Quantification and the paradoxof measurement: Translating children’s rights in Tanzania

Sally Engle Merry, Summer Wood

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Enthusiasm for techniques of measuring and assessing performance in statistical and comparable ways is sweeping the field of human rights, as well as many other spheres of social life such as health, education, and global governance. But as global standards and measurement systems are applied to the complex array of local systems of governance, community, and social life around the world, the project of measurement faces the double challenges of commensuration and translation. Using a case study of the pilot test of a set of indicators developed to assess compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Tanzania, this article examines five types of translation involved in using human rights indicators: quantitative, conceptual, linguistic, cultural, and structural. These translations pose challenges to measuring phenomena not previously counted and understood as measurable within local communities. This is the paradox of measurement: to make something known it must be countable, but if it has not already been translated into commensurable and quantifiable terms, it is difficult to count and may remain unnoticed and uncounted. Issues uncounted in the past tend to remain ignored or poorly counted in the future. Insofar as decisions about what to count are under the control of governments and experts rather than local communities, this tendency to replicate existing subjects of counting tends to make visible issues that such groups consider important and neglect others that may have greater importance for local groups.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)205-229
    Number of pages25
    JournalCurrent Anthropology
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - 2015

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Archaeology
    • Anthropology
    • Archaeology


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