Towards a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society

By Singer, Benjamin | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Towards a Sociology of Standards: Problems of a Criterial Society


Singer, Benjamin, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract. In recent years, we have witnessed widescale quality problems in industries, professions and institutions, accompanied by arguments over causes of decline, and confusion over systems of standards assessment. Because there has been no general systematic attempt to comprehend standards -- their meaning, operation, decline -- across different institutions, I have suggested models for understanding the dynamics of standards, focusing upon the growth and problems generated by bureaucratized criterial systems in institutions such as medicine, law, education, science, mass culture, which clash with values and standards. Based on these issues, a proposal is made for the development of a social science of standards.

Resume. Dans les dernieres annees des problemes de qualite a grande echelle ont surgi dans les industries, professions et institutions. En constatant ces problemes, on a invoque des causes de declin et la confusion causee par les systemes d'evaluation selon des normes. Parce qu'il n'y a pas eu d'essai systematique general de comprendre les normes -- leur signification, leur mode d'operation et leur declin -- dans les differentes institutions, j'ai suggere des modeles pour comprendre la dynamique des normes. Je me suis concentre sur la croissance et les problemes generes par les systemes de bureaucratisation dans les institutions de medecine, de droit, d'education, de science et de culture de masse qui sont en conflit avec les valeurs et les normes. De ce fait, on propose de developper une science sociale de normes.

Social critics argue that societies pass through periods in which the standards of major institutions crumble. (1) During the past decade, for example, medicine, law, education, industry, accounting and science have been criticized for declining standards (Brinkley, 1985; Drill, 1985; Katz, 1984; Sullivan, 1987; Van Harrison, 1986). Government agencies and concerned physicians have estimated that as many as 45,000 incompetent physicians were practicing in the US (Brinkley, 1986); malpractice claims have risen sharply (Van Harrison, 1986: 3), medical schools have expanded too rapidly, recruiting too many students and inadequately testing them (Bergen, 1988). In science, repeated allegations of shoddy research and fraud have filled the pages of newspapers and journals (Singer, 1989; Goldstein, 1991). In education, the decline in standards, from elementary schools to universities, has been documented through extensive research on student and teacher proficiency testing (De Witt, 1991; Henry, 1994). Judges and lawyers have complained of the lack of competence of contemporary lawyers (Strehlow, 1981) and have criticized the excessive numbers turned out by law schools. (2) The accounting industry -- watch guard of fiscal matters in the largest US companies -- has come under unprecedented attack, spearheaded by Congressional hearings, for failure to "meet professional standards" in the massive collapse of savings and loan associations during the late 1980s (Wayne, 1989; Feinberg, 1987; Buchanan, 1991; Robinson, 1988.) American industry has suffered substantial losses because of the decline in quality (the largest auto maker, in spite of being defined as "excellent" lost nearly half its domestic market in the 1980s). The service industries have followed other industries and institutions in decline according to academic and business analysts (Quinn and Gagnon, 1986).

During this period, many books and articles dealing with the problems in quality have appeared, offering diverse and often disparate diagnoses and nostrums for what has appeared to be a widespread decline in standards (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Gabor, 1992; Dobyns and Crawford-Mason, 1991). Major professions and institutions have been rethinking and debating the way in which standards are developed, assessed and applied. In education, for example, Albert Shanker, spokesperson for American teachers, has publicized the debate over educational standards in a series of editorial advertisements in leading newspapers and magazines (Shanker, 1988, 1990); there has been spirited debate concerning the examinations produced by Educational Testing Service, and upon which much of the US educational establishment depends; and the way in which standards are applied in decisions on graduate fellowships in Canada has been questioned (Singer, 1994). …

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