertainty, embracing complexity, and possibly producing non-conclusive results - but more relevant advice.

In this paper three approaches are analysed, which have emerged from these criticisms and propose responsible uses of quantitative information: (i) quantification of uncertainty through the NUSAP system of Post-Normal Science, (ii) the heuristic use of numbers through Quantitative Story-Telling and (iii) the heuristic use of statistics through Applied Statistics. The concept of responsible quantification emerges from these practices, favouring a heuristic use of numbers that can acknowledge uncertainty and complexity.

Shapin S & Schaffer S (1985) Leviathan and the air pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Risk indicators: The Impact of Uncertainty and Crisis in Measuring Risk

Author: Sudeepa Abeysinghe (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses two case studies to examine the effect of uncertainty in destabilising measurements of risk. It shows how indicators become problematized and reordered in ways that highlight to nature of the underlying social and political structure of organisations and communities.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the effect of uncertainty in destabilising and problematizing measurements of risk. The paper examines two case studies - the use of statistics and disease classification during pandemic governance, and the problem of nuclear radiation measurement during post-disaster risk management. The first case study examines the global management of H1N1, focusing on the World Health Organization's use of indicators to signify and measure risk during the pandemic. It demonstrates the political destabilisation of epidemiological statistics and institutional classification schemes as a result of embedded uncertainties around the event. The second case study examines the measurement of radiation following the 2011 Fukushima triple disaster. It shows the problematisation of radiation risks. This is evident through public reconstructions of measurement, the malleability of understandings and indicators of 'safe' radiation levels among various social groupings, and the official use and community contestation of radiation measurement devices. Taken together these two analyses demonstrate the difficulties embedded in the measurement of risk under conditions of uncertainty. Here, indicators become problematized, deconstructed and reordered in ways that highlight to nature of the underlying social and political structure of organisations and communities.

The use of indicators: An analysis of two decisions of innovation policy

Author: Nuno Boavida (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)  email

Short Abstract

The paper presents two case studies about decisions of technology innovation. Results show that indicators were mostly a complementary instrument of decision. Their use was influenced by adversity, capacity to support arguments and interests, and social relations of the decision makers.

Long Abstract

Despite increasing calls for evidence-based policies, knowledge about the practical use of evidence remains limited. This paper studies the process of construction of evidence in decisions of innovation policy to understand how indicators were used. It analysis the use of indicators and other evidence through interviews conducted to inquire about the two investment decisions: an electric mobility policy and a nanotechnology laboratory. Results show indicators and other evidence were brought to decision processes according to their availability and capacity to support the different interests of the actors and the stakeholders. Their role was influenced by the particular context of the decision makers. More importantly, the use of persuasive analytical evidence appears to be related with the adversity of the policy context. In addition, research suggests that indicators are one tool among others to foster innovation decisions. The relatively minor instrumental role of indicators suggests that indicators were mostly a complementary instrument of decision. But there are other significant influences that need to be taken into account to understand the specific role indicators play, such as adversity (e.g. controversies and disputes) indicators' faced during the decision process, capacity to support arguments and interests, and social relations of the decision makers.

The co-production of sustainability indicators and harbor communities: A case study on the port of Antwerp, Belgium.

Author: Frederic Vandermoere (University of Antwerp)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation reports on the sustainability reporting initiative at the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Reflecting on our research, we aim to discuss this initiative as an example of co-production.

Long Abstract

In this presentation we aim to discuss the sustainability reporting initiative by the port of Antwerp, the second largest port in Europe. By means of 'stakeholder elicitation' and in interaction with the port's sustainability reporting initiative we investigated potentially meaningful indicators (mainly qualitative in nature) for environmental nuisance and citizen participation as aspects of responsible care. We established the particularity of this exercise as a form of regional sustainability reporting that is jointly initiated by public authorities and market players within the harbor community. In order to explore the embodied, emplaced experience of environmental nuisance in the port area and the discourses that accompany it, 22 in-depth interviews were organized with key actors from civil society. In addition, in a second stage focus group discussions with citizens were organized. Reflecting on our research outcomes, we argue that sustainability reporting initiatives not only produce new indicators and standards. They also contribute to the creation of a community identity, instigating yet another form of societal change. Through dialogue, identities are formed and a sense of community is established, as negotiating sustainability indicators ultimately involved negotiating the desired futures of an ideal harbor community.

Entering corporations into national economy. An ethnography of the GDP.

Author: Quentin Dufour (Université Paris-Dauphine)  email

Short Abstract

How is the French GDP calculated? Following the example of non-financial corporations GDP, we seek to write a non-formalist account of this formalism, and to understand how such a figure can involve a certain kind of economic representation.

