Résumé conférence 1 Patrick Aspers - Reducing Uncertainty

Lecture 1. Reducing Uncertainty

Uncertainty is an intriguing aspect of social life. Uncertainty is epistemic, future-oriented, and implies that we can neither predict nor foresee what will happen when acting. Many states of knowledge, for example facts, are either true or false, and for facts there is no need to ask for peoples’ opinions, views or preferences—whatever they say will not change the situation. This is one example of institutionalized knowledge. In many cases this institutionalization has not yet occurred, and even more importantly, is unlikely to ever occur.

In cases in which no institutionalized certainty about future states exists, or can be generated, judgment is needed. There are plenty of examples of the need for judgements, for example, to know what a good action is, in for example, a moral, aesthetic sense; when one is uncertain about the quality of book published; for identifying which candidate to choose for an open position, or to find out who is the best high jumper. What is right and wrong, good or bad, does not rest firmly on institutions, neither is it likely to provide foundation for other institutions. The lecture will address uncertainty reduction of what in a sociological sense is good and bad, i.e., what people view as being good and bad. Uncertainty reduction is for example accomplished in processes of ordinalization, i.e., processes that result in the “relative positions on an “up versus down” scale” (Fourcade 2016: 178) of whatever is at stake.

The lecture discusses forms of uncertainty reduction. Examples of the outcomes of the forms; what orders, ranks, results and knowledge are produced that reduce uncertainty for actors and their decisions, will be provided. The forms are structural and comprise roles; may be legitimate in a smaller or larger domain; and may exist in all spheres of life, as exemplified in sports competitions, in labor markets, and in the ranking of universities. Three forms of uncertainty reduction based on judgment are identified in this lecture: (1) decision, made by an authority; (2) valuation, by means of which order arises as a result of actors ascribing values; and (3) contest, by which an order is the result of direct struggle. The result of different forms of uncertainty reduction is increased certainty concerning alternatives in relation to one another, such as rank lists, scores, quality assessment, and “winner and losers,” and “good and bad.” Based on the result, uncertainty is reduced and action is facilitated. The issue that these forms also can be set up to increase uncertainty will be discussed.