Blog by Stephane J. Baele, Thierry Balzacq, Philippe Bourbeau.
“The political world, just like the physical world, in many respects may be regulated by weights, number and measure” (Diderot 1751).
Political speeches, official reports, tweets and other outputs are filled with numbers. Even the propaganda produced by the so-called Islamic State contains stats-based infographics. Numbers – be it statistics, graph representations, straightforward quantifications, or else – have become ubiquitous in today’s political life, from UN reports to the Brexit debates. In other words, they now seem to be “today’s preeminent public language – and those who speak it rule” (Blastland & Dilnot 2009).
This rise of numbers in politics has been well documented by scholars such as Ian Hacking or Alain Desrosieres, inspired by Foucault’s seminal study of the concomitant development of statistics and the modern administrative state. More recently, colleagues have highlighted the importance of numbers at the international level, and identified the various effects that numbers produce when introduced in international politics and governance (see for example Salter 2008; Hansen & Porter 2012; or the Review of International Studies 2015 special issue on The Politics of Numbers).
Our paper investigates what’s left in between these two important fields of investigation: acknowledging both the origins and effects of numbers in politics, we explain how numbers actually work – that is, we conceptualize the mechanisms through which they tend to produce their effects. In other words, we open the black box of numbers, which has so far essentially been left sealed, largely on the deterministic assumption that numbers always somehow disclose their magic in the same way. Yet by concentrating on the realm of international security, we show that the working dynamics of numbers are complex, with multiple factors potentially producing sometimes completely diverging effects. Put differently, we detail the conditions under which numbers are powerful – or in some cases useless. And while our argument can be usefully applied to other fields, we focus on security governance.
Our framework integrates what we claim are the three major dynamics accounting for the power of numbers: persuasion, standardization, and politicization. Our claim is that numbers do not inherently produce specific effects, but rather become powerful through the interplay of these three political mechanisms.
When unpacking the working dynamics of numbers in security governance, persuasion comes first. Mobilizing numbers, political actors try to persuade their audience that an issue constitutes an important security problem: global drug trade experiences an increase of W%, HIV/AIDS has killed X million people over the past year, ISIS has been able to attract Y thousand European fighters, Y hundred thousand refugees are said to endanger Europe, etc. Numbers impress, reveal the amplitude of a problem. They heighten the scary nature of different phenomena. Yet we claim that the persuasive power of numbers should not be understood as an intrinsic, unambiguous feature, but rather as a socially-determined element that further strengthens already existing dynamics of political legitimacy, perceptions and attitudes, each already shaped by language and practices. We explain that not everyone has the legitimacy to use securitizing numbers effectively, and that not all numbers are equally capable of substantiating arguments in a convincing way. The literacy and political affiliation of the audience also matters: not everyone is equally impressed by numbers-dropping. In brief, numbers only seem to increase persuasion in specific circumstances, but when the conditions are right, they reinforce both the substantiation of arguments and the legitimacy of the source, who can thereby strengthen its position and agenda vis-à-vis rival actors.
Politicization is intrinsically linked to persuasion: through persuasion, numbers facilitate the process of putting an issue within the realm of argumentative politics. For a prominent political actor, publicly raising a strong quantitative argument on a previously low-saliency issue could indeed give this issue significant visibility in the agenda. The advantage of numbers is that they simultaneously politicize and offer seemingly value-neutral, a-political solutions – which of course fit the agenda of the actor who provides them. However, as soon as numbers bring an issue to argumentative politics, other actors may contest them, either by distorting them or by producing rival numbers, triggering “numbers wars” that can derail the depoliticization attempt and potentially blocking any progress.
Finally, numbers are privileged vectors of standardization: once a political actor has instrumentalised numbers with the goal of establishing a particular dynamic of persuasion and politicization, they can capitalize further on those numbers by setting standards to create a pattern of non-coercive behavioural constraints. Indeed standardization through numbers considerably reduces the modalities and potentialities of organized resistance to the security agenda underpinning the numbers. Distinguishing between design standards, terminological standards, performance standards and practice standards, we show how specific behaviours and discourses are made almost compulsory/impossible as soon as standardization enters the game. Once numbers have been instrumentalized to persuade, to politicize (and potentially depoliticize), and to standardize a given issue, it becomes strenuous to revisit and dislodge them, apart from promoting alternative measurements.
To summarize: by identifying the intricate paths that a numbered argument/claim can take in global security, we demonstrate that it is neither accurate nor productive to understand the consequences of numbers on security governance as reducible to one particular mechanism. Rather, our argument is that to examine the role of numbers in security governance is to conduct an analysis in the plural: there is a plurality of interdependent mechanisms in play, each bringing in its train a diversity of heterogeneous conditions, articulated in multiple fashions. Rather than possessing some sort of inherent power, numbers become vectors of power when articulated to dynamics of persuasion, politicization and standardization, and that their impact is neither unambiguous nor direct. As such, our study of the working dynamics of numbers in security governance is not deterministic: it rather showed how numbers have become a potentially powerful political instrument whose long “life cycle” is a site of contention that needs to be managed through very specific tactics. As such, numbers have really become the “stuff” of politics, as the many cases used in our paper to illustrate our argument clearly demonstrate.
Blastland M., Dilnot A. (2009) The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life. London: Penguin.
Hacking I. (1982) “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers”, Humanities in Society 5 (3-4).
Hansen H., Porter T. (2012) “What Do Numbers Do in Transnational Governance?”, International Political Sociology 6.
Rose N. (1991) “Governing by Numbers: Figuring out Democracy”, Accounting, Organisation & Society, 16.
Salter M. (2008) “Imagining Numbers: Risk, Quantification, and Aviation Security”, Security Dialogue 39 (2-3).