Commensuration across commodities

Commensuration, the making comparable of qualitative differences via a common third metric, is valuable for its theoretical contributions to cultural economic sociology. It is a process that makes some things visible and hides others, resulting in an extremely impressive if underrated shaping of the social world. Qualitative distinctions across individual student applicants to college, for instance, are wiped out, replaced by test scores, GPA’s, and comparable lists of extracurricular activities. These social realities can be re-made visible (ie a system whereby individuals are judged as individuals with a whole portfolio), but then easy comparisons are made more difficult.

It is also central to the making of commodities, as I’ve argued before. But if you are deciding how to make real-world investments, it is worth understanding the criteria by which the commodities you are interested in are judged. This is not a direct ‘buy company x’, ‘sell company y’ kind of argument, just a way to help understand where experts are coming from. It is also where experts are most likely to be wrong in their misapplication of measures to the values they are measuring. That’s the Moneyball argument, that the ways that players were being commensurated were at best inaccurate.

In any case, I thought I’d post a table of what I have in mind, and see if it leads anyplace interesting. This is what blogs are for, right?

Commensuration, Across Commodities
Commodity Value Measure
Art Centrality Genre, Artist, Rarity, Provenance, Authenticity, Size, Aesthetic
Homes / Real Estate Desireability Size, Location, Rent/Income, Provenance, School District
Businesses Viability Earnings, Costs, Size of Market, Competitors, ‘moat’
Financial Futures Uncertainty ‘Value at Risk’ (Black-Scholes), Volatility
Baseball Players Productivity ERA, Average, HRs, On-base percentage, fan base

In these cases, the idea is that a simple quantified measure is not sufficient; you need to know enough content to understand the criteria used to make the transformative assessments of qualities through quantities. And though VaR has beautiful problems, it is in fact the ways that assessments across different kinds of financial instruments are made; likewise centrality, price per square foot, etc.

Incidentally, this conception I think bridges some of the more highfalutin discussions of performativity and social studies of finance to the more mundane world of organizations and work. But that’s not my point right here and now.

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