Creating Risk and Monetizing Symbolic Capital: The Business of Ranking

I recently did a talk on the broad strokes of my dissertation at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference in Calgary, Alberta. My colleague @mikelgranzow was kind enough to record the talk and sync it up with my slides. I include an extended abstract below and you can watch the slideshow/talk here. If you want to send me a message regarding the talk you can do so on twitter@gbkb1 or by email.


Each year academic publishers, news media, consulting firms, and other organizations release ordered lists of universities, professors, and academic journals. These lists create and impose a clear and well organized hierarchy upon a world of disparate, unorganized, and otherwise largely invisible field of objects. Rankings bring these heterogeneous things together in one simple hierarchy and bestow upon them the status of “most excellent”, “least excellent”, “high impact”, “low impact” and so on. As rankings are a technology of simplification the work that goes into creating them requires that much information be discarded. In the what follows I describe the processes through which information is gathered, worked upon, and transported in order to create rankings. In doing so I also articulate the information infrastructure upon which these data flows rely and describe an academic cultural economy (Du Gay and Pryke, 2002) upon which ranking business relies to generate profit.

Reflecting on the introduction of impact assessment in UK higher education, Power (2015) has articulated a number of propositions regarding these as calculative technologies. Specifically, he has argued such assessment practices may operate as an ammunition machine to defend and promote organizations as making contributions to society and the economy; a rationalization machine that homogenizes and reduces uncertainty by creating a specific narrative; and as an answer machine that policy makers can use to reveal facts. Power (2015) also proposes that information flows as a feature of the infrastructures that are introduced through such assessments cause subjectivization and reactivity. A performance apparatus becomes institutionalized thereby integrating with regular organizational activities and governance while making people visible in new ways. As such practices become more salient the negative consequences associated with resisting become increasingly high. In making his propositions he has also made the case for more studies of accounting artefacts and infrastructure.

This paper is based on research that began prior to Power's (2015) publication, which started by using insights from institutional ethnography (Smith, 1987; Smith, 2005; Smith, 2006; Walby, 2007) and studies of science, technology and society (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987; Latour, 2007; Law, 1994; Law, 2012; Law and Hassard, 1999). These points of departure oriented my work to artefacts and infrastructure within university assessment practices as I traced information flows through university departments into ranking organizations and back again. This paper describes the information infrastructure (Bowker and Star, 1999) of university assessment and rankings, the work that people do that supports such infrastructure, and the economies that are constituted by such work. I argue that the business of ranking is dependent on the work that academics undertake to publish their research toward winning symbolic and monetary awards in growing their careers, that ranking organizations create “value” for university administrators by aggregating information that is derived from academic work thereby constituting alternative symbolic capital and identities for the higher education sector. However, as we shall see, this value has its limits.