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Numbers are not an exact representation of an objective reality

Numbers seem to be a universal language. But in practice it's not so simple. Tim van de Meerendonk explores how farmers, insurance advisors and local politicians in India try to make sense of insurance figures through their moral convictions.

India's agriculture is in crisis. Scientists, policymakers and activists agree that economic problems and changing climatic conditions are making it increasingly difficult for farmers to earn a living from farming. In 2016, a new agricultural insurance scheme, PMFBY, was launched with the promise of bringing the risks associated with farming under control.  

For his research 'Claiming Crisis: An ethnography on agricultural insurance, rural distress and the everyday moralities of quantification in India," cultural anthropologist Tim van de Meerendonk spent a year in Maharashtra, about 300 kilometres east of Mumbai, to see how these agricultural insurance policies were handled.

He followed three groups: farmers, insurance workers surveying damage in rural areas, and a local political party accusing insurance companies of fraud.

 The way insurers manage risk through quantification and bureaucratic procedures is at odds with people's everyday experiences.

The so-called universal language of numbers

What Tim discovered was that the so-called universal language of numbers raised many questions and considerations for the people he worked with. The way insurers manage risk through quantification and bureaucratic procedures is at odds with people's everyday experiences. Insurers were promised that everything would be managed according to fair and clear processes: claims would be estimated, compared with historical averages and the difference would be paid out. Tim: "It sounds simple, fair and ethically correct. But in practice, there is all sorts of ambiguity and confusion for people dealing with these procedures. It is not as simple and clear as it seems".

A payout of 1 rupee

For example, one of the farmers Tim worked with had suffered a lot of crop damage. He had had bad harvests for a number of years, and now he had one again. But this time he had taken out an insurance policy and trusted that everything would be fine. He goes to the bank and is told he will get 1 rupee, or about 12 cents. Tim: "This farmer feels insulted and misunderstood. If the insurance amount is the result of fair calculations, how can he get only 1 rupee, he wondered. Instead of being helped, he just felt more worthless. This kind of consideration, this emotional side of quantification processes, is what matters. The space that is created between the universal promises of numbers and their everyday effects".

Interpreting figures from a moral perspective

In his research, Tim is particularly interested in how people make sense of these ambiguous situations from their own moral perspective. "What people think comes from their own ideas of what is right and good in the world. This varies from person to person and depends on their position in society. My research is about these kinds of discussions, the contradictions that arise from something like a universal language.

No exact representation

If numbers are confusing, aren't we better off without them? No, says Tim, numbers help to organise our society and perform an essential function. "But things go wrong when people see them as an exact representation of objective reality. It is important to reflect on questions such as: who are these numbers relevant to, what are their objectives, and how were they arrived at? Figures don't lie, we often hear. It is very important to keep thinking about what numbers do and how they are socially embedded.

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