Where Do Rankings Come From?
A Historical-Sociological Perspective on the History of Modern Rankings
Extant research tends to perceive rankings as a relatively new phenomenon. This chapter argues that rankings have a long history that we need to study if we want to explain the recent rise and the specific roles that they play in different societal fields. We start by defining rankings as modern practices of comparison that, by comparing performances quantitatively and publicly on a continual basis, contribute to the social construction of competitive fields. We particularly highlight what we call the performative dimension of modern rankings-that is, the fact that they visualize the results of comparisons and publish them on a regular basis. We use this concept as a heuristic tool to develop a sociological perspective on the historical trajectories of rankings in three fields: the arts, competitive sports, and science/universities. Our findings suggest that (1) the institutionalization of rankings can be traced back to a largely Anglo-American context in the mid-to-late nineteenth century when modern notions of performance, competition, and publicity/transparency created a favorable environment for their production and proliferation. They also indicate that (2) variation between the fields can be attributed to the degree to which these notions guide communication within these fields and to the different ways in which rankings have been institutionalized. This has led to a seamless integration in the case of sports and to constant debate and controversy in the other two fields.