The moral life of econometric equations: Factoring class inequality into school quality valuations in Chile

[Gabriel Chouhy envía este post contando de su investigación recién publicada en European Journal of Sociology sobre el sorprendente rol de las controversias estadísticas en la reciente re-organización del mercado de la educación escolar en Chile]

Since neoliberalism took root, market mechanisms have encroached on the organization of policy fields for the provision of public goods such as transportation, healthcare, education, or social security. But oftentimes marketization fails to deliver satisfactory outcomes, inviting experts and regulators to assess markets’ failures and rewrite their organizing rules. An emerging scholarship within the social studies of markets tradition is now theorizing about “the organization of markets for collective concerns and their failure” (see e.g., the special issue of Economy and Society edited by Frankel, Ossandón, & Pallesen, 2019). Instead of focusing on political junctures in which market-minded policymakers invoke the general principles of privatization, choice, and competition to oppose central planning within malfunctioning public bureaucracies, these authors look at processes whereby already marketized policy fields become problematized, evaluated, and fixed to correct socially undesirable market failures. A remarkable conclusion drawn from multiple case studies is that little room remains for a politics that includes “the possibility of problematizing existing policies in ways other than as poorly functioning markets” (Frankel et al., 2019, p. 166). Market-minded policies and devices have not become immune to evaluation and critique, but, after neoliberalism, the type of knowledge generally mobilized to problematize market-enhancing policy instruments is now much more circumscribed to the actual functioning of these devices and much less inimical to the market organization of policy fields themselves. Neoliberal doxa (Amable, 2011; Mudge, 2008, 2011) now dictates technocratic common sense. 

The paper contributes to the vital question posed by Ossandón and Ureta (2019, p. 176) with respect to neoliberal resilience, namely, “How does a critical evaluation of market based policies, rather than triggering a movement, for instance, toward fundamentally different modes of organizing a given area, end up consolidating markets as policy instruments?” Like these authors, my empirical focus is on experts’ work of evaluating and repairing market devices that failed to deliver optimal policy outcomes. But I give especial attention to how external demands for decommodification shape this technical work. Bringing politics back into the social studies of markets, I argue that, contrary to the idea that neoliberal doxa is fully entrenched, the technical process of market evaluation and repair remains enmeshed in ideological conflict over the moral virtue of marketization. To do so, I lay out a reflexive approach to the politicized uses of social scientific expertise (especially, but not only, economic expertise) for regulatory decision-making within education, a policy domain the sociological literature has largely overlooked despite being increasingly subject to top-down rationalization by technocratic and market forces worldwide. 

My case study focuses on the institutionalization of test-based, high-stakes accountability in Chilean education and, specifically, the design and implementation of the so-called School Ordinalization Methodology (SOM)1 – an official categorization of school quality set out to perform socially optimal market outcomes by fairly holding providers (schools) responsible to consumers (students). In response to mass student protests against the educational inequities produced by the so-called “market model” of education, the Chilean Congress began instituting new regulations aimed at holding both municipal and voucher-funded private schools accountable to quality standards. Thus, the Education Quality Assurance Law of 2011 transformed education governance into a system of specialized agencies in charge of setting, measuring, overseeing, and enforcing these standards. Importantly, lawmakers also mandated the “fair responsibilization” of schools to address mounting criticism that school quality metrics were oblivious to the severe socioeconomic segregation of the school system and therefore stigmatized public schools with high concentrations of low-socioeconomic status (SES) students, fostering exit to the voucher-funded private sector. Yet, ambiguity in what precisely “fair responsibilization” meant confronted the education experts in charge of devising an objective, socially sensitive ordinal metric of school quality with a moral conundrum, one that pervades the use of benchmarking rules for high-stake accountability purposes: on the one hand, is it fair (to schools) to assess school effectiveness based on factors for which schools are not responsible, e.g., SES? On the other hand, is it fair (to students) to set multiple proficiency benchmarks, that is, different standards based on their socioeconomic characteristics? 

