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Commensuration as Social Process

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Abstract

Although it is evident in routine decision-making and a crucial vehicle of rationalization, commensuration as a general social process has been given little consideration by sociologists. This article defines commensuration as the comparison of different entities according to a common metric, notes commensuration's long history as an instrument of social thought, analyzes commensuration as a mode of power, and discusses the cognitive and political stakes inherent in calling something incommensurable. We provide a framework for future empirical study of commensuration and demonstrate how this analytic focus can inform established fields of sociological inquiry.
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 1998. 24:313–43
Copyright 1998 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved
COMMENSURATION AS A
SOCIAL PROCESS
Wendy Nelson Espeland
Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208-1330;
e-mail: wne741@nwu.edu
Mitchell L. Stevens
Department of Sociology, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York 13323;
e-mail: mstevens@hamilton.edu
KEY WORDS: commodification, quantification, measurement
ABSTRACT
Although it is evident in routine decision-making and a crucial vehicle of ra-
tionalization, commensuration as a general social process has been given lit-
tle consideration by sociologists. This article defines commensuration as the
comparison of different entities according to a common metric, notes com-
mensuration's long history as an instrument of social thought, analyzes com-
mensuration as a mode of power, and discusses the cognitive and political
stakes inherent in calling something incommensurable. We provide a frame-
work for future empirical study of commensuration and demonstrate how
this analytic focus can inform established fields of sociological inquiry.
INTRODUCTION
Consider three examples. Faculty at a well-regarded liberal arts college re-
cently received unexpected, generous raises. Some, concerned over the dispar-
ity between their comfortable salaries and those of the college’s arguably un-
derpaid staff, offered to share their raises with staff members. Their offers
were rejected by administrators, who explained that their raises were “not
about them.” Faculty salaries are one criterion magazines use to rank colleges.
Administrators, mindful of how fateful these rankings are, wished to protect
0360-0572/98/0815-0313$08.00
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their favorable ranking with preemptive faculty raises. Partly because college
raters pay closest attention to professors’ incomes, faculty and staff compensa-
tion plans are not considered comparable.
Several working mothers recently described their strategy for managing
their anxiety about the amount of time they spend away from their young chil-
dren. Each week, they calculate a ratio of mom-to-caregiver hours. If the ratio
is close, or favors mom, they feel better. One woman admitted to “fudging” her
numbers to produce a guilt-ameliorating figure. An opposite appeasement
strategy involves the invention of “quality time,” when harried parents try to
convince themselves that what matters is the richness, rather than the volume,
of time spent with their children. The emergence of “quality time” as a way to
mark the specialness of parental involvement corresponded to the large influx
of mothers moving into the paid work force. But some mothers who embrace
traditional roles, or who sacrifice careers and income to stay home with their
children, sniff at the self-serving aroma of “quality time” (Hays 1996, Berger
1995:43–44).
An economist evaluating a proposed dam faced the problem of how to esti-
mate the value of tubing down the river, an activity that the proposed dam
would eliminate. Committed to including in his analysis the “cost” of losing
this recreation enjoyed by thousands each warm weekend, he tried to synthe-
size a demand curve for tubing. Despite valiant efforts and sizable expendi-
tures, his efforts to derive a robust price for tubing failed. As is common with
characteristics that are hard to measure, the value of tubing was excluded from
the analysis of the dam (Espeland 1998).
Commensuration—the transformation of different qualities into a common
metric—is central in each of these examples. Whether it takes the form of
rankings, ratios, or elusive prices, whether it is used to inform consumers and
judge competitors, assuage a guilty conscience, or represent disparate forms of
value, commensuration is crucial to how we categorize and make sense of the
world.
The consequences of commensuration are complex and varied. Commensu-
ration can render some aspects of life invisible or irrelevant, as the failure to
price river tubing illustrates. The expansion of commensuration can be a politi-
cal response to exclusion or inequality. This tactic is embraced by some law-
makers, environmentalists, and bureaucrats (including the economist just de-
scribed) who wish to expand what is considered relevant in bureaucratic deci-
sions (Taylor 1984, Espeland 1998), by women advocating comparable worth as
a means for redressing pay inequity (Nelson & Bridges forthcoming, England
1992), or by economists grappling with problems of externalities (Baumol &
Oates 1979). For the working mothers, commensuration can be a deeply per-
sonal way to negotiate difficult contradictions. But rejecting commensuration
as an appropriate expression of value can also be a political response for those,
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like some homemakers, who see their identities jeopardized by the commodifi-
cation of their work and the quantification of their investments.
We argue that commensuration is no mere technical process but a funda-
mental feature of social life. Commensuration as a practical task requires enor-
mous organization and discipline that has become largely invisible to us. Com-
mensuration is often so taken for granted that we forget the work it requires
and the assumptions that surround its use. It seems natural that things have
prices, that temporality is standardized, and that social phenomena can be
measured. Our theories presume that we commensurate when choosing and
that values can be expressed quantitatively. Commensuration changes the
terms of what can be talked about, how we value, and how we treat what we
value. It is symbolic, inherently interpretive, deeply political, and too impor-
tant to be left implicit in sociological work.
Commensuration warrants more sustained and systematic treatment.
(Scholars working toward this project include Porter 1995; Radin 1996; An-
derson 1993; Espeland 1992, 1998; Hurley 1989; Sunstein 1994; Desrosières
1990; and Zelizer 1994.) We need to explain variation in what motivates peo-
ple to commensurate, the forms they use to do so, commensuration’s practical
and political effects, and how people resist commensuration. This is possible
only when commensuration is investigated as a field. Our neglect of commen-
suration as a general phenomenon and our failure to provide a framework for
its investigation as such have kept us from appreciating its social and theoreti-
cal significance. Our goal is to begin building such a framework. We start by
defining commensuration, describing its long intellectual history, and explain-
ing its significance. We then discuss the cognitive and political stakes inherent
in calling something incommensurable, we offer guidelines for future empiri-
cal studies, and we illustrate how this focus can illuminate current sociological
research.
WHAT IS COMMENSURATION?
Commensuration is the expression or measurement of characteristics normally
represented by different units according to a common metric. Utility, price,
and cost-benefit ratios are common examples of commensuration, although
the logic of commensuration is implicit in a very wide range of valuing sys-
tems: college rankings that numerically compare organizations; censuses and
social statistics that make cities and nations numerically comparable; actuarial
projects that attempt to quantify and compare vastly different kinds of risks;
commodity futures that make uniform units out of products that may not yet
exist; voting, and the pork-barrel trading of diverse interests that often lies be-
hind it; calculation of different kinds of work in terms of labor costs; and the ad
hoc calculations of trade-offs among such potentially incomparable values as
COMMENSURATION 315
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career and family, breadth and depth in scholarship, and freedom and commit-
ment in love.
Commensuration transforms qualities into quantities, difference into mag-
nitude. It is a way to reduce and simplify disparate information into numbers
that can easily be compared. This transformation allows people to quickly
grasp, represent, and compare differences. One virtue of commensuration is
that it offers standardized ways of constructing proxies for uncertain and elu-
sive qualities. Another virtue is that it condenses and reduces the amount of in-
formation people have to process, which is useful for representing value and
simplifying decision-making. The complexity of decisions has propelled the
spread of commensuration in decision-making (Stokey & Zeckhauser 1978);
so too has our growing appreciation of people’s cognitive limitations (Tversky
& Kahneman 1974, 1981; Thaler 1983; for a good review see Heimer 1988).
Commensuration makes possible more mechanized decision-making. Com-
puter programs that calculate utility functions, elicit and measure values, and
identify alternatives that maximize people’s utility can assure the consistency
that people lack; in some cases, they mechanically tell people what to do. The
technical advantages of commensuration can be enormous, but sometimes its
symbolic and political advantages are paramount (Feldman & March 1981).
Commensuration sometimes responds to murky motives. It may be
prompted by a desire to look rational, limit discretion, or conform to powerful
expectations. Commensuration may be spurred by a desire to expand democra-
tization (Cohen 1982, Espeland 1998), or by a wish to hide behind numbers,
impose order, or shore up weak authority (Porter 1995). Commensuration can
provide a robust defense for controversial decisions, expand a group’s organ-
izational or professional turf, or even be a means to appease God (Carruthers &
Espeland 1991).
