The Seductions of Quantification (Sally Engle Merry) – A Review

Date Posted: Tuesday 22nd September 2020

Feminist EconomicsFeminist Economics book clubGendered analysisqualitative researchQuantitativeVAWG

A book review of:

The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence and Sex Trafficking by Sally Engle Merry

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press (2016)

by Laura A. Harvey

The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence and Sex Trafficking follows the stories of a number of key indicators used for global policy making. Taking complex topics, such as violence against women, human rights and human trafficking, Professor Merry highlights both the usefulness and limitations of such indicators and the political story around their construction.  By indicator, Professor Merry is referring to a systematic and comparable way of using data to define a phenomenon which can be studied across units or over time. She offers the quantification of intelligence through the use of IQ tests to highlight the first obstacle of such actions. Intelligence itself is not an indicator and individuals might have many different ways to define it. Yet the introduction of IQ as an indicator to measure intelligence, has ended up forming part of the definition of intelligence itself. She argues that ‘the process of measurement tends to produce the phenomena it claims to measure.’

Merry herself, a Professor of Anthropology at NYU and co-director for the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU was able to attend meetings of the UN and NGO where these measures were discussed, which allowed her to gain unique insights in order to piece together the history of these indicators. Here, the political nuances seem to come to light.

Indicators are used to build policy, to incentivise countries to address particular issues, or to try to convey a complex trend. Often their construction relies on the support of governments to provide access to data.  Here incentives are important, some countries might be more interested in how an indicator is constructed if they have an idea of how their country might perform.  

Whilst Merry does not disagree that indicators are useful tools to bring awareness to a particular issue or to encourage policy change, she notes that indicators miss a lot of the detail, and the context behind the numbers, which can importantly help address the issue. For example, in measuring counts of violence against women, one might be led to believe that criminalisation of such acts is a solution, However underpinning this is the societal context in which such violence takes place, in which this may not be an appropriate solution. Therefore, it is important to understand the different situations in which violence occurs and design appropriate interventions to address them.

The construction of such indicators is often led by western countries using their knowledge systems to understand the issue. This can lead to conflicts between governments and the bodies which wish to produce the measures. Firstly, on a simple level this might make data collection a challenge as often local statistical offices are needed to gather data, whether that be from administrative records, such as police or hospital reports, (at a risk of underreporting), or alternatively national surveys. Either way collaboration between organisations is key here.

The main example she proposes where this is the case is the TIP (Trafficking in Persons) reports imposed by the US government. Whilst this indicator has had an impact in terms of addressing human trafficking and bringing attention to the issue, it is not a perfect measure. Countries are ranked based on their efforts to halt trafficking and estimates for the number of victims are published. Merry highlights a number of issues. Firstly, the definition of human trafficking is not universally agreed and there are nuances around whether one is trafficked or not, however the TIP reports follow a narrow definition that links trafficking solely to criminal activities. This completely misses other socio-economic factors for trafficking such as poverty and inequalities, which might suggest other interventions to address the issue.

Secondly, measuring trafficking victims is extremely difficult given its illegal nature and that often victims might be afraid of the repercussions of speaking out. This leads to huge variations in the quantities of reported victims by different organisations and over time. This can undermine the credibility of the indicators.  Finally, the ranking of countries is from a composite indicator which might overlook some efforts and thus uses shame to encourage governments to act as the US sees is appropriate. This highlights, one more time, how other mechanisms which are part of the problem are not being addressed in the solution.

Throughout the book Merry’s focus is on the trade-off in trying to quantify or count instances of events, as in doing so we lose some of the qualitative details which are important for understanding and therefore putting an end to such social injustices. As a quantitative researcher I find that I might accidently overlook the value that qualitative work can bring. The Seductions of Quantification highlighted for me the importance of interdisciplinary work in order to understand and put an end to social injustice.