Academic research on valuing singularities has its foundations in what Lamont (2012) describes as the sociology of valuation and evaluation (SVE). This body of literature focuses on “…how value is produced, diffused, assessed, and institutionalized across a range of settings” (Lamont, 2012: 203).2 Lamont (2012: 204) notes that in the SVE literature, quantification is often “…considered the dominant mold for understanding … grammars of evaluation”. This dominant mode of evaluation, and by extension, the use of quantifiable evaluation tools can be problematic, and has been criticized in research outside the SVE literature, due to issues such as the potential for data loss that results from collapsing information into a single metric (see for example, Espeland and Stevens, 1998; Chenhall et al., 2013). Such findings, of course, are not new. What is less well understood, however, is the underlying nature of the objects that make their evaluation based on commensurable, comparable and often quantifiable evaluation tools so problematic. Lamont (2012: 204) highlights that a more contemporary and fruitful focus of academic research has been on the “…valuation of cultural goods about which there is considerable uncertainty and with the social intermediaries that are put in place to build trust around the evaluation of such goods.” Lamont (2012) includes examples such as the valuation of art work, cultural practices, and other similarly incommensurable goods, and therefore, demonstrates how items associated with popular culture can be particularly implicated in an inability to evaluate them via traditional means.
In seeking to demonstrate how evaluation practices can be carried out in relation to items of popular culture, we consider how their underlying properties make traditional approaches to evaluation problematic. The insights of Karpik (2010) are of particular relevance here. He focuses on the valuation, and evaluation, of goods and services that are considered singularities. Karpik proposes such goods and services contain three key properties; that is, multidimensionality, incommensurability, and uncertainty. Each of these dimensions are discussed in turn below.
2.1 Properties of singularities In describing the properties of singularities, Karpik (2010) argues that singularities are multidimensional, that is, that they are comprised of a number of different attributes, or dimensions; and that the significance of any one dimension is inseparable from the significance of all others. Karpik (2010) notes that a commonly used approach in evaluating singularities has been to select a single dimension of a product, for example, reliability, and to construct a ranking of different products based on this dimension. The problem with such an approach in the case of singularities, according to Karpik (2010), is that the dimensions are interdependent, and that any rating which focused on evaluating one (or more) dimensions fails to take all others into account. This is problematic in terms of individual choices in relation to films, for example, where certain dimensions of a film may be of greater importance to one person than another. The restriction of evaluation devices to certain key dimensions will, therefore, inevitably disadvantage some individuals and cause others to make choices based on only a limited set of criteria.
In claiming that singularities are incommensurable, Karpik notes the apparent contradiction that exists in terms of trying to value that which is incommensurable; that is whilst a value, or a rating, can be accorded to a singularity, it is not possible to claim that (to use a film-based example) The Godfather is better than The Shawshank Redemption. While one might state a preference for one over the other, Karpik argues that the artistic worth of two singularities such as these cannot be distinguished.
With respect to uncertainty, Karpik (2010) argues that singularities are subject to two types of uncertainty – strategic uncertainty, and quality uncertainty. He describes strategic uncertainty as being related to the multidimensionality of the underlying good or service. Goods and services, according to Karpik, are presented to the public from a particular view, which involves focusing on a particular dimension, or dimensions, at the expense of others. There is no guarantee that this display of dimensions will correspond with the point of view of the users. Strategic uncertainty, therefore, according to Karpik (2010), occurs due to the potential differences in interpretation between these two viewpoints. Quality uncertainty relates to the idea that it is not possible to make a realistic, fully informed judgement about the quality of the singularity prior to its purchase or use.
Due to the underlying characteristics of singularities, therefore, it is difficult to evaluate them using conventional evaluation tools which emphasise quantification and commensuarbility. In such a situation, judgement devices have a key role to play in endeavouring to value singularities, as we discuss below.