Our desire to manage uncertainty, impose control, or secure legitimacy pro-
pels us to create a dazzling array of strategies to use when we standardize. The
scripts delivered by salespeople, the forms we use when we enroll our children
in kindergarten or visit the doctor, and the practiced smiles of flight attendants
are all forms of standardization. What distinguishes commensuration from
other forms of standardization is the common metric it provides. When com-
mensuration is used in decision-making, the procedure for deriving this metric
amounts to a series of aggregations.
Most quantification can be understood as commensuration because quanti-
fication creates relations between different entities through a common metric.
Commensuration is noticed most when it creates relations among things that
seem fundamentally different ; quantification seems distinct from commensu-
ration when the objects linked by numbers already seem alike. When we as-
sume the unity conferred by numbers, when the homogeneity among things
appears to be a property of the object rather than something produced by quan-
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tification, then we imagine we are simply counting or measuring something
rather than commensurating disparate entities. For example, the census ap-
pears to be a method for counting people rather than a mechanism for con-
structing and evaluating relations among citizens of a state or region. This is
because implicit in the act of counting is a conception of citizenship or identity
that renders unproblematic the coherence of the relations among diverse peo-
ple. As Theodore Porter (1986:24) put it, “It makes no sense to count people if
their common personhood is not seen as somehow more significant than their
differences.”1
Commensuration is fundamentally relative. It creates relations between at-
tributes or dimensions where value is revealed in the comparison. When used
to make decisions, commensurated value is derived from the trade-offs made
among the different aspects of a choice. Value emerges from comparisons that
are framed in terms of how much of one thing is needed to compensate for
something else. In complex choices, commensuration often occurs at several
levels of analysis. For example, before building a dam, analysts want to know
how the dam would affect the quality of water. Water quality has many dimen-
sions (e.g. temperature, the amount and nature of dissolved solids, turbidity,
pH), and even though these dimensions are already quantified, they are meas-
ured with different scales. Aggregating these attributes according to some
broader metric creates “water quality.”
The structure of value rooted in trade-offs is like that of an analogy: Its
unity is based on the common relationship that two things have with a third
thing, a metric. How difficult or controversial commensuration is depends
partly on whether it is used routinely to express the value of something, on
whether people accept it as a legitimate expression of value, and on how
disparate-seeming are the entities being commensurated. For example, com-
modification has become so naturalized that it is hard to construe the value of
some goods in forms apart from price.
Commensuration can be understood as a system for discarding information
and organizing what remains into new forms. In abstracting and reducing in-
formation, the link between what is represented and the empirical world is ob-
scured and uncertainty is absorbed (March & Simon 1958:138–39, 150–51).
Everyday experience, practical reasoning, and empathetic identification be-
come increasingly irrelevant bases for judgment as context is stripped away
and relationships become more abstractly represented by numbers.
COMMENSURATION 317
11Counting and measuring may be controversial if the likeness or comparability of the units
being counted is disputed. For example, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Southerners
who rejected slaves’ citizenship rights nevertheless wished to expand their political clout in the
House of Representatives. For the purposes of apportioning representatives, they agreed that slaves
should count as “three-fifths of all other persons.”
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As we demonstrate below, the forms commensuration takes vary on several
dimensions. First, modes of commensuration vary in how technologically
elaborated they are. Some are highly elaborated, as in the cost-benefit analyses
first developed by government bureaucrats and then elaborated by economists
and decision theorists to adjudicate between diverse and often costly social
policies (Porter 1992, 1995:148–89). Other modes are only marginally elabo-
rated, such as the often ad hoc calculations made by spouses to determine the
relative equitability of household chores (e.g. Hochschild 1989). Second,
modes of commensuration vary in how visible or explicit they seem. There is
some correlation between elaborateness of a mode of commensuration and ex-
plicitness of the project. For an economist trying to synthesize a demand curve
for river tubing, the labor involved in commensuration is both deliberate and
apparent; for spouses trying to equalize household contributions, the process
may seem as natural as it does commonsensical. But performing some highly
elaborated modes of commensuration, such as generating identical units of
value in stocks or commodities futures (Cronon 1991:97–147; Porter 1995:
45–48), are complex technical feats that seem “natural” to traders and stock-
holders nevertheless. This suggests a third dimension of variation in modes of
commensuration—institutionalization—which we address in further detail be-
low. Finally, modes of commensuration vary according to who their agents
are. Some modes are the jealously guarded turf of distinct professional bodies;
actuary work in insurance is a prime example (Porter 1995:101–13). Other
modes are made routine and then embedded in complex divisions of labor, as
in the lower-level diagnostic and charting work done by nurses and physican
residents, who standardize patients in part by transforming vital signs into dis-
crete numerical measures (Bosk 1979, Chambliss 1996). Still other modes are
common features of everyday social experience, as in consumers’ efforts to lo-
cate bargains at the grocery store or make trade-offs among purchases.
HISTORICAL LEGACIES
The linking of rationality to commensurability, and irrationality to incommen-
surability, are old ideas that appealed to some of our deepest thinkers. As Mar-
tha Nussbaum wrote (1984:56–57; 1986), the pairing of numbering, measure-
ment, and commensuration with order, the pairing of comprehension with con-
trol, and obversely, the pairing of incommensurability with chaos, anxiety, and
threat are characteristic of Greek writing in the fifth and early fourth centuries
BCE. Nussbaum argues that commensuration was crucial to Plato’s under-
standing of the Good, since Plato believed that we need to make our ethical
values commensurate in order to prioritize them. Complex ethical concerns, if
left incommensurate, would create conflict, confusion, and pain.
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As others would argue much later, Plato believed that commensuration as a
mode of perceiving the world would also change those who used it. Commen-
suration would make us more rational and render human values more stable
and less vulnerable to passion, luck, and fate. One of the great virtues of com-
mensurability for Socrates and for Plato was that it could help us eliminate ak-
rasia by structuring our choices in ways that make it obvious what we should
do; commensuration would make our ethical or practical problems easy to
solve in the same way that it is easy to choose between $50 and $200 (Nuss-
baum 1986:114).
But for Plato, an equally important feature of commensuration is that this
willful elimination of the heterogeneity of values also stabilizes our emotions
and attachments by removing motives for irrational behavior, motives such as
commitment to passionate, singular love. If in using a general concept of value
we can frame our choices as between more or less of the same quantity, we no
longer feel the same way toward those things. If we understand our lover not as
a uniquely compelling person but rather as one who provides us with some spe-
cific amount of general pleasure, we value our lover not only differently, but
less. The more interchangeable our lover is with someone nearly as beautiful
or more clever, the less vulnerable we are, and the less likely we are to pursue
our lover with reckless abandon.
Plato’s claim is powerful. He understood that in making us more stable and
less passionate, commensuration was both appealing and frightening. For Ar-
istotle, Nussbaum argues, eliminating our vulnerability, and therefore our pas-
sion, was a prospect too disturbing. He believed our sense of beauty depends
precisely on its ephemeral qualities, that our ethics require us to invest in the
singularity of others. Investing in what is unique is risky, but the loss of vulner-
ability is even more threatening, for goodness requires ethical risks, valuing
things for their own sake, passion. For Aristotle, the fragility of goodness is
undermined by understanding value as general and homogeneous (Nussbaum
1986, p. 235–354).
Commensuration can change our relations to what we value and alter how
we invest in things and people. Commensuration makes the world more pre-
dictable, but at what cost? For Aristotle, a price too high; for Plato, an essential
sacrifice. The homogeneity commensuration produces simultaneously dimin-
ishes risk and threatens the intensity and integrity of what we value. These two
important themes found in Plato’s and Aristotle’s view of ethics reemerge in
our most compelling critiques of modernity: in Karl Marx’s critique of capital-
ism, where commodification distorts human relations by turning people into
means and things into ends; in Max Weber’s analysis of the constraints of the
iron cage and the disenchantment attending rationalization; and in Georg Sim-
mel’s analysis of money, where the objectification of value inserts distance be-
tween us and what is valued, fostering intellectualization and detachment.
