Third Book: The Seduction of Quantification by Sally Engle Merry

Triptych : Calais 'Jungle' Refugee Camp Topographic Data Map (Entire Camp) by Stanislava Pinchuk


Indicators have a social and political life. They crunch lives into neat formats; demand simplicity instead of the entangled and heavy webs of the personal; indicators clasp, enfold and flatten so that things fit…. so that things appear to make sense. In her book, Sally Engle Merry argues that the type of indicators mobilised and used in human rights, governance, gender violence, and sex trafficking have a ‘powerful if implicit role in structuring knowledge’. They are seductive technologies which carve not only policy enactment, but our affective responses towards complex issues. Through a genealogical method, Merry examines the development of indicators from a longitudinal perspective, seeing its uptake within various institutions and state bodies.

Chapter 3 and 4 will be the reading group’s central focus, examining the use of composite indicators on violence against women – in particular, four parallel approaches in measurement. Two of these indicators (UNSC and ‘criminal justice’) use a narrow definition, driven by data availability and backed up by strong institutions, while the other two (‘UNSC feminist’ and ‘human rights’) employ a wider approach and are driven by gender inequality and human rights framings and institutions. In this way, the incredible structural and emotional impact of violence, often intersecting with class, race, and able-bodiedness, is actively reduced into a mass of quanta, oriented towards decision-making. The right quanta may push and materialise a policy, whilst inadequate quanta may leave cases, and to be more precise realities, stuck and absent from public discussion. Merry’s book should be of interest to any individual concerned with how gendered lives are represented and acknowledged within contemporary discourse – especially in a world where algorithms and statistical measures increasingly prioritise certain issues over others.


If you would like to join us, please RSVP to sometime during the two weeks, or just show up on the day. The link above contains a PDF download for Chapters 1, 3 & 4.

WHEN: Monday 25 June, 4-6pm.

LOCATION: RC Mills Building, Rm.148, the University of Sydney


© Compiled by Zsuzsanna Dominika Ihar for BoS

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