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Comment on "Quantification and the Paradox of Measurement: Translating Children’s Rights in Tanzania" (Sally Engle Merry and Summer Wood)



For better or worse, we live in the Age of Indices. As scholars have told us, social life becomes transformed through the fraught processes of measurement; the results then justify their own production; and then, as Giddens might have put it, these results not only structurate the institutions (local, national, global) that demand them, but as Merry and Wood argue, they also come to partly define the boundaries of social and institutional reality itself, since what is not measured is not, ipso facto, measurable, and what is not measurable does not, in important ways, exist.
First, Merry and Wood demonstrate that measurement
and quantication are social, iterative, and power-saturated
exercises. That some objects seem inherently measurable
while others seem uncountable reects neither the objects
intrinsic properties nor methodological limits but whether
there already exists an information infrastructure that has
preformattedcategories, data, and concepts in order ren-
der them countable. National income appears to us today to
be easily countable across countries (subject to a few tech-
nical problems) and thoroughly plausible for the purpose of
comparison. But it has only become so because the social,
historical, and resource-related perplexities, described by
Merry and Wood in relation to countingchild rightsper-
formance, have been blackboxedthrough standardization,
homogenization, and relegation of problems of incommen-
surability to irrelevance (Speich 2011). Over time, a stable
epistemic environment [concerning national income ac-
counting] resulted, in which economic facts about wealth and
poverty could travel as immutable mobiles in space(Speich
2011:20). Merry and Wood allow us to witness and recall in
essential detail how much must be blackboxed before a dis-
crete object called indicators of childrens rights in Tanza-
niacan be produced and become part of a frame of action.
Second, Merry and Wood observe that the quantication
of human rights concepts requires bringing distinct pro-
fessional discourses togetherand collecting and organizing
data that t into . . . global templates.What does not t
becomes uncountable and potentially invisible; those di-
mensions of professional discourses not amenable to the
logics demanded by quantication may be excluded. All of
this conduces to the production of a global abstractionthat
engenders knowledge premised on global scale comparisons.
A single global plane populated by discreet knowledge ob-
jects stripped of particular histories and particular politics is
a powerful frame of action. It is of course a trompe loeil, just
as any panorama is. But as the development and use of na-
tional income accounting suggest, the creation and stabili-
zation of global abstractions in the twentieth century were
intimately enrolled with other agendas: policy interventions
in the modern welfare state, the emergence of development
economics as a discipline, and policy interventions in newly
decolonized states (Speich 2011). Merry and Wood suggest
that locally produced indicators may form a kind of counter-
knowledge in relation to the panoramas underwritten by
global abstractions, one that reopens black boxes that were
previously sealed. They may be right, although it is too soon
to tell, as they acknowledge.
Because the article grapples with an emerging phenome-
non (human rights indicators), it remains tentative about the
possible effects of quantication and measurement. The au-
thors note that in Tanzanias reports to the CRC, little use
was made of this laboriously constructed data. But human
rights indicators have also become enrolled in other am-
bitious efforts at constructing global abstractions, such as
quantications of state fragility and governance (Bhuta 2012,
2015) in order to better compare, diagnose, and intervene in
political disorders in developing states. Merry and Woods
work may in the future help us defuse and disassemble this
towering edice of black boxes.
Mark Goodale
Laboratoire danthropologie culturelle et sociale, Institut des
sciences sociales, Université de Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne,
Switzerland ( 6 X 14
For better or worse, we live in the Age of Indices. As scholars
have told us, social life becomes transformed through the
fraught processes of measurement; the results then justify
their own production; and then, as Giddens might have put
it, these results not only structurate the institutions (local,
national, global) that demand them, but as Merry and Wood
argue, they also come to partly dene the boundaries of so-
cial and institutional reality itself, since what is not measured
is not, ipso facto, measurable, and what is not measurable
does not, in important ways, exist.
In fact, Merry and Woods article reveals a double-layered
ontological process at work. As they show, through their eth-
nographic and theoretical analysis of a human rights indi-
cators regime that affected Tanzania in particular ways, it is
not simply the problem of quantication that is implicated
herethat is, the processes through which international and
transnational elites within global North institutions demand
the production of indicators as a result of what we can only
imagine is the absolutely earnest desire to convert general
human rights strategies and norms into real practices on the
ground that shape real social, political, and economic change
with lasting and progressive consequences.
Rather, it is also, perhaps more troublingly, the problem
of what might be called trans-categorizingthat is at stake.
Here, once the complicated meanings of childhood, child
well-being, and, in some ways, the performance of kinship
itself, have been winnowed and sifted, translated into the
languages of international measurement, and collated into
documentary and institutional forms that canand, in most
cases, mustbe circulated, another, somewhat distinct, pro-
cess of translation and transformation takes place. This is
what Merry and Wood describe as commensurationthe
forging of new categories for comparison that are created
through yet additional levels of simplication and decon-
textualization,as they aptly put it. So we have both vertical
and horizontal axes along which the arguably incommen-
surate is shorn of its thickness and depth, bundled together
with other, equally shallow, incommensurate extractions, and
then sent along its way to become commensurable (not com-
mensurate) fodder in an international market in so-called
data, to be consumed hungrily by Northern elites (and their
Southern counterparts and collaboratorssee Merry 2006)
as necessary sustenance for their bureaucratic existence.
