The powers of quantification Andrea Mennicken Andrea Mennicken Department of Accounting, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK Department of Accounting, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK *Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org Numbers, including university rankings, as Espeland and Sauder’s book so powerfully demonstrates, have in many ways come to rule our lives. Whether in the public or private sector, economic, social or political life, activities are increasingly structured around numerical representations: quantified impact assessments, benchmarks, cost-benefit analyses, estimates of social and financial return, measurements of performance and risk. It is essential that we consider how such an advance of quantification is affecting our lives, our values, and sociological imagination. ‘Engines of Anxiety’ helps us develop a better understanding of this new culture of numerical evaluation, the ‘audit society’, as Power put it some years ago (Power 1997, see also Strathern 2000). The book is an essential read, not least as the numbers it considers (university rankings) increasingly affect our very own academic lives. The book helps to get to grips with the inner workings and effects of ‘governing by numbers’ (Miller 2001) and it does so in a very captivating way, albeit the insights it delivers are chilling in many respects. Espeland and Sauder focus on one specific type of ranking: the US News law school rankings. The authors describe these as ‘accountability measures’ that have not only redistributed individual attention and effort but also reorganized the entire field of legal education by bringing about new status hierarchies, inequalities and standards and understandings of quality. The book traces these and other effects of the rankings in a very detailed and lively manner. The authors take readers to ‘where the action is’ to borrow from Goffman (1969), immersing their audience into the different sites they have studied. Drawing on a set of uniquely rich empirical materials involving over two hundred in-depth interviews, observational data, as well as archival records, Espeland and Sauder give deep insight into the effects of rankings on prospective students (Chapter 3), admissions (Chapter 4), deans (Chapter 5) and career services (Chapter 6). The authors focus on three kinds of transformations that the rankings bring about: power relations within schools, day-to-day organizational practices and the ways professional opportunities are redistributed. Students, for instance, consult the rankings to assess trade-offs between a university place’s status and costs (their debt). Pre-law websites are saturated with ‘tier talk’. Admissions officers have to manage the numbers that determine a school’s selectivity score, and they need to make sure to choose students accordingly, not seldom at the expense of diversity. Deans worry about their school’s placement in the next ranking and the consequences for their institution’s reputation. Most of them loathe the rankings, yet they have to work with them. Rankings, as this study so vividly demonstrates, engender anxiety. And they provide a new cognitive map of the education field. They redefine what is considered valuable about education; what education is worth (for example by narrowing a university’s focus on students’ future employability and other measureable performance outputs, or inputs, such as number of books in a school’s library, or money spent per student). What makes rankings so alluring, so ‘seductive’ as the authors put it, and inescapable? According to Espeland and Sauder, rankings simplify information; they make complex organizations such as universities comparable; and they are a means to hold organizations accountable (from a distance). The authors also show that the attractiveness of the rankings is rooted in a peculiar relationship that has evolved between quantification and populism, the rising popularity of the ‘top-ten list’ (now a genre in its own right), and the journalistic marketability of such lists. The fine analysis that the book presents throughout helps not only to get to grips with the specific situation and problems of legal education. It also prepares important ground for future studies of quantification more generally, including studies of ratings and rankings, which is a field of research that has considerably grown in recent years. The book is agenda-setting in many respects, and in the remainder of my discussion I will concentrate on three themes that in my view warrant particular attention: first, what the authors refer to as ‘accountability by numbers’ and the sources of power of rankings; second, the field of ranking production, including the growing, global market for rankings; and, third, changes in the modus operandi of the ‘rankings engine’ itself. In Chapter 2, entitled ‘accountability by rankings’, Espeland and Sauder trace the links that have been forged between accountability, ideas of good governance and quantification. They ask why law school rankings could gain so much influence given that they are not prepared by academics and are based on flawed methodology. The authors distinguish between four sources of the power of rankings. The first source of power consists in the ‘usefulness’ of rankings, the pragmatic value of rankings and the pragmatic uses to which they can be put. As Espeland and Sauder write, rankings are ‘handy and straightforward’ (p. 24). They are easy to understand and to act upon. Second, Espeland and Sauder highlight the cultural authority that envelops quantification, and thereby, also rankings. Rankings fit cultural assumptions about what it means to be rational. Here, the authors take us back to Weber’s analysis of processes of rationalization and legitimation. Numbers, including rankings, have the appearance of rationality, objectivity and impartiality, and that gives them legitimacy and power. A third source of power consists in the fact that rankings are easy to circulate. They