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