The construction of Worlds


‘Educational reform movements would not have been able to get started without quantitative comparisons’, Niklas Luhmann (1981/2010) once remarked, underlining how quantification itself fuels a need for decision- making. Rather than bringing rationality or transparency to the exercise of public power, numbers throw into relief new differences that motivate (political) action. Past research along the lines of his systems theory has mostly explored how quantitative differences yield new worlds: either as a doubling of reality that sets out the probable against the real or as the emergence of world society, itself resulting from the thus created statistical reality. With the present contribution, we seek to relate this world-constructing capacity of quantified data to the debate on transnational governance and accountability policies in education. Rather than seeing it as mere technocratic aid (as official discourse might present it) or as an instrument of the powers-that-be (as many social scientists insist), quantitative datafication is discussed against the background of steering limits. That is: as a repercussion from the paradoxical necessity to govern a world that appears ungovernable. Our discussion takes stock of the extensive body of literature in which systems theory has put some welcome question marks next to explanations that, perhaps precisely in their all too eager attempt to unmask latent sources of power, blindly re-affirm the ability to steer society according to political specifications. That such an assumption is commonly contradicted by education reforms failing to live up to their own ambitions, is then usually remedied by speaking of flawed implementations or diverging policy enactments. Seldom, if ever, have such outcomes led the scholarly debate to question with more radicality the implied causality between policy and education. Systems theory, as we wish to demonstrate, might bring a valuable contribution here.

Sep 7, 2021 3:00 PM — 5:00 PM