October 27th, 2015
Matt Jenkins is just finishing his PhD at Newcastle University where he looked at how and why statistics are created. One of the statistics he focussed on was the happiness measure. Britain is around 7.2/10 happy and Matt wanted to find out what went into calculating that number. Matt is working with Cap-a-Pie on Performing Research and the show at Northern Stage will feature his research as theatre.
We caught up with Matt to find out more abut his research and how he feels about taking part in Performing Research.
What made you start looking at your research?
I sort of fell into it – the original plan had been to use a particular government statistic in quite a dry, technical way to help think about inequalities in education and opportunities. The more I looked at that statistic though, the weirder it seemed – I couldn’t understand how the people that made it thought they could count what they were counting. So my question became that really, how do official statisticians count things? I shifted to looking at the ‘Measuring National Well-being’ programme, because it was much easier to access the people who made it and because ‘well-being’ seemed like such a non-numeric thing. What does it mean to say ‘I rate my happiness as 7 on a scale of 0 to 10’? And what does it mean when lots of people say that? Three years on, I still don’t know what it all means, but I do know a little more about how it happens.
How do you conduct your research?
One of the things I wanted to show was that statistics don’t come out purely out of theory or out of reality – it’s not that there is a thing called ‘well-being’ which we’ve identified and understood theoretically and that we then go out and count. Instead, statistics are made by people in social contexts, interacting with each other and the situations they find themselves in. So part of my research involves going through official reports, histories, theoretical texts, press releases and the like to try and get an idea of what those situations are. The rest is looking at meeting minutes and personal accounts of statistic-making and, most importantly, talking to people involved in making statistics to find out what their interactions were.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found out from your research?
There was a load of stuff that I knew intellectually and so sort of expected, but which was a bit of shock when it came out in interviews, mainly around the way that people live their ideas. The statistic you see is a set of numbers which look quite clinical and scientific. But they come out of debates and arguments in which people are passionately involved – in principle all that is going on is a debate about ideas, but it very quickly becomes a debate about the people who hold those ideas. Some of that gets taken quite personally. I’d been hoping to rehumanise statistics by showing some of the people involved in their creation, and I got to see a bit more grit than I’d expected.
Why did you sign up for Performing Research?
I do research because I want to improve the understanding of the world. You can do that by increasing knowledge, and you can do that by spreading knowledge out to more people. We don’t get enough opportunities to do the spreading part, so I was really glad to have the chance.
How do you feel about the performance at Northern Stage?
I’m hoping I’ll get to be light-tech or something.