travel easily and are not bound to context. Fourth, drawing on Theodore Porter’s (1995) work, the authors highlight generalized distrust as an important source of the power of rankings and ‘accountability by numbers’ more generally. As the authors write: ‘Quantification allows us to check on those we do not trust, those who are different or distant, or those who act as our agents’ (p. 21). But what kind of accountability is produced by the rankings? What sort of checking is enabled here? The book very powerfully demonstrates the seductive and coercive nature of accountability by rankings. It further shows that the accountability produced by the rankings is always selective. Rankings hold people or organizations accountable on some dimensions (e.g. employability statistics) while obscuring other aspects of the processes they measure (e.g. the production of new inequalities or differential opportunities). Yet, more work is still needed to explore the very nature of the calculative infrastructure at play, and to distinguish between different types of ‘accountability by numbers’ and the differential effects produced by these. Take the example of ordinal versus cardinal numbers, ratios versus enumerations, rankings versus ratings, or accountability by multiple indicators which are not amalgamated in one ranking and where no zero-sum game is involved. Or take the example of ‘accountability by numbers’ in the form of big data where less control over production or re-engineering exists, such as patient or student satisfaction scores reported on social media platforms, or online travel rating systems, such as TripAdvisor. Do these different calculative infrastructures lead to systematic differences in the accountability relations that they produce? A further axis of investigation that Espeland and Sauder prepare the ground for concerns the relationship between rankings and processes of economization. The accountability relations produced by the rankings studied in the book are, to a great extent, economized. The power of rankings, as the authors show, rests on the fact that education has been reframed in terms of an investment and market logic. Education is no longer a public good, but an asset in which students, parents and universities invest, and from which they expect a return. Investing in education, from the point of view of the student and their parents, means to accumulate cultural, social and economic capital. Rankings are a key to the production of such capitals. They help assess and determine worth, exercise choice and engender competition. In doing so, the very definition of what is valuable about education is changed and narrowed down to measurable inputs and outputs (Law School Admissions Test scores, acceptance rates, placement success, expenditure rate per student, etc.). It becomes hard, if not impossible, to define and evaluate quality without reference to the rankings. Also the field of ranking production is economized. As Espeland and Sauder highlight, rankings constitute a commodity that is bought and sold, produced and consumed. We are dealing with a market for rankings where the demand for the rankings is actively produced. US News, for example, are actively involved in the creation of such demand by engaging in marketing and other PR activities. Overall, ‘Engines of Anxiety’ does a very fine job in dissecting the workings of the ‘rankings engine’ by examining the four mechanisms of ‘commensuration’, ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’, ‘narrative’ and ‘reverse engineering’, and the rankings’ effects on incentives and power dynamics, emotions (for example, the fear in falling in rank), gaming strategies, and structural changes, such as transformations in professional status hierarchies and opportunity structures. Yet, there also remains more to be gained. Research on rankings until hitherto has largely focused on the impact of rankings, and their effects on the objects and subjects they seek to represent, and ‘Engines of Anxiety’ represents a clear landmark study here. Given the book’s focus on effects it is understandable that the market for rankings and ranking production remain somewhat understudied. Here we have scope for further research. What explains the peculiar monopolistic position that US News hold in the world of law school rankings but not in the world of business school rankings? As the authors highlight in their last chapter, competition among rankings and multiplicity can help alleviate their consequences and lead to variation in effects. Yet, whereas in the field of business education a number of rankings and ranking suppliers exist, in law, at least in the USA, one ranking entity has a monopoly on public perception. Why do we not see more competition amongst rankers and rankings in the legal education field? Why do we not see the production of alternative rankings here, but in other fields, such as business and management studies? The authors highlight as one key factor contributing to US News’ monopolistic power their capacity to punish law schools that do not submit acceptable information by replacing missing or unacceptable information with their own estimates. Another factor that the authors do not investigate further, but that might be worthwhile exploring, relates to the specific institutional characteristics of the legal education field, including its national orientation and boundedness. A second area for further research concerns the production of rankings. For it is here that decisions about classification and composition, measurement and scope, are made. This is where the ranking algorithm is designed, where the engineering of rankings takes place, where biases and selectivity are built in. In this context, future research could also take a closer look at the making of the ranking algorithms themselves, and the factors underlying their change or durability. What room for manoeuvre have different actors here, not only the producers of rankings, but also their consumers, including students, and