Sally Merry to Speak at the Human Rights Initiative Lecture Series, University of Michigan
February 26, 2016

Human Rights Initiative is a forum for intellectual exchange established to promote deeper understanding of human rights issues in the contemporary world among scholars, practitioners, students, and the broader public. Renowned practitioners and scholars are invited to share their insight and expertise on human rights gained through their experiences and research. With support from the  International Institute at the University of Michigan, the forum offers several events each year featuring prominent speakers in the field of human rights.

Professor Merry will give a lecture on “The Seductions of Quantification: Governing through Human Rights Indicators” at the Human Rights Initiative on March 28, 2016.

About the Lecture

As governance increasingly relies on evidence-based approaches, the importance of measurement grows. Evidence-based governance depends on the availability of numbers to assess the size, scope, and nature of an issue. Numbers are necessary even to bring an issue to the attention of governments.     Issues that are measured become politically visible while those that are not tend to disappear.  Of course, politics determines what gets counted. What seems politically important to a person or organization that has the power and resources to count it ends up being what is counted. Measurement makes issues visible: it moves them from the domain of the everyday and natural to that of the visible and publicly recognizable. Once countable, the concept is more publicly recognizable and more amenable to governance and public concern. When such a process is successful, it raises unnoticed parts of social life to public attention and renders them visible and open to reform.  It enables comparisons among the relative happiness of cities, for example, or the quality of universities. However, bringing uncounted domains of social life into the sphere of the measured requires substantial effort and resources. The measurement process requires investments in conceptual development, data gathering, pilot testing, and dissemination of results. Once this process is finished, however, the numbers often have a significant impact on governance.

This talk explores the role of measurement in promoting compliance with human rights treaties. It examines an effort by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to create a set of indicators for twelve human rights and shows how this process redefined human rights in a developmental framework. A project initiated to increase compliance with human rights became one designed to make law understandable to development economists, producing a development-based human rights system with differing logics and approaches than those of a more legally-based human rights system. As human rights norms were translated into quantifiable measures, they were not only redefined but also incorporated into a developmental theory of social change.

More information on the lecture can be found here.

About Professor Merry

Merry_SallySally Merry is one of the CHRGJ Faculty Directors, Professor of Anthropology, former director of the Law and Society Program, and an affiliated faculty member of the NYU School of Law. Her research on human rights examines the process by which human rights ideas are interpreted in vernacular terms that are relevant to everyday life in communities around the world. Her specialty is the anthropology of law, and she has done research on courts and disputing in the USA, on law and American colonialism in Hawai’i, on gender violence and human rights, and on the role of new information technologies for human rights monitoring. She is the author of five books and editor of three, as well as the author of over one hundred articles and reviews.

Professor Merry’s profile can be seen here.


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