Theorizing Rankings: A Sociological Approach

Rankings have proliferated dramatically over the course of last several decades. They can be found in a growing number of sectors, at any level, from local to global. Nation-states, businesses, cities, tourist attractions, and individuals, are only some of the entities which, willingly or not, find their performances to be repeatedly measured, compared, and ranked by various third parties. Rankings are also an increasingly popular object of scholarly inquiry across social sciences. However, save for a handful of exceptions, this research tends to focus on a single empirical setting, such as rankings of universities or nation-states in specific policy domains. Moreover, much of the research is preoccupied with the effects specific rankings have on nation-states, organizations, and individuals, thus largely ignoring questions pertaining to their production and the broader institutional conditions which make rankings a legitimate social practice.

In order to advance the understanding of rankings a distinct social phenomenon, as well as to develop theoretical and conceptual linkages that could guide empirical research across contexts, we call for a more holistic approach. Drawing from our research on rankings across sectors and historical periods, we conceptualize rankings as a social operation combining and integrating four sub-operations: zero-sum comparison of performances, quantification, visualization, and repeated publication. Our conceptualization requires (a) a focus on discourses and historical trajectories in specific sectors and (b) a greater attention to organizational activities, that is, how ranking organizations contribute to the legitimacy and success of their product. To illustrate the merits of our approach, we use the empirical example of university rankings in the second part of our presentation. We offer a brief historical account which unveils how discourses in the social sciences were instrumental in creating a demand for university rankings. We also show how the producers of rankings have expanded their capacities to incorporate the steady stream of academic criticism targeting their products.

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