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  • The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking by Sally Engle Merry
  • Kimberly Theidon
Sally Engle Merry, The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 272 pp.

Let the reader be warned: "Quantification is seductive." Not a bad first Line for a book about statistics, indicators, ratios, and other forms of numerical data. Set down that plastic pocket protector, dim the lights, and follow Sally Engle Merry's insightful analysis of the hidden labor involved in translating the complexity of human experience into numbers.

In her latest book, legal anthropologist Merry uses a genealogical approach to reveal the extensive interpretive work and protracted social processes of consensus building and contestation that goes into the development and promotion of indicators. As she states, "the core question of this book is how the production and use of global indicators are shaped by inequalities in power and expertise" (5). Thus, her focus is not on the accuracy of the indicators per se, but on how these indicators achieve a false specificity that obscures the myriad interpretive decisions that went into their creation. By studying the cultural assumptions and theories of social change embedded in three case studies—violence against women, human trafficking, and human rights performance—Merry explores the actors and institutions that promote a particular indicator, and how and when the indicator's features become settled.

This "settling" involves an alchemy of "expertise inertia" and "data inertia." Expertise inertia refers to a reliance on the use and adaptation of existing templates, which means that insiders with skill and experience will have a greater say in developing measurement systems. The concentration of said expertise tends to lie in the Global North, which leads to the unequal participation of actors in the Global South in the construction [End Page 427] of indicators that will be used to rank those countries within the developmental logic from whence the indicators emerge. Data inertia magnifies this inequality because what has been measured before is predictive of what will be measured again, allowing certain categories to assume an allegedly universal validity, marginalizing local knowledge and alternative epistemologies as "culturally-bound" ways of knowing the world.

Merry draws upon Bruno Latour's (1987) concept of black boxing to explain how the power dynamics of what should be counted, how, and by whom is airbrushed out of the picture, creating the fantasy that technocratic expertise alone determines the inputs and outputs and, thus, the indicators. The contentious politics of the data-hunting-and-gathering process fade from view, leading to indicators that erase the tracks of their own creation. One of Merry's contributions is to insist upon the reinstantiation of history and its effects, which demonstrates that quantification is a mode of power. Each indicator used to measure violence against women, human trafficking, or human rights performance is forged within a theoretical framework, and embeds a theory of social change and "progress." Is this evidence-based policy making, or policy-based evidence making? One is left to wonder.

Each case study provides a powerful illustration of Merry's key arguments. As she demonstrates in Chapters 3 and 4, the 1990s and 2000s saw an expansion of the international movement against gender violence and its redefinition as a human rights violation. When the United Nations General Assembly called for a comprehensive set of international indicators on violence against women, however, the definitional debates were vociferous. Asking "What is violence against women and how should we count it?" is not the straightforward question it may appear to be at first glance (44). For members of the feminist coalition, the emphasis was placed on gender equality and structural violence, while the UN Security Council (UNSC) definition focused on interpersonal relationships. Adding to the definitional debates were country-specific concerns about which forms of gender-based violence did or did not exist in a given context, and according to which set of laws. The list of core indicators eventually approved by the UNSC defines violence against women much more narrowly than the global women's movement does. As Merry notes, "In order to create internationally comparable statistical...


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