In an important and brief new book, The Metric Society: on the Quantification of the Social, (Polity, 2019), German sociologist Steffen Mau argues that the historic growth in the availability of data and a seeming societal obsession with quantitatively measuring and ranking everything, is fast making us a “metric society. “A cult of numbers masquerading as rationalization” he says, is having unparalleled impact on how we understand both social and personal value. We are becoming increasingly trapped in a social world where, “The possibilities of life and activity logging are growing apace: consumption patterns, financial transactions, mobility profiles, friendship networks, states of health, education activities, work output, etc.—all this is becoming statistically quantifiable.” Such quantification is far from neutral and scientific, Mau says. It leads to ever greater tendencies, both individual and institutional, to classify, differentiate, and construct social hierarchies. He argues further that these tendencies are paving the way for us to become “an evaluation society,” a society where individuals constantly measure and compare their social worth with others (e.g., dating sites and Facebook “likes”) and where both corporations and the state sort people, based on narrow statistics, into categories that ultimately have differential access to valuable resources.
While the book is filled with examples, Chapter 5, “The Evaluation Cult: Points and Stars,” explores how “‘the evaluation cult’ is binding us to the metrics of measurement, evaluation, and comparison.” Mau scans the proliferation of various tools for evaluation: satisfaction surveys, preference measures, self-assessments, health tracking algorithms, and myriad ranking systems, ranging from Yelp, to publicly available starred reviews of medical providers and lawyers. He shows us how such ratings and rankings—often justified by the claims of providing “transparency,” helpful information, and consumer influence on service providers and products— are upending both markets and the professions, in some cases driving companies to purchase good reviews.
Mau raises questions not just about the validity of measures (after all, what is the difference between a three-star restaurant rating and a four-star rating?), but argues that the growth in the use of such measures is transforming how we view and value ourselves and others. “The universal language of numbers, their lack of ambiguity, and the illusion of commensurability, pave the way for the hegemony of a metrics-based apparatus of comparison.” He says that today, we are witnessing and participating in the emergence of a new “status regime” characterized by quantification and numerical ranking. This “quantitative comparison is frequently translated into a competitive ethos of better versus worse, more versus less.”
Among the other observations Mau offers:
- growing reliance upon numbers changes our everyday notions of value and social status
- the availability of quantitative information reinforces the tendency toward social comparison and rivalry
- quantitative measurement of social phenomena fosters the expansion of competition
- representations of quantitative data, such as graphs, tables, lists, and scores, change qualitative differences into quantitative inequalities
- the availability of, and reliance upon, quantitative data leads to further social hierarchization
Ultimately, “…the measurement and quantification of the social realm are not neutral representations of reality. On the contrary, they are representative of specific orders of worth which are invariably based on forgone conclusions as to what can and should be measured and evaluated, and by what means. Metrics may claim to give an objective, accurate, and rational picture of the world as it is, but they also contribute, through the selection, weighting, and linking of information, to the establishment of the normative order.” Essentially. Mau raises a perennial question that is relevant to all evaluative efforts: Do we measure what’s valuable, or is it valuable because we choose to measure it? Please see our previous posts “The Tyranny of Metrics” and “What Counts as an ‘Outcome’—and Who Determines?” Mau argues further that we are becoming a society obsessed with managing our reputations, and ultimately a society of ever greater competition and rivalry.
The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social, (Polity, 2019),
Heather Douglas, “Facts, Values, and Objectivity”
Max Weber, Objectivity in the Social Sciences
Max Weber, Methodology of the Social Sciences, Transaction Press, 2011
In a previous blogpost, “Interpersonal Skills Enhance Program Evaluation,” we discussed the importance of interpersonal and relational skills for program evaluators. These skills make effective and responsive interpersonal interaction possible. “Emotional Intelligence” underlies many of these skills. Emotional Intelligence, first explored by Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, Why It Matters More Than IQ, Bantam Books, 1995 is the ability to recognize, manage, and utilize both one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. Emotional Intelligence, as summarized by Eric Ravenscraft in his recent article “Emotional Intelligence: The Social Skills You Weren’t Taught in School,” Lifehacker, February 20, 2019, includes the following elements:
- Self-awareness: Self-awareness involves knowing your own feelings. This includes having an accurate assessment of what you’re capable of, when you need help, and what your emotional triggers are.
- Self-management: This involves being able to keep your emotions in check when they become disruptive. Self-management involves being able to control outbursts, calmly discussing disagreements, and avoiding activities that undermine you like extended self-pity or panic.
