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3 - Narrating numbers

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Wendy Espeland
Northwestern University
Richard Rottenburg
Martin Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Sally E. Merry
New York University
Sung-Joon Park
Martin Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Johanna Mugler
Universität Bern, Switzerland
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This chapter examines one aspect of the logic that characterizes many indicators: the dynamic relationship between simplification and elaboration that is behind the production, circulation and interpretation of indicators. Indicators are appealing partly because they simplify complex organizations and processes in order to produce public, authoritative knowledge that makes them appear legible to outsiders. This simplification takes many forms but one way to characterize it is to understand it as the erasure of narratives: the systematic removal of the persons, places and trajectories of the people being evaluated by the indicator and the people doing the evaluation. This stripping away of narrative facilitates the circulation and insertion of numbers in new locations and their adaptability to new contexts. But as these new forms of knowledge move about and are re-appropriated or resisted by those being evaluated, they elicit new narratives, new stories about what they mean, how they unfold, if they are fair or unfair, or who made them and why. These narratives are important to analyse because they help us understand how actors make sense of their worlds, which is crucial for understanding the impact of quantification. Relying primarily on the examples of educational rankings, I consider this interplay between the erasure and invocation of narratives for different audiences in the production and reception of indicators.

An essay on narrative ought to start with a story. It is April, five or so years ago, and the Dean of a large, prestigious West Coast law school is dreading the ‘town-hall meeting’ he has felt compelled to schedule. He was expecting scores of unhappy students well-schooled in the art of argument to attend. The reason the Dean called this meeting is that the US News and World Report (USN), an American news magazine, had just released its annual ranking of graduate schools, including US law schools. The school's rank had just dropped two notches. His job at the meeting would be to explain why and try to reassure the students that theirs was still an elite school and that their careers were not jeopardized because of this decline in rank.

Law students are an articulate and anxious bunch, especially after the economic crisis shrivelled the market for attorneys; but even so students’ reactions to the small drop in rankings at this school seem extreme, at first blush.

The World of Indicators
The Making of Governmental Knowledge through Quantification
, pp. 56 - 75
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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