Panel on quantification

At the symposium “End or return of history. Changes in the world society since the end of the Cold War”, held for the 20th anniversary of the Institute of Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS), Sebastian Botzem and Natalia Besodovsky contributed to a panel on the politics of quantification. In his introductory remarks, Klaus Schlichte, professor for International Relations at the InIIS, pointed out that quantification today is a wide-spread phenomenon: The world is increasingly interpreted through numbers and numerical targets (e.g. the Sustainable Development Goals and the famous two-degree-target regarding climate change) shape political discourse. The panel was comprised of scholars from sociology and political science.20151211_104434Herbert Kalthoff, professor for Sociology at the University of Mainz, described the omnipresence of numbers as a dynamic of a “quantifying and calculating society”. Processes of calculation fix and stabilize knowledge. Nevertheless, the meaning of numerical representations is often contested among practitioners and therefore needs to be continuously (re)constructed. The simplicity of numbers, often assumed by social science research and in particular in the natural sciences, thus has to be questioned. Numbers, quantification and calculation therefore, have to be studied in specific empirical contexts.

Natalia Besedovsky stressed that not the use of numbers in politics is new but the outsourcing of their production from the state to private actors. This can be highly problematic as in the case of credit rating agencies where the methods used to produce ratings gradually shifted away from the regulatory purpose intended by state agencies. The calculative practices that produce certain numbers therefore are highly relevant since they determine the way in which the numbers can be used politically.

Sebastian Botzem argued that although numbers often appear to be depoliticized, quantification is always political as it justifies management and enables political control. Moreover, quantification is guided by specific normative and theoretical assumptions predetermining the scope of political action. He illustrated these observations with the case of European Public Sector Accounting Standards (EPSAS) that are currently introduced in order to harmonize budget management of public entities. Under EPSAS, markets (and market prices) become the central point of reference for political decision-making, limiting policies that are not in line with market logics.

Klaus Schlichte showed how quantification produces a representation of the world that becomes powerful in state bureaucracies. In the case of police work in Uganda, he showed how reported events are translated several times into written categories and numbers that inform policy-making and budgetary decisions. At the same time, budgeting and resource distribution cannot be understood by quantification alone as political loyalties and established practices play an important part in co-determining policy-making.

In the discussion it became clear that quantification is a relevant issue for political analysis and that more empirical research is needed to better understand quantification as a condition of bureaucratization on the one hand and effective governance of quantification as driver of marketization of politics on the other. After all, research and teaching can benefit from greater awareness of quantification at different political levels.