Prophets, saviours and saints: Symbolic governance and the rise of a transnational metrological field

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Through their collaborative practices of quantification and standardisation in large-scale comparative literacy and numeracy surveys, international organisations (IOs) are both constituting new realities and being reconstituted themselves. This article aims to substantiate how the dominance of global measurement regimes has had profound implications for the ways in which IOs such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank interact, and for the environments these new interrelationships generate. How is one to make sense of this emerging reality? The author of this article examines the interplay of large IOs in their effort to achieve the targets of the United Nations’ fourth Sustainable Development Goal (the education-focused SDG 4). She argues that the SDGs are not a stand-alone performance measurement exercise, but are rather organised under the rubric of a much larger monitoring programme with its own internal logic, structure and hierarchies. She demonstrates that SDG 4 represents a significant case of transnational governance of education, and more specifically of the infrastructures and interdependencies of IOs in the construction of education data within the SDGs. Her purpose is to offer insights into the labour and infrastructure involved in the joint production of metrics. Drawing on declarations, agreements and reports as well as empirical findings from a series of interviews she conducted with key actors from all the major IOs and civil society, the author uses Bourdieusian theory to suggest that quantification has facilitated symbolic governance of the education policy field. As a result, the joint effort towards achieving the targets of SDG 4 represents the rise, and to a large degree the dominance, of the influence of the transnational field of measurement in education.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-166
Number of pages28
JournalInternational Review of Education
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2020


  • transnational
  • governance
  • power
  • Bourdieu
  • field
  • symbolic capital
  • global
  • international organisations
  • Education 2030
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


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