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Theoretical Approaches

A number of theoretical approaches have been suggested for the analysis of the broader, indirect roles of indicators. These include scholarship on governmentality (for example, Rydin 2007), 'government/management by numbers' (Lascoumes and Le Gales 2005; Hood 2007), and indicators as boundary objects capable of connecting science, policy and society (Turnhout et al. 2007; Star 2010; Sebastien et al. 2014). A primary criticism brought forward by these strands of literature is the tendency of indicators to 'depoliticize', that is, to reduce value conflicts and normative debates to supposedly neutral and commonly agreed numbers perceived as incontestable facts (Jany-Catrice 2010, p. 95). Urban studies (sociology, geography and urban planning) have called into question the presumed ability of indicators to foster socially desirable objectives, and highlighted the inseparability of indicator systems from the broader dynamics and trends in policymaking (for example, Hezri 2006, pp. 159-160; Rydin et al. 2003; also Rydin 2007).

Le Gales (2011) highlights the 'revolutionary' consequences from indicator systems, which engender behaviours that conform to the demands of market society. Zittoun (2006) hence refers to the processes of 'instrumentation', whereby indicators embody power, by virtue of their participation in the processes of problem formulation and the design of problem solutions (see also Lascoumes and Le Gales (2005, p. 12), who describe instrumentation of public policy as the whole of the problems generated by and involved in the choice and use of instruments - techniques, operational modes, policy instruments - that make it possible to materialize and operationalize government action). Through simplification, indicators make problems accessible to non-experts, while at the same time legitimizing the power of experts as the only ones capable of truly 'mastering the numbers'.

The distinction between rationalist-technocratic and constructivist-interpretive models of policymaking is arguably even more pronounced in the case of indicators than in, for instance, evaluation and assessment practice. This is due to the quantitative and presumably accurate nature of indicators on one hand, and their ambition towards policy relevance on the other (for example, Rametsteiner et al. 2011). Hence, indicators are expected to 'close down', enabling better management and control by providing robust, accurate, quantitative and unambiguous information for the purposes of political advocacy and day-to-day policymaking, but they are increasingly also seen as a means of 'opening up' via the highlighting of uncertainties, trade-offs and neglected issues in policymaking (for example, Stirling 2008; Rafols et al. 2012; see also Chapter 2, this volume). Such a 'challenge function' is inherent in alternative indicators of progress, for example. The 'science-driven' statisticians who often drive indicator development are typically reluctant to abandon what they consider a 'non-political', objective and science-based position (for example, Srebotnjak 2007), while the indicator users call for policy-relevant, rough-and-tumble indicators. At least implicitly, policy formulators often tend to adhere to a 'science-driven' and 'apolitical' perception of indicators (Rametsteiner et al. 2011), seeing the involvement of politics in indicator work as undesirable (for example, Lehtonen 2013), while the central role of statisticians in indicator development further accentuates the dominance of the rationalist - technocratic perspective.

 
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