COMMENSURATION 319
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Commensuration is crucial for capitalism and so is a prominent theme in
Karl Marx’s work. For Marx, commensuration is key for understanding the
central social categories of capitalism: labor, value, commodity, and money.
Marx argued that under capitalism, labor is the great commensurator. Value is
derived from labor, and the commensuration of value is also accomplished
through labor. Value exists in precise quantities in all commodities but is not
measured according to the particular products of various kinds of labor.
Rather, value is expressed in terms of what these have in common: the general
experience of labor, what Marx (1976 [1867]:992) calls abstract labor, which
is measured as labor-time.2
Labor has dual qualities. Concrete labor is the distinctive labor process
shaped by the particular things it produces, things that have specific uses for
people, such as food to eat or clothes to wear. Concrete labor produces use-
value, but it does not produce value in the general sense. Abstract labor, on the
other hand, is the “socially necessary general labor” that produces undifferen-
tiated value. It is the peculiar way we obtain goods under capitalism, where
what we produce has no intrinsic relation to the products we ultimately acquire
through our labor (Postone 1996, p. 149). Value, as an expression of abstract
labor, commensurates because it abstracts away the distinctiveness of the par-
ticular forms of work, objects of work, and practical uses of these objects. The
concrete labor that produces use-value and the abstract labor that constitutes
value are not two separate kinds of labor but rather two aspects of labor under
capitalism (Postone 1996:144).
The theoretical commensuration implicit in Marx’s conception of abstract
value is in turn crucial for his conception of commodity—the basic social form
of capitalism. Abstract labor is what is common to all commodities. A com-
modity possesses both use-value and exchange value: It is both a product and a
social relation that embodies exchange value. For use-value, labor matters
qualitatively; for exchange-value, it matters quantitatively (Marx 1976
[1867]:136). The tension between qualitative expressiveness and use of labor,
and its quantitative expressiveness (between what is incommensurate and
what is commensurate), is part of the dual and contradictory nature of com-
modities. One way that commodification debases human life is that qualitative
differences become quantitative differences: People become means, things be-
come ends.
Money, for Marx, is not what makes commodities commensurate. This is
an illusion (Marx 1976 [1867]:188); instead, money is an expression of the
commensuration already embodied in abstract labor. But money is powerful,
partly for the illusions that it helps sustain. As a means of circulating com-
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22This discussion of abstract labor is indebted to Postone (1996, pp. 123–85).
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modities, money obscures the social relations behind them. Because it allows
us to buy anything, money becomes the universal object of possession. The ul-
timate “pimp,” money mediates between our needs and the object of our needs,
between life and the means of life, between my life and others (Marx 1976
[1867]:102). Money appears to us more real than the relations behind it, an end
rather than a means to an end. Under capitalism, qualities are quantified, and
all qualitative needs that cannot be expressed quantitatively, or bought, are in-
hibited (Heller 1976:55).
Commensuration and its limits are central themes in Max Weber’s investi-
gations of rationalization, which often parallel the dialogue between Plato and
Aristotle on the virtues and threat of reason based on calculation. Weber’s am-
bivalence did not allow him to choose sides. For Weber, the expanding role of
calculation as a strategy to manage uncertainty was a central feature of West-
ern rationalism and crucial for the development of capitalism. The growing
importance of knowledge and technical expertise in everyday life, the increas-
ing depersonalization of structures of power and authority, and our expanding
control over material objects, social relations, and self are unifying character-
istics of Western rationalism (Brubaker 1984:29–35). Calculation and stan-
dardization were crucial in each of these processes.
To take one example, Weber (1981:276) argued that rational capital ac-
counting, a sophisticated form of commensuration, was essential to the devel-
opment of modern capitalism. Accounting allows capitalists to rationally
evaluate the outcomes of past investments, to calculate exactly the resources
available to them and project future income, and to assess and compare future
investments. Accounting reconceptualizes and depersonalizes business rela-
tions and fosters an objective stance toward business. But as Weber shows us,
efforts to rationalize can be hard-fought battles. Those who benefit from an ex-
isting system of authority often resist mightily the intrusion of commensura-
tion that threatens their privilege (Swetz 1987:181–82; Weber 1981:224).
The efficiency of bureaucracies and economic transactions depends on
their growing depersonalization and objectification. The impersonality of eco-
nomic and bureaucratic rationality is vastly enhanced by commensuration, be-
cause it standardizes relations between disparate things and reduces the rele-
vance of context. This impersonality is hostile to ethical systems that depend
on personal ties, which explains why religious elites often have aligned with
aristocrats to protect patriarchal relations.
One way to think about the tension between ethical systems and formal ra-
tionality is to conceptualize it as a contest over the limits of commensuration.
Ethical and political systems based on personal relations often emphasize the
uniqueness of individuals or the distinctive relations between certain catego-
ries of individuals. But rational systems depend on numerous forms of com-
mensuration, on bureaucracies that strictly separate offices from their incum-
COMMENSURATION 321
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bents, and on the elaborate rules that define offices. One might interpret formal
rationality as rendering offices unique and the people who hold the offices
commensurable. In this way, the incommensurability of individuals that is ba-
sic to much ethics confronts the radical commensuration of formal rationality.
Conflicts generated by such confrontations are irreconcilable.
Where Weber emphasized the technical superiority of rational forms, Sim-
mel was attentive to their symbolic and constitutive power. He investigated
how our collaboration with social forms changes us. Simmel’s (1978) ex-
tended analysis of money offers a brilliant analysis of commensuration. Sim-
mel sees money as largely responsible for the increasing divergence between
the objective and subjective culture that characterizes modern life. Money
speeds up the pace of the production of cultural forms, making it harder for in-
dividuals to assimilate them. Money advances the development of people’s in-
tellectual faculties over their emotional faculties because of its vibrant instru-
mentality, its character as the “perfect tool.” This quality extends the causal
connections we make between things to such an extent that the end point, the
ultimate value, becomes obscure. This is what accounts for the “calculating
character of modern times,” where people become obsessed with “measuring,
weighing, and calculating”(Simmel 1978:443–44).
When a form becomes taken for granted as a means of understanding rela-
tionships and values, things that are hard to assimilate to the form seem in-
creasingly unreal. Money also contributes to the transformation of substantive
values into money values; this homogenizes life, but it also offers autonomy,
even freedom. Simmel concludes his analysis with a profound point: Over
time, money increasingly approximates a pure symbol of the relativity of value
and of the relativistic character of existence more generally—a character that
money helped to define (Simmel 1978:512).
Simmel’s insights about money can be usefully extended to other forms of
commensuration. Utility, for example, is an even more enveloping form of
relativity because it embodies the relativity of all value, even of those things
without prices. Utility can precisely convey any value and its relation to any
other value, whether it is fresh air, children, or even death.3
The compulsion to create forms stems from our need to make sense of the
world, but as Simmel understood, forms may possess a force that seems to ad-
here to them independent of their users. Forms create expectations as well as
coherence, and a form’s familiarity encourages our complicity. This complic-
322 ESPELAND & STEVENS
33One important difference between money and other forms of commensuration is that some
commensurated forms are even more abstract than money, having no tangible existence that makes
their symbolic expression less distant. Utility cannot be inscribed with the faces of queens, so
perhaps this makes it a less effective symbol. Because some forms of commensuration, including
money, are so closely tied to our notions of rationality, these forms can symbolize rationality.
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ity enhances the rhetorical appeal of forms and is one reason we find them
compelling (see Burke 1969:58–59). Commensuration encourages us to be-
lieve that we can integrate all our values, unify our compartmentalized worlds,
and measure our longings.
Fundamental to classical critiques of modernity, commensuration is also
central to many contemporary versions of rational choice theory. Rational
choice theory varies in its assumptions, goals, and applications, but many ver-
sions make commensuration a prerequisite for rationality. Steinbrunner
(1974:25–46) characterizes rational choice theory as deriving from three key
assumptions: First, that separate dimensions of values are integrated via trade-
offs in a deliberate balancing of competing claims of values. Integration is ac-
complished by creating some metric that gives the worth of one value in terms
comparable to the other, and this commensuration of values must occur in ad-
vance of the final analysis of outcomes. Utility conceptually integrates values;
it is a measure of absolute value, an ideal measure that would subsume all di-
mensions of value and provide a basis for making comparisons between
choices. Second, alternative outcomes are evaluated and analyzed based on
predictions about their consequences. Third, people adjust their expectations
as more is known about how alternatives will perform, but these new expected
outcomes are evaluated by the same metric.
