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View PointOpinion: Fear of small numbers

Opinion: Fear of small numbers

Published: 9th Nov 2021 12:30 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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Every year when the academic and institutional rankings season comes around, academic managers experience bouts of uncertainty — and this is not (only) because their institution did not score high on various performance parameters, but because select individuals in their institutions did. These individuals aced all sorts of performance metrics. So why the uncertainty? The uncertainty, dismissal or, more commonly, invisibilising, of/over high performance embodies the fear of small numbers.  

In his essay on ‘the geography of anger’, social theorist Arjun Appadurai spoke of the ‘fear of small numbers’.  He argued that the majority in any nation is afraid of minorities because the latter prevent the former from experiencing uniformity and totality as a nation. The majority develops a ‘predatory identity’ whose existence depends on the ‘extinction’ of other, proximate social categories — and Nazi Germany is Appadurai’s example. The minorities — Jews — prevented Germans from seeing their nation as pure, whole and uncontested because by their very presence the Jews pointed to the difference within.

Minority Giants 

Institutions and organisations worry about the majority — even though we hear moaning critiques of majoritarian tyranny at the level of the state — and what they think, feel, believe. In the quest for uniformity, peace and homogeneity, institutions are driven by the need to buy the majority off.

This is the fear of small numbers, where the minority of performers shows up the majority, they sully the purity of the institution’s average (or below) performance in which the vast numbers belong to the non- or under-performing throng.  The irony is, most such institutions ride on the shoulders of the minority giants, and yet these cannot be acknowledged for fear of being accused of ‘minority appeasement’. The solution is to insist on minimal indicators and indexes as measures of performance, so that the vast majority fits into the index.

Indexes and Indicators 

Johan Söderlind and Lars Geschwind, education scholars from Sweden, in an essay in Policy Reviews in Higher Education, argue that indicators may alter people’s perceptions of the indicated objects. Indicators such as the various indexes, whether hunger or gender empowerment or university rankings, influence how we view countries, societies and institutions. They also determine choices – whether for immigration, employment or education. That is, indicators influence the reality of institutions and their social structures because people respond to the indicators.

Institutions set goals and develop indicators to measure their progress towards those goals. Rankings and metrics, from NIRF to QS, are metrics that define growth, goals and routes to those goals. Goals are mandated, very often, by regulatory bodies. Quibbles about indicators are rife, and from those who critique the state we hear outrage when the state dismisses the Hunger Index or Gender Empowerment Index, because we believe these must be taken seriously. Yet, when in other indexes we ourselves as institutions or individuals do not figure, we dismiss that index as irrelevant to ‘our’ social realities. 

Indisputably, audit cultures and their manifestation — indexes — are a form of (neoliberal) governmentality that coerce institutions and individuals into specific and straitjacketed forms of performance, research and thinking, as Cris Shore and Susan Wright argued as early as 1999. But, if we did not have these indexes, are there other modes of measuring performance or accountability? 

The Exceptionals 

The utilitarian philosopher JS Mill said in On Liberty, ‘the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind’. He wrote:

“No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign. Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.”

Making the troubling point that exceptionals should be given special treatment, Mill wrote: ‘exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass’. 

Be that as it may, if we move away from exceptionalism as a condition to examining the role of high performance, we could see something more.

Individuals and institutions — in small numbers — whose performance is at the same level as globally dominant players, have turned global indexes, agenda and criteria to their own advantage. Their (individual/collective) research, more particularly the objects of their research, alters the dynamics of global networks of power and knowledge-production.

Globalisation from Below

The researchers from the Global South contribute, alter and provincialise international research agendas and even the ethics of research. Bringing to bear on the subject of research, their own local concerns and requirements, their research calls into question what counts as research, its relevance and topicality. This is true particularly for global agendas such as climate change, sustainable development or Human Rights wherein research by scholars and communities from the Global South, performed (despite inequality of resources) on a par with that of the Global North, and countered  the hegemony of the North. In short, the small numbers from the South are the ones battling the First World’s dominance in knowledge production, and their work constitutes what Appadurai in another essay would term ‘globalisation from below’. 

In this process of deparochialising global research, the high performers also enact a specific identity of their institution and settings, because they contribute to what Söderlind and Geschwind term organisational ‘sensemaking’. Sensemaking drives social and cultural scripts, which if adopted (a difficult scenario, admittedly, because of the fear of small numbers), enable a transformation of the organisation but more importantly can drive social change.  Söderlind and Geschwind also argue that shocks and disruptions are instances of sensemaking. These affect social and organisational identities, whether accepted or not. The fear of small numbers is our biggest deterrence in battling the stunting globalisation of the world we occupy. 

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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