The Quantified Scholar

How austerity, markets, and rankings transformed the British social sciences

How does the quantification of knowledge change the nature of science?

Using computational social science as a methodological hinge for the development of larger, mixed-method projects, The Quantified Scholar studies the effects of market-oriented quantifications of academic outputs on the careers and knowledge production practices of British social scientists from 1970 to the present. The project aims to make two distinct contributions. The first, relevant to the sociology of knowledge, involves answering the question of ‘what happens to disciplines when knowledge is measured and valued?’ The second deals with existing theories about quantification, showing the extent to which its consequences are mediated by the structures, hierarchies, and inequalities of organizational fields.

The empirical case for this project is the United Kingdom. Since 1986 and roughly every five years since, the British government has assessed the quality of research across the country’s publicly funded universities to optimize the allocation of the nation’s scarce research funding. Similar to an auction where departments submit evidence of their research to panels of experts for its evaluation, these research assessments have become an instituted feature of the British academic landscape and its organizational cultures, simultaneously evaluating academic outputs and defining the boundaries of the disciplines contained across the country’s public universities.

The starting point for studying these evaluations is an original, computer-generated dataset of that captures the careers of about 4,000 academics in anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology. Scraped and assembled using several information sources, this original dataset presents a unique platform for studying labor market dynamics and the effects of research evaluations on scholar’s careers. Equally important, however, the database allows linking scholars’ longitudinal career record to the texts they published through time. With computational analyses (including setups that incorporate topic models, information-theoretic measures of similarity, and semantic analysis to compare publications) it is possible to use these texts to identify the individual intellectual concerns of scholars and how they changed over time, transformations in departmental research cultures, and broader discipline-level changes in the patterns of knowledge production.

From these computational findings, I then use interviews with scholars and managers as well as institutional archives to shows how research assessments altered the professional trajectories of social scientists. In particular, I show that measuring knowledge made the British social sciences more homogeneous and less epistemically diverse and increased inequalities within and across institutions. The Quantified Scholar: How Markets and Rankings Transformed the British Social Sciences (under contract at Columbia University Press) makes an important contribution to our understanding of how the content of scientific knowledge is tied to the specific ways we organize academic labor markets, perform scholarly organizations, and quantify higher education.