I take the “valuation problem” –the definition of criteria concerning “the assignment of values to heterogeneous products within the same market” (Beckert, 2009, p. 254)– education experts faced when going about settling the fair responsibilization controversy as an opportunity to integrate and expand existing sociological knowledge on the politics of markets for collective concerns. Specifically, I seek to make sense of a twofold paradox emerging from this controversy that the existing literature is ill-equipped to understand: On the one hand, why, despite appeals to objectivity and impartiality, the experts weaponized their calculations to suit their subjective conceptions of market education; on the other, how, notwithstanding politicization, they still managed to ground their disagreements in shared technical procedures and successfully implement the SOM, transforming education quality into an objective, quantifiable, and politically consequential feature of market governability. 

To address this twofold paradox, I conceptualize the SOM as a technology of economic valuation, the technical construction of which entangles with the broader conflict over the moral virtue or evil of market education. This conflict, I show, concerns not only the value of the goods at stake (e.g., private vs public education), but also the value of the valuation devices themselves, i.e., how much these devices should serve the political purpose of organizing the provision of these goods in a market-like fashion. The fair responsabilization controversy led to a clash between conservative and progressive experts. Though the conservative government staffed the commission that drafted the first ordinalization proposal with market-friendly experts and took up the majority of seats in the new regulatory agency tasked with implementing the SOM, an ideological battle over the policy instrument’s inherent virtue as a market-enhancing device nonetheless transpired. Skillfully handling this disagreement, the experts reduced it to a technical decision between econometric models (OLS vs. HLM) that empirically identify school quality as a statistical parameter. Experts’ conflicting moral judgments on the intrinsic value attributed to the SOM as tool for consumer choice and market competition nevertheless grounded their adjudication between regression equations. While conservatives advocated for the model (OLS) that would make the SOM more intuitive for parental choice and better at “nudging” schools (whether private or public), progressives showed little regard for the behavioral properties of the SOM and instead pushed for the model (HLM) that would better compensate public schools for the “quality handicap” associated with educating larger numbers of disadvantaged students. 

Still, despite this moral divide, my analysis shows that the experts eventually succeeded in transforming the chosen metric into an impartial, presumably fair, and politically consequential tool for ordinalizing the quality of all Chilean schools. To account for this second half of the paradox, the paper elaborates on Abend’s (2014) concept of “moral background”, shedding light on the practical uses of social-scientific expertise in the reorganization of markets for collective concerns. Instead of asking why first-order agreements can be possible even under very different moral backgrounds, however, I turn Abend’s framework upside down, seeking to establish how second-order moral conventions may facilitate political consensus even in contexts of overt ideological dissensus. In this sense, I treat experts’ agreements and disagreements over the “fairness controversy” as nested in distinct orders of morality that are relatively independent and yet inextricably connected. While disagreements over the role of market devices in the organization of the education policy field belong to a first-order morality, I contend that agreements of a second order have more consequential implications. Chilean technocrats shared styles of reasoning –i.e., “collections of orienting concepts, ways of thinking about problems, causal assumptions and approaches to methodology” (see also Hacking, 2002; Hirschman & Berman, 2014, p. 794)– that enabled the commensuration and adjudication of a priori irreducible moral choices. Experts’ common subscription to scientific and technical conventions therefore provided the second-order cognitive tools necessary to effectively settle moral disagreements of first order. Constitutive of technocratic forms of policymaking, this “econometric” moral background proves a pivotal mechanism of neoliberal resilience. 

Gabriel Chouhy


1 The Spanish word “ordenación” relates to the verb “ordenar”, which, like the English verb “to order”, means both to give instructions or requests, and to arrange objects or elements into groups. To avoid confusion over the cognate “ordination,” with its misleading connotation of taking or conferring holy orders, I chose to translate “ordenación” into “ordinalization”, following Fourcade’s (2016) theorizing about the “sociotechnical channels through which ordinal judgments are now elaborated” (p.175). The SOM nicely fits this definition. 


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Full citation:

Chouhy, G. (2021). The moral life of econometric equations: Factoring class inequality into school quality valuations in Chile. European Journal of Sociology, 1-42. doi:10.1017/S0003975621000059

Link to full-content, open-access article:

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