- Motivation: Everyone is motivated to action by rewards like money or status. Goleman’s model, however, refers to motivation for the sake of personal joy, curiosity, or the satisfaction of being productive.
- Empathy: While the three previous categories refer to a person’s internal emotions, this one deals with the emotions of others. Empathy is the skill and practice of reading the emotions of others and responding appropriately.
- Social skills: This category involves the application of empathy as well as negotiating the needs of others with your own. This can include finding common ground with others, managing others in a work environment, and being persuasive.
Although Emotional Intelligence (EI) has become an increasingly accepted concept, there are some who question its distinctiveness and validity. Some say that it is difficult to distinguish from regular IQ, that is not really a kind of intelligence but a set of behaviors, and that it is nearly impossible to objectively measure.
A recent article argues that the idea of “reading” the emotions of oneself and of others is itself a problematic conception. In “Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite”, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Nautilus, August 3, 2017, writes that “The traditional foundation of Emotional Intelligence rests on two common-sense assumptions. The first is that it’s possible to detect the emotions of other people accurately. That is, the human face and body are said to broadcast happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions, and if you observe closely enough, you can read these emotions like words on a page. The second assumption is that emotions are automatically triggered by events in the world, and you can learn to control them through rationality.”
The author offers an alternative, neuroscientific view of how the brain works. She says that our brains “create all thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, automatically and on the fly, as needed. This process is completely unconscious. It may seem like you have reflex-like emotional reactions and effortlessly detect emotions in other people, but under the hood, your brain is doing something else entirely.” Essentially our brains are survival-oriented prediction engines, that produce responses to internal and external stimuli that “become the emotions we experience and the expressions we perceive in other people.” Therefore “Emotional Intelligence requires a brain that can use prediction to manufacture a large, flexible array of different emotions. If you’re in a tricky situation that has called for emotion in the past, your brain will oblige by constructing the emotion that works best.”
Feldman Barrett argues that we don’t so much observe emotions in ourselves and others, as we construct them and predict them. She further argues that we can give our “constructivist” brains (and their concomitant emotions) a boost by enhancing the granularity of our sensitivity to our feelings and emotional states. One way we can do this is by learning greater vocabularies to describe our own and other’s feeling states, and thereby priming our prediction engines to “guess” what others are feeling, with even more specificity.
Whether our brains construct emotions and predict the emotions of others seems largely irrelevant to the issue of the importance of understanding emotions in ways that help us relate to, and interact with, others. In the final analysis, the human social world is composed by thinking and feeling beings, and those who can understand (“predict” in Feldman Barrett’s view) and manage emotions will be better prepared to engage in that world.
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Why It Matters More Than IQ. Bantam Books, 1995.
Emotional Intelligence: “The Social Skills You Weren’t Taught in School” Eric Ravenscraft. Lifehacker, February 20, 2019
“What is Emotional Intelligence” Michael Akers & Grover Porter, Oct 8, 2018 Psych Central
“Emotional Intelligence,” Wikipedia
It’s sometimes difficult to tell the truth, especially in arenas like the workplace, where inequalities of power and authority make it difficult to “speak truth to power.” In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “4 Ways Lying Becomes the Norm at a Company” (February 15, 2019) Ron Carucci discusses the results of a substantial, 15 year longitudinal study that examined the systemic (vs. personal) incentives for dishonesty. Carucci says there are a range of incentives, or prompts, for employees to be less than honest at work. Among these:
- Inconsistency: An inconsistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace. As one interviewee put it, “Our priorities change by the week. Nobody wants to admit we’re in trouble, so we’re grasping at straws. We don’t know who we are anymore, so we’re just making things up.”
- Unjust accountability systems, especially when an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust. Research shows that people are nearly 4 times more likely to withhold or distort information when the system is perceived to be unfair or rigged.
- Poor organizational governance; for example there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues. Truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip.
- Inter-group rivalry, conflict, and competition (what Carlucci terms “weak cross-functional collaboration.”) is a predictor of people withholding information or distorting truthful information. Additionally, Carlucci observes that isolation, fragmentation, and departmental/divisional loyalties often result in dishonesty or a damaging lack of candor.
Because these factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four of these factors is 15 times more likely to end up in an “integrity catastrophe” than those who have none of these four integrity/honesty problems. Carlucci argues however, that these organizational problems are alterable and that a culture of honesty can be achieved by companies and organizations that challenge these issues.
