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Christine Cassar's picture

Indicators seem to be the talk of the (global) village—development indicators, urbanization indicators, health indicators, indicators of wealth and status, or of racism and equality… Yet are they really worth all this euphoria?

Being from the world of the social sciences, I would perhaps be better off defending these tools and conceptual frameworks and their benefits as the invaluable contribution that social science gives to the world (with an underlying message of “my trade and I are important”); yet as flattering as this argument may be, some forgotten issues must be mentioned…


- Are politically negotiated
Just as human rights took years to come by, because of normative and substantive variations in ideas and principle, indicators are most often negotiated

- Are discourse-driven and subjective—someone is making the cut
Similar to political negotiation, a human being (usually a highly trained and experienced one) is drawing methodological boundaries to study any phenomenon

- Have the unfortunate ability of hiding the daily lives of people behind figures
As with numbers in general, indicators seem to provide the essential safety latch of enumeration to otherwise emotional and personal stories and experience

The bottom line is that indicators are just that—an indication. There is no doubt that they are useful in many circumstances and this should not be discounted. The problem is their over-objectification, in scope and appearance.

To move away from this rather negative aspect, one is inclined to ask, what would be required to enhance the benefits of indicators?

I would suggest that the creation of indicators be detached as much as possible from political processes, and for socio-cultural embedding (especially in the case of international comparative indicators); moreover, a constant review of their contents, diction, inclusiveness and spectrum is required. Indicators should not be handed down, but be democratically constituted through inclusive processes, using a bottom-up understanding of issues; moreover, they should not be overused, for their enumeration, although useful, may prove to be misleading.

Without these processes, if sufficiently tortured, the numbers would confess to anything!