the educational institutions affected by them? What explains the remarkable stability of the US News law school ranking algorithm? Is it because of the need to ensure consistency and commensuration and comparability over time? Have the production of rankings and the organization of ranking labour and expertise been challenged and changed with the rise and growing importance of big data and data analytics? How is the production of rankings and ranking organizations affected by new information technologies and the challenges and opportunities they offer? ‘Engines of Anxiety’ shows in a compelling way that the growing influence of rankings forms part of a dramatic broader shift, a shift that, as the authors put it, ‘has culminated in a transnational ‘evaluative culture’, one that is obsessed with ratings, indicators, and performance measures of all sorts’ (p. 172). In conclusion, I can only reiterate how important this book is, intellectually and politically. To paraphrase Kurunmäki etal. (2016), the quantification machine is not only up and running, but also seems to be accelerating at an alarming rate, and it is essential that we consider the uses to which it is put, which is exactly what this book does. The irresistible organizational effects of rankings Christine Musselin Christine Musselin Sciences Po, Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, CNRS, Paris, France Sciences Po, Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, CNRS, Paris, France *Correspondence: email@example.com Measurement, evaluation and quantification have expanded as never before. Over the last week, I had the opportunity to observe it twice in my own institution. First, the university hired a firm call Measuremen (you couldn’t invent it!) to check its office occupancy at different times of the day for two weeks. Second, I had to attend a 30-minute training session on how to use new software led by a colleague in the Information and Systems office, and later that same day I received an email asking me to assess this training session. I could provide many other examples. This ongoing development of assessment and ratings has been a reality in many sectors for many years, and higher education has not been spared. Engines of Anxiety, by Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder, provides a very rich analysis and understanding of this development of measurement, evaluation and quantification in higher education. Their approach focuses on the impact of the publication of rankings on law schools. They convincingly demonstrate that rankings work as policing devices and, therefore, do much more than provide information to students and parents to help them decide where to enroll, which is the rankings’ basic role. In order to produce evidence for this latent role of rankings, the two authors explore the inner workings of the organizational impact of rankings by doing something that is still rare in the US literature on higher education: they open the black box of the administrative services of US universities. One of the many contributions of the Espeland and Sauder book and its analysis of the US News rankings’ impact is to very concretely show how rankings affect the day-to-day life and activity of the admissions office, the deanship and the employment services of law schools, how these offices make decisions under the pressure of rankings, and how the individuals working in these units use and process the annual results published by this magazine. This is especially central in Chapters 4 to 6 of the book, which depict the law schools’ administrative staff confronting the challenges. Beyond the specificity of the situations and missions of these different offices, some similar dynamics are at work and can clearly be identified. First, the admissions and employment offices and deanships have all experienced a growing importance of numbers in their activities. They have to deal with the numbers attributed to their schools in the rankings, or used by the rankers to rank. In addition, they themselves produce, follow and cross many other numbers in a bid to improve the position of their school. Examples include ‘the so-called “magic number” they use to screen applications’ (p. 63) and the different ways they combine LSAT scores and GPAs depending on their goal. A large part of their activity now consists of making sense of a large amount of figures while they themselves increasingly quantify the activities they are in charge of, in response and reaction to the rankings. The second common effect at the organizational level is linked to the fact that this increased attention to numbers facilitates control over the activity of the admissions and employment offices and deanships. ‘The precision of rankings makes it easier for outsiders to judge admissions staff’, as the authors write on page 99. Numbers make these professionals’ performance more measurable and therefore easier to monitor. The quantification to which these services resort in order to fulfil their mission can reversely be used to better assess their own results, successes and failures. This leads to a visible increase in the pressure—and anxiety—they feel about the achievement of their tasks. Another common consequence—directly linked to the previous observation—is a strengthening of the hierarchical relationships these administrators are exposed to, ‘as the terms of rankings become more important to external groups, they are more likely to be used to evaluate subordinates’ (p. 175). What they achieve becomes more transparent to their superiors and the direct link that now can be established between their work and the results of the law school in the rankings leads to explicit and personalized questioning that may provoke harsh decisions, as illustrated by the case of the person Espeland and Sauder wanted to interview and who was fired the day the interview was scheduled. Another interesting consequence that the two authors briefly cover is the positive effects that these administrative services (especially