Our international network of scholars will explore the relationship between market competition and organized competitions. The phrase, “they are competing,” might refer, for example, to banks competing on the credit card market. But, in addition to such market competition, it could also refer to organized competitions and games such as the World Cup, architectural competitions, book prizes, Twitter scores, university rankings and other types of contests.

Are there differences between market and other forms of organised competition?

Thus, alongside market competition as a coordinating mechanism of valuation in the economy we also find organized competitions. In the first type we find actors competing on markets. In the second type, we find contests with entry rules, judges, and prizes granted to the announced winners. On one side, competition is an ongoing, seamless, and seemingly endless process; on the other, competitions are discrete, bounded in time and location. Thus, in addition to prices we can also think about prizes as alternative ways of addressing the question “what’s valuable?” at many levels across many sites in society.

We will ask: do organized competitions go hand in hand with market-like competition? To some, it might seem that processes of rating and ranking, for example, are operating in a market register. But, from a different perspective, the concept of rank is not one of exchange but of hierarchy. Similarly, is the notion of winning – so fundamental within the logic of a game or contest – really operative in the logic of the market? Perhaps so, but less because one competitor defeats the other than because one of the rivals has won the customer. Markets, in this view, are not so much a head-to-head battle among contestants or a dyadic matching of buyer and seller but rather a triadic relation in which two compete for valuation by a third. As sociologist Georg Simmel observed, “Modern competition, which has been called the struggle of all against all, is after all the struggle of all to gain the attention of all.”

Competitions are migrating from one domain of social life to another

We will be particularly attentive to social forms that are migrating from one domain of social life to another. That is, we are interested in exploring, on one side, the alleged penetration of market-like competition into non-economic realms (the much-discussed impact of school, hospital and university rankings, and more recently even the scoring of personal-influence). On the other side, we are interested in exploring the historical patterns and the contemporary effects of the emergence of organized competitions and prize-giving into the economy (such as sustainability ratings). Thus, whereas one might conventionally map competition to economic activity and competitions to the non-economic, we will be attuned to activities that cross such a social geography for the questions they raise about value and the activity of valuation.

What, for example, is the social meaning of rankings of universities? By one way of thinking, rankings introduce a form of competition that can be seen as part of a neo-liberal intrusion of the market logic into domains in which it had not previously been operative and, in fact, from which it had in the past been pro-actively excluded. But, we will ask, haven’t universities been competing with each other for years if not centuries? Is science not based on competition (for attention)? Perhaps so, perhaps not; but is this form of competition the same as market competition? Over what and for whom are universities competing? If for student tuitions, perhaps yes, even a very market-like competition. Is competition for government (or other!) funding a form of market competition? If so, perhaps prizes do translate back to prices.

What particular form of competition do rankings and ratings formulate?

Conversely, what is the social meaning of scores and rankings in business settings where the market logic is overtly dominant? Are rankings simply one more form of market competition? Or do they introduce yet another, perhaps differently configured, social form as a way of introducing alternative values into the market? If rankings are ordered according to revenues or market share or capitalization, perhaps not. But what if the scores and rankings concern environmental and social sustainability? Such rankings could be configured as the introduction of non-market values into the economy.

Or to take a related question: what is the historical process whereby the notion of a score moved from the field of sports to the domain of business? Credit scores are an interesting case, suggesting that price itself is not always a sufficient indicator of value. And what about ratings and rankings by users? Do they promise a new role for the public or audience? For decades economists have analyzed timestamped data about prices. We are in a new situation now in which we have abundant time-stamped data by consumers awarding “prizes” (“Likes,” if you like). These ways of indicating what is valuable are of value precisely because they are alternatives to prices.