WHY COMMENSURATION MATTERS
Investigating commensuration is important because it is ubiquitous and de-
mands vast resources, discipline, and organization. Commensuration can radi-
cally transform the world by creating new social categories and backing them
with the weight of powerful institutions. Commensuration is political: It re-
constructs relations of authority, creates new political entities, and establishes
new interpretive frameworks. Despite some advocates’ claims, it is not a neu-
tral or merely technical process.
Commensuration is everywhere, and we are more likely to notice failures of
commensuration than its widespread, varied success. Our faith in price as a
measure of value is so naturalized that we now routinely simulate markets for
elusive and intangible qualities. Although efforts to price tubing might have
failed, there are well-established procedures for attaching prices to everything
from corporate goodwill to surrogate pregnancies.
Where markets do not exist they are often invented. Corporations routinely
create internal markets for the goods and services produced by subunits, and
these fictive prices matter enormously in people’s jobs (Eccles 1985). Some
business schools require students to bid for their courses. Economists advocate
creating markets in pollution to help curtail both pollution and theoretically
unsavory externalities (Baumol & Oates 1979). Insurers work to quantify such
COMMENSURATION 323
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consequential uncertainties as the professional reputations of their clients
(Heimer 1985).
Economists have developed dazzling techniques for measuring utility, and
its conceptual and practical influence is hard to overstate. There is hardly an is-
sue in government that is not framed by the logic of cost-benefit analysis; its
deployment in matters of health care and safety (Jasanoff 1989, Weisbrod
1961), education and environment (Smith 1984), and program evaluation (Kee
1994:456–88) is routine. Social science is often synonymous with measure-
ment and model-building. Commensuration is fundamental to management,
regardless of whether its object is art or widgets. Bureaucrats and analysts use
sophisticated decision models requiring commensurated values when making
decisions on everything from welfare to warfare. We devote enormous re-
sources to commensuration. We have industries, agencies, and disciplines
dedicated to measuring and managing risk (Heimer 1985, Jasanoff 1986, Clark
1989), measuring public opinion, quantifying intelligence (Carson 1993),
simulating prices (Portney 1994), assessing values, and making decisions—all
of which depend on our capacity to commensurate anything.
Commensuration is a radical social form, partly because of the assumptions
that inform its use. Its long associations with rationality make it ideologically
potent. Assuming that values can be made commensurate and that commensu-
ration is a prerequisite to rationality are powerful ideas. Embedded in this logic
is another assumption: that all value is relative and that the value of something
can be expressed only in terms of its relation to something else. This form of
valuing denies the possibility of intrinsic value, pricelessness, or any absolute
category of value. Commensuration presupposes that widely disparate or even
idiosyncratic values can be expressed in standardized ways and that these ex-
pressions do not alter meanings relevant to decisions.
Commensuration is radically inclusive. It offers an abstract form of unity
that can potentially encompass any valued thing. Whether commensuration is
accomplished in a price, utility curve, cost-benefit ratio, or multi-attribute
trade-off scheme, any value or preference can be made commensurate with
any other. The capacity to create relationships between virtually anything is
extraordinary in that it simultaneously overcomes distance (by creating ties
between things where none before had existed) and imposes distance (by ex-
pressing value in such abstract, remote ways). In doing so, commensuration
creates new things, new relations among disparate and remote things, and
changes the meanings of old things (Goody 1986).
According to Hacking (1990:181–95), from 1820 to 1840, unprecedented
and nearly universal numerical enthusiasm produced an “avalanche of num-
bers.” One result was the discovery of an astonishing number of regularities: in
worker illness, suicide, crime, epidemics, and childbearing. Determinism was
a casualty of the exponential growth in the production of numbers, as quests
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for “exactness” gave way to relentless efforts to understand and tame chance.
Another consequence was the rapid proliferation of categories—categories in-
vented to name and sort the newfound regularities, categories that then became
constitutive.
The category of “society,” Porter argues, is largely a statistical construct
(1995:37, 1986:156–57). The regularities revealed in suicide and crime could
not be attributed to individuals. A broader category was needed to account for
them, and beginning around 1830, they were designated properties of society.
Such regularities were powerful evidence of the autonomous existence of soci-
ety, of “collective forces,” as Durkheim famously argued (1951:297–325;
Hacking 1990:182). Society was soon understood as an aspect of life even
more basic than state (Collini 1980:203). Interpreted as statistical laws that
governed naturally, these regularities helped buttress laissez-faire liberalism.
But the invention of crime rates in the 1830s and of unemployment rates some
70 years later as societal characteristics helped define these as collective re-
sponsibilities worthy of reform, rather than the just desserts of unworthy per-
sons (Himmelfarb 1991:41).
Even controversial or artificial-seeming products of commensuration, once
backed by powerful institutions, become real, fateful, and autonomous. As
Porter notes (1995:41–42), bureaucrats and activists have turned Americans of
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Iberian, and Central and South American de-
scent into “Hispanics.” Once such statistical categories become routinized in
bureaucracies or written into law, they became increasingly real and fateful.
Deployed by bureaucrats and politicians, distributed by media, and analyzed
by social scientists, their use gives them meaning, consequence, and objectiv-
ity. Official statistics become, in Latour & Woolgar’s term (1986), “black
boxes” that are hard to discredit or even to open.
Economic integration requires commensuration. The capacity to commen-
surate time, labor, product, monies, and securities has helped create a world
where a powerful, if invisible, relationship exists between the unemployed fac-
tory worker in the United States and the child laborer in Malaysia.4Commen-
suration makes possible precise comparisons across vast cultural and geo-
graphical distances that allow transactions fundamental to global markets. The
worldwide ascendancy of finance and service industries has propelled com-
mensuration, one by-product of which is an increasing polarization of wealth.
COMMENSURATION 325
44Commensuration was central to Taylor’s (1947) efforts to control labor. Armed with
stopwatches and calculations, scientific management would reduce work to its most elemental,
standardized forms; Taylor wished to make management a scientific endeavor governed by rules
and calculations and to transform relations between workers and managers by depersonalizing
authority (Bendix 1956:274–81). The wages and perks of many Americans who talk on phones for
a living are linked to performance evaluations performed by computers that track the volume and
length of their calls and the seconds between them (Schwartz 1994:240–41).
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The development of an international property market means that real estate
prices in Manhattan are linked to those in London or Paris and are shaped by
flows of capital from Japan or Hong Kong (Sassen 1994:5–6, 99–117). Japa-
nese investors’ forays into New York real estate, for example, drove up prices
and squeezed many small businesses out of the market.
When built into large institutions, commensurative practices are powerful
means for coordinating human action and making possible automated deci-
sion-making. Sophisticated forms of commensuration have transformed our fi-
nancial markets. Computer programs that continually search for discrepancies
between stock prices, futures, and options prices have generated new invest-
ment strategies and have mechanized a broad array of investment decision-
making. Now, distinctions are made between “discretionary” traders, who rely
on their own judgment and “system” traders, who rely on mechanically pro-
duced signals to make decisions (Lucas & Schwartz 1989).
Techniques for commensurating are not evenly distributed. These patterns
may reflect longstanding interests in commensuration, where those with the
most to gain from commensuration have become its most sophisticated practi-
tioners. Not surprisingly, water development agencies had sophisticated meth-
ods for calculating the benefits of dams long before they devised these for
costs (Espeland 1993). Other biases exist. Units of analyses are often used that
obscure the distributional effects of policies. Cost-benefit analyses that “dis-
count the future” favor immediate benefits and distant costs over long-term
benefits and immediate costs. This spurs development at the expense of envi-
ronmental costs (Schnaiberg 1980:334–44). Even more fundamentally, pre-
suppositions for commensuration often reflect assumptions about commodifi-
cation that are inherently political and asymmetrical (Radin 1996, Sunstein
1994).
And finally, efforts to translate incommensurable values into commensu-
rated value not only can distort the character of people’s investments but can
repudiate identities that are closely linked to incommensurable values.
