'Character matters': how do measures of non-cognitive skills shape understandings of social mobility in the global North and South?
(University of East Anglia)
Paper short abstract:
The paper highlights growing interest in measures of non-cognitive skill and the way these are shaping debate on poverty and social mobility in the global North and South, drawing on examples from an entrepreneurship programme in South Africa and the 'Character and Resilience manifesto' in the UK.
Paper long abstract:
In this paper I address the expansion of measurement into more intimate areas of life, specifically the focus by economists and policymakers on non-cognitive skills such as 'grit' as an explanation for social (im)obility. I describe the expansion of this form of measurement and discuss its effects on both public debate and the way individuals understand themselves. I suggest that while non-cognitive skills appear to be a form of 'human capital', there may be a stronger overlap with what social anthropologists call 'cultural capital' - everyday practices of being that convey distinction and naturalise disadvantage. I draw on two examples to illustrate this point: firstly, ongoing work with an entrepreneurship programme in South African townships, and secondly, the media attention surrounding the release of a UK parliamentary report into social mobility (the 'Character and Resilience manifesto'). In both cases non-cognitive skills are incorporated in a narrative of the shortcomings of 'the poor' where their characteristics, represented by measures that are ethnocentric and insensitive to class, are presented as an explanation of their poverty, drawing attention away from the political and economic systems in which they are embedded. I locate these examples within a broader debate over the increasing use of measurement within international development (for example, recent United Nations rankings of Multidimensional Poverty and Happiness) and its compatibility with discourses of evidence-based policy and results-based management.
Governing by numbers: audit culture, rankings and the New World (Re)order