“4 Ways Lying Becomes the Norm at a Company,” Ron Carucci, Harvard Business ReviewFebruary 15, 2019
Meritocracy is a system in which skills, ability, talent, and knowledge are thought to be the best basis for promoting people to positions of power and social standing. Advancement in a meritocratic system is based on performance, typically as measured through examination, or otherwise demonstrated achievement. Meritocracies can be found as far back as 6th century BC China, where an administrative meritocracy was based on civil service examinations, rather than inherited offices. In contemporary England, there is a Meritocratic political party which believes, among other things, that there should be a 100% inheritance tax, so that the super-rich can’t pass on their wealth to a select few (their privileged children) and that every child should get an equal chance to succeed in life. Needless to say, a fully realized meritocracy could go a long way to ending elite dynasties and hereditary monarchy.
Ironically, the term ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958, by the British sociologist and Labor party politician Michael Young. The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class and inherited position has been replaced by a system that promotes those to the top those who have advanced educationally as evidenced via rigid testing and objective standards. The book, however, argues that meritocracy doesn’t eliminate ruling elites, but simply ends up recreating a new class system by means of education and testing. As the conservative commentator, Toby Young, (the son of the author of Rise of the Meritocracy) recently observed “(there is) the tendency within meritocracies for the cognitive elite to become a self-perpetuating oligarchy.”
For many years, the US has been thought to be predominately a meritocracy–one in which the social power of inheritance and privilege had been superseded by a system in which leaders and socially prominent persons are those who possess superior knowledge and talent. A spate of recent articles, some of which were precipitated by the recent college-admissions scandal (See, for example. “A History of College Admissions Schemes, From Encoded Pencils to Paid Stand-Ins,” Adeel Hassan, March 15, 2019, New York Times) calls into question many of the assumptions about the benefits of meritocracy, and suggests that meritocracy has not yet been realized.
There are, of course, a number of criticisms of meritocracy and the concept of “merit” on which it is based. Among these:
- What counts as meritorious and who decides which qualities, skills, and knowledge are worthy of merit?
- In educational systems, do standardized tests and other measures of merit accurately and thoroughly indicate merit/worth?
- Is meritocracy a kind of “social Darwinism,” in which the survival (and promotion) of the physically “fittest,” is replaced by the survival of the cognitively “smartest” (i.e. the best test takers)?
- Does wealth and inheritance affect individuals’ ability to obtain the educational credentials by which meritocracy is demonstrated? (For example, does the level of education required for a person to become competitive in a meritocracy discriminate against those who are unable to afford the often expensive and time-consuming “markers” that an education affords?)
- Does meritocracy, despite its original anti-elitist intentions, merely recreate another kind of permanent elite?
The ultimate question is whether a meritocracy is the best we can do? While meritocracy is problematic, is there a fairer system to replace it? (See for example Richard Dawkins brief discussion, “Democracy or Meritocracy: Which is the Government of Reason?”)
“A History of College Admissions Schemes, From Encoded Pencils to Paid Stand-Ins,” Adeel Hassan, March 15, 2019, New York Times
“A ‘Meritocracy’ Is Not What People Think It Is.” Ben Zimmer, The Atlantic March 14, 2019
“The Scandals of Meritocracy,” Ross Douthat, New York Times, March 16, 2019
The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 1, 1999)
“Meritocracy” at Wikipedia
“What’s (still) wrong with meritocracy” Toby Young, The Spectator
“College Admission Scandal,” various authors, New York Times
Philanthropies play an important role in contemporary society. They are, by their very nature, focused on supporting the public good and human welfare. While philanthropies, each year, channel vast sums to the achievement of laudable goals, their social and economic power has raised questions about their unalloyed reputation for ‘doing good’. See, for example, our previous blogpost, “Philanthrocapitalism?”
In an attempt to provide a voice to those who have worked with foundations, a new website, GrantAdvisor, offers grantees of foundations a safe way to anonymously give feedback about the grantmaking/receiving process. GrantAdvisor also offers foundations an opportunity to learn about grantees’ experience working with foundation staff.
GrantAdvisor effectively serves as a kind “Yelp” to those in the non-profit community. Here for example is a link to grantees experience working with the Wal-Mart Foundation.
You can view GrantAdvisor here to learn more about how the site works and to review the reviews of a number of important national and local foundations.
“A Place Where You Can Speak Your Mind to That Foundation,” Amy Costello. Non Profit Quarterly
“Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices,” Center for Effective Philanthropy