INCOMMENSURABLES
Commensuration sometimes transgresses deeply significant moral and cul-
tural boundaries. Defining something as incommensurate is a special form of
valuing. Incommensurables preclude trade-offs. An incommensurable cate-
gory encompasses things that are defined as socially unique in a specific way:
They are not to be expressed in terms of some other category of value. Follow-
ing Raz (1986:326–29), we broadly define something as incommensurable
when we deny that the value of two things is comparable. An incommensura-
ble involves a “failure of transitivity,” where neither of two valuable options is
better than the other and there could exist some other option that is better than
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one but not the other. [Anderson (1995) and Sunstein (1994) offer slightly dif-
ferent definitions.]
The importance of incommensurable categories will vary, partly because
the significance of this symbolic boundary varies. Their salience depends on
how passionate we feel about them, on their centrality in defining our roles and
identities, and on how much effort is required to breach them. Their impor-
tance also depends, as Simmel would argue, on the relative status of their op-
positional form, commensuration. The extension of commensuration into
more spheres of life may make incommensurable categories more meaningful,
their defense more necessary. This extension may produce paradoxical effects,
as when “pricing” children in law, labor, and insurance shifted the terms of
their value from primarily economic to moral and emotional. Children became
priceless (Zelizer 1985).
Sometimes trivial things are incommensurable. If I cannot choose between
chocolate cake and lemon pie, and adding whipped cream to the cake doesn’t
make it better or worse, these desserts are formally incommensurable but
hardly significant for how I understand myself or how I treat others. Some-
times incommensurables are expressed for purely strategic reasons, as a bar-
gaining position. One way to get more leverage or a better price during nego-
tiations is to assert the incommensurability of something. Labeling something
as bargaining in order to discredit claims can also be a political response
(Espeland 1998).
But incommensurables can be vital expressions of core values, signaling to
people how they should act toward those things. Identities and crucial roles are
often defined with incommensurable categories. Believing that something is
incommensurable can qualify one for some kinds of relationships. When in-
commensurable categories are important for defining how to “be,” Raz calls
them “constitutive incommensurables” (Raz 1986:345–57). People facing a
choice involving a constitutive incommensurable will often refuse to partici-
pate; for some, the idea of such a choice is abhorrent.
For Yavapai residents whose ancestral land was threatened by a proposed
dam, land was a constitutive incommensurable (Espeland 1998). The Yavapai
understood themselves in relation to this specific land. Valuing land as an in-
commensurable was closely tied to what it means to be Yavapai. The rational
decision models used by bureaucrats to evaluate the proposed dam required
that the various components of the decision be made commensurate, including
the cost and consequences associated with the forced resettlement of the Yava-
pai community. This way of representing Yavapai interests and expressing the
value of their land was a contradiction of those values and of Yavapai identity.
There are many other, common examples of constitutive incommen-
surables. Two of Raz’s examples are children and friends. Believing that the
value of children is not comparable to money and that the very idea of ex-
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changing a child for money is repugnant is fundamental to being a good parent.
The inappropriateness of using commercial means for valuing children is one
way we define good parenting. Likewise, believing that friendship cannot be
bought or that what we derive from our friendship with a person is distinctive
and cannot be had with any other person is basic to what it means to be a good
friend. Thinking that our friends were somehow interchangeable could keep us
from having genuine friendships. The pain of selling a childhood home, the re-
luctance some feel about selling their blood, our disapproval of sex for profit,
or even faculty qualms over ranking graduate students or evaluating subordi-
nates compared to “benchmarks” are examples of people grappling with in-
commensurable categories. Believing in incommensurables is a way to limit
what can be rationally chosen, and this can be an important social relationship.
Just as commensuration is a considerable social accomplishment, so too the
creation of incommensurables requires work. Some party must draw bounda-
ries around the thing whose value is to be kept, or made, distinctive and then
defend the boundaries from encroachment. Sometimes these tasks are the pur-
view of experts: art critics and museum professionals who certify some objects
as masterworks or as especially worth exhibiting (Becker 1982, Alexander
1996); attending physicians who invoke clinical wisdom and professional
privilege to designate some medical cases extraordinary (Bosk 1979). Some-
times these tasks are the purview of intimate others: the mothers and fathers of
premature newborns, for example, who are encouraged by hospital staff to
name their babies, dress them in clothes brought from home, personalize their
ward cribs with toys and photographs, and otherwise mark their infants as
unique (Heimer & Staffen 1998). In still other instances the production of in-
commensurables is the main business of entire organizations, even bureau-
cratic ones: preservation agencies, for example, that designate official historic
sites, landmark neighborhoods, and wildlife habitats, as well as the organiza-
tions that do the grunt work of enforcing the rules. Whether they are priceless
artworks, national treasures, or precious children, incommensurable things are
often regarded as somehow sacred, and like all sacred objects, their distinct-
iveness is defined through symbols and ritual. This marking can be elaborate,
or mundane: For example, the sequestering of certain cash in a special jar or
drawer can define it as money for distinctive purposes and thus incommensu-
rable with other savings (Zelizer 1994).
STUDYING COMMENSURATION
Commensuration is a general social process, it is political, and it is capable of
transforming social relations. It deserves closer, systematic scrutiny. We next
offer core guiding questions that help reveal variation in how naturalized, how
fateful, and how resisted commensuration can be.
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How Institutionalized Is the Commensurative Act?
Instances of commensuration vary by how institutionalized they are, that is,
they vary in how automatically commensuration gets done and in how natural
the process seems to involved parties. [This conception of institutionalization
is indebted to Garfinkel 1967, Berger & Luckmann 1966, and the work of John
Meyer and his colleagues (e.g. Meyer 1971, Zucker 1977, Jepperson 1991).]
Attending to institutionalization enables us to appreciate the extent to which
commensuration constructs what it measures.
Some instances of commensuration are so deeply institutionalized that they
help to constitute what they purport to measure. For example, futures traders
buy and sell agricultural commodities by virtue of standardized grading sys-
tems that constitute products for entire industries. Grading systems create ex-
plicit categories of relative quality, and hence relative value, that make possi-
ble trade in products that may not yet exist (Cronon 1991:97–147; Porter
1995:45–48). Rankings of academic institutions, which purport to measure
relative quality according to some common metric of excellence, sometimes
prompt members to reevaluate their perceptions of their own schools (Elsbach
& Kramer 1996). As our earlier example suggests, institutions often respond
directly to raters’ criteria; even if members dispute the accuracy or legitimacy
of rankings, they are too fateful to ignore.
Some commensurative practices exist only in theory, such as comparable-
worth wage programs. Intended to improve chronic income disparities be-
tween women and men, comparable-worth programs commensurate skill and
pay levels between traditionally female and traditionally male occupations
(England 1992). But comparable-worth advocates have met with very little
success in implementing such policies or even in securing judicial approval of
them (Nelson & Bridges 1998). Such instances of commensuration are weakly
institutionalized because so few parties use them. Little more than an argument
(however good a one), this commensuration effectively exists only on paper.
But what determines the extent to which a commensurative act gets institu-
tionalized? Phenomenological sociology suggests a preliminary answer. Ber-
ger & Luckmann argue that socially constructed meaning becomes more fact-
like when it is objectivated or reified, that is, when social practices are organ-
ized to sustain the appearance that meaning stands outside of individual sub-
jectivity, as part of the world (1966:47–92; Berger 1967:3–24). In keeping
with this insight, we argue that as commensuration gets built into practical or-
ganizations of labor and resources, it becomes more taken for granted and
more constitutive of what it measures. Thus, however arbitrary, the Chicago
Board of Trade’s standardized grades of grain quality became ever more con-
stitutive of what they measured as the number of parties who used the meas-
ures grew: not only farmers and merchants, but also elevator operators, banks,
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the trade press, and ultimately the state legislature. In time, Chicago business-
men could make or lose fortunes trading in futures—commodities that exist
only by virtue of a commensuration system (Cronon 1991:97–147).
Institutionalization as reification enables us to make predictions about the
potential trajectory of other commensurative practices. We might expect, for
example, that college rankings will become more constitutive of what they
measure as their audiences expand: parents considering where to send their tui-
tion dollars, faculty plotting careers at prestigious schools, and foundations
whose grant-giving attends to such measures of institutional quality. On the
other hand, commensurative acts that fail to get etched into practice, such as
comparable-worth policies, will remain the purview of academic specialists
and disappointed reformers.
