The Organizational Engine of Rankings: Connecting “New” and “Old” Institutionalism

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

The Organizational Engine of Rankings: Connecting “New” and “Old” Institutionalism


  • Leopold Ringel Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany
  • Jelena Brankovic Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany
  • Tobias Werron Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany


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Abstract:  When explaining the ubiquity of rankings, researchers tend to emphasize macro or contextual phenomena, such as the power of or the trust in numbers, neoliberal forces, or a general spirit of competition. Meanwhile, the properties of rankers are rarely, if at all, taken into account. In contrast to the received wisdom, we argue that the institutionalization of rankings in different fields is also contingent upon another, often-neglected factor: Over time, rankers have become increasingly more organized. To investigate the role of ranking organizations, we look into the distinct properties of present-day rankings and highlight three dimensions along which rankings have evolved over the course of the twentieth century, namely, publication frequency, handling complex tasks, and audience engagement. On this basis, we argue that these dimensions have to a large extent been affected by formal organization and we show how ranking organizations have over time developed capacities to: (a) publish rankings on a continual basis; (b) handle the often complex production process by means of division of labor; and (c) generate considerable degrees of attention by addressing large and diverse audiences. On a more general note, we argue that accounting for the role of organization in the instutionalization of rankings requires a combination of insights from both “old” and “new” strands of thinking in institutional theory.

Keywords:  audiences; institutions; organizations; quantification; rankings

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i2.2576


© Leopold Ringel, Jelena Brankovic, Tobias Werron. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.