- The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking by Sally Engle Merry
Sally Engle Merry’s The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking describes and critiques the process of producing and analyzing numerical indicators of human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. She believes that the [End Page 239] process of quantification is highly political and ideological, and that quantitative measurement systems constitute a form of power, incorporating theories about social change in their design. She emphasizes that measurement systems are developed by powerful organizations, and the organizational value biases behind those systems are rarely explicit. Quantification itself contributes to a “myth of objectivity,” meaning that the truth of most things can be found in numbers.
One of the main problems with quantification, she contends, is that the production of quantified measurements is not as open and transparent as it should be. If it were clearer, we would be able to see that it is shaped by “ideology, inertia, social and political influence, inadequate data, and the pragmatic compromises that poor data require.”1 In several chapters, she provides examples showing that what is measured and how it is measured usually depends upon the preferences of powerful organizations. As a result of this bias and other problems detailed in her book, she concludes that “[n]ot all that should be counted is counted, nor does counting itself necessarily provide an accurate picture of a situation or its explanation.”2
In the interest of full disclosure, the reader should know that I have spent most of my professional life quantifying cross-national variations in government respect for a variety of human rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and press. So I personally have contributed and continue to contribute to the “seduction of quantification” the author describes. Therefore, I began my reading of this work with a great interest in her subject and a bias against her argument.
I also read this book with great respect for the views of this particular author. She is an acknowledged expert on evaluating the performance of respect for human rights and other aspects of good governance. She has written several previous books and articles on related subjects, and this book is filled with interesting examples drawn from her personal experiences. She discusses her active participation helping intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations develop creative ways to evaluate progress in human rights, including reducing gender violence and sex trafficking.
Overall, I agree with the author’s diagnosis of the problems presented by quantification, and with her assessment that there is a trend towards producing more numerical scores designed to capture complex human rights and governance concepts. She accurately describes the strong trend towards greater use and increasingly uncritical and naïve use of those scores by scholars and policy makers. She does a good job of explaining the reasons for this trend, or, as she refers to it in her title, the reasons for “the seductions of quantification.”
I also found her book to be very readable despite the fact that the discussion sometimes addresses technical subjects and provides detailed accounts of the politics behind the development of numerical indicators. Her book is well organized and well written. It is composed at a level appropriate for advanced undergraduate college students. I will probably assign the first two chapters and the conclusion to the book as required [End Page 240] reading for my undergraduate seminar on measuring human rights.
The book contains an excellent, up-to-date review of the relevant literature. It is a must read for scholars, policy makers, and policy analysts who produce or use these types of quantitative indicators and for policy makers who want to learn more about the pitfalls of evidence-based governance. Less sophisticated readers (those not directly involved in the knowledge production and consumption process) probably will not fully appreciate the nuances of this account.
In the remainder of this essay, I provide a brief description...