Introductory remarks by Benedict Kingsbury.

Author:Kingsbury, Benedict

Indicators are increasingly important in global governance. They are one element of "governance by information," and one expression of the growing importance of numerically expressed data and statistics in governance. (1) What are indicators, and what do they have to do with international law? These brief introductory remarks address these two questions.


Indicators are not sharply different in nature and significance from other forms of quantification or other modes for simplifying and expressing data. Nonetheless, indicators have a cluster of features which, in aggregate, make special consideration of them useful. For purposes of inquiry into indicators as an important emerging technology in the practice of global governance, Davis, Kingsbury, and Merry define indicators in the following way:

An indicator is a named collection of rank-ordered data that purports to represent the past or projected performance of different units. The data are generated through a process that simplifies raw data about a complex social phenomenon. The data, in this simplified and processed form, are capable of being used to compare particular units of analysis (such as countries or institutions or corporations), synchronically or over time, and to evaluate their performance by reference to one or more standards. (2) This working definition subsumes indexes, rankings, and composites which aggregate different indicators, although such aggregations or "mash-up" compilations raise many special issues.


Indicators frequently operate as standards. Indicators typically embody (although usually only implicitly rather than explicitly) an ideal, either through an understanding of what would make a good society or a better state of affairs, or through an account of a particular problem to be overcome. Many indicators also embody a view of causation by measuring elements which contribute to realization of the ideal or to the worsening or amelioration of the problem. Indicators are distinctive in that (typically) the indicator simultaneously articulates the standard and applies it. The flow of costs and benefits as incentives to perform better on an indicator may often be greater than the flows attached to legally binding instruments.

Indicator-standards can have some of the same roles and features as legal standards:

(a) Indicators can operate as an expression of values and political commitments...

To continue reading