Merry and Wood Translating Childrens Rights in Tanzania 219
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But what, we might ask, does any of this have to do with
changing for the better the life conditions of children in Tan-
zania? As Merry and Wood suggest, the farther along both
of these vertical and horizontal axes the translated data-as-
indicators of social life must travel, the less likely it is these
indicators will be capable of eventually grounding actual pro-
cesses of progressive change for Tanzanian children as con-
templated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This
is another implication of what Merry and Wood call the
paradox of measurement: the more indicator culture
(Merry 2015) comes to dominate and dene the parame-
ters of bureaucratic action within the major institutions that
are charged with creating and implementing social policies
(whether international, regional, or national), the less likely
it is that these policies will fulll their objectives. And since
many of the most vulnerable countries cannot afford to opt
out of the global indicator culture, this means that the pos-
sibilities for real change (at least driven by the national level)
are becoming more circumscribed as they are by denition
becoming more remote from their initial referents, as we
might say.
Given the hegemony and indeed disciplinary pervasive-
ness of indicator culture, it is not surprising that Merry and
Wood hesitate to suggest clear alternatives, or at least ones
that would have any purchase with the relevant actors. The
authors do allude to the possibility that the structural prob-
lems with the process of commensuration might be over-
come with greater attention to the implications of transla-
tion (perhaps guided by their article and current and future
work in the same line) and the linkages between measurement
and social life thereby tightened. They even seemperhaps
ironicallyto slip into a bit of indicator culture themselves
when explaining why Tanzania was an odd choice for the
indicators pilot study: the vast majority of children live in
households subsisting on less than $2 a day, and face nu-
merous problems with health, education, and poverty.One
imagines that the UNICEF study that is the basis for this
comparison was anchored in indicators in all their troubling
and reductive glory. But how does one make a general com-
parison about Tanzania (i.e., comparative with other coun-
tries, whether in Africa or elsewhere) without the direct or
indirect use of indicators? This is perhaps a nal implication
of Merry and Woods important intervention: that the lan-
guage of indicator culture has become a lingua franca that one
can reveal, critique, and bracket, but not avoid entirely.
Dorothy L. Hodgson
Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, 131 George
Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901-1414, U.S.A. (dhodgson 7 VIII 14
Sally Engle Merry and Summer Wood have written a smart,
thoughtful article on the challenges confronting policy mak-
ers who seek to develop quantitative indicators to monitor
compliance in human rights. Drawing on a case study of
a pilot test of indicators of childrens rights in Tanzania,
they examine ve different types of translation problems en-
countered in such efforts: quantitative, conceptual, linguis-
tic, cultural, and structural. A key contribution of the article
is the naming and discussion of these types of translation,
which will be useful for scholars, policy makers, and activists
working on (or challenging) the development and deploy-
ment of human rights indicators elsewhere in the world.
Despite its analytic usefulness, however, the concept of
translationhas its limits, especially in the ways that the
seemingly neutral term masks the play of power in pro-
ducing these problems.The authors and, more poignantly,
their interlocutors, mention some of these dynamics in the
text, but these relations of power are not explicitly engaged
in the analysis or reected in the term translation.Given
the limits of space, I will briey discuss three instances where
I believe more explicit attention to how power shapes and
is produced through the process of translationwould be
theoretically worthwhile. My purpose is to encourage the
authors to rethink their use of translationto capture the
challenges they document and to highlight and underline
what is at stake for the kinds of people I work with in Tan-
zaniapoor, rural, semiliterate men and womenwhen the
complexities of their lives are translatedinto measurable
units to be counted, compared, and, ultimately, criticized.
First, as the authors discuss, the effort to develop indica-
tors is taking place in a world of continuing inequities of
economic resources, political power, and social capital be-
tween the global North and the global South. Such in-
equalities are present in the very origins of the project. The
desire for indicators emanates from experts in the global
North seeking easier methods to measure and compare com-
pliance with human rights protocols. Indicators are in no
way a priority of the people in Tanzania they are trying to
measure,many of whom are struggling to feed their fami-
lies and care for their children on an average of $2 a day. Nor
are they a priority of the educated professionals working
for NGOs and government ministries, who try to do their jobs
despite the challenges of rolling electricity blackouts, low
pay, bad roads, and bureaucratic thickets. The stark divide
between the goals and resources of the data expertsand
the data collectors(much less the data collectors and the
rural and urban poor), and the echoes with long colonial
histories of extraction and exploitation, are captured in the
moving comments of one Tanzanian NGO worker: We are
like farmers. We grow the data, we harvest it for you out in
the country, we bring it here to market in Dar es Salaam, and
then you report the data, you take it to Geneva and you make
it into indicators.
Second, the very purpose of the project, to create numbers
to simplifyand decontextualizethe measurement of pov-
erty and thus to streamline the process of monitoring com-
pliance with human rights treatiesis an assertion that the
220 Current Anthropology Volume 56, Number 2, April 2015
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