the admissions and employment offices) experienced from the rising importance of the rankings. In the past (and currently in most public continental-European universities), the admissions and employment offices were frequently considered as secondary administrative services that were not crucial to the institutions’ operations. This was probably the case of these services in US law schools before US News established its rankings and completely changed their role into a central and strategic one for the survival of the law schools. The price to pay for this centrality is quite high: working in these offices was probably much quieter and less visible in the past than today. But the stress and the pressure these offices today experience are also attributable to their centrality in the management of the law schools. Espeland and Sauder very competently and richly describe and analyse all these organizational consequences of the heavy reliance on rankings. The quality of the empirical material they collected during the interviews enables a very vivid and realistic portrayal of what the staff of law schools is experiencing. It is nevertheless regrettable that the authors did not collect information about the career path, training, and qualifications of the people working in these offices as well as any changes in the profile of this staff (educational background, professional development, seniority, etc.) since the mid-80s. Current admissions and employment officers, and even deans, are probably very different from their predecessors. Training in admissions activities is offered by some of the executive education programs at a number of universities today: more recent admissions and employment office hires have probably attended such training programs and have more qualifications than their senior colleagues. Another point the authors do not develop concerns the contrasting responses of interviewees and explanations for them. Most of their interviewees are very critical about the role of rankings, even if they consider these rankings to be unavoidable and are resigned to the necessity of playing the game. But a few happen to actually be in favour of rankings. Why? Who are they? Do they share common characteristics? What distinguishes them from those who are critical of the outsized role of rankings? More broadly, I missed the contextual and the individual data that would make each case and example more understandable. Furthermore, while the authors provide an excellent description of the current situation in law schools, they do not look at how such an evolution toward the dominance of rankings, and the acceleration of this trend, became possible in recent years. How have rather simplistic rankings been able to so fundamentally affect the schools they rank? Could it have been otherwise, and why hasn’t it been? The first big surprise is the absence of resistance. The rankings have the capacity to silently and gradually discipline behaviours. But why is this capacity weaker at Canadian law schools and at US dental schools, as the authors themselves observe in the conclusion? According to the authors, the small number of dental schools at the time when the first rankings were published allowed them to confer and work together to boycott rankings. In contrast, there were already too many law schools when the first US News ranking for law schools was published, so law schools were unable to act collectively. The explanation for the relative imperviousness of Canadian law schools to rankings is the lower level of competition among Canadian institutions. The authors’ explanations seem plausible and rational, but let me suggest some alternative possibilities. The first one is the crucial importance of tuition fees in the budget of US law schools. This is linked, as for all other higher education institutions in the USA, to the low level of public funding, which is higher in Canada. It is also linked to the fact that research at law schools is not a source of funding as it is in medicine or dentistry. Money from tuition can hardly be substituted by other sources. The fragile balance between excellent students and students who can pay a lot therefore becomes a very subtle equilibrium that admissions offices must achieve. Tuition has become so important in funding law schools that they have become client-dependent, and the students—more precisely, the tuition the students pay—are their main source of income. Another explanation for the lack of resistance may be found in the fact that the admissions and employment offices, as well as the top leadership of the schools, initially welcomed the rankings and saw them as an opportunity to play a more central role and to introduce changes in their institution’s leadership. They probably embraced the rankings when they were first published and did not resist at the time. They let the evil in, using the rankings for their own purposes and thus increasing their performativity. But they now are the victims of the rankings. A third explanation for the lack of resistance to rankings is the academic profession’s traditionally low capacity of collective action. This discussion is mostly absent from the book, which only mentions that faculty members have been educated ‘about the cost of admitting that student with mediocre test scores “that they fell in love with”’ as explained by one dean (p. 75). But on the whole, the faculty appears to have lost its voice, neither engaging with nor fighting against the pressure of rankings. Or, it is as if the rankings restricted the faculty’s influence and weakened their academic power. Designing the right LSAT-GPA strategy seems to be much more important than having the right curriculum, hiring the best professors or producing the best research. And this seems to be widely accepted. There is no sign of a collective stand against the dominance of rankings—a response that is all too frequent in higher education. In the numerous studies on the implementation of new public management in higher