rankings and reactivity


As Omar mentioned earlier, the latest issue of AJS is loaded with great material for orgheads. I especially liked Wendy Espeland’s and Michael Sauder’s “Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds,” which examines how the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings affects law school practices. Because law schools actually change their policies and behavior in order to boost their ranking, Espeland and Sauder maintain that this is an example of reactivity -a common methodological problem associated with measurement or evaluation affecting a subject’s behavior.

The paper provides a nice contrast between the intended effect of ranking organizations – to give customers and other stakeholders information about quality – and the unintended consequences. While the problem of reactivity may be reduced to a simple methodological issue, Espeland and Sauder embrace it as a theoretical problem, arguing that rankings actually reorder the social spaces they are intended to evaluate. Traditionally, law school rankings were meant to inform potential student applicants:

The producers of rankings at USN understand them as measuring real relations, rather than constructed ones, reflecting both pragmatic and metrological attitudes. Prospective law students, who know little about how rankings are made, more often adopt a metrological realist stance. Most are uninterested in ranking methodology and simply assume that rankings measure something real about the schools. A prospective law student, for example, admitted that she took rankings “quite literally” as “objective measures of quality,” ignoring their methodology (21).

But the unintended consequences are very real as well:

Most generally, rankings are reactive because they change how people make sense of situations; rankings offer a generalized account for interpreting behavior and justifying decisions within law schools, and help organize the “stock of knowledge” that participants routinely use…Administrators consider rankings when they define goals, assess progress, evaluate peers, admit students, recruit faculty, distribute scholarships, conduct placement surveys, adopt new programs, and create budgets. One dean expressed a common sentiment: “[Rankings] are always in the back of everybody’s head. With every issue that comes up, we have to ask, ‘How is this impacting our ranking?’” (10-11).

This is a really fascinating paper. Although the authors don’t try to tie their findings to the research on corporate reputation, I think there are some obvious implications. Corporate reputation scholars have spent a lot of time assessing reputation as a kind of capital, evaluating reputational differences among organizations, etc. but less research has been dedicated to understanding how reputational changes invoke responses from organizations (with a few standout exceptions). But if you believe what Espeland and Sauder are claiming in this paper, reputation does not simply measure a reality that exists outside the evaluative measures; reputational measures actually reconstitute the organizational fields they evaluate.

Written by brayden king

July 18, 2007 at 2:59 pm

Posted in brayden, research, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. I totally agree that it’s a fascinating paper. I’ve discussed the relevance of their findings for the case of international rankings and universities and policies worldwide (here). I would expect that their findings are relevant for corporate reputation as well. Especially for international reputation since the lack of ‘real’ information and the need for cognitive shortcuts is more apparent at the global level. Therefore, images and simplifications play a more substantial role.



    July 19, 2007 at 4:41 am

  2. […] the effects that rankings have on organizational activities.  Last summer I blogged about his paper (coauthored with Wendy Espeland) published in AJS that looks at the effects of law school […]


  3. […] respond to their environments. More orgtheory posts on Sauder’s work can be found here and […]


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