October 31, 2008: ICOS: Wendy Espeland, Northwestern University, “How to Study Numbers, or: A Different Kind of Quantitative Sociology”

(from the ICOS mailing list)

Join ICOS this Friday to hear from Wendy Espeland of Northwestern’s Sociology Department.  Espeland has developed the concept of commensuration in markets—efforts to value diverse things in a common
metric, from finance and human organs to environmental degradation.  Her talk this week examines the effect of widely-publicized US News & World Report rankings on law schools and their conception of legal education.

The Discipline of Rankings:
Public Measures, Decoupling, and Organizational Change (PDF)

Michael Sauder
University of Iowa

Wendy Espeland
Northwestern University

This article demonstrates the value of Foucault‟s conception of discipline for understanding organizational responses to rankings. Using a case study of law schools, we explain why rankings have permeated law schools so extensively and why these organizations have been unable to buffer these institutional pressures. Foucault‟s
depiction of two important processes, surveillance and normalization, show how rankings
change perceptions of legal education through both coercive and seductive means. This
approach advances organizational theory by highlighting conditions that affect the
prevalence and effectiveness of buffering. Decoupling is not determined solely by the
external enforcement of institutional pressures or the capacity of organizational actors to
buffer or hide some activities. Members‟ tendency to internalize these pressures, to
become self-disciplining, is also salient. Internalization is fostered by the anxiety that
rankings produce, by their allure for the administrators who try to manipulate them, and
by the resistance they provoke. Rankings are just one example of the public measures of
performance that are becoming increasingly influential in many institutional
environments, and understanding how organizations respond to these measures is a
crucial task for scholars.


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