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The politics of numbers: the normative agendas of global benchmarking

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2015

Abstract

Global benchmarks have grown exponentially over the last two decades, having been both applied to and developed by states, international organisations, corporations, and non-governmental organisations. As a consequence, global benchmarking is now firmly established as a distinct mode of transnational governance. Benchmarking chiefly involves the development of comparative metrics of performance, which typically take the form of highly stylised comparisons which are generated by translating complex phenomena into numerical values via simplification and extrapolation, commensuration, reification, and symbolic judgements. This process of translation takes what might otherwise be highly contentious normative agendas and converts them into formats that gain credibility through rhetorical claims to neutral and technocratic assessment. This politics of numbers has far-reaching ramifications for transnational governance, including the dimensions and effects of indirect power, expertise and agenda-setting, coordination, regulation and certification, and norm contestation and activism. This Special Issue draws upon an emerging literature to explore how and why benchmarks both align with and expand upon established models of International Relations theory and scholarship. It does so by critically examining the role of global benchmarks in key areas such as state ‘failure’, global supply chains, disaster management, economic governance, corporate social responsibility, and human development.

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Copyright
© 2015 British International Studies Association 

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Footnotes

*

As editors of this Special Issue, we are grateful for feedback on earlier versions of all of the articles from participants at the ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’ Research Workshop, University of Warwick, 12–14 March 2014. We are also grateful for financial support from GR:EEN, European Commission Project Number: 266809, the Global Research Priority in Global Governance, the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and a Warwick International Partnership Award with the University of the Witwatersrand on ‘Benchmarking in Global Governance’.

References

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2 Guth, Andrew, Anderson, Robyn, Kinnard, Kasey, and Tran, Hang, ‘Proper methodology and methods of collecting and analyzing slavery data: an examination of the Global Slavery Index’, Social Inclusion, 2:4 (2014), pp. 1422CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Weitzer, Ronald, ‘Miscounting human trafficking and slavery’, openDemocracy, available at: {https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/ronald-weitzer/miscounting-human-trafficking-and-slavery}Google Scholar; Howard, Neil, ‘Keeping Count: The Trouble with the Global Slavery Index’, The Guardian (13 January 2014)Google Scholar, available at: {http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/jan/13/slavery-global-index-reports} accessed 29 July 2015.

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4 See, for example, Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko, ‘Millennium development Goal 8: Indicators for international human rights obligations?’, Human Rights Quarterly, 28:4 (2006), pp. 966967CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fougner, Tore, ‘Neoliberal governance of states: the role of competitiveness indexing and country benchmarking’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 37:2 (2008), pp. 303326CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Larmour, Peter, ‘Civilizing techniques: Transparency international and the spread of anti-corruption’, in Brett Bowden and Leonard Seabrooke (eds), Global Standards of Market Civilization (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 95106Google Scholar; Langbein, Laura and Knack, Stephen, ‘The worldwide governance indicators: Six, one, or none?’, Journal of Development Studies, 46:2 (2010), pp. 350370CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bhuta, Nehal, ‘Governmentalizing sovereignty: Indexes of state fragility and the calculability of political order’, in Kevin E. Davis, Angelina Fisher, Benedict Kingsbury, and Sally Engle Merry (eds), Governance by Indicators: Global Power through Quantification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 132162CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See Broome, André and Quirk, Joel, ‘Governing the world at a distance: the practice of global benchmarking’, Review of International Studies, 41:5 (2015), pp. 819841CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Fioramonti, Lorenzo, How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics (London: Zed Books, 2014), p. 192Google Scholar.

7 For a full explanation of these concepts, see Broome and Quirk, ‘Governing the world at a distance’.

8 Andreas, Peter and Greenhill, Kelly M., ‘Introduction: the politics of numbers’, in Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill (eds), Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 17Google Scholar; see also Broome, André and Seabrooke, Leonard, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’, New Political Economy, 17:1 (2012), pp. 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See Seabrooke, Leonard, ‘Epistemic arbitrage: Transnational professional knowledge in action’, Journal of Professions and Organizations, 1:1 (2014), pp. 4964CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sending, Ole Jacob, The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See Suzuki, Shogo, Civilization and Empire: China and Japan’s Encounter with European International Society (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)Google Scholar.

11 See Broome and Seabrooke, ‘Seeing like an international organisation’.

12 Using this typology, we have compiled a Global Benchmarking Database consisting of 205 benchmarks (as of June 2015), which is available at: {www.warwick.ac.uk/globalbenchmarking/database}.

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