A Sociology of Standards? Commentary on Benjamin Singer's Proposal

Richard Apostle

There are two basic components to Singer's analysis of standards. The first is a concern with the disjunction in North American professional and organizational life between "the values and standards of a social structure and the criteria systems ostensibly generated to guard them" (p. 206). Singer argues that criteria systems, which are widespread in our major institutions, have generated dynamics of their own which undermine the values which should prevail in "a well-ordered world" (p. 207). The second dimension to the analysis centers on the growing uncertainty about, or decline in, standards over the past several decades. While the first issue is well established in critical perspectives on North American culture, the second is less well substantiated, and the source of much controversy in contemporary social science debates. This comment will treat the two elements of Singer's analysis separately. The first section will consider the ways in which Singer's proposal might be advanced, while the second will raise questions about the apparent decline in societal standards. A final section will try to place the proposal in a larger sociological context.

Professional and Institutional Pathologies

Singer connects the notions of values, standards, and criteria hierarchically, with values being "statements of general goals, objectives, and purpose," standards "substantively focused evaluative statements about a thing, process or outcome, `located' between values and criteria," and criteria "the dynamic aspect of standards, i.e., standards are held, criteria are applied" (pp. 207). Given that we live in an "Age of Criteria," Singer devotes the majority of his attention to major types of criteria (outcomes, credentials, process/interaction), the production of criteria (experts, norms, external criteria), and the biases which are widely associated with the centrality of criteria in professional and institutional life (availability, classifiability, measurability, vividness, activity). Choosing examples from a variety of settings, Singer focuses on the dysfunctional consequences which result from the dominance of criterial systems in North American life. Using information from the world of university education, Singer argues that teacher ratings systems and publication ratings schemes (quantity, journal status, and citations) distort and undermine the more "significant values" which should inspire educational activity. Similar pathologies afflict other professional and institutional domains, to the point that "criterial systems exert control over standards, rather than standards driving criteria" (p. 215).

This is familiar stuff. First, the tendency of professions and bureaucracies to employ rules which generate unintended, negative consequences for themselves is widely recognized. However, the usual response, one which has some persuasiveness, defends these consequences as inevitable costs for implementing and defending these rules. Whether one is dealing with the corrosive competitiveness of law, or the calculating impersonality of our larger bureaucracies, one can usually identify a core value whose centrality can only be maintained with other, negative outcomes. The essential connection here involves dilemmas and tradeoffs, with a Mertonian balance sheet the arbiter of the standards applied. Second, conservative and radical commentators on North American culture have converged in their critical evaluations of the ways in which mainstream pragmatism and empiricism displace standards with criteria, and criteria with measurement. It is no accident that Singer can comfortably cite Marcuse and Ortega y Gasset on the same theme: liberalism has successfully withstood challenges to its instrumentalism because it has contributed to the construction of durable institutions whose biases have minimized damage to the fundamental structure of capitalist democracy in North America.

These two points can be made more specific by returning to the educational arena which Singer utilizes. While there is a tendency for professors to "insist on teaching classes in which their ratings by students are not in danger" and to "write banal substantive papers with a high probability of acceptance by `refereed' journals that favour replicative work" (pp. 214-15), these tendencies are variable, and may indicate tradeoffs which are acceptable when one weighs the consequences and considers the alternatives. Quantitative teaching evaluations focus undesirable attention on methods to foster popularity, but they do provide some evidence, taken over a number of years and classes, about an individual's ability to perform at some minimal level of competence as a teacher. Concern for softer teaching assignments also depends on the structural location of teaching evaluations. To the extent that evaluations are less public (e.g., returned directly to the instructor), or are controlled within the staff member's academic unit, there is less pressure to cater to the demands of conformity and popularity. Further, the academy does not systematically compensate for the absence of such evidence with better, qualitative alternatives. The unfortunate fact remains that quantitative evaluation either stands alone or complements more time- and energy-consuming qualitative endeavours. The same logic applies to research and publication. There are some easily identifiable negative outcomes when an academic enterprise utilizes the number and status of journal publications to assess individuals for appointment and tenure. We do get "banal substantive papers," although easy acceptance is usually discounted and replication has its own unique demands. Such rules, nevertheless, do provide unambiguous benchmarks of acceptability/mediocrity which fit the liberal ethos of the North American university. Also, we can observe considerable variation in the extent to which close adherence to such rules actually governs a department, faculty or university. Many Canadian social science departments and faculties remain havens of sanity and creativity on the broader landscape. Finally, the absence of such publication rules does not usually signify that one is looking at an institution which values the long, disciplined maturation of major contributions to the social science. On the contrary, one usually finds that one is looking at a system which has little or no expectation of contributions to knowledge or scholarship, and one which is not infrequently open to particularistic selection of staff. In short, there are some basic dilemmas here which need to be addressed directly, not dismissed as undesirable biases of instrumentalism.

