The discipline of rankings: Tight coupling and organizational change

Michael Sauder*, Wendy Nelson Espeland

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

392 Scopus citations

Abstract

This article demonstrates the value of Foucault's conception of discipline for understanding organizational responses to rankings. Using a case study of law schools, we explain why rankings have permeated law schools so extensively and why these organizations have been unable to buffer these institutional pressures. Foucault's depiction of two important processes, surveillance and normalization, show how rankings change perceptions of legal education through both coercive and seductive means. This approach advances organizational theory by highlighting conditions that affect the prevalence and effectiveness of buffering. Decoupling is not determined solely by the external enforcement of institutional pressures or the capacity of organizational actors to buffer or hide some activities. Members' tendency to internalize these pressures, to become self-disciplining, is also salient. Internalization is fostered by the anxiety that rankings produce, by their allure for the administrators who try to manipulate them, and by the resistance they provoke. Rankings are just one example of the public measures of performance that are becoming increasingly influential in many institutional environments, and understanding how organizations respond to these measures is a crucial task for scholars.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)63-82
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Volume74
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - May 11 2009

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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