education (e.g. Deem etal. 2007; Ferlie etal. 2008), there are very few examples of collective action against the introduction of managerial practices, and even fewer of a capacity to prevent or halt their implementation. Most studies describe gamesmanship as the first resistance strategy. Last but not least, the lack of resistance could be attributable to US News’ monopoly on the publication of law school rankings in the USA. As the authors state on p. 189, ‘the USN is the only ranking that is broadly used and taken seriously by those in legal education’. There seems to be no, or very few alternative measures that could moderate the impact of the US News rankings. This is rather different from the experience in Europe. National rankings are still rare, and existing ones must compete with national evaluation bodies (e.g. the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, the HCERES—Agency for the evaluation of higher education in France), and with international rankings that often developed before the national ones and compete with one another (Jiao-tong, THE, QS, U-multi rank, etc.). US News has a monopoly given that research is not as central at law schools as it is in other disciplines, and its results cannot as easily be hierarchically evaluated (and therefore ranked) as in other disciplines (such as economics, of course, but also chemistry or physics). In the end, the question remains whether this ranking process is reversible. It appears to have strengthened over time, with the impact of US News rankings becoming more and more important to the operations of US law schools. The strength of the Engines of Anxiety book is to make us feel the in-depth and seemingly ineluctable influence of these engines in situations where the publishers of rankings are monopolistic and where tuition is the main source of funding. Feeling the numbers Marion Fourcade Marion Fourcade Department of Sociology, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA Department of Sociology, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA *Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org For three years, when I was in college in Paris, I had a very old-style mathematics professor. By American (though not French) standards, she was a particularly harsh grader. Out of a ranking scale from 0 to 20, the best students usually scored a 10 or 12. It was not infrequent for the class average to revolve around 6 or 7 out of 20. But what was most remarkable about Mrs H. (let’s call her that) was the way she handled the release of the grades. She started with the best ones and went down, slowly. So you would hear her shout “10…9…8…7…!”, and suddenly you were unable to look at her, or anyone else in the class for that matter. Her comments would start at ‘pas mal’ (not bad) for the top grade, and become increasingly rude and dismissive. The process was purposefully anxiety-inducing, and she certainly lacked empathy. She wanted you to feel your place. Occasionally, I would score better than expected. She never failed to remark on it: ‘Fourcade, whatever happened to you this time?’ But when the improvement started to persist in my third year, I suddenly became a different kind of person in her eyes. I was re-categorized. I had jumped a tier. Even though I did not like her manner, I never really questioned Mrs H.’s grades because, after all, this was mathematics. My answers to the problems were right or wrong, period. So I took my grades to be a fair reflection of my abilities, and her judgment to be objective. It was a bit different in the other subjects. There, the grading process was always shrouded in mystery. My strengths were in French literature and philosophy. My work in the social sciences and foreign languages—I can safely reveal this, now that I am a sociologist working at an American university—was weaker. I never quite knew why some of my professors liked, and others disliked, my essays and oral presentations. Believing in the objectivity of the whole process always took a bit of magical thinking. My classmates and I discussed those grades more. There were divine surprises but also a lot of resentment floating in the air, and a feeling that some, including myself, benefited from unfair, unspoken advantages. Perhaps Mr R., the philosophy teacher, was fond of me because I had the reputation of taking very neat notes. And it is possible that Mr L., the social sciences teacher, really disliked the fact that I chatted incessantly in the back of the room. These impressions, whether true or not, might have informed how each one of them approached my class work. The ranking system that Wendy Espeland and Mike Sauder study in their marvelous book, the US News and World Report rankings of US law schools, has a bit of both elements: it is composed of numerical measures and reputational ones. The LSATs and GPAs on the one hand, and perceptions of a school’s reputation on the other, collected from unknown experts throughout the legal field. The meshing of the two is what gives the system its strength: their combination is ‘objective enough’ to have a naturalization effect, and it is ‘subjective enough’ to project the social authority of a deeply ingrained status order. The ranked institutions experience the system’s real world effects with ruthless effectiveness: a school with a 160 LSAT average knows it will be difficult to attract a student who scored at 170, bar some heroic financial and marketing efforts. With great empirical precision and analytical skill the authors document how, in the span of 30 years, US News has become impossible to ignore and has spurred major resource transfers within law schools. The consequences for admission practices have been especially noteworthy: the system has led schools to focus obsessively on the LSAT as opposed to the GPA and other characteristics of applicants, including diversity and valuable personal commitments. This also means that funds and scholarships have been reallocated to bolster the kinds of priorities that the ranker cares