The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago Series in Law and Society).

AuthorLuminais, Misty
PositionBook review

Merry, Sally Engle. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago Series in Law and Society). University of Chicago Press, 2016. 272 pages. Paperback, $25.00.

Sally Engle Merry, an anthropologist who studies law and governance, turns the critical perspective of her discipline on the process of quantification in the realms of knowledge generation. She delves behind the belief that numbers are objective measurements of truth, outside the realm of human bias. Using the genealogical method which was first employed by anthropologists to understand kinship and ego-based networks, Merry explores the microprocesses that go into the creation of indicators that supposedly measure commensurate phenomena as they are shaped by individual actors with their particular motivations and goals. The major argument of the book is that "those who create indicators aspire to measure the world but, in practice, create the world they are measuring" (p. 21). This "indicator culture" has important implications for governance, from local to global systems.

Using data collected over the span of years from meetings and interviews with U.N. members and U.S. and Indian officials, Merry offers an analysis of three different attempts to "measure the unmeasurable" in the form of the U.N.'s measurement of violence against women, the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights development of indicators of human rights. Each of these measurements stem from a theoretical perspective that contains within it the assumed solution to the problem being measured. For example, the measurement of violence against women was driven in part by statisticians who desired discreet, commensurable categories that resulted in a focus on interpersonal, dyadic violence in the form of individual perpetrators' specific acts. This flattens the cultural and historical context of the violence and ignores the systemic violence that women suffer. The expected remedy for violence is based in a criminal justice model with state protection of women and prosecution of abusers. However, by diving deeply into the process, Merry is also able to depict how, in this case, the theoretical and practical aspects of these indicators were contested. These theoretical perspectives are influenced by who is instrumental in creating the indicators. Merry draws attention to the fact that...

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