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Universities in the Making: Rankings, Performance Metrics and Control in Academia

  • Author / Creator
    Barron, Gary, RS
  • People seldom question the work that goes into producing numbers and less often ask what work it is that numbers do to grab our attention, affect how we communicate, change our own work, thinking, and how this organizes society. In this dissertation I share results of my investigation into the production of university rankings and assessment in higher education. Higher education is empirically and theoretically interesting as a window to observe and understand cultures of measures and numbers, conflicting values and rationalities not only because universities intersect the economic, social, and political spheres, but also because they are regarded as temples of legitimate knowledge (Stevens, Armstrong, and Arum, 2008). By using insights from institutional ethnography and actor-network theory I conducted interviews with more than 60 individuals and drew on hundreds of documents and media to trace the network of relations that compose rankings and the university, entangling them in a global surveillant assemblage of control. By showing how these measures and tools coordinate activity I demonstrate how people working in universities actively position themselves as subjects of surveillance that coordinates their consciousness and collective identities, as well as ties them into global extralocal relations of control. Local systems of recognition and reward are bound to global economies that can benefit scholars and universities, create new risks, and also generate profits for distant corporations. I advance five arguments throughout this thesis. First, rankings and related metrics are promoted as objective knowledge that relay an underlying truth regarding excellent scholarship, but are global assemblages made through extralocally coordinated work. Second, the global network of rankings, metrics, and their relations are attractive for professors, students, and others within their assemblage, but are simultaneously dissonant with common academic values and approaches to assessment, they can operate as powerful threats to academic freedom. Third, while other authors have emphasized the disciplinary relations of rankings in local sites (Sauder and Espeland, 2009; Espeland and Sauder, 2016), I have argued that the global assemblage of higher education, rankings, and the publishing industry is best understood through notions of “control” (Foucault, 1977) or “societies of control” (Deleuze, 1992). Fourth, Espeland and Sauder (2016) have advanced the notion of reactivity as essential to understanding rankings and their effects. I have advanced infrastructure, through infrastructural and data work as important categories of reactivity that shape day-to-day routines within universities and bind local sites into extralocal networks. Fifth, to describe these conditions and their effects, and tying together my arguments above, I advance the notion of diffuse judgment as characteristic of the sort of judgment that can be observed in control society. In each chapter I demonstrate the work that goes into producing rankings, and ways that they define and sort diverse objects. My research contributes to surveillance studies, organization studies, higher education studies, science and technology studies, and the sociology of knowledge by showing how infrastructural and data work organize and institutionalize categories of thought and processes that contribute to ranking and metric persistence in higher education.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2019
  • Type of Item
    Thesis
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
    https://doi.org/10.7939/r3-w9vx-vw08
  • License
    Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.