What's Observed in a Rating?: Rankings as Orientation in the Face of Uncertainty

Esposito, Elena; Stark, David C.

Ratings and rankings are criticized for being simplistic, obscurantist, inaccurate, and subjective, yet they are becoming an increasingly influential social form. We elaborate the criticisms of ratings and rankings in various fields but go on to argue that analysis should shift its target. The problem that ratings deal with is not observation of an independent world. Instead, the challenge they face is the circularity of second-order observation in which observations must take into account the observations of others. To this purpose they function well enough not because they mirror how things are but because they offer a highly visible reference point to which others are attentive and thereby provide an orientation to navigate uncertainty. The concluding section places the problem of ratings and rankings in a broader historical perspective, contrasting the ranked society to the society of rankings. Responding to uncertainty, ratings and rankings perpetuates rather than eliminates anxiety.


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Theory, Culture & Society

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March 1, 2019