Guy Redden

University of Sydney

Guy Redden is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His research revolves around the intersections of culture and economy. He has published on a wide range of topics including alternative markets, the mediation of work and consumption and cultural property. His current work in on performance measurement.

Culture, Incommensurability and Commensuration: the knowledge politics of measurment

Cultural indicators promise to expand the range of conceptions of wellbeing that are considered important by governments that have long since prioritised economic data. At the same time, by focussing attention on selected key measurables they may invite culture to be conceptualised in reductive terms. This paper concerns how cultural indicators effect particular kinds of commensuration–what Espeland and Stevens define as “the comparison of different entities according to a common metric”. In making entities comparable any process of commensuration requires standardised measures based on normative criteria that define the terms on which those entities are to be known and compared in value—for instance the relative ‘cultural vitality’ of different places.

Building on arguments that intangible aspects of culture are hard to measure, we can take a further step back and ask how common standards by which to measure may be justified. A great deal of theory posits cultures as qualitatively distinct: from Herder’s romantic view of the uniqueness of folk cultures, to anthropological conceptions of incommensurability and postmodernist scepticism about standards of cultural value. Whose definition of what matters in culture holds sway is a political question, and a potentially fraught one in cross-cultural contexts where imposition of inappropriate standards can be experienced as what Vinay Lal calls the ‘imperialism of categories’. In this context I argue for the importance of democratic processes in determining how commensuration may work to highlight values considered important by parties involved across contexts compared.



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