Making Numbers Matter to People: Lessons from “OWS” for Researchers?

Economists have always been obsessed with numbers. Researchers are constantly challenged to find ways in which numbers can be made more ‘real’ to the consumers of research – providing the story behind the numbers and trying to explain “how these numbers matter to you”.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement was quite intriguing in this regard, and may hold valuable, albeit indirect, lessons for social science researchers. While the issue of income inequality and widening wealth gaps in the US, and indeed much of the developed world, had been an issue of contention for years now, it never really hit the headlines. But the OWS movement managed to change that completely. The simple message “We Are the 99%” grabbed headlines worldwide. It focused on a complex issue, backed by empirical analysis, but the message was clear and impactful. People could relate to it. The movement’s main argument was that economic policies in America over the last decade or so had disproportionately favoured the richest 1% of the population, while leaving behind the rest of the 99%. While there was some contention as to what degree this was accurate, the very fact that a debate was started on this vital issue of our times – income inequality – as a result of a global movement with a simple, yet powerfully packaged, message, is an achievement in itself. Policy makers sat up and took notice. For years prior, economists, commentators and pundits in the USA had been trying to raise the level of debate on this issue (for instance, with graphs like this one), but it took a simple message, that ordinary citizens could relate to and engage with, to really get the attention of the government.
Of course, specifically the 99%-1% issue may not be the top issue of our times here in Sri Lanka, but what can we learn from the way in which empirical findings translated into social action and eventually policy attention? It’s time for us to reflect on “how can we raise the level of debate on key economic development challenges in Sri Lanka and indeed South Asia? What can we learn from campaigns like the OWS’s “We Are the 99%”, as researchers interested in reaching out to broader audiences and striving for greater policy impact?”

Policy research institutes continuously produce well-researched analysis and credible findings, but often struggle to garner interest among a more general audience. An important first step is trying to make numbers more impacting to them. In the forthcoming issue of the Talking Economics Digest, we have taken a small step towards this by visualizing our data in creative ways on several articles. The Digest will be out by early-March 2012 and we look forward to your feedback.



This is the first post in our new category ‘The Note Pad’, where IPS researchers bring you short informal opinion pieces containing their personal thoughts/ideas/questions/contentions from ongoing research work and related engagements (seminars, presentations, conferences, etc)