Long Abstract

This paper draws attention to the practical ways of building comprehensive economic representations. More precisely, it examines the building process of the French Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of the economic activity level for the entire country. Drawing on STS approaches and the sociology of quantification, we try to understand the ways in which heterogeneous numbers meet, circulate and are gathered in a single figure that embody the economy as a whole. Our analysis is based on an ethnographic study at INSEE (the French statistical institute) - within the National Accounts Department - and mixes interviews, observations and technical documents, all related to the construction of GDP. In this paper we focus on a small part of the building process: the non-financial corporations GDP. We seek to qualify the "passage aux comptes" (accounts shift), an operation where the corporation statistics are translated into the national accounts concepts. For this, we examine the mundane and practical ways in which national accountants question, discuss, and follow the numbers, to obtain a non-financial corporations GDP. Taking quantification as a social practice, we intend to write a non-formalist account of a formal category such as "economic activity". Hence, GDP in practice is far less a "merely technical number" than a problematic and negotiated achievement. Moreover, it is an occasion to describe the qualities of this particular indicator, and how it affects the way we think about the economy and we act upon it.

To measure is to manage: Coproducing bank's health with the EU-wide stress test

Author: Shirley Kempeneer (University of Antwerp)  email

Short Abstract

In the aftermath of the crisis EU regulators decided to measure banks' health by means of a stress test. The paper addresses how this indicator coproduces knowledge and coconstitutes the problem of 'financial health'. To this end a number of interviews were conducted in banks and consultancy firms.

Long Abstract

Systemic banking stress tests are becoming an influential indicator in European financial policies. They present themselves as an objective indicator of banks' health. Indicators like these are often seen as technical measures, calculated by independent experts. As such, they have the ability to remove a problem from the realm of the political, and recast it in the neutral language of science (Rose & Miller, 2008).

The creation of such indicators, raises the question of calculative power. Objects are isolated from their context, imposed to similar manipulations and summed up for comparison. This knowledge then contributes to the continuation of this socio-political order by affirming its assumptions and logic (Jasanoff, 2006; Latour, 1987). In this paper I aim to understand how the stress test co-constitutes the problem of 'financial health' facing banks in the aftermath of the crisis.

Indicators do not 'just calculate' a numerical value. They select and simplify specific characteristics and render others invisible or irrelevant. As such calculation is a political act. Along these lines it is also important to see changes in measure as an important sense making activity (Porter, 1986). As such, replacing old indicators with new ones in turbulent periods, reduces crises to crises of measurement (Callon & Muniesa, 2005).

To answer the research question I conducted a number of interviews with actors in all four of the Belgian banks included in the 2014 stress test as well as consultancy firms. I started the interviews in 2015 and continued throughout the 2016 stress testing procedure.

The politics of quantitative devices. How national accounting favoured the spread of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) throughout Europe

Author: Damien Piron (University of Liège)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses how the Eurozone member states’ will to meet the quantitative “convergence criteria” set in the Treaty of Maastricht contributed to create a favourable environment for the development of PPPs, as well as the political and social effects of this policy.

Long Abstract

A significant part of the figures daily manipulated in the sphere of public finance are defined in systems of national accounting such as the European System of National and Regional Accounts (ESA). Since 1992, this genuine "calculative infrastructure" (Kurunmäki & Miller, 2013) has been integrated to the most ambitious European policy so far: the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). In this context, ESA's figures have been used as reference to assess whether member states conform to the "convergence criteria" set in the Treaty of Maastricht, namely the limitation of public debt and deficit to respectively 60% and 3% of their GDP.

In order to meet these criteria without giving up huge investment expenditures, Eurozone member states have developed various "budgetary neutral" financing schemes. For instance, the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) as an innovative financing mode of public infrastructure has dramatically increased throughout Europe in the last decade, thereby offering excellent insights on the political and social consequences of "indicator politics" in public finance.

Combining insights from sociology of quantification and public policy analysis, this paper analyses how the use of ESA in the context of the EMU has created a strong incentive structure towards the development of such a controversial policy instrument. Based on extended documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews with key European and Belgian senior civil servants, this empirical study demonstrates how European institutions contributed to create a favourable environment for the development of PPPs, as well as the political and social effects of this policy.

Social Policy Expertise and indicator politics in Europe

Author: Gert Verschraegen (University of Antwerp)  email

Short Abstract

This contribution investigates how social policy expertise in Europe has become entangled with the politics and science of comparative indicators. Focusing on practices and networks related to European data sets, it shows how the process of constructing indicators entails new policy issues

Long Abstract

This contribution investigates how social policy expertise in Europe has become entangled with the politics and science of comparative indicators. Focusing on the epistemic practices and networks related to some important comparative data sets (the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions [EU-SILC]); the European Union Labour Force Survey [EULFS]), and the European microsimulation model EUROMOD, it aims to show a) how social policy expertise in Europe has evolved into a governance network of calculating experts operating on comparative indicators; b) how this has rearticulated the realms of (scientific) knowledge and political decision-making. By setting up common data-infrastructures, procedures, and networks of expertise, these networks of calculative experts and policy-makers formulate EU policy categorisations, co-define what counts as national policy "problems," and make suggestions for new policy orientations; c) how the process of constructing cross-nationally comparative indicators is tangled up with scientific as well as political struggles, on account of differences in national legislation, conceptualization and statistical procedures. Standardised indicators are meant to simplify complicated information, yet also obscures the contingency of information and the assumptions that are implicit in the process of constructing indicators.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.