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.

Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society


Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society Simon BellIndicators define our world. We are constantly measured and assessed. Perhaps the most important indicator in current use is Gross Domestic Product or GDP. It is the measure of a nation’s success and can be key to its ability to borrow money and appear internationally credible. This paper is set against the current debate ‘Beyond GDP’ begun in November 2007 with the conference hosted by the European Commission, European Parliament, Club of Rome, OECD and WWF. The initiative, with its five actions, recognizes weaknesses in the ways in which indicators of all kinds are collected and presented, and attempts to improve the indicator world, but is the answer to effective information for policy formulation hidden in the articulation of indicators? Maybe indicator use is a function of the ways in which stakeholders are engaged in their use? Our conjecture is that indicator use is little understood and that this use dynamic can be better understood.
In this paper, the authors write from the perspective of their work undertaken in the European Union funded Framework 7 project ‘Policy Influence of Indicators’ (POINT; con- tract no 217207), which began in 2008. A major element of the project involved a number of group workshops designed to elicit viewpoints regarding the use of indicators (including sustainable development indicators) in sustainable development policy at EU and member- state levels.
The paper outlines some emergent hypotheses and hints at how group approaches to indicators can be foreseen and some challenges for indicator use policy for the future.

Wiley Online Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2014. Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society. Sustainable Development. 22, pp. 145 – 157.

Rich Pictures: Sustainable Development and Stakeholders – The Benefits of Content Analysis


Rich Pictures: Sustainable Development and Stakeholders – The Benefits of Content Analysis Simon BellThis paper concerns the interpretation of pictures that stakeholders draw in order to help them structure and understand complex situations. The pictures in question are called Rich Pictures (RPs) and the matter at the heart of interpretation is insight drawn from eduction (drawing forth). Insights relate to stakeholders of all kinds, be they the individual, the group, the context in which the individual and the group find themselves, or the means whereby the context can be made more sustainable or improved. RP drawing, often as a collaborative, stakeholder exercise, is a powerful activity that has the capacity to break down barriers of lan- guage, education and culture. Drawing upon research with RPs from around the world and spanning 50 years of our combined practice, this paper demonstrates RPs’ utility, universal- ity and resilience. We maintain that RP drawing enriches problem solving and, in the long term, saves time and resources being expended on erroneous and/or superficial tasks.
However, the interpretation of RPs is still in its infancy. By use of processes derived from various forms of content analysis (CA) we argue that RPs can be applied as a powerful tool in a variety of policy fields. Conclusions for application are drawn and suggestions are made for further research relating to the clearer interpretation of RPs.

Wiley Online Link

Bell, Simon, Berg, Tessa, and Morse, Stephen. (2016) Rich Pictures: Sustainable Development and Stakeholders – The Benefits of Content Analysis. Sust. Dev., 24: 136–148. doi: 10.1002/sd.1614.