Sustainable Development Indicators: The Tyranny of Methodology Revisited


One of the Rich Pictures which Emerged from the Slovakian Workshop on Sustainable Development Simon Bell

One of the Rich Pictures which Emerged from the Slovakian Workshop on Sustainable Development.

Indicators are increasingly dominating our lives; whether we are aware of it or not. They have been popular tools for sustainable development policy makers, planners and managers, largely because they do the hard work of condensing complexity into single values that can be more easily digested and acted upon. But much power rests with those who select the indicators deemed to be important. This paper explores some of these issues at what is now regarded by some as the new frontier in “indicatorology‟; their use and influence. The authors argue that a new tyranny of methodology may be at play.

Background: Tyranny from 1994-2010

The raison d‟etre for this article is to return to a paper from 1994 and explore our current state with regards to what was then described as a “Tyranny of Methodology‟ and which has been referred to variously in the journal Public Administration and Development and elsewhere as tyrannic approaches. The 1994 paper (Bell, 1994) observed that, in much the same way as conventional Empires are often experienced as tyrannical, projecting dominant mindsets and approaches onto subjugated (powerless) populations, so the products of western intellectualism can also be seen in terms of tyranny, oppressing local population and enforcing subtle forms of domination. Other journals have recently explored a similar area – that of multiple knowledge and the potential role for certain forms of technocratic dominance in development discourses. Ironically, forms of intended or unintended dominance are seen as being evident even for methods which are regarded by their proponents as “participatory‟ – and intended to be “liberating‟ and “empowering‟ for peoples of the developing world.

A key element of the 1994 paper was contained in the definition of the tyranny of methodology:

“ tyranny – ‘exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigour not authorised by law or justice” (Websters New International Dictionary)

In the 1994 paper this definition was extended to the area of applied intellect in method:

“Tyranny defies both law and justice in its impact upon its subject. The key factor here is the idea that methods ….. are often not justified by context (without adaptation). They are imposed in an arbitrary fashion without regard to what would be just or lawful. They are exercised with immense power over a population who have little capacity to either reject or modify them.”

Open University PDF Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2011. Sustainable Development Indicators: The Tyranny of Methodology Revisited. Consilience. 6, 1, pp. 222 – 239.