Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach Richard T. Griffiths

Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach Richard T. Griffiths Quantifiable targets and aggregate performance indices have proliferated in the policy world in the past decades, propelled by increasingly more sophisticated statistical techniques and analytical tools. Within fields such as international political economy and international development, such metrics have become essential tools for assessing, monitoring and comparing economic as well as social and political progress across countries—influencing what Merry (2016) has called an ‘indicator culture’. However, as Richard Griffiths remarks in his new compelling and accessible textbook, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’ (p. xx). In Configuring the World, Griffiths critically surveys scholarly debates about various themes in international political economy and development and seeks to illuminate the issues that arise from attempting to translate abstract and normative ideas into quantifiable metrics. In dissecting population count and gross domestic product (GDP) figures or complex aggregate indices such as the Human Development Index (HDI), the author’s objective is not to repudiate the exercise of quantification entirely but rather to encourage greater skepticism of numbers that have become commonplace in policy-making and analysis. In this vein, the book emphasizes two core messages. The first is that the quality of statistical data cannot be taken for granted and varies widely across countries. Quality suffers not only from data collection constraints, particularly in less developed countries, but also from biases in the construction of different measures. These limitations hamper our ability to derive conclusions or infer causal relationships. The second message is that scrutinizing different metrics and deconstructing them help us understand how they inform—or, in Griffiths’ own terminology, ‘configure’—policies. He argues that such an exercise is essential for enabling us to envision new ways of reassembling or conceptualizing constitutive components with the goal of changing—or ‘reconfiguring’—the world. The organization of the textbook follows a didactic structure. The introduction and the first chapter offer the rationale for the book and provide an abbreviated historical overview of the evolution of international political economy and the pursuit of quantification within the field. This review focuses primarily on divides between American and British schools of thought—the former leading the charge for greater formalization and quantification; the latter pursuing more critical and interdisciplinary forms of analysis. This section is helpful for charting some of the debates that have shaped the field. However, in the spirit of ‘reconfiguring’ how international political economy has generally been taught and presented, the discussion would have benefited from including critiques emerging from scholars and practitioners in the global South, which have helped challenge Western-centric or Northern-centric perspectives on political economy and development. The focus on western debates reflects the center–periphery dynamic on knowledge production that continues to treat the South as a source of data, not theories (Connell, 2013). The subsequent 10 chapters are each organized around core themes such as poverty, trust, governance, aid and globalization. In each chapter, Griffiths explores the conceptual origins and historical relevance of the topic, reviews existing arguments and evidence about it, and discusses measurement and reliability problems associated with attempts at quantification. The author also uses a geographically and temporally diverse selection of case studies—included at the end of the chapters—to illustrate issues raised in the analysis of each theme. Chapters two and three—which focus on population and national income, respectively—are more descriptive but accomplish the goal of explaining how basic measures of development are fraught with errors, which are difficult to compare across time and across countries. This groundwork is necessary since much of development practice and theory relies on these deceptively simple numbers. The following thematic chapters build on this initial analysis and offer more insightful discussions of conceptual and normative issues. For example, how should we define poverty? What is good governance and is it necessary for growth? These chapters also tend to be more narrowly focused on the discussion of specific metrics such as the World Bank Governance Indicators and the HDI, which allows the author to explore in more detail the advantages and shortcomings of each. For example, Griffiths notes that while the HDI emerged as an alternative metric of development that incorporates health, knowledge and living standards—thus going beyond economic output as a single measure of success—it has been criticized for disregarding qualitative differences in education and health, and for establishing arbitrary cut-off points to determine a country’s level of human development. A book that attempts to cover such breadth of themes is likely to sacrifice some level of analytical and theoretical depth. In various chapters, the discussion could have been further enhanced through a more comprehensive and systematic engagement with the literatures on each theme as opposed to focusing on select contributions. For example, the author’s discussion of income and wealth inequality in Chapter six relies primarily on the recent work of Piketty (2014) and would have benefited from a broader review of debates on the topic. In particular, given the book’s aim to be didactic, it would have been helpful to offer more references within chapters that readers could use for further research if interested. Furthermore, the book’s argument that quantifiable metrics help configure the world we live in could have been strengthened through the addition of more grounded accounts of how such metrics shape projects and policies in practice. While one obvious function of these measures is to guide the allocation of resources by donors or international organizations, what value they hold for policy implementers on the ground is often less clear. Nonetheless, Griffiths succeeds in instigating readers—or reminding them—to not only question their faith in numbers but also to consider more carefully the underlying values that shape policy analysis and policy-making. The central motif in the book—that how metrics are constructed affect the answers we obtain—is one that cannot be echoed enough. In this sense, the book contributes to a growing body of works that critically investigate the meanings and roles of quantification in international political economy and development (Lampland and Star, 2009; Fukuda-Parr et al., 2014; Merry, 2016). Ultimately, the book also touches on larger epistemological and methodological questions in the social sciences regarding what kinds of knowledge are valuable and why, as well as what methods are most appropriate for producing knowledge that can inform meaningful action to improve society. The book’s accessible language and instructional organization—which includes a website and an online course component—will prove particularly insightful for beginning students of international development and international political economy. References Connell R. ( 2013 ) Using southern theory: decolonizing social thought in theory, research and application . Planning Theory , 13 : 210 – 223 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Fukuda-Parr S. , Yamin A. E. , Greenstein J. ( 2014 ) The power of numbers: a critical review of MDG targets for human development and human rights . Journal of Human Development and Capabilities , 15 : 105 – 117 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Lampland M. , Star S. L. (eds) ( 2009 ) Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life . Ithaca : Cornell University Press . Merry S. E. ( 2016 ) The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking . Chicago : The University of Chicago Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Piketty T. ( 2014 ) Capital in the Twenty-First Century . Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Economic Geography Oxford University Press

Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach Richard T. Griffiths

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
1468-2702
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Abstract

Quantifiable targets and aggregate performance indices have proliferated in the policy world in the past decades, propelled by increasingly more sophisticated statistical techniques and analytical tools. Within fields such as international political economy and international development, such metrics have become essential tools for assessing, monitoring and comparing economic as well as social and political progress across countries—influencing what Merry (2016) has called an ‘indicator culture’. However, as Richard Griffiths remarks in his new compelling and accessible textbook, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’ (p. xx). In Configuring the World, Griffiths critically surveys scholarly debates about various themes in international political economy and development and seeks to illuminate the issues that arise from attempting to translate abstract and normative ideas into quantifiable metrics. In dissecting population count and gross domestic product (GDP) figures or complex aggregate indices such as the Human Development Index (HDI), the author’s objective is not to repudiate the exercise of quantification entirely but rather to encourage greater skepticism of numbers that have become commonplace in policy-making and analysis. In this vein, the book emphasizes two core messages. The first is that the quality of statistical data cannot be taken for granted and varies widely across countries. Quality suffers not only from data collection constraints, particularly in less developed countries, but also from biases in the construction of different measures. These limitations hamper our ability to derive conclusions or infer causal relationships. The second message is that scrutinizing different metrics and deconstructing them help us understand how they inform—or, in Griffiths’ own terminology, ‘configure’—policies. He argues that such an exercise is essential for enabling us to envision new ways of reassembling or conceptualizing constitutive components with the goal of changing—or ‘reconfiguring’—the world. The organization of the textbook follows a didactic structure. The introduction and the first chapter offer the rationale for the book and provide an abbreviated historical overview of the evolution of international political economy and the pursuit of quantification within the field. This review focuses primarily on divides between American and British schools of thought—the former leading the charge for greater formalization and quantification; the latter pursuing more critical and interdisciplinary forms of analysis. This section is helpful for charting some of the debates that have shaped the field. However, in the spirit of ‘reconfiguring’ how international political economy has generally been taught and presented, the discussion would have benefited from including critiques emerging from scholars and practitioners in the global South, which have helped challenge Western-centric or Northern-centric perspectives on political economy and development. The focus on western debates reflects the center–periphery dynamic on knowledge production that continues to treat the South as a source of data, not theories (Connell, 2013). The subsequent 10 chapters are each organized around core themes such as poverty, trust, governance, aid and globalization. In each chapter, Griffiths explores the conceptual origins and historical relevance of the topic, reviews existing arguments and evidence about it, and discusses measurement and reliability problems associated with attempts at quantification. The author also uses a geographically and temporally diverse selection of case studies—included at the end of the chapters—to illustrate issues raised in the analysis of each theme. Chapters two and three—which focus on population and national income, respectively—are more descriptive but accomplish the goal of explaining how basic measures of development are fraught with errors, which are difficult to compare across time and across countries. This groundwork is necessary since much of