Sally Engle Merry, "The Seduction of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking" (U Chicago Press, 2016)


Quantification is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when hearing or reading about the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR). Yet in the 21st century, a wide range of policy and advocacy agendas begin with numbers. Those numbers become indicators, composites, standards, and measurement tools, which then get adopted in advocacy rhetoric or policy practice. In The Seduction of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Sally Engle Merry combines ethnography, human rights, and science and technology studies to explore how people living in vulnerable situations across the globe are represented by the numbers designed to both name and support them. While numbers do not have agency, and cannot help or hurt on their own, Merry dedicates most of the book to untangling the politics and practice of developing standards and indicators, and interpreting the realities that come with "governance by numbers." The genealogy of these indicators and standards are given as much space as their application, as Merry describes their highly political origins and a process of their subtle acceptance as normalover time. With roots in colonial authority and population management, indicators have been developed and used for a range of purposes in governance: to manage people, resources, planning, dissent, and reputations among others. Merry explores indicators and indices from legal, anthropological, historical, and genealogical perspectives, describing a range of unexpected stewards from short-term United Nations consultants to U.S. State Department officials to computer algorithms. While the book focuses on the globalization of definitions, measurements, and management techniques, it simultaneously explores the widely varied phenomena of gender violence, human rights, and human trafficking. On a set of topics that have been broadly fetishized, the overlay of quantified assessments and accompanying responses to them raises many questions about voice, politics, and international policy-making among many other topics.

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Anna Levy

Anna Levy researches and teaches on emergency, crisis, and development practice & politics at Fordham & New York Universities. She is the founder and principal of, a research collective focused on advancing structural and participatory accountability in non-profit, movement, multilateral, city, and policy strategies. You can follow her @politicoyuntura.

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