Infrastructural regulation and the infrastructure of measurement

Date & time

1–2pm Thursday 15 March 2018


Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University


Professor Sally Engle Merry, New York University


For interstate visitors, we offer suggestions for accommodation near ANU.


Nicole Harman
Public lecture
Sally Merry

How does infrastructure shape global governance? I am addressing this large question through a focus on the infrastructure of measurement at the global level. This work is part of a project in collaboration with Benedict Kingsbury, Paul Mertenskoetter, Thomas Streinz and Nahuel Maisley in which we hope to establish a network of scholars working on the role of infrastructure in global governance. In this talk, I take the lens of infrastructure as a way of understanding global practices of measurement and their political implications.

As I have argued elsewhere, counting is a deeply political process despite its claims to rationality and objectivity (2016). The political dimensions include decisions about what to count and what to ignore, which variables to disaggregate by characteristics such as race and gender to reveal biases in behavior, and how much to spend on collecting and analyzing information. Decisions about which categories to use to measure complicated concepts such as race or access to justice have political implications. Whether surveys should assume that respondents can simply check a box identifying themselves as male or female without considering the range of gendered identities that individuals claim is also a political question. Should a state invest more resources in setting up torture documentation centers in poor neighborhoods or simply expect all torture victims to report to established centers whether or not the poor can and will get there? These and endless other questions reveal the extent to which measurement is inescapably political. Although those who measure social life seek to measure existing patterns, they end up creating the world they are measuring.

Given the inevitably political dimension of measurement, however, I want to understand its operation through another, but not unconnected lens: that of infrastructure. The infrastructure of measurement is, to a large extent, shaped by access to resources which in turn reflects political decisions. My argument is that seeing measurement as a kind of infrastructure helps to explain its stability over time and its resistance to contestation once it has been established. This is a phenomenon often described as path-dependency, but I will focus on the material basis for this pattern as well as the forms of expertise and bureaucratic management that create measurement and resist change. I described this tendency to continue in the same path as data inertia and expertise inertia in my book.

Here I will build on that analysis by showing how thinking about the infrastructure of measurement explains these forms of inertia. Infrastructure also explains to some extent what gets measured and what does not and therefore what becomes politically salient and what is ignored. Infrastructure includes resources, templates for questionnaires, the cost of training data collectors, digital resources for data collection and analysis, expertise in framing data collection and analysis, and bureaucracies for managing, analyzing, and disseminating data. Big data has opened up a new terrain of measurement infrastructure. Since quantification is increasingly fundamental to questions of governance and accountability, issues surrounding the production of quantitative knowledge have enormous significance for governance.


  • Sally Engle Merry »

    Sally Engle Merry is Silver Professor of Anthropology at New York University. She is also a Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law, and past president of the American Ethnological Society. Her recent books include Colonizing Hawai‘i (Princeton, 2000), Human Rights and Gender Violence (Chicago, 2006), Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective (Blackwell, 2009) and The Practice of Human Rights, (co-edited with Mark Goodale; Cambridge, 2007).

    Her most recent book, The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) examines indicators as a technology of knowledge used for human rights monitoring and global governance. She has co-edited two books on quantification, The Quiet Power of Indicators, with Kevin Davis and Benedict Kingsbury (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and A World of Indicators, with Richard Rottenburg, Song-Joon Park, and Johanna Mugler (Cambridge University Press 2015), 2015. She is the author or editor of sixteen books and special journal issues. She received the Hurst Prize for Colonizing Hawai‘i in 2002, the Kalven Prize for scholarly contributions to sociolegal scholarship in 2007, and the J.I. Staley Prize for Human Rights and Gender Violence in 2010. In 2013 she received an honorary degree from McGill School of Law and was the focus of an Author Colloquium at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZIF) at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. She was an Honorary Professor at Australian National University. 

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