Commensuration, again, and Transvaluation

Actually, I looked a bit at transvaluation, and it doesn’t seem to be quite the same thing. Or at least, as Inigo once said, it does not seem to mean what you think it means. As far as I can tell, transvaluation is more about the shifts from one value system to another (often in context of Nietzsche, seems to be applied often enough to the Chinese case).

What commensuration links to is a historical tradition dating further back, dare I say to Aristotle? Elizabeth Anderson’s work on value and ethics in economics gets at this, as does Porter’s look at the rise of quantification (what he calls ‘mechanical objectivity’). The idea is that once you can make things directly compare-able via an external metric (slightly different from, but related obviously to quantification), decisions become obvious. There need no longer be angst-y decisions about whether to take path A or path B – 4 is greater than 2, and that makes valuation transparent.

Transpose this onto the question of whether to drill for oil in Alaska or continue to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, and it becomes apparent (to sociologists at least) all the impossibly complicated factors that need to be taken into account. My favorite anecdote on this count is in Wendy Espeland’s The Struggle for Water. She recounts an economist trying to do a cost-benefit assessment of building a dam in Arizona – a commensurative feat if ever there was one. Part of this entailed figuring out how much to value river-tubing. There are standard techniques of forcing the social world into quantitative economic analyses, including (in this case) asking how much people would pay for the privilege of tubing if they had to. None of the poor intrepid economist’s models were robust or stable enough to account for this activity. And so, it was simply deleted from the equation.

The problem is, we have a serious deficiency, made worse by neoclassical models of economics, in evaluating qualitatively different objects, events, activities. This may be an organizational fact, part of a historical moment in the world. It may be a cognitive feature of being human. Beats me. But it has to be met head-on, I think, as part of the sociological project of re-evaluating both the relationship between the economic and the social (in the broadest sense) and the ways in which we allocate scarce resources (in the still-gigantic-but-less-broad sense).

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