How Does Commensuration Refract Power Relations?
Some proponents see commensuration as a technology of inclusion. This
makes it especially valuable in democratic, pluralistic societies (Stokey &
Zeckhauser 1978). Commensuration offers an adaptive, broadly legitimate de-
vice for conferring a formal parity in an unequal world; for pragmatic reform-
ers, this is a hopeful beginning (Espeland 1998, Brown 1984). In decisions
characterized by disparate values, diverse forms of knowledge, and the wish to
incorporate people’s preferences, commensuration offers a rigorous method
for democratizing decisions and sharing power.
For supporters, the discipline of commensuration creates robust, “objec-
tive” knowledge that can constrain power. For example, Marx used the “moral
statistics” of his day as essential weapons in his indictment of capitalism; We-
ber (1978:225) saw commensuration facilitating the leveling effects of bureau-
cratic rationality by providing sturdy mechanisms for challenging old forms of
privilege; today, discrimination is often fought most effectively with numbers,
by lawyers girded with statistics; and when standardized tests are used in hir-
ing decisions, the odds for minorities can improve (Neckerman & Kirschen-
man 1991).
Critics of commensuration come from both the right and left. Conservatives
disdain its equalizing effects, the loss of elite discretion that it fosters. Left-
leaning critics see commensuration as another conduit of power that mystifies
power relations, partly by emphasizing results at the expense of process and
distribution (e.g. Tribe 1971, 1972). Commensuration, in propelling “deci-
sionism,” helps sustain the pretense that facts and values can be separated, that
politics can be rendered technical (Habermas 1973:253–82).
But commensuration is not merely a tool of the powerful, a way to wage in-
terest politics numerically. Porter (1995) argues that recourse to quantitative
methods evinces weak authority. The spread of quantitative expertise repre-
sents a quest for “mechanical objectivity”—knowledge whose authority is
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based on close adherence to quantitative rules. Mechanical objectivity is most
valued when decision-making is dispersed, when it incorporates diverse
groups, when powerful outsiders must be accounted to, when decisions are
public and politicized, and when decision-makers are distrusted. The legiti-
macy offered by numbers diminishes autonomy, because discretion is replaced
by disciplined methods. This is why quantitative technologies are the province
of weak elites and why they are resisted by those whose authority depends on
expert judgment, character, or informal knowledge.
Understanding commensuration as a calculus of power requires that we ap-
preciate the various guises of power, whether these are obvious or opaque,
strategic or constitutive. While examples of numbers malleable enough to con-
form to powerful interests are easy to find (e.g. Delaney 1994), commensura-
tion, once launched, can become hard to control. Strategic commensuration,
our capacity to create numbers that reflect our will, is perhaps greatest when
commensuration is less public and less accessible and when methods are new
or not grounded in academic theory (which creates new partisans). Those who
think they can manipulate numbers at will are often proved wrong in the long
run.
Commensuration’s constitutive power is perhaps an even more formidable
force, altering the people and places where it intrudes. The capacity to create
new categories and enforce mechanical objectivity are consequential powers,
ones often associated with states or firms. Official statistics may be more im-
portant for the subjects they create (“Hispanics,” “the unemployed,” “gifted
children”) than for the technical advantage this knowledge confers. Once the
categories are in place, people’s behavior increasingly conforms to them. This
is not the obvious power of coercion but the more elusive, passive power of
discipline, increasingly self-inflicted. The validity of censuses, test scores, or
public opinion polls requires complicity from their subjects. Individuals are
made governable (Foucault 1991:87–104) and numbers become self-vindi-
cating (Porter 1995:45) when measures guide the activities being measured or
shape the images of those whose characteristics they measure.
Commensuration produces depersonalized, public forms of knowledge that
are often deemed superior to private, particularistic forms of knowing (Reddy
1984). The authority of those who know most about something can be under-
mined by the rigorous methods of distant, if less informed, officials. For exam-
ple, before measures were standardized by states, regions and villages often
had their own distinctive measures. Such heterogeneity in measurement en-
hanced the salience of local knowledge and facilitated negotiability. A “just
price” for a unit of grain could be accomplished by peasant strategies for ma-
nipulating how densely packed it was. This flexibility favored local interests
over state powers; hence rulers often eagerly imposed new, standardized
measures (Kula 1986).
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Commensuration refracts power in many ways. It can enlarge decision-
making or legitimate preordained decisions. It can be cynically manipulated
by elites or it can limit their discretion. It can create disciplined subjectivities
or arm dissenters. This variety makes commensuration a useful lens for inves-
tigating the multiple forms of power.
When Are Claims about Incommensurables Made?
Perhaps because of their ability to constitute value and alter power relations,
some instances of commensuration generate discontent. Claims that some val-
ues are incommensurable—that they cannot or should not be ordinarily com-
pared with other values—are not uncommon. Nor are they random. We hy-
pothesize that the most frequent and most durable claims about incommensur-
ability occur at the borderlands between institutional spheres, where different
modes of valuing overlap and conflict. We suspect also that claims about in-
commensurables are likely when commensuration threatens some cherished
identity.
Friedland & Alford (1991:232) define institutions as both supraorganiza-
tional patterns of activity and symbolic systems through which we give mean-
ing to activity. Because societies are complexes of multiple institutions, they
are characterized by multiple modes of valuing. We value monetarily when we
enter a labor or commodity market; emotionally when espousing friendship or
love for children or a mate; and bureaucratically when we gauge merit or fault
by reference to formal rules. These different modes of valuing are not neces-
sarily consistent with one another. A job that pays well may estrange us from
loved ones if it requires a move to another city. Meticulous devotion to formal
rules may make us adequate bureaucrats but horrible friends (Heimer 1992).
Institutional theorists argue that inconsistency and contradiction between
institutions can be opportunities for social innovation and change (Orren &
Skowronek 1994, Clemens 1997) but also sites of deep struggle as different
modes of behaving, cognizing, and valuing conflict (Friedland & Alford
1991). We suspect that claims about incommensurables are likely to arise at
the borderlands between institutions, where what counts as an ideal or normal
mode of valuing is uncertain, and where proponents of a particular mode are
entrepreneurial.
Debate surrounding commercial surrogate motherhood provides a clear ex-
ample of dispute about incommensurables at the borderlands between institu-
tions. Sometimes called contract pregnancy, commercial surrogate mother-
hood is a reproductive arrangement in which, for a fee, a woman agrees to be-
come pregnant, carry the child, and relinquish her parental rights after delivery
(see Anderson 1993:168–69). The practice has generated considerable contro-
versy among feminists and legal scholars (e.g. Moody-Adams 1991, Satz
1992, Radin 1996). For its critics, commercial surrogate motherhood is an en-
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croachment of market modes of valuing into intimate spheres of life. To com-
bat the encroachment, some argue that “[w]omen’s labor is not a commodity”
(Anderson 1995:189, original emphasis), nor are the children born of that la-
bor (Radin 1996:136–53).
What makes commercial surrogate motherhood a locus of claims about in-
commensurables? The practice exists in a social space where neither intimate
nor market modes of valuing are hegemonic. As the legal scholar Margaret
Radin notes, the distinction between the baby-selling of commercial surrogate
motherhood and the baby-giving of traditional adoption arrangements—in
which adoptive parents often wait for a child of a particular race or age and pay
many costs associated with pregnancy—is a fragile one (Radin 1996:136–53).
In such uncertain terrain we are likely to find vocal advocates for one or an-
other mode of valuing, and claims about incommensurables can be viable
weapons in the struggle to control the contested turf.
Incommensurables will also be claimed where entrepreneurs of one mode
of valuing wish to move in to novel terrain. Radin’s careful bid for the market
incommensurability of children (1996), for example, is a direct response to
celebrated arguments for a market in them (Posner 1992:150–54; Landes &
Posner 1978; Becker 1981).
