In Defense of Standards as a Sociological Concern

Benjamin D. Singer

I expected objections to the suggestions contained in my paper, "Toward a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society" (Singer 1996), and indeed there were. The complaints are of a methodological nature; arguments that what is good in it is old hat anyway; that sociological inquiry into previously arcane issues (in this case, standards) is untenable because of its demanding nature or perhaps because it is conservative in nature. To this is added that it is old-hat functionalism or mid-range sociology à la Merton.

Fair enough. As the maxim goes, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." However, neither of the critiques -- either by Professor Richard Apostle, "A Sociology of Standards? Commentary on Benjamin Singer's Proposal" (Apostle 1996) or by Professor Augustine Branningan, "Fashionable Despair: Observations on the Demise of Standards" (Branningan 1996) confronts head on the major issues raised in the paper: the need for clarification of the frequently used concept, more active research and analysis of standards, and my suggestion that because of its subject matter the natural home for the study of standards may well be -- and should perhaps be -- sociology. My paper was an attempt to encourage the recognition of this and to stimulate activity in an area substantially neglected by sociologists, but not by writers in other disciplines (e.g., Alan Bloom, Diane Ravitch, Albert Shanker).

Both Apostle and Brannigan assert that a Sociology of Standards does not cope adequately with the problem of value conflict and that there is really no evidence of a crisis in standards that would justify the kind of attention I have suggested. Concerning the first issue, Professor Apostle has difficulty "imagining a sociology of standards" because of "structured contradictions among core values." Professor Brannigan says, employing the example of university systems, that values are not fixed, but change with circumstances. Thus, attempts to assess the gap between values and standards are doomed to failure.

But I have not argued -- nor is it required for a sociology of standards -- that there is a fixed hierarchy or static universe of values. However, I would assert that core values of institutions can be identified and any gaps between them and the operational standards in place is possible. Doubtless the argument, if there is to be one, is with social scientists who have empirically identified different value systems, patterns and hierarchies. Rather than a dispute over core values or of the relationship between a given value and a standard that represents it, Apostle seems to really be concerned with the means to achieve the objectives of such values as well as with the process or difficulty of making choices between values. Actually, his argument is with Milton Rokeach and other value systems theorists who have adequately dealt with such problems (Rokeach 1973).

The second issue both Apostle and Brannigan focused upon was what they claim I asserted in my paper -- that we are in a time of decline. Apostle says I "allude to ... a probable decline in in the overall level of standards" and that I use "the widespread debate [about standards] as evidence for `what has appeared to be a widespread decline in standards.'" Brannigan is less cautious in his description: "Professor Benjamin Singer's apocalyptic analysis of the demise of standards in the professions, in the leading institutions and in public life paints a worrisome picture of a society ... ultimately on the brink of barbarism." The fact, as is clear from the text, is that I discuss the debate and confusion concerning standards that has ranged over professions, governmental agencies, mass media, and other institutions to demonstrate the need for greater clarity and analysis and sociological input. This, precisely, is the objective of the paper. A more careful reading of it will show that while I have cited declinists such as Tuchman and Ortega y Gasset, I was quite clearly indicating the prevalence of concern, uncertainty, and confusion over standards, not necessarily agreement with those who do assert a decline in recent times. M. Brewster Smith sums it up quite well in describing the present climate as one of "uncertainty about all standards, whether they concern knowledge, art, or morale -- or the utter rejection of standards" (Smith 1994: 406).

On another issue, Professor Apostle does not disagree with my criticism of the ascendance of criterial systems, although he does misunderstand my discussion of criterial biases when he states that the argument is based on the exclusion of "relatively unclassifiable or unmeasurable qualitative information." In fact, the biases occur because of the selection and visibility of criteria, not the objective availability of information about them. Even in the case of "availability bias," it is the visibility of criteria, not their existence, that is the issue (Singer, p. 212). Unfortunately, Apostle discounts the problems generated by criterial systems as simply "inevitable costs for implementing and defending these rules," or "tradeoffs," as in the case of educational processes -- "acceptable when one weighs the consequences and considers the alternatives." In short, Apostle rationalizes away the problem -- the egregious weight of the criterial system. His suggestion that, given the costs and energy required, "many intellectuals prefer, if possible, to retreat to other domains to continue their lives" is a rationalization for apathy but hardly a valid argument against a new paradigm that might be employed to answer important questions.

Nor, for sociologists to work with such a paradigm, must alternatives be "well specified" as Professor Apostle claims. Despite his concern that "creating well-formulated standards ... is far from easy, and subject to a number of alternate `operationalizations,'" there are many examples of attempts which offer reasonable alternative possibilities. One recent instance is The American Federation of Teachers' impressive series of policy papers which explicitly deal with the construction of better formulated standards (American Federation of Teachers 1996). As well, an earlier paper of mine cited comparable attempts to generate alternatives in academic publishing (Singer 1989). In short, there is no dearth of well-specified alternatives.

Professor Brannigan misreads my analysis of some of the most serious problems of criteria development. After admitting my analysis (of bias) was of "potential limitations," Brannigan says that I "reject them all." Reject all criteria? Certainly not. I did describe the "sharp debate over the adoption of outcome criteria, reasonable and relevant as they might seem to be." It would be foolish to call for the abolition of outcome criteria but it is not foolish to call attention to unrecognized flaws in the process, as have experts in, for example, educational testing, who are themselves responsible for generating such criterial systems: "Our tests may appear to be unbiased, not because they are genuinely unbiased, but because at least some of our criteria share the biases of the predictors" (Sternberg 1996: 214).

I did not say "credentials are faulty since they represent `input' as opposed to `output.'" I did say they have come under scrutiny because of questions about their accuracy, veracity, predictive performance, and, most importantly, wholesale use, while pointing out that they have been a "reasonable method for making decisions." The quoted statement Professor Brannigan seems to have missed was that they tend to support minimalism rather than higher standards, an observation by no means unique to me.

In conclusion, the critiques exhibit a kind of wide-ranging over-reaction to my suggestions, as well as exaggerating the potentially negative consequences of the further development of the paradigm. I wonder if this is not an example of the unwillingness of the discipline, as pointed out in the paper, to "actually confront the idea of standards as a phenomenon sui generis -- something the social sciences have all too often eschewed in the past for ideological reasons" (Singer 1996: 217).


American Federation of Teachers 1996 A System of High Standards. Washington, DC.

Apostle, Richard 1996 "A Sociology of Standards? Commentary on Benjamin Singer's Proposal." Canadian Journal of Sociology 21(3): 413-422.

Brannigan, Augustine 1996 "Fashionable Despair: Observations on the Demise of Standards." Canadian Journal of Sociology 21(3): 403-412.

Rokeach, Milton 1973 The Nature of Human Values. New York: The Free Press.

Singer, Benjamin D. 1996 "Toward a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society." Canadian Journal of Sociology 21(2): 203-221.

Smith, M. Brewster 1994 "Selfhood at Risk." American Psychologist 49: 405-16.

Sternberg, Robert J. 1996 "What Should We Ask About Intelligence?" The American Scholar 65(2).

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