Parallel arguments can also be constructed for institutional analyses. To continue the focus on higher education, we can observe numerous attempts, both internal and external, to employ criteria-driven evaluations of universities. The rationalization exercises which are sweeping North American universities frequently center on detailed, quantitative studies of the contributions which departmental units and faculties make to their institutions. Units which meet institutional demands for high enrollments at relatively low costs, attract research or outside funding, and satisfy mainstream academic productivity expectations do well in the summary judgments for which these exercises are conducted because data on these topics is easily quantified. While such endeavours disadvantage fine arts departments and other units which do not easily fit the institutional mold, they are far from determinative. Scrutiny of these schemes readily discloses the biases built into them, and they are frequently susceptible to a variety of outcomes or interpretations. It is true that such schemes can become legitimating devices for decisions made on other grounds, but this is an issue which deserves separate consideration.

Singer himself mentions our most prominent attempt at external institutional analysis, Maclean's annual rankings of Canadian universities, as evidence of the expansion of "criterial industries" (p. 209). These reviews, which are now five years deep, give evidence of each of the major criterial biases Singer discusses. However, like other, similar devices, Maclean's annual rankings help identify the very good and the very bad. The fact that two major anglophone institutions chose to go missing for at least one issue is more a function of some genuine difficulties at these institutions (problems which were previously unidentified, at least on a public basis), than of justifiable concern about distortions. Further, the rankings have stimulated some interesting debate about our universities which sharpens the focus of attention. (Two of the comparative indicators caused me to question my home institution's pretensions to national standing in ways I had not previously contemplated.) While it is reasonable to worry about the extent to which such rankings will themselves manufacture outcomes (e.g., "niche" marketing among "primarily undergraduate" institutions), or contribute to the creation of national stratification systems, the alternatives, at this point, are not well specified.

Where do we go from here? The first thing which needs improvement is the understanding of connections between standards, even ones which are properly infused by central values. The interconnections among a multiplicity of standards would have to be appreciated from the outset, with particular recognition of the ways in which standards, even when optimally constructed, create internal tensions or, through structured contradiction, generate conflict in professional or institutional settings. An earlier generation of functionalist sociology was quick to acknowledge the ways in which values and standards can lead to internal inconsistencies. A commitment to equality as a core value can, on the path to application, lead to basic uncertainties, particularly about the degree to which equality of condition is a part of our conception of equality. As the privatization of some of our basic institutions expands, it is becoming clearer that we are abandoning equality of condition. Our universities may try to preserve bursary systems to cope with the tension, but higher tuition fees and the emergence of a more stratified university system seem to be tipping the balance pretty decisively in favour of a US-style hierarchy, where access to higher-status universities will be even more class-oriented. Whatever the outcome, creating well-formulated standards, even in a better world, is far from easy, and subject to a number of alternate "operationalizations."

Structured contradictions among core values, especially between equality and freedom, also pose difficulties for imagining a sociology of standards which could cut through contemporary difficulties. The rhetorical ascendance of "freedom" over the past few decades indicates the threat to any conception of equality, even equality of opportunity, as we move into a global network of surprisingly powerful transnational corporations, and receding nation-states. In a parallel fashion, universities vacillate over the degree to which they intend to emphasize teaching and research. A few imagine that a differentiated research focus will help claim standing in a new global order, a number of others opt for a higher profile in quality undergraduate education, and many others struggle to maintain a balance between priorities in a period of shrinking resources. Again, the future is uncertain, but there can be little doubt that clearly-articulated values will not resolve many of our problems directly.

