Not Data but data.

Courtesy Mark Malone. Over the last two weeks or so I have been coding, collating, inputting and analysing the data coming from the questionnaires from the recent Left Forum meeting in Dublin ‘Does Ireland need a new left party?’ When the prospect of distributing a questionnaire arose in the organising group’s conversation I had to get involved. My area of expertise as a paid social researcher is compiling and analysing questionnaires. I am a trained sociologist and I have always seemed to gravitate towards the quantitative. I’m not one who believes in the innate power of numbers and I have spent some of my doctoral work arguing against the politics of numeric fetishisation in the social sciences. In my near-two decades of involvement with Left politics in Ireland, this is the first time I have seen anything resembling an analysis of needs and wants. Speaking with someone last week who is involved in Left politics in Ireland and elsewhere for much longer, she could not recall a single survey among Left wing activists in Ireland. Ever.

After the Provisional University meeting earlier this year where Stephen and I gave a decent talk about our dereliction project, it struck me that the Left in Ireland is crap at using data. We attempted to serve a larger political point about brownfield sites and circuits of capital by collecting some baseline data on Dublin city. We were trying to improve other’s work. It was relatively easy to do so but we felt it important to talk about something interesting with some ordinary enumeration. We are matching it with other data that Stephen has gleaned and publicly available data from CSO and Dublinked. We reckon we have a lot of data and this will be published hopefully next year. There’s NERI and TASC doing good econometric analysis and then there’s Unite doing excellent work through Michael Taft’s blog. And that’s about it in terms of political action. It seems to me that there’s an aversion to the use of ordinary aggregative data on the Left in Ireland, derived either from other sources or among the communities and organisations we work with.

It would seem to me that data (the stuff of all of our lives) has been allowed to be captured by the kinds of economists that we hear endlessly on RTE and other news outlets. This results in, for example, driving a coach and four through the idea of criticality and alternative analyses based on freely available data at the PRTB. (I think Ronan Lyons objected more to my questioning of his analysis than the analysis itself last week on twitter.) It allows said orthodox economists and other associated commentators to cite data without subtlely or distinction between various social classes and geographic contexts. This concedes too much political ground to those who erase the things that are worth struggling for. The ground is handed over again and again to those who never question the orthodoxy of ‘to cure the patient we have to kill him’. This is such that most journalists are left scrambling for anecdotal evidence in the absence of another view. Piaras McEinri from UCC recently demolished the low taxation woo of the ISMEs of this world on Primetime. He did this not by shouting them down but by presenting some ordinary facts derived from the project he is coordinating. To form grounded and effective consciousness among the only class that can beat capitalism we need to work hard to have these other views at our fingertips. These need to be grounded in reliable data. If there is no source of these data, how do we get it? Are there better ways to measure? There are too many Reinhart and Rogoff scenarios about right now for it to remain unimportant. Derivatives and other destructive financial instruments are ideological as well as scientific.

Why is data important? Because to see all of the parts in motion in this vast system of exploitation, we need to have as much control of the data as the system itself. I think the reason the Left in Ireland is crap at data is because we rely far too much on the rhetoric of mobilisation. How many political meetings or rallies have you been to where someone alongside you afterwards wildly overestimates how many were present? Sometimes by a factor of five or six. A rhetoric of mobilisation allows you to overclaim support but of course it also stands in the face of reality. A reality distorted will lead only to further disillusionment among people who have only so much energy. We have to be honest with ourselves first and foremost. As someone at that Left Forum meeting said in the small group sessions, we need a little humility.

I think we need a programme of research on the Left in Ireland. We need to do some counting of very ordinary things and ask some very ordinary questions. In the spring, I am going to start with some basic digital mapping workshops.


5 thoughts on “Not Data but data.

  1. Yes, we need good data and to test and challenge what is handed out to us. I’m reminded of the Property Pin, where people seem to have been able to measure and analyse the housing bubble numerically when the Department of the Environment and professional economists failed to do it. One of the difficulties is collection of data by the CSO which is often in categories that aren’t helpful for analysis, but there is a lot there that with lateral thinking will bear fruit. This particular failure of the left is one of many others that comes out of working in small closed circles, operating by rote rather than continuously revisitng reality to check what is new. Good luck wth your projects.

    1. To be fair to the CSO, I think that they provide a good service within the constraints set for it. They’ve been good at adapting to the online environment which is a good thing for public access. My focus here is on why left movements and orgs don’t make more use of these data and combine them with data derived in neighbourhoods across Ireland.

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