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Top ‘X’ lists related to sociological data tend to get up people’s noses. When faced with such things, some people get absolutely furious about these always somewhat arbitrary lists. It’s pretty easy to see why: even with careful and well thought-out methodologies (don’t hold your breath), applying numerical values to wildly different places, people or things is pretty much always going to be a silly thing to do. Many things cannot be sensibly compared because they cannot be forced into an objective framework. This is pretty obvious, really, but we have a slavish devotion to comparing things so we do it anyway. Think of it as an amusing game.

Just because something is silly doesn’t mean there’s no value at all in taking a look at the ‘results’, at least when armed with a cholesterol damagingly large pinch of salt.

One of the main things that Comms departments all over the world should have noticed is that posting lists instead of articles or essays means way, way more hits. For some reason, when screens are involved in the process of reading, people crave numbered lists – this is pretty much the entire Huffington Post business model. I’m a sucker for anything list related. Yes, I do want to know the top 8 movie moments of 2012, the top 17 African news stories for the next year. Sue me.

Towards the end of last year, A View From The Cave drew my attention to a new index from The Economist – ‘Where To Be Born 2013‘. Take a look. As ever, Scandinavia pretty much owns along with a few other economic success stories. But it wasn’t the results that made me take note, it was the title. It really reminded me of someone – Cecil Rhodes. For those of you who aren’t aware of him, he’s pretty much short-hand for all the evils of the British Empire.

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Now, obviously, this index isn’t the madcap construction of a hubristic arch-imperialist like the Cape-to-Cairo railway was but it does tap into a similar sort of view of the world. But the idea of quantifying and ranking potential lives is pretty distasteful, even for a list lover like myself.

Let’s leave aside the (typical for economists) complete disregard of the importance of agency. Let’s leave aside the limited data set and other potential methodological issues. I would like to examine the question of motive. What would compel you to put this list together? Who is your target audience?

The results might be intended to promote the actions small, democratic countries with good governance and to policy-makers around the world. Perhaps they wanted to give further credence to the ‘USA is a dying empire’ narrative by dropping them fifteen places down from the last time this index was compiled. Maybe it’s more of state of the world type list, aiming to inform the readers of which countries are hot or not at this point in history.

What the index  doesn’t do is give you a particular sense of scale – how much worse of is a child born in No 80 compared to 79? So it doesn’t seem to be about punishing those countries that are failing to match the index criteria. Sure, Nigeria are last but so what? They’re poorer, younger and more over-populated than most of the other countries on the list, who would reasonably expect them to be much higher? Nothing about this is surprising.

I imagine that a fair amount of work went into this list, it looks to me like it’s reasonably well researched. So it’s fine. But what’s the point of it? What is it for? Rankings are often a bit pointless – FIFA are probably the No 1 example of that – but normally I can work out what they’re at least trying to quantify. With this one… What? A woman in Nigeria will read it and promptly move to Singapore? Or was it just something they picked when the editorial team drew a blank?

Someone explain the utility of this to me, please. Other than as a distracting game for bored internet browsers.

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