Normativity and stats (was Marxism and academia)

Andy Daitsman ADAITS at
Thu Aug 18 08:29:00 MDT 1994

Doug, responding to Wes, writes:

>Of course you have some valid points here, but I've got answers for most
>of them. The official unemployment rate is 6.1%, but there are also
>plenty of numbers published with that headline figure that allow you to
>make better estimates of a "real" unemployment rate - the number of
>"discouraged" workers, the number not in the labor force who would like a
>job, etc. In other words, just the stuff you need to calculate a more
>accurate social picture of unemployment - in the neighborhood of 10-13%.

And then continues on in the same vein.

Wes, meanwhile, had written:

>> Doug, you are quite correct that there are tons of useful stats published,
>> but the question is where do those stats come from.  For instance, what
>> is the unemployment rate?  6.2% or something.  Of course this depends on
>> how you count.  For instance, one major aspect, as I understand it, is

Maybe the best way to get around this problem, which is almost becoming a
debate over what the statistic "really should be," is to rephrase Wes's
question.  Instead of asking "what is the unemployment rate" let's change
it to "what is unemployment?"

Phrasing the question this way allows us to return to what I think was Wes's
original point: that even before statistical tables can be drawn up a
discursive structure must exist which will allow them to be drawn up.  The
statistician must have a concept that s/he seeks to represent in the table,
whether that concept is unemployment, or economic growth, or the money
supply, etc.  Furthermore, the table will also represent the methodology
through which the numbers were generated.  And we could go on and on, finding
multiple elements where the table represents something other than the economic
category it purports to describe.

In other words, the statistics, far from an unproblematic and transparent
representation of economic reality, are actually a discursive structure
mediated through the consciousness of the individual (or collective)
economic researcher.  They are also a zone of contention, as anyone even
marginally familiar with the unemployment debate in the US is painfully aware
(and the best evidence of that is the little discussion between Wes and Doug).

Which brings us back to questions of epistemology: how do we know the universe
around us?  How closely does our knowledge of reality approximate reality
itself?  Lurking behind these questions, for a revolutionary at least, is the
most important one: how can we hope to change reality if we don't know what it
is that we are changing?

I guess Colin and Louis have that question answered to their complete
and total satisfaction...

See ya,

Andy Daitsman                     +  "Without complete freedom of the press
Department of History             +   there can be neither liberty nor
University of Wisconsin, Madison  +   progress.  But with it one can barely
adaits at              +   maintain public order."
                                  + Domingo Sarmiento -- El Mercurio, 1841


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