Rolling Back Quantification?

In recent days, I’ve discussed with a number of colleagues issues surrounding commodification, commensuration, valuation, etc. One question popped into my head while talking with a faculty member and I’m curious if any of you out there can think of a good answer or example. There are many stories in the discipline about the rise of standards, systems of valuations, metrics, etc. For example, Bill Cronon’s classic work on the implementation of grades for grain. Or Wendy Espeland’s recent work (with Sauder) on the US News and World Reports rankings of universities. There are plenty of examples of this sort – new metrics being imposed on a previously non-metric space*. Other examples, such as the Human Development Index (see Wherry 2004), show times when a group proposes a new metric to replace an old one – HDI as a better measure of welfare than GDP/capita. Ok, so far so good.

Do we have any examples where a metric or quantification scheme was successfully overthrown, but not by being replaced with a new metric? That is, where some set of things that had been ranked or valued quantitatively moved to a system where rankings were purely qualitative, and no formal order was used? E.g. if suddenly all the universities stopped filling out the US News and World Reports forms and people stopped buying their guide books, and nothing else replaced it. Has anything like that ever happened? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? Why does quantification seem to be a one-way process?

* Apologies for the topology language, it’s hard for me to resist here.



  1. Natalie

     /  November 19, 2009

    Perhaps university admissions and affirmative action could be an example here? Move from quotas (to the extent that they were ever used much) to a vague “just one consideration among many”… reason is to pursue a value (a diverse student body) but avoid scrutiny for doing so. So quantification of diversity transforms into…. well, now it’s vague, and you see so many ways of reporting that “a diverse student body has been admitted to the incoming class of” Such-and-Such Univ.

    • That’s a great example! Specifically, the University of Michigan had a point system for undergraduate admissions (GPAx20, up to 12 points for SATs, up to 20 points for diversity meaning race or being from an underrepresented part of Michigan, etc. with 100 being needed to get entrance). As part of the lawsuit, the point-system (but not the principle of diversity) was deemed impermissible. So, the University moved to a more ‘holistic’ evaluation. In this case, the point system transparently mapped the affirmative action preferences into the admissions decision, which instead of enhancing objectivity (specifically, mechanical objectivity as discussed by Porter), it merely enhanced transparency of a controversial end-goal. Hm. I’ll have to think about this more!

  2. Michael Bishop

     /  November 20, 2009

    Quantification is increasing because technology has made it easier both to collect, and to analyze data. This trend is bound to continue.