Frak the "policy makers"

Two topics here:

  1. My ongoing frustration with the unreflexive defense of statistics-as-progressive-action, and
  2. More on asylum

Now let me get one thing straight here, before I begin. I like numbers. I think some things should be counted. I think numbers can be valuable as a tool in bringing about change. I use numbers all throughout my writing. I have a bloody MA in demography from UC Berkeley.

However...people doing what they like to term "practical" or "applicable" research that acknowledges the "realpolitik" through statistics, like old-school applied anthropologists, themselves all too often become tools of the corporate development machine. Say that to a demographer, and they're quite likely to accuse you of being a fuzzy postmodernist "there is no truth" crystal-worshiping hippie. Mind you, this is not what happened to me to spark this tirade (this time), but I heard enough of it during my years as a lone anthropologist in demography asking silly questions like "should we really be calling China's one-child policy a 'success'?" and "Isn't it at least somewhat understandable that Japanese-Americans would be suspicious of census takers?"

Last night I was at a talk that I found uplifting, useful, and thought-provoking. I am delighted about the kinds of projects that my colleagues are carrying out, and hope to collaborate with them. I also believe this to be possible, despite our different theoretical frameworks. The problem was this- a colleague of mine brought up the valid point that everything being done on the topic, as they'd presented it, was survey-based, and that approach leaves out a vast body of theory. It was explained that the survey approach was not in fact representative, and that interdisciplinarity was welcomed. However, interdisciplinarity was defined as having anthropologists collaborate on survey questions.

That's what annoyed me. Ethnography is not something you can fit into a box. A political economic analysis cannot be done via a survey. A survey can be a valuable tool within a political economic analysis, but that's different. Despite what my non-Marxist economist friends would like to believe, not everything can be quantified or even included in an open-ended question as "qualitative" data. By that time the analytical framework's already decided.

I mentioned, as a minor point, the difference as I saw it between collaborative survey construction and interdisciplinarity, before going into a more substantive question about another topic. Unfortunately, the whole question, which I tried to frame in a friendly, "I like numbers" way, apparently came off to the panelists as an attack on statistics. One after another of my friends and colleagues defensively argued that statistics were necessary and that they were trying to actually help people (as if political economy can't do that). The thing that frustrates me the most with this discourse is the use of "policy makers" to justify the hegemony of atheoretical statistical approaches. "If we really want to help people," the argument goes, "policy makers only listen to numbers and we have to speak their language."

It's a good argument, if you buy into the line of reasoning that

  1. the policy makers are the people who should be making policy
  2. policy makers are the only people who can make policy
  3. policy makers give a damn about what you have to say if it goes against their economic interests

Why do we cede so much of our power, and convince ourselves that it's not our business? There are so many ways to bring about positive change, aside from providing nuggets for these so-called policy makers to employ at their discretion, leaving their neoliberal paradigm utterly unchallenged, and even helping them to feel good about themselves in the process. Just an example from AUC staff: recently the administrative policy makers told them they'd have to work an extra hour at the new campus (in the form of an enforced lunch break, which they all currently skip to get the day over with more quickly). Given that for most of them, this would make their commute much more miserable than it already would be, there was massive opposition. Angry letter, signature drives, and the administration backed down. Who's the "policy maker" there?

In my pre-waking state this morning my mind was playing with metaphors. Using only statistics to appease policy makers (it told me), was like discovering after tremors that your skyscraper was built on top of a fault line, and then rather than tearing the whole thing down and building something short and retrofitted away from the fault line, collaborating with policy makers to repair the shattered windows on the 52nd floor.

If we have the power to identify the problem, why do we allow our solutions to not correspond?

I'll continue this post in a bit...
...actually, scratch that. I'm leaving this one here.