Claims about incommensurables are also likely when commensuration
threatens a cherished identity. When commensuration seems to discount some
component of the self, the short-changed may disavow the implicating mode
of valuing. Like their forbearers in the alternative-school movement (Swidler
1979), many parents who home school their children are suspicious of letter
grading and formal achievement tests that enable their children’s skills to be
compared quantitatively with those of other children. Deeply protective of the
individuality of their children, home schoolers fear that standardized perform-
ance measures at best prevent, at worst erode, a conception of children as
uniquely gifted persons (Stevens 1996).
Because collective identities are often defined symbolically, efforts to com-
mensurate symbolic objects with other valuables can meet with fierce resis-
tance. Because geographic territory is often deeply symbolic of national iden-
tity, for example, disputes over territorial sovereignty are often long and bitter.
The impassioned territorial commitments of Israeli and Palestinian peoples
have confounded countless efforts to commensurate territorial interests at dip-
lomatic bargaining tables (Friedland & Hecht 1996).
That claims about incommensurables are sometimes made by parties who
may risk loss suggests that such claims may be more strategic than constitu-
tive. It is tempting to infer that claims of incommensurability are themselves a
kind of bargaining strategy, akin to bluffing in a poker game to cover a bad
hand or to up an opponent’s ante. Surely some claims of incommensurability
are strategic in this way. But claims about incommensurables may also simul-
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taneously reflect deeply held convictions and clever bet-hedging. People who
lose their community to an industrial disaster may find the symbolic void irre-
placeable but will also use that loss as grounds for material compensation
(Erikson 1976). Disentangling the constitutive from the strategic in claims
about incommensurables requires careful empirical work and recognition that
people often have multiple and even contradictory incentives.
COMMENSURATION IN ACTION
We believe that attention to commensuration provides novel insights into es-
tablished fields of sociological inquiry. To conclude, we illustrate how such an
analytic focus might inform work in three broad substantive areas: gender and
work, politics and social movements, and institutional sociology. Our goal is
to sketch the potential utility of this way of theorizing in order to encourage
further and more systematic efforts.
Feminist Commensuration and Its Discontents
That commensuration has the potential to transform what it measures is dem-
onstrated in the repeated efforts of feminists to value household work in met-
rics used to quantify paid labor. Nineteenth-century reformers (Siegel 1994),
twentieth-century feminists, and social scientists have sought to re-value the
typically unpaid cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and household management
tasks women do for their families in metrics of time and output. The goals of
such efforts have been multiple: to implicate housework in broader critiques of
capitalism (Luxton 1980, Hartmann 1981); to quantify unequal distributions
of domestic work between men and women (e.g. Walker & Woods 1976,
Hochschild 1989); to argue for paid housework (Oakley 1976:226); and to em-
phasize how much of housework is a low-status chore (Mainardi 1970). How-
ever, some women have been reluctant to commensurate their own home work
with paid labor, which suggests both a symbolic boundary around domestic re-
lationships and a fissure between feminist and “pro-family” women that the
analytic lens of commensuration can help to define.
Central to “modern” conceptions of family (see Stacey 1990:3–19) is the
belief that family relations are of a fundamentally different character than
those of the marketplace: Families are havens partly because relations among
family members are governed by something more than self-interested individ-
ual calculation (Lasch 1977). If families are partly defined by their nonmarket
exchanges, then attempts to commensurate these exchanges with labor market
transactions may undermine the distinctiveness of familial relations. If house-
hold work is made formally commensurate with other forms of paid labor, then
families appear more like the nodes of resource agglomeration, consumption,
and social reproduction that some economic theory imagines (Becker 1981)
334 ESPELAND & STEVENS
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and less like the havens envisioned by “pro-family” movements both historical
and contemporary (e.g. Ryan 1981, Martin 1996).
The transformative potential of commensurating housework with other
kinds of labor is double-edged. Feminists who have advocated direct compari-
sons have done so in order to alter women’s relationships to other family mem-
bers and to the broader labor force. By encouraging housewives to think of
themselves as workers, laboring under oppressive conditions, early liberal and
radical feminists sought to change women’s appraisals of their household
situations in ways that would incite them to domestic activism: At least, men
would do more and women less at home than the modern-traditional rules pre-
scribed (Hole & Levine 1971:85); at most, more equitable allocations of
housework and childrearing would allow radical new models of family (Fire-
stone 1970). The commensuration of housework with other kinds of labor has
helped feminists to argue convincingly that gender asymmetries in the division
of domestic work unjustly constrain women’s lives.
Other women have resisted workplace modes of valuing at home. Oppo-
nents of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) resisted the legislation partly be-
cause of how its advocates conceived of housework. The domestic arrange-
ments that feminists found so impoverishing were a way of life for millions of
women. Commensurating housewifery with other occupations and declaring it
wanting further undermined the already eroding status of angry homemakers
(Mansbridge 1986:90–117). Within the abortion controversy, many pro-life
activists object to the commensuration of motherhood with paid-work occupa-
tions. Many full-time homemakers believe that workplace logic diminishes
them, that their lives measured poorly on metrics of income, occupational at-
tainment, and personal autonomy (Luker 1984:158–215).
By commensurating housework with paid labor, feminists sought to trans-
form both social appraisals and the social organization of domestic work. By
most accounts, however, their efforts are only weakly institutionalized. Femi-
nists have succeeded in demonstrating the low status of housework and in al-
tering the life expectations of many women. But as Hochschild (1989:12)
states succinctly, “There has been a real change in women without much
change in anything else”: Men contribute only minimally more to household
duties, workplaces only reluctantly accommodate employees’ family de-
mands, and childcare remains a domestic, not a public or corporate, obliga-
tion.5And as the ERA and abortion battles make clear, feminist efforts to com-
COMMENSURATION 335
55In childcare, commensuration has also directed attention to other sorts of distinctions: quality
vs quantity time; individualized attention vs group socialization; daycare or preschool; a nearby
relative, a certified caregiver, or an imported au pair.With housework less emotionally loaded than
childcare, fewer distinctions seem necessary. Nevertheless, commensuration remains contested in
both arenas.
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mensurate domesticity have generated concerted arguments about incommen-
surables. Women invested in domesticity have found some of the feminist
equations deep threats to their identities.
Politics and Social Movements
Commensuration makes possible modern politics. Opinion polls, in eliciting
and organizing attitudes, create the object we call public opinion (Herbst
1998). Politics, as the art of compromise, is a broad instance of commensura-
tion. Political negotiation entails seeing one’s own interests as comparable to
the interests of others. Our conception of interests as a basic unit of political
analysis implies commensuration. When political disputes are framed as a
contest over interests, parties are granted a formal, categorical equality among
those with a political stake. Interest-group politics portrays outcomes as if dif-
ferences were a matter of magnitude—of how much something matters, or of
whose interests were served—rather than as disparate modes of investment in
the decision. Voting is one way to commensurate interests. Trading—of cam-
paign dollars for a sympathetic ear in office, of my vote on your project for
yours on mine (the essence of pork-barrel politics), of tit for tat at the bargain-
ing tables where multiple interest groups attempt to forge mutually advanta-
geous coalitions—requires that traders evaluate diverse interests along some
shared order of magnitude. Such commensurative acts are at the heart of nor-
mal politics, explaining puzzles such as why we have so many dams (Reisner
1986) or why tax reform requires sports stadiums (Birnbaum & Murray 1987).
Making qualitatively unlike interests comparable can be a formidable cogni-
tive achievement; that politicians, campaign contributors, and rank-and-file
voters do such commensurating all the time is testament to the extent to which
the equation of diverse values is commonplace in modern life. (Of course, the
mode of commensuration matters here: Trading votes is regarded as accept-
able political behavior; buying and selling them is not.)
But as many social-movement activists discovered, commensurative poli-
tics brings its own quandaries. Many New Left student activists of the 1960s
and 1970s avoided participation in normal party and electoral politics because
they believed that the structures of those institutions were morally flawed.
Some New Left activists equated negotiation and trading of interests with
moral compromise. For them, conventional political activism was suspect pre-
cisely because it required trade-offs among inviolable interests and illegiti-
mate ones. The New Left’s “great refusal” to participate in the commensura-
tive art of normal politics has been cited both as its greatest moral accomplish-
ment (Breines 1989) and as a cause of its ultimate political weakness (e.g. Git-
lin 1987).
