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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ranking Gladwell

Cars. Colleges. Countries.  These are just a few of the things we routinely rank-- and they are the three examples Malcolm Gladwell draws upon in his most recent New Yorker piece, "The Order of Things." (I'm assuming the alliteration is coincidental.)

His argument, in a nutshell, is that in any ranking system the formula matters.  That means both the variables in the formula that produces the rank and who the people are who write these formulas.  People are inevitably influenced by their own biases, as are the formulas and the rankings themselves. Nothing groundbreaking there.  Besides the element of, "So, what?," what I dislike most about the article is that no alternative is suggested.

The reality is, whether we like it or not, we are always going to have rankings.  And, with better technology available, it is both easier to quantify a range of things and rank them, and to spread the news of those rankings.  We famously now have national rankings for 11-year-old basketball players at sites like The Hoop Scoop and HoopsUSA.

Speaking of children, from the moment they enter this world they are ranked and ordered, by their Apgar score.  After that they routinely receive a number that represents their percentile rank for height/length, weight, and size of head at doctor's visits. Soon enough these kids enter the educational system and they receive percentiles that rank them based on what goes on inside those heads.  And, of course, then comes the all-important SAT score, and the list goes on.

Being ranked is a part of modern life.  Understanding what those numbers and rankings actually mean should be our goal, and list makers should be as transparent as possible about how numbers are produced.  Turning away from rankings isn't realistic at all.  And we should continue to study rankings, especially how institutions respond to them and how those numeric signifiers can actually shape behavior (For great work on this subject check out the work of sociologists Michael Sauder and Wendy Espeland.  Sauder is someone Gladwell should have spoken with-- though, full disclosure he is my officemate, so I'm a bit biased!).

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of our best writers social scientists-- I certainly rank him in my top three.  But overall, this particular effort, by my evaluation, doesn't rate very high in the order of his work.


  1. A baby is ranked according to size even while in the womb -- one of the few times a mother is happy to hear her child is "average" :-)

  2. I seem to be addicted to commenting on your blog.

    My main concern here is the assumption about rankings and "modern" life. My sister grew up in Argentina, lived in the US for 25 years, and then moved back to Argentina 6 years ago. She regularly comments, now that she has some distance and perspective, on the peculiarly american mania for rankings.

    This isn't so "modern". Perhaps some cross-cultural analysis would be in order?

    I feel like I'm becoming a back-seat sociologist!

  3. RRC- I definitely thought about the womb stuff, but it's a bit tricky to call it "life" to some folks (though it surely is to me!). Also, it's less precise-- though I actually don't think all the measurements are precise at all (actually *we* know that they aren't!).

    Martin- You are welcome to be a sociologist (most people are "armchair sociologists")-- Lord knows, the discipline needs smart people. Anyway, I think you are right that I could further specify "American" over "modern." Interestingly, all those health-related rankings started in the Progressive era. They soon became a new form of competition between parents, at better baby contests at state fairs (what I argue are precursors to today's child beauty pageants). Of course, the initial impetus was to improve the health of immigrant babies, and then the middle class took over.

  4. Interesting that the early days of ranking coincided with the eugenics movement...

  5. I have a friend who claims that the mania for measuring things (with it's nadir in the current craze for standardized testing at a shamefully young age) is a right-wing trait. He claims that progressives are more comfortable with squishy evaluations than free-market religionists. Maybe it's not so simple.

  6. Martin-
    That's very interesting. It's definitely an empirical question and it would be really interesting for someone to look at. I was thinking that many economists I know who want to measure everything are pretty liberal. But that's relative to the general public and within academia they are pretty conservative.
    I'm thinking of charting the practice of measuring kids over the past century, and looking at the interaction with political mores could be quite interesting.
    Again, thanks for the insight!

    RRC- Yes, it is interesting re: eugenics. Apgar scores started in the 1950s, I think partly out of concerns about measuring the baby boomers and keeping them healthy.