about, rather than those that academic leaders constructed as important in a pre-ranking era. The political justification for such a system is that it holds the schools accountable, and it does so impartially: everyone is ranked in the same way, according to a shared metric. The US News method subjects the use of certain kinds of social advantages, such as the reliance on opaque social networks or legacy status, to the external control of metrics, most prominently the LSAT. Whatever we think of the test as a way to assess people’s capabilities, it delivers an unmistakable moral promise, common to all commensurating devices: the promise of equality of treatment and independence from social influence (from wealthy alumni or trustees for instance). But this kind of equality, it turns out, is a hard master to serve in practice. As I was reading the book, I was reminded of Laurence Fontaine's (2014) brilliant analysis of how the arrival of the market in 17th century France was celebrated as liberating the rising bourgeois class from its personalistic entanglements and unfair exchanges with the nobility. But, she remarked, the same logic of impersonality and equality delegitimized solidaristic assistance schemes for the poor. We find echoes of the same dilemma in the fact that the rise of US News renders the exercise of other kinds of preferences and protections, such as the desire for a school to increase its socio-economic or racial diversity, more difficult to implement: if the metric does its job, and it will, the school that embraces these kinds of redistributive social goals will most likely see its position sink. As Espeland and Sauder write, ‘the algorithm makes ethical demands on those who cater to it’ (p. 99). The more ‘objective’ and individualized the social structure of competition, the more apparently leveled and fair the playing field ex ante, the harder it is to contest its outcomes or politicize its procedures (Simon 1988). What this book captures supremely well is the unhealthy fixation rankings produce in all the constituencies that US law schools interact with, and how an impersonal and ultimately silly tool—a crude algorithm—becomes very personal for the people it touches. Espeland and Sauder show how the machine meets not only the institution, but also the self, and even the body. All the more reason, perhaps, to regret is that the authors did not try to articulate their extraordinarily detailed empirical study of people’s feelings about their rank, and about the ranking engine more generally, with a more conceptual discussion of what “feeling the numbers” means for individual subjectivities, why lawyers seem to be particularly vulnerable to this kind of power, and what this vulnerability implies for the social order within that profession. The identity, performance and social prospects of a law school's administrators, faculty and students (prospective, current and alumni), have all become wrapped up in the up and down movements of the organization on the US News ladder, particularly as it crosses dreaded or desired tier thresholds. For better or for worse, the US News system has become an institutionalized engine of what Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, complete with a new derogatory lexicon (TTT, for ‘third tier trash’). Commensuration gives condescension a highly visible hook to fasten itself onto. Minuscule –and for all practical purposes meaningless– differences in ratings can suddenly authorize groups of people identified with a particular totem (a school) to look at each other obliquely, and most importantly to feel differently about themselves—that is, to accept the ranker’s arbitrary decision as if it were an oracle, an instrument of veridiction. As one of the authors’ interviewees puts it: ‘they are convinced that the things that the ranking tell them about themselves are true.’ But what is it that produces this belief, and—more importantly—what is it about lawyers that produces this belief? In Pascalian Meditations, Pierre Bourdieu argues that ‘the practical recognition through which the dominated, often unwittingly, contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting, in advance, the limits imposed on them, often takes the form of bodily emotions (shame, timidity, anxiety, guilt.)’ (Bourdieu 2000, p. 169, my emphasis) Yes. Hence, indeed, the appropriately chosen title for the book, Engines of Anxiety. Anxiety that relevant differences in rank are produced from irrelevant differences in scores; that institutional work to engage the school toward some morally worthy pursuit will be counterproductive with the rankings; that law school deans’ dreams of high-power, high-autonomy jobs turn out to be nothing but the uninspired life of pernickety bureaucrats trained to mechanically follow and tweak the numbers. And thus the rankings are not simply engines of anxiety. They are also engines of alienation for people who feel reduced to being ‘cogs in the machine’. But there is more. The symbolic domination is incomplete because the ranking’s legitimacy is limited, in fact, for three reasons. First, component criteria and their relative weight are by design arbitrary. Second, US News uses pretty bare coercion and will rank schools even if they provide no data. Third and most importantly, it incorporates a fairly large reputational component (40% of the score comes from ranking on a reputational survey). So contrary to the objective and egalitarian political varnish, subjective judgment still permeates that particular ‘engine of anxiety’. As my favorite Canadian poet—Leonard Cohen—says, ‘there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ This is the biggest crack of all. The practitioners’ survey appears to have, at least from the information presented in the book, little external accountability since (1) it is based on subjective judgment (2) these judgments are not transparent: their sources are not revealed individually, and the characteristics of the surveyed sample remain unknown. The existence