International Rankings: A Self-fulfilling Nightmare?

In the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Wendy Nelson Espeland (Northwestern University) and Michael Sauder (University of Iowa) present an impressive paper on Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds. The paper shows how the rise of public measures change social behaviour by looking at the law school rankings of the US News and World Report (USNWR). It struck me how many of their findings and arguments can be applied to international rankings as well. In some cases, their arguments might even be stronger for international rankings and expose additional complications.

Through processes of what the authors call ‘reactivity’, the independence between the measures and the social world they target are threatened. Rankings thus not just measure the current situation; they define it as well by changing behaviour. They identify two mechanisms of reactivity that are important in this respect: ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ and ‘commensuration’. Here, I will discuss the self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism and make an attempt to ‘translate’ this to the level of global higher education and global rankings.

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