Morten Jerven Morten Jerven

A reading list for the data revolution

If you have sat through more than two conferences and workshops on the post-2015 development agenda or the Sustainable Development Goals (or tracked #SDGs or #data2015 on Twitter) you will be aware that there is a certain repetition of ideas. The same soundbites are recycled, and one report seemingly feeds off the other. I have compiled a list of  books that may help you think outside the box if you are writing and thinking about the ‘data revolution’ in development.

1. Statistics and the German State, 1900-1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge by J. Adam Tooze – they are talking about a ‘data revolution’, but when was the ‘statistics revolution’? Tooze takes us to the optimism in the German statistical office when they thought all could be counted and known, and how enthusiasm was curbed ever so slightly by the regime that appeared in the 1930s.
2. Trust in Numbers. The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life by Theodore M. Porter – ever wondered why we almost without question accept metrics such as inflation, total population when they are arbitrary, soft and sometimes manipulated? Well, objectivity is a social and political product. Equally good is The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning by Alain Desrosières.
3. How to Lie with Statistics by Darrel Huff – there are a number of books out there on how to spot how actors deliberately manipulate statistics, and use them as rhetorical devices. A large dose of skepticism is needed in these days to avoid getting carried away with all the fancy data visualizations.

4. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier – there are plenty of competing books on the world of big data. This is the best survey on the general issues in my mind. A bit celebratory, but with the other books on this list you will keep a healthy skeptical mind.
5. Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History by Simon Szreter & Keith Breckenridge – so you thought that states counted people because they want to know how they can help them? Think again. Excellent global historical survey of registration systems.
6. Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present by Keith Breckenridge – ever wondered why the most advanced country in registration and biometrics is South Africa?

7. Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 by Helen Tilley – so you thought that it was a new idea that an alliance of experts gathered in western cities decided that all we needed was to collect more data, and then we would solve their problems. Think again. A good companion to Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts.
8. The Economist’s Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank by Peter Griffiths – a bit nuts, but never boring, Griffiths describes the classic problem of the consultant that needs write a report on a critical problem, but facts and numbers are soft or missing entirely. Another classic in the genre is Tropical Gangsters and I also like Stolper’s Planning without Facts.
9. The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho by James Ferguson – the classic critique of the technocratic approach to economic development, and particularly good at showing how global categories and standards don’t match with the local situation. The classic statement was made by Polly Hill in her Development Economics on Trial: The Anthropological Case for a Prosecution.

If you want to know how economic statistics in some African countries are produced, and how they are disseminated by international organizations and how they are misused by analysts and research, look no further. Since the publication of Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It I have also published a more detailed study of what happened to to the economic growth evidence in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, 1965-1995. Even more recently, I edited volume on Measuring African Development: Past and Present, which I recommend highly, together with a special issue in the Journal of Development Studies on the African Statistical Tragedy (Ungated access here, and you can access the papers in the other volume here).

There is a rapidly emerging literature on the use of global indicators, see here for a list of the emerging literature on the power of indicators.


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