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Governing the world at a distance: the practice of global benchmarking

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2015

Abstract

Benchmarking practices have rapidly diffused throughout the globe in recent years. This can be traced to their popularity amongst non-state actors, such as civil society organisations and corporate actors, as well as states and international organisations (IOs). Benchmarks serve to both ‘neutralise’ and ‘universalise’ a range of overlapping normative values and agendas, including freedom of speech, democracy, human development, environmental protection, poverty alleviation, ‘modern’ statehood, and ‘free’ markets. The proliferation of global benchmarks in these key areas amounts to a comprehensive normative vision regarding what various types of transnational actors should look like, what they should value, and how they should behave. While individual benchmarks routinely differ in terms of scope and application, they all share a common foundation, with normative values and agendas being translated into numerical representations through simplification and extrapolation, commensuration, reification, and symbolic judgements. We argue that the power of benchmarks chiefly stems from their capacity to create the appearance of authoritative expertise on the basis of forms of quantification and numerical representation. This politics of numbers paves the way for the exercise of various forms of indirect power, or ‘governance at a distance’, for the purposes of either status quo legitimation or political reform.

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© 2015 British International Studies Association 

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Footnotes

*

We are grateful for financial support from GR:EEN, European Commission Project Number: 266809. Additional funding was provided through a Warwick International Partnership Award with the University of the Witwatersrand on ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’, the Global Research Priority in Global Governance, and the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. We are grateful for feedback on an earlier version of this article from participants at the ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’ Research Workshop, University of Warwick, 12–14 March 2014. We greatly appreciate additional comments on more recent drafts from an anonymous reviewer and from the RIS editors, as well as comments from Sarah Bush, Alexandra Homolar, Matthias Kranke, and Ryan Walter.

References

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