How Developed Are You? a Sociological View of the Production and Impact of International Rankings

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 11:15
Location: Hörsaal III (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Leopold RINGEL, University of Bonn, Germany
Tobias WERRON, Bielefeld University, Germany
Rankings seem to be everywhere: they are used to rank athletes, scientists, universities, artists, schools, hospitals, websites, blogs and many others. They are, however, particularly widely used to evaluate the “development” of countries, with the Human Development Index (HDI) probably being the best-known example. In contrast to normative stances, our paper tries to establish a genuinely sociological view on development rankings, asking: How exactly do international rankings participate in the construction and evaluation of “development”? Which social relationships do they create between governments and other actors? What determines their success and spread as a global governance tool?

To develop preliminary answers to these questions, we will (1) give a short overview of the rise and diversity of international rankings since the 1990s and (2) present preliminary results of an empirical research project that looks at the ways in which rankings contribute to the construction of competition between nation-states. Our guiding assumption is that rankings create “artificial zero-sum games” by introducing performance indicators and quantitative measures that suggest that any improvement in development by one country by implication leads to the descent of other countries; if widely publicized, they are thus able to produce competition for what we call “modernity prestige” (Werron, 2014). This view draws attention to the impact of IGO’s, NGO’s, social scientists, journalists, media enterprises and others observers – “rationalized others” (John W. Meyer) – who invent the performance indicators and collect the data necessary for the production of rankings but also engage in the public promotion of rankings as a tool for the “objective” measurement of development.

Werron, T. (2014). On Public Forms of Competition. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, 14(1), 62-76.