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13 - Retroaction: how indicators feed back onto quantified actors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Alain Desrosières
Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE)
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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Are quantitative indicators an instrument of emancipation or an instrument of oppression? In line with the philosophy of Enlightenment, they were generally perceived as a means of giving society a mirror-image of itself so that it could move towards greater justice. Today, in the world of neoliberal economics, they are mostly seen as an excuse to fuel individualism and competition between individuals, particularly through the performance indicators involved in management techniques, such as benchmarking. They can have direct effects, repercussions, qualified here as feedback, on those in charge of the statistical monitoring of unemployment. For example, the director of the French national statistics bureau, INSEE, was suspended for having ‘badly managed’ the conflict over unemployment figures. Deep budget cuts to the statistics bureau were announced. In spite of that, public statistics in France still enjoyed a good reputation among their users: economic actors, journalists, trade unionists, teachers and researchers. The media published numerous opinion pieces deploring what was perceived as a threat to dismantle the system. A commonly used metaphor was ‘breaking the thermometer in order to treat the fever’.

Shortly thereafter, a young INSEE researcher was struck by a revealing incident. While marching in a trade union demonstration against government policy to dismantle public services, she was soliciting demonstrators to show their support by signing a petition. To her surprise she was told: ‘Your statistics are only used to control us, police us, and make our working conditions worse.’ Again in 2009, academics, researchers and health workers were up in arms against the ‘reforms’ being applied to their activities, which involved quantified evaluations of their ‘performance’. This would lead, as they saw it, to the dispossession of their specific skills for the benefit of ‘New Public Management’, which relies heavily on the use of quantitative indicators. A culture of dissent emerged against the generalization of quantification among academic physicians. Resistance against quantitative evaluation was one of its keywords.

Spring 2009 was also a season for other demands of a completely different kind. The French government asked the eminent economists Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi to propose revisions for the calculation of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They suspected that GDP was a poor measure of the ‘wealth’ generated by a nation within a year. Activist researchers had already anticipated this request, which was given a great deal of media coverage.

The World of Indicators
The Making of Governmental Knowledge through Quantification
, pp. 329 - 353
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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