development practice and theory relies on these deceptively simple numbers. The following thematic chapters build on this initial analysis and offer more insightful discussions of conceptual and normative issues. For example, how should we define poverty? What is good governance and is it necessary for growth? These chapters also tend to be more narrowly focused on the discussion of specific metrics such as the World Bank Governance Indicators and the HDI, which allows the author to explore in more detail the advantages and shortcomings of each. For example, Griffiths notes that while the HDI emerged as an alternative metric of development that incorporates health, knowledge and living standards—thus going beyond economic output as a single measure of success—it has been criticized for disregarding qualitative differences in education and health, and for establishing arbitrary cut-off points to determine a country’s level of human development. A book that attempts to cover such breadth of themes is likely to sacrifice some level of analytical and theoretical depth. In various chapters, the discussion could have been further enhanced through a more comprehensive and systematic engagement with the literatures on each theme as opposed to focusing on select contributions. For example, the author’s discussion of income and wealth inequality in Chapter six relies primarily on the recent work of Piketty (2014) and would have benefited from a broader review of debates on the topic. In particular, given the book’s aim to be didactic, it would have been helpful to offer more references within chapters that readers could use for further research if interested. Furthermore, the book’s argument that quantifiable metrics help configure the world we live in could have been strengthened through the addition of more grounded accounts of how such metrics shape projects and policies in practice. While one obvious function of these measures is to guide the allocation of resources by donors or international organizations, what value they hold for policy implementers on the ground is often less clear. Nonetheless, Griffiths succeeds in instigating readers—or reminding them—to not only question their faith in numbers but also to consider more carefully the underlying values that shape policy analysis and policy-making. The central motif in the book—that how metrics are constructed affect the answers we obtain—is one that cannot be echoed enough. In this sense, the book contributes to a growing body of works that critically investigate the meanings and roles of quantification in international political economy and development (Lampland and Star, 2009; Fukuda-Parr et al., 2014; Merry, 2016). Ultimately, the book also touches on larger epistemological and methodological questions in the social sciences regarding what kinds of knowledge are valuable and why, as well as what methods are most appropriate for producing knowledge that can inform meaningful action to improve society. The book’s accessible language and instructional organization—which includes a website and an online course component—will prove particularly insightful for beginning students of international development and international political economy. References Connell R. ( 2013 ) Using southern theory: decolonizing social thought in theory, research and application . Planning Theory , 13 : 210 – 223 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Fukuda-Parr S. , Yamin A. E. , Greenstein J. ( 2014 ) The power of numbers: a critical review of MDG targets for human development and human rights . Journal of Human Development and Capabilities , 15 : 105 – 117 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Lampland M. , Star S. L. (eds) ( 2009 ) Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life . Ithaca : Cornell University Press . Merry S. E. ( 2016 ) The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking . Chicago : The University of Chicago Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Piketty T. ( 2014 ) Capital in the Twenty-First Century . Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Journal of Economic GeographyOxford University Press

Published: Feb 14, 2018

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