The recent history of the Religious Right indicates just how consequential
choices to commensurate interests can be. Although a few conservative Chris-
336 ESPELAND & STEVENS
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tian leaders have long advocated translating the faith into political activism
(Ribuffo 1983), only relatively recently did large numbers of rank-and-file be-
lievers begin to conceive of themselves as distinctive players in the realm of
normal politics (Himmelstein 1990). A great accomplishment of conservative
Christian leaders since the 1970s has been convincing many rank-and-file
Christians to enact their faith in the political arena: Doing so has obliged be-
lievers to consider the comparability of their faith-based interests with the
more secular agendas of other conservative factions (e.g. Klatch 1987, Rozell
& Wilcox 1996). Typically cultural-traditionalists, conservative Christians co-
operated with libertarian and economic conservatives to win three consecutive
Republican presidencies (e.g. Himmelstein 1990, Martin 1996). But the be-
lievers were dismayed when their unequivocal stances on abortion, school
prayer, and homosexuality became compromisable interests at Washington
bargaining tables (Diamond 1995, Martin 1996). The powerful Christian Coa-
lition has recently confronted a difficult choice: holding close to policy posi-
tions dear to conservative Christians or becoming more flexible in its stances
on abortion, homosexuality, and other divisive issues in order to cooperate
with other interest groups and a wider array of politicians (e.g. Reed 1993).
Throughout its recent past, then, the Religious Right has wrestled with
whether, and how, to commensurate its faith-based commitments with the
secular parties and profane interests it encounters in the broader political
arena.
That some movement activists from left to right have been wary of the com-
promises normal politics requires suggests their awareness of the transforma-
tive potential inherent in commensurating disparate values.6When we opt to
negotiate with parties who do not share our vision of the world (e.g. members
of the “Establishment,” those not born again), we risk alienation of our inter-
ests. Negotiation requires commensurating with the enemy: It requires com-
paring the cherished with the reprehensible in ways that make the former less
distinctive, less incomparably valuable than it once was. Not surprisingly,
movements that stake their identities on incommensurables—radical democ-
racy, heavenly truths, and native lands, for examples—face a dilemma even
coming to the bargaining table.
(Of course, sometimes social movements embrace commensuration as a le-
gitimating device. For women’s reform organizations during the Progressive
Era, the substitution of money for personal service was a way for women to
COMMENSURATION 337
66Just as commensuration creates new social relations, so too does creating incommensurables.
Not all incommensurables carry the same cultural weight, but some things defined as
incommensurable may be subject to distinct rules of conduct. For example, family heirlooms
bestowed on particular persons are often subject to special uses and, except under extraordinary
conditions, are removed from markets.
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signal that theirs were serious, modern organizations. As Clemens (1997:
209–10) argues, these women understood that citizenship required cash.)
Institutional Sociology
The ability of commensuration to create new social relations and even new so-
cial entities is clear in recent work by institutional sociologists. Studies of the
elaboration and worldwide diffusion of census activity (Ventresca 1995) and
of formal accounting procedures (Meyer 1986, Miller & O’Leary 1987, Car-
ruthers & Espeland 1991) show how particular measuring, recording, and
ranking processes help to make and remake phenomena they ostensibly de-
scribe.
Ventresca (1995) argues that the worldwide diffusion of relatively stan-
dardized modes of census administration helped render different parts of the
world formally comparable. Shared counting procedures help shape how dif-
ferent populations make sense of one another and of themselves. With similar
censuses, societies with wildly disparate histories, cultures, and economic and
political structures are made to seem easily comparable. Vital statistics on
scores of nations can be aggregated, summarized, and ordinally ranked—on a
single page—facilitating charitable, diplomatic, and market linkages across
vast stretches of social and geographic space.
Studies of accountancy offer parallel pictures of commensuration practices
that make qualitative unlikes quantitatively comparable. Standardized ac-
counting procedures make a firm’s varied assets and liabilities, from raw mate-
rials to workers, uniformly calculable in monetary terms (Miller & O’Leary
1987) so as to produce values like “net worth.” Like census figures, net worth
is easily compared across firms (Carruthers & Espeland 1991). Such compara-
bility permits us to understand firms as financial portfolios rather than as pro-
ductive units. With accountants busy creating comparable bottom lines, execu-
tives can buy and sell firms while focusing on their profitability rather than on
what they produce (Espeland & Hirsch 1990, Fligstein 1991).
But commensuration does more than produce new relations. It can also pro-
duce new entities. Common to these quite different studies of censuses and ac-
counting procedures is the notion, informed in part by the work of Foucault
(1973, 1977, 1978), that preponderant administrative practices create what
they purport to describe. For example, Ventresca argues that modern census
procedures help to create the nation-states they quantify. Censuses define the
boundaries of state sovereignty by specifying just who is within those bounda-
ries and who is not. The very structure of a census as an official count of per-
sons assumes an aggregate relationship between nation and individual—the
nation-state is the individuals it counts. Censuses also reify these individuals,
marking them as non-, quasi-, or full citizens of a particular state and lending
338 ESPELAND & STEVENS
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broad cultural salience to those facets of individual identity about which cen-
sus counters, and their questionnaires, query (Ventresca 1995). In rendering
nation-states more comparable, censuses also constitute what they compare
(Desrosières 1990).
Conceptually similar processes characterize the rise of formal accounting
procedures. Accountants, promising information that will improve efficiency,
have historically sought ever more elaborate means of measuring labor output
and labor costs; such measurements enable designation of modal and optimal
levels of productivity against which many workers can be ranked and com-
pared. Accounts thus help to construct such organizationally consequential be-
ings as the average worker, the ideal worker, and the suboptimal worker
(Miller & O’Leary 1987).
Social critics from Simmel to Foucault have sought to portray how mod-
ernization reconstitutes human subjectivity and transforms long-established
social relations. Examining particular instances of commensuration may en-
able institutional scholars to better discern the mechanics of those changes.
Recent theoretical work underscores this potential. Neoinstitutionalists opera-
tionalize modernity as a “Western cultural account,” global in scope, that
among other things assumes the calculability of all social values. In that mod-
ern story, human progress is incremental: Only by measuring can individuals
or nation-states know how they are faring in personal or global history (Meyer
et al 1994). Acts of commensuration facilitate comparative measurement
across vast differences of sentiment, person, kind, culture, and nation. Ration-
alist, imperialist, and at times transformative, they may be key ways that we
make ourselves modern.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This research was supported in part by the Hamilton College Dean of Faculty.
Thanks to Michael Burawoy, Bruce Carruthers, Dennis Gilbert, Peter Levin,
Michael Lounsbury, Philip Klinkner, Kirk Pillow, and Marc Ventresca for
scholarly assistance. Detailed comments by an anonymous reviewer greatly
improved the effort.
Visit the Annual Reviews home page at
http://www.AnnualReviews.org.
COMMENSURATION 339
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340 ESPELAND & STEVENS
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In this concluding chapter, we propose a theorisation of an epistemic infrastructure in the context of the SDGs. Epistemic infrastructure, we argue, emerges on three conceptual levels. The first order of the epistemic infrastructure entails the materialities of measurement—the building blocks of the infrastructure such as data, indicators, visualisations, reports, etc. The second order involves the interlinkages—networks and connections linking experts, decision-makers, civil societies, activists, etc. The third level of infrastructure is the new governing paradigm, transforming global policy spaces. The key argument put forward in this chapter (and book overall) is that the process of global public policymaking is one of infrastructuring—creating and maintaining an epistemic infrastructure around the problems of sustainable development.
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Like most people, I have always found optical illusions fascinating. Figure 1 is a scale drawing of the world’s largest man-made optical illusion—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Although it appears to be at least 50 percent taller than it is wide, the height and width are actually equal. This optical illusion is an example of what I will call “judgmental illusions:” Somehow the mind is fooled into making an error of judgment. We all erroneously judge the arch’s height to be greater than its width.
Book
List of figures List of tables Preface 1. Introduction: psychology and anthropology I Part I. Theory in Practice: 2. Missionaries and cannibals (indoors) 3. Life after school 4. Psychology and anthropology II Part II. Practice in Theory: 5. Inside the supermarket (outdoors) and from the veranda 6. Out of trees of knowledge into fields for activity 7. Through the supermarket 8. Outdoors: a social anthropology of cognition in practice Notes References.