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The logic of quantification: institutionalizing numerical thinking

Hyunsik Chun & Michael Sauder (2021)

Theory and Society. Online first

Abstract. Quantification, in the form of accountability measures, organizational rankings, and personal metrics, plays an increasingly prominent role in modern society. While past research tends to depict quantification primarily as either an external intervention or a tool that can be employed by organizations, we propose that conceptualizing quantification as a logic provides a more complete understanding of its influence and the profound transformations it can generate. Drawing on a 14-month ethnographic study of Korean higher education and 100 in-depth interviews with key actors in this field, this study demonstrates four pathways through which the logic of quantification is embedded into organizations. Specifically, we show how this new logic reshaped organizational structure, practices, power, and culture—changes that in turn buttress and reproduce the logic. Theoretically, this study provides a new perspective on the deep institutionalization of quantification: why quantification is often intractable and “de-quantification” so rare. In addition, this work contributes to the organizational literature on institutional logics by demonstrating how prevailing logics build defenses to resist challengers and thus maintain their influence. Most generally, we consider how the self-reinforcing nature of this logic contributes to the intensification of rationalization in contemporary society.

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