The blog builds on research reported in the paper: Grek, S. (2020 under review) ‘Prophets, Saviours and Saints: Symbolic Governance and the Rise of a Transnational Metrological Field’, International Review of Education.
A version of the paper will be presented by Sotiria Grek at the CIES conference in Miami, March 2020.
Please email the author for more details.
The SDG4 has risen to become the global monitoring tool par excellence in the field of education governance. Following an analysis of the processes of the making of the SDG4, METRO has come to use the notion of symbolic governance as a way of conceptualizing the role of quantification in governing the transnational. By ‘symbolic’ here we mean the accumulation of a range of capitals of actors in the metrological field, but also all those other, perhaps more material manifestations of distinction and power, such as the use of evocative language, beautiful data, marathon sessions, and global South participants flown around the world. A significant source of evidence for this analysis came from documents but also actors’ own accounts, as they described ‘horizontal’ relations of cooperation, competition and conflict as they take place at that level of the transnational.
At the heart of this analysis are the paradoxes and the multiple ambivalences that quantification affords in the building of the transnational metrological field in education. On the one hand, these ambivalences are necessary for the construction of discursive coalitions of actors, who were not known to each other or have collaborated before. The indicator framework and all other subsets of numerical work create a linguistic market; some actors have the epistemic purchase to own and control most of this market, whilst many others are there –knowingly and willingly- to consume this lingua franca of numbers and transport it back home. Second, numbers’ underlying use as the new doxa of transnational governance, legitimates a whole series of informal and ad hoc arrangements, all accepted and all approved in the name of an education crisis and the need to construct as broad a consensus as possible.
Nonetheless, these processes are not smooth and linear. As the METRO empirical material shows, they involve antagonistic relationships of all the actors involved, and increasingly so, given the universal aspirations of the agenda and its claims to ‘democratise’ data monitoring for all the participant nations. Lack of resources creates enormous frustrations and limitations; in many ways, it necessitates the use of pre-existing and insufficient data. This creates pressures in the relationships of the major actors involved since they have to coordinate their work in a context not only of limited budget availability, but also under conditions of attacks to their expertise. How is one to make sense of how this complex infrastructure of transnational governance comes into being? In other words, in conditions of governance of a fluid and constantly shifting field, how is one to analytically explain how these multi-party, polycentric, transnational and often inter-cultural networks of governance function?
Although the non-existence of the ‘rules of the game’ in this field is often seen by literature as an ‘institutional void’ (Hajer 2003), where actors have to make up the rules and processes as they go along, the paper that this blog builds upon suggests that quantification is precisely the necessary underlay in the construction of a relatively stable metrological field where an emblematic issue, such as equal and quality education for all, brings actors together in an almost religious mission with strong moral undertones. Statistical knowledge in this instance, in the form of the specific targets and indicators constructed, although scarce, contested and sometimes absent altogether, still fulfils a key role in representing symbolically a much larger and complex political problem and unites actors in the quest for ‘solutions’. Numbers, therefore, function as a form of symbolic governance that brings together the particular national and organisational story-lines, the actors that employ them and the practices they apply to exert their influence in the metrological field.
Thus, quantification is key in the production of transnational governance, as it represents the unfolding ‘product and process’, constantly moving with that which it seeks to move. Instead of seeing the SDG4 as solely a process of depoliticisation of education through the imposition of a measurement agenda, the notion of ‘symbolic governance’ allows us to examine it as a process of re-politicisation of education problems by making them knowable and actionable according to the new quantitative symbolic order imposed. By using the notion of ‘symbolic governance’, this analysis has brought to the fore the ‘acts of performative magic’ (Bourdieu 2000; 243) that build this governing infrastructure, attending to the power play, ideas and values which infuse the everyday realities that its major architects inhabit. SDG4, as ‘product and process’, despite all its contestations and failings, shapes that which it classifies, measures and seeks to order; in that vein, it can already be seen as a success.
-Sotiria Grek, University of Edinburgh