PhD Thesis:

Speaking Out!

An Introductory Note

Today’s incredible longing for ultimate openness and accessibility of information – transparency – has resulted into an explosion of visualising objects that represent a certain reality – rankings. Transparency and rankings are inextricably linked: through producing representations of reality rankings imply the desire for transparency, and the other way around, the desire for transparency implies the use of rankings, as they enact the possibility to make the world become transparent. By making the world transparent, rankings enhance people’s decision-making processes, and, as such, make people’s lives easier. In their act of representing, rankings seem to have the intention to reveal what ‘really’ has happened. For instance, rankings provided by TripAdvisor seem to have the intention to provide information about how good the quality of food and service ‘really’ has been in a particular restaurant. Or hospital ranking reports, like the ones published by the Dutch magazine Elsevier Weekblad, present the ‘real’ quality of care a hospital has provided to its patients. By voluntarily giving help in providing open and accessible information to those in need – read: society – rankings almost function as a ‘charity’ for transparency. 

According to proponents of rankings, referring to almost everyone in society except for a bunch of crazy academics who like to think critically and philosophically about basically everything happening in society, rankings ought to be the ultimate instrument for transparency and accountability. Rankings have become instruments that turn organisations inside-out by creating representations of the ‘real’ organisational performances visualised in fancy full-coloured statistical graphs in glossy magazines – transparency – ready to be reviewed and judged by the public who expects the particular organisation to justify its actions or decisions when necessary – accountability. When such an ‘innocent’ instrument seems to be able to, putting it simply, simplify and visualise complex information in an often-user-friendly way resulting in information that is easily understandable and accessible for a broad audience, one could understand society’s predilection for rankings. 

‘Rankings will never be able to reach transparency; the only capacity they have is producing an illusion of transparency’

In other words, the seemingly infinite desire for transparency is responsible for making rankings ‘in vogue’ in current society. Rankings have become prevalent by slowly and secretly infiltrating into our society and conquering almost all societal domains, from finance, to the travel sector, education and healthcare. Not only organisations, but also individuals have become intrigued and sometimes even addicted to rankings, as they continuously measure, register, visualise and evaluate their performances or experiences compared to their peers. Hence, rankings, as innocent as they seem in making the invisible visible, have become a fetish and turned our world into a ‘Ranking Society’.

Besides the fact that such ranking related behaviour is enormously expensive, do not only think about increasing administration and marketing expenditures, but also about all the hours that one is distracted from his/her focus on the activities for achieving the primary necessities of life – economic principle: time=money – the fundamental issue that is at stake here is what I would like to call ‘Transparentitis’: the transparency disease. I define Transparentitis as (1) an unlimited desire to make as many as possible forms of performances visible through rankings; and (2) a strong belief that these rankings are real representations of reality. Many ranking-lovers – and in the case of Transparentitis ‘patients’ – whether organisations, governmental institutions or individuals, indeed belief that rankings reveal the ‘truth’ about individual or organisational performances, and that they can make decisions based on these rankings to improve their own performances or to hold others accountable. 

It is exactly here that I feel the necessity to intervene. After years of studying rankings, including reading lots of academic ranking literature and examining rankings in the field as an ethnographer, I have to admit that I have become a ranking-lover too. Obviously a different one, but neither a patient, nor a medical doctor who is going to cure this fast spreading disease through providing solutions in the form of medication or vaccines. Rather unfortunate, though. My apologies. What I will do is thoroughly examining rankings’ production, continuous reconfigurations and unintended consequences, and discussing their complexities and inabilities. By doing so, I intend to create awareness of the disease and hopefully prevent further contamination: Stop Transparentitis! 

It is this PhD trajectory that has offered me the opportunity to join the academic debate on rankings that criticises the mainstream belief that rankings are useful for increasing transparency and accountability. In trying to enrich the current knowledge on rankings, I have developed the philosophical concept of ‘Diffractivity’. This concept has enabled me to provide an additional and more profound understanding of how and why rankings do not increase transparency. In contrast, they do exactly the opposite. 

Although thoroughly illuminated in this thesis, I will provide a short explanation of this reversed act of rankings: (1) Rankings are produced through practices of pseudoscience: by simplifying complex reality into one quantified number, rankings move further away from reality, and as such create opaqueness rather than transparency. It leaves the producer and the user only with an illusion of reality; (2) Rankings also have many unintended consequences, not only for the users of the rankings, but also for the ranked items they intend to represent as for the rankings’ own form and meaning. As such, they do much more than only trying to mirror a certain reality; they are reactive, performative and diffractive; (3) Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, in the search for visibility they have the power to change reality: their act of making visible transforms the phenomenon being visualised. So, if we assume that reality is changing during the production of its representations, how can rankings then truly represent reality? Adopting such a perspective provokes, though elegantly, a feeling that we are fooled by the idea that we can grasp a sense of reality through the use of rankings. From this point of view, I argue that rankings will never be able to reach transparency; the only capacity they have is producing an illusion of transparency. 

It was this particular insight that brought me to the term ‘irony’. According to the Cambridge Dictionary it is formulated as: ‘A situation in which something, which was intended to have a particular result, has the opposite or a very different result’. Translated to rankings, this means that rankings intend to create transparency, but since they will never be able to, they are thus the opposite of what they are meant to be or meant to create. This is the irony of rankings.