The Critical Classroom – “The Indexification of Poverty: The Covert Politics of Small-Area Indices”

Ed Kiely (University of Cambridge) and Samuel Strong (Durham University)

Our article “The Indexification of Poverty: The Covert Politics of Small-Area Indices” offers a geographical critique of the small-area index, a mode of measurement that has become increasingly popular in recent decades. We highlight the geographical and political implications of the production of indices—“indexification”—and link these to the development of statistics as a mode of state-led enumeration. Through the example of the UK government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation, we draw attention to forms of violence and inequality which can be concealed by their production and usage. Rather than arguing for their abandonment, however, our article plots a route to a radical indexification—a participatory and democratic approach to making indices which aims to promote spatial justice.

We envisage the article having broad relevance for a range of theoretical, empirical, and methodological courses. In modules on political and urban geography the article could be linked to topics including the relationship between statistics and state power, the governance of inequality, and the conceptualisation of poverty. With its granular engagement with the process of indexification itself, the article can add a critical perspective to courses on statistical methods and inform discussions of research ethics. It can also contribute to debates around groundbreaking quantitative methods: how should geographers engage with big data, machine learning, and AI?

Some questions that might get students engaging with the core tenants of the article:

What kinds of power relations are involved in the production of statistics?
—Which features of statistical construction can conceal these power relations?
—Can statistics ever reveal these power relations? If so, how?

What is the relationship between statistical measurements and violence?
—What kinds of violence are involved in the production of all geographical knowledge?
—To what extent can this violence be challenged or prevented?

Choose a famous index. What are the different ways in which the production and use of that index is linked to statecraft?

Choose a concept that is difficult to measure. How would you construct an index to measure that concept?
—Which variables would you choose?
—Which weights would you apply?
—Where would you source the data from?
—How would you ensure that the production and use of the index is ethical?

Suggested resources

The English Indices of Multiple Deprivation – an online visualisation of the IMD that allows the user to explore different domains and change over time.

  • Suggested exercise: students zoom in on the map and find an area which has significantly changed rank between the two iterations of the IMD. By exploring the indicators, students should identify which indicators have shifted in that period, resulting in that change in ranking. Then, using Table 1 in our article to review the different indicators, students should answer the following questions:
  1. Which social or demographic trends could have led to this change?
  2. Which shifts in national or local policy could have led to this change?
  3. Which policies could reverse this change?
  4. Thinking about the indicators which comprise this domain, are there any reasons why this change might not indicate an increase in actual deprivation?

Russell Prince (2020) The geography of statistics: Social statistics from moral science to big data. Progress in Human Geography 44(6):1047-1065 – a broad-ranging article outlining the wider political and geographical questions that accompany the quantification of social worlds.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy’s “Making Nuisance Neighborhoods: Exposing the Effects of Community Policing in Los Angeles” – a well-produced visual resource that offers a critical geographical account of urban politics while also introducing students to critical cartography and participatory approaches.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (2018) AEMP Handbook by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). In M Capous-Desyllas and K Morgaine (eds) Creating Social Change Through Creativity: Anti-Oppressive Arts-Based Research Methodologies (pp289-308). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan – when this methodological paper is read alongside the map resource, it can be used to start discussions on research ethics and participatory methods. How could similar approaches be utilised when producing statistics?

Dydia DeLyser and Daniel Sui (2014) Crossing the qualitative-quantitative chasm III: Enduring methods, open geography, participatory research, and the fourth paradigm. Progress in Human Geography 38(2):294-307 – this article offers further elaboration on the potential for meaningful and critical participatory work in quantitative methods.

Brian Jordan Jefferson (2018) Policing, data, and power-geometry: Intersections of crime analytics and race during urban restructuring. Urban Geography 39(8):1247-1264 – with an urban focus, this article examines the role that data production plays in (re)producing processes of racialisation and racialised violence, and raises crucial ethical questions about the use of statistical knowledge.