One can also imagine improvements in the transition from standards to criteria which could ameliorate many of the university problems discussed above. The criterial biases which Singer identifies are ones which lead to the neglect or exclusion of relatively unclassifiable or unmeasurable qualitative information. One can turn many of the current standards around, and insist on such information as a mandatory component of the creation or application of standards. And, to some degree, this is happening in Canadian universities. Rather than merely examining quantitative scores for classroom teaching performance, young academics are now being asked to compile "teaching dossiers" which include everything from course outlines to commentaries from current or former students. (One can reasonably ask whether this doesn't create an even more onerous set of demands for young faculty members, but this isn't a question which bothers many senior staff or administrators.) Despite traditional humanities-based suspicions, mostly found at a faculty level, about the adequacy of quantitative estimates of teaching ability, one can detect modest changes in the ways teaching is being assessed in the social sciences. Similar changes can be found in some assessments of scholarship, although this occurs more at the level of promotion to full professor than for tenure or promotion to associate professor. At the level of institutional analysis, one finds increasingly sophisticated attempts to balance crunchy quantitative exercises with reasoned "think pieces" which reflect, not always charitably, on the quality of what we do in academe. And even Maclean's responds to criticism of its development and application of criteria.

Singer (1994) does walk us through one of the most criteria-ridden dimensions of academic life -- graduate admissions -- to consider the alternatives in a systematic fashion. Drawing on some research of his own, Singer argues that grades, admission tests, and referee evaluations are all skewed by the biases typical of our world. Grades, even if not inflated, give little purchase on selecting better candidates; admissions tests, designed to shore up the shaky grading edifice, have themselves become expressions of "intensified instrumentalism" (1994: 254); and referee evaluations are constrained by demands for persuasive hyperbole and potential scrutiny by the applicants. Singer's alternatives include the use of portfolios or an "in vivo session of writing or problem solving"; the utilization of "multifaceted approaches" to broaden our sources of information and "strip away some of the distance between judge and student" (1994: 260-1). We know that some of our better scholarship competitions, particularly at the doctoral level, do ask for clear statements of future project work which meet some of the desire for qualitative information, but we also recognize the potential biases (elaborated status claims, possible markers regarding intellectual affinities). Further, the cost and effort of eliminating distance between assessor and applicant may be too great for most institutions to act on what appear to be reasonable suggestions.

Given modifications to a sociology of standards which recognize tensions among and within standards, as well as balanced operationalization of criteria, do we have an enterprise which is worth pursuing? This depends in good part on where you live. As academics, we cannot afford to ignore the predominant liberal trends in our major institutions. When your university creates an office of institutional analysis which is run by a statistician, you had better be reasonably adept at handling quantitative materials and arguments. A sociology of standards pursued along the lines which Singer has suggested may provide some welcome antidotes for budgetary and planning exercises we will have to endure over the next decade. As social critics, however, we bridle at the amount of energy and resources we will have to devote to work which is designed to preserve the enterprise, rather than further it. Given the commitments involved, many intellectuals prefer, if possible, to retreat to other domains to continue their lives.

A sociology of standards also comes with an intellectual pedigree. Singer's proposal is the type of "middle-range" project which Robert Merton championed. As such, it represents what to some is the most acceptable of functionalist approaches, one which avoids the arid abstractions of idealistic "values" functionalism, and the numbing exploration of implicitly functionalist empirical forays. Nevertheless, it is a functionalist scheme, one which makes a number of analytic assumptions Canadian sociology has now abandoned. It is not clear that the will exists to resuscitate the paradigm.

The Decline of Standards?

Although it is less central to his proposal, Singer does allude to increasing confusion about societal standards, as well as a probable decline in the overall level of standards (p. 217). Selecting from various professional and institutional debates of the past few decades, Singer introduces his proposal by reference to predominantly conservative cultural critics, ranging from Ortega to Alan Bloom. Singer utilizes the widespread debate as evidence for "what has appeared to be a widespread decline in standards" (p. 204). The problems in assessing this part of the argument are manifold. Although it is no criticism of a conceptual proposal, we do not have a systematic collection of evidence with which to judge the amount or direction of change in standards.

