Panel Paper: Numbers As Narratives: Analyzing the Usefulness of Community Indicators for Public Deliberation

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 8:40 AM
3017 Monroe (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Fatima Sharif, Matthew Dull and Beth S Offenbacker, Virginia Tech
This paper analyzes the narratives that give form to common thinking about quantitative community indicators in order to examine the effect of using numbers to discuss public problems on public discourse. We study facilitated group discussions regarding 60 quantitative community indicators of quality of life identified and collected in conjunction with an Alexandria, VA-based initiative.  Drawing on recent scholarship examining policy narratives, we analyze the role of condensation symbols, dominant and counter narratives, and non-stories in the ways people talk about community indicators they think are credible and salient. Numbers make for potent discourse because they reduce and generalize. Numbers describe social conditions at a distance. They speak across organizational boundaries, across specializations, and without regard to hierarchy and status. Because they communicate through common knowledge and shared assumptions however they are often accused, paraphrasing historian Theodore Porter, of deciding without seeming to decide. Do people treat numbers like a rigged deck of cards? Or, as students of democratic deliberation like Christopher Ansell (2011) suggest, are numbers potentially vital resources for communication and learning? The drive to quantify and focus attention on community conditions is shaped by persistent tensions between power and enlightened public thinking, between central and local, progressive and conservative. Research in public policy and related disciplines rarely dedicates close scrutiny to the role of numbers in policy discourse. We analyze eight facilitated discussions, four composed of policy stakeholders and four composed of non-specialist groups organized in conjunction with a local faith community, conducted between October 2012 and April 2013. We use discussion transcripts to build a constructivist account of community indicators in policy discourse. Under what circumstances do we observe participants go-behind, challenge, or using numbers to reason creatively – in other words, in what ways are numbers used in public deliberation?