TEACHING THE 2016 AAA ANNUAL MEETING THEME: EVIDENCE, ACCIDENT, DISCOVERY
Have you considered linking your teaching with the 2016 Annual Meeting theme, Evidence, Accident, Discovery? This new blog series offers relevant teaching resources to instructors of undergraduate and graduate courses on methods, ethics and theory. While none of these modules pretends to offer an exhaustive bibliography of its topic, each will suggest readings and matching discussion topics relating to one aspect of the politics and ethics of evidence and discovery in anthropology. Think of it as a week’s course readings in a (virtual) box…
This week’s post comes from 2016’s Executive Program Committee Chair, Samuel Martinez.
INDEXES AND ICONS: Visual condensations of knowledge
Indexes and icons have migrated, from the world of market reporting and financial accounting, into the global governance domains of democratization and human rights. Anthropologists are asking what happens, socially and politically, when information of variable texture and uneven quality is lifted out of particular contexts and reduced and standardized into uniform, easily transferred and rapidly consumable rankings, symbols and mappings.
My own interest in the production of human rights indexes and icons was prompted by a very noncommittally worded email from a researcher in the Dominican Republic, asking if I would be surprised that her research into Dominican sugar production was revealing no evidence of forced labor. My answer was, “No, that is not a surprise at all. If it wasn’t for those two documentary films (The Price of Sugar and The Sugar Babies), we wouldn’t even be talking about this issue any longer.” But what really fired my interest was when the findings of the Dominican researchers were reversed by the U.S.-based firm that had subcontracted the research on contract with the U.S. Department of Labor. The final, published report said that several indicators of forced labor had been discovered, thus affirming the documentaries’ allegation of sugar slavery, which many in the Dominican Republic thought to be dead.
Reporting on how this happened, I found that the pivotal moment was the classification of Dominican sugar as a forced labor commodity in the inaugural 2009 edition of the US Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (USDoL’s List). USDoL’s List reports its classifications in the form of tables in which a check mark or the absence of a check mark denotes the presence or absence of child labor or forced labor in the production of a given commodity in a particular country. Grinding together source information of questionable relevance and quality, USDoL’s List produces a novel human rights information product, which, like fast food, enables quick and easy consumption and appeals to innate human cravings, in this case for binary certainty in information.
But that was only the start. Mimicking the order of late capitalist product innovation in reverse, the commoditization of human rights knowledge (when it is packaged like a commodity and marketed as such) goes before its actual commodification (when human rights knowledge is produced under contract and subject to intellectual property restrictions). Outsourcing rights research to specialist firms, which may then off-shore the work to Third World based investigators — as happened in the USDoL commissioned research on Dominican sugar — turns human rights investigation into a global commodity supply chain, at the far terminus of which the Third World knowledge workers may be denied use of the findings in publications of their own.
Anthropologists may as yet only be scraping the tip of an iceberg through the studies done to date of the production of global governance indexes, icons and indicators by U.S. and UN investigative and standards-setting bodies. These agencies’ fairly transparent workings may already be overtopped in terms of sheer quantity by the rights-related research being sponsored and conducted by private corporations and research subcontractors. And that public/private ratio will shrink further as Dodd-Frank and conflict minerals legislation add further to a demand for corporate accountability products first created by laws aiming to suppress child labor and human trafficking.
Valuable research publications are even so more numerous than the handful that I have selected here as a model for a course module on the topic of indexes and icons. Merry 2011 and Merry and Wood 2015 extend the terms of existing anthropological critique of human rights into the domain of indicators, pointing out the dilemma for human rights reporters, of losing both context and any grasp of source reliability in favor of an unprecedented ease of assimilating, sharing and comparing human rights information. The contributory volumes by Davis, Fisher, Kingsbury, and Merry 2012 and Merry, Davis, and Kinsbury 2015 present multidisciplinary overviews of the varied forms of global governance advanced through rankings and indicators. Warren 2010 subjects estimates of human trafficking and the ranking of countries in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report to critical scrutiny as a form of knowledge production in which political matters go into the public domain as technical concerns.
Readings: Kevin E. Davis, Angelina Fisher, Benedict Kingsbury, and Sally Engle Merry, eds., Governance by Indicators: Global Power through Quantification and Rankings. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012); Samuel Martínez, “From Commoditizing to Commodifying Human Rights: Research on Forced Labor in Dominican Sugar Production,” Humanity 6(3, 2015): 387-409; Sally Engle Merry, “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance,” Current Anthropology 52, Supplement 3 (2011): S8-S95; Sally Engle Merry, Kevin E. Davis, and Benedict Kingsbury, eds., The Quiet Power of Indicators: Measuring Governance, Corruption, and Rule of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015); Sally Engle Merry and Summer J. Wood, “The Paradox of Measurement: Child Rights in Tanzania,” Current Anthropology 56(2, 2015): 205-229; Kay B. Warren, “The illusiveness of counting ‘victims’ and the concreteness of ranking countries: Trafficking in persons from Colombia to Japan.” In Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict. Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill, eds., 110–126. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (2010).