of the survey likely insures that the top schools remain at the top. But it intensifies the struggle for relative status below the top. Rumors, stories, and myths become fair game, which leads schools to engage in costly and rather pointless impression-management strategies. School administrators sponsor the release of promotional brochures mostly to reassure themselves that they are being proactive, rather than out of a belief that the material is effective. In fact, the reverse is true: they know that many of the glossy magazines are headed for the trash from the moment they are sent out. The law school deans should remind us of Max Weber’s calvinists, who know that the money they accumulate at such a high personal cost cannot tell them anything about their election by God, but who accumulate anyway because it helps them “create” the certainty of salvation for themselves (Weber, 2002, p79). This irrational course of action allows them to relieve at least some of the anxiety they experience in the face of their eminently unknowable fate. But because the deans—unlike the ascetic Protestants—recognize quite willingly the irrational and even unproductive dimension of the whole enterprise, a space also opens up for resentment and anger against a God that is, after all, man-made and in the hands of a bunch of crappy journalists to boot. Whether that resentment will ever be enough to fuel a true revolt, or whether it inspires darker gaming strategies that the authors were not privy to is unclear. (Towards the end of the book the authors offer some insight into the specific collective action problems faced by law schools, as opposed to schools of dentistry.) My final point relates to the role of money in this whole process. Money pops up in various parts of the narrative but the authors never use those as an opportunity to conceptualize the relationship between commensuration, commodification and value. The fact is that ordinal technologies like the US News and other types of ranking are partially fungible into money (Fourcade 2016). This is true on two levels, that of institutions, and that of individuals. First, schools can try to ‘buy their way up’, so to speak, by spending lavishly on the kinds of applicants that will bring the best ranking bangs for the buck (those with high LSATs), or paying for expensive reputational actions, or for rankings consulting work (which some ranking companies, like Times Higher Education, will happily provide for a steep fee). Obviously the wealthiest institutions, which can sustain these kinds of expenses over a long period of time, have a tremendous advantage in this struggle. Others might engage in ruinous competitive strategies. Second, the fungibility logic percolates into the life and relative market ‘value’ of applicants themselves: given the high price of tuition in US law schools, socio-economic status plays an increasingly outsized role in determining how applicants get distributed onto the social space of law schools. Everything in the system tends toward a logic in which meritorious applicants from lower social backgrounds are driven to accept better offers from lower ranked schools simply because these are the ones they can afford, while their wealthier peers have the freedom to ‘choose’ their truly preferred (and better ranked) school. Since employers, too, pay attention to rankings upon recruitment, the rankings advantage experienced by the second type of applicant and the rankings disadvantage that the first type of applicant resigned himself to accept might compound further over their lifetime trajectories. Note that this would obviously not be true in a system where tuition is free, or nearly free. In other words, money mediates the stratification processes at work here, both in the field of schools and in the social world that it serves. This magnificent book, in short, pushes us to reflect on the social conditions under which rankings fulfil their democratic promise and perform as engines of social mobility, and those under which they give into the law of the market, and become engines of social inequality. References Bourdieu P. ( 2000) Pascalian Meditations , Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press. Deem R., Hillyard S., Reed M. ( 2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities . Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ferlie E., Musselin C., Andresani G. ( 2008) ‘The Steering of Higher Education Systems: A Public Management Perspective’, Higher Education , 56, 325. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Fontaine L. ( 2014) The Moral Economy. Poverty, Credit, and Trust in Early Modern Europe , New York, NY, Cambridge University Press. Fourcade M. ( 2016) ‘Ordinalization’, Sociological Theory , 34, 175– 195. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Goffman E. ( 1969) Where the Action Is: Three Essays , London, Allen Lane. Kurunmäki L., Mennicken A., Miller P. ( 2016) ‘Quantifying, Economising, and Marketising: Democratising the Social Sphere?’, Sociologie du Travail , 58, 390– 402. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Miller P. ( 2001) ‘Governing by Numbers: Why Calculative Practices Matter’, Social Research , 68, 379– 96. Porter T. M. ( 1995) Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life , Princeton, Princeton University Press. Power M. ( 1997) The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification , Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. Simon J. ( 1988) ‘The Ideological Effects of Actuarial Practices’, Law and Society Review , 22, 771– 800. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Strathern M. (ed.) ( 2000) Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Audit, Ethics and the Academy , London, Routledge. Weber M. ( 2002) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , New York, NY, Penguin Books. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Socio-Economic Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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