Singer (1989) does give us a clearer image of his concerns about a decline in standards in an earlier essay on the "Criterial Crisis of the Academic World." His vision, as elaborated in this more specific work, comes from the world of conservative elitism. North American universities have been overtaken by the masses; peer review systems have broken down under the weight of too many journals, mechanical criterial systems and widespread academic fraud associated with excessive "productivity" demands. Singer believes that "in former times, the system ... creaked along reasonably well: a soft system based on reasoned judgment and careful examination" (1989: 129). In the North American context, this is arguably a romanticized version of our past which ignores the extent to which "reasoned judgment" was a function of carefully-monitored social homogeneity, as well as self-imposed intellectual and political selection. It is possible that "the truly unimaginative or mediocre are being judged by their peers, the majority" (1989: 132), but scrutiny by one's peers is more an expression of a core North American value than a tendency which ought to be stifled. There are problems here, but there is a remedy, and it is not a return to a mythical "more leisurely time" (1989: 133) for insulated, self-selecting elites.

While we may be observing yet another period of conservative discontent among our intellectuals (Lasch 1991), one can plausibly explore alternate hypotheses which reconfigure contemporary unease as concern about changing values, or conflict over core values. Because values, presumably widely shared, are regarded as unproblematic in Singer's work, there is no consideration of the tensions between values and standards which may account for perceptions of decline. Given the need for clarification of the connections between values and standards, we are left wondering whether we are observing a continuing decline of the west, or just specific institutions.

If we are indeed entering a postmodern era in which the creation of global cultures destabilizes the "value systems" of advanced nation-states, the prospect that standards are shifting and uncertain is an expected outcome. Whether one should characterize this change as decline becomes a fairly pure individual preference, depending on one's attachment to the system being transformed. The ambiguity in academic judgments about the desirability of postmodern trends does little to provide clarification about appropriate orientations to the situation.

The Standards of Sociology

The search for a sociology of standards is an honorable conservative response to many of the difficulties which perplex Canadians. While our problems come with spins which Singer does not sufficiently differentiate from those in the United States, there are enough commonalities to move back and forth across the border. We both have corporate structures we cannot control; political institutions which are manipulative and alienating; stratification systems which are polarizing; and cultural systems which provide precious little guidance about a way out, never mind the way forward. A sociology of standards would have both practical appeal in dealing with some of the disturbing "master trends," and it would provide an intellectual challenge to predominant liberal discourse on the future of our professions and institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some basic limitations to Singer's perspective. The traditional functionalist attachment to disembodied core values does little to capture the flux of the contemporary period. We need categories which can help us sort through the possibilities, and invariant values provide little assistance. Both Canada and the United States have changed too much over the last forty years to permit us merely to update the catalogues of values and standards an earlier generation of sociologists left us with. Not only are notions like "moral orientation" or "humanitarian mores" quaint remnants from an earlier period, but their reconstitution goes beyond the capacity of contemporary sociology.

An explicitly comparative approach which would place Canada, as well as the United States, in the context of advanced systems in Europe and Asia, is also necessary to appreciate the prospects for different arrangements among values, standards and criteria. Canadian social science now commonly expects a broader frame to facilitate clearer judgments about the problems and prospects we face. For example, the minimalist, punitive welfare state institutions which exist in Canada and the United States (as well as England) are merely one end of a spectrum for the advanced economies (The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 1989). It is quite possible, indeed probable, that our values and standards, as well as our obsessions with particular kinds of criteria, are other vanities we can no longer afford.

These qualifications are, however, easy to record. The hard part, as George Grant knew, is figuring out how to elaborate a consistent alternative when one must continually address the triumph of the corporations. Given the conceptual origins of sociology, many of which are partially conservative, we are part of a discipline which should have more resources available than a philosophical tradition dominated by Anglo-American consensus. Further, Singer's decision to cast his endeavours as middle-range ones should also appeal to a more empirically-oriented approach to cultural life. The prospects for success are modest, but anyone working outside the liberal mainstream in North America understands that hope, not optimism, will have to do.


The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 1989 Special Issue: Comparative Political Economy. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.

Lasch, Christopher 1989 The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: W.W. Norton.

Singer, Benjamin 1989 "The Criterial Crisis of the Academic World." Sociological Inquiry 59: 127-43.

1994 "Standards from a Distance," in David MacLennan (ed.), Sociology of Education in Canada: 253-62. Toronto: Copp Clark Longman.

1996 "Towards a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society." The Canadian Journal of Sociology 21(2): 203-221.

Back to the Recent Issues Page

Back to CJS Online