Leadership, Social Capital, and an Ethics of Transparent Representation

Leadership and innovation are always asserted by individuals and small groups whose influence is conditional on a lot of different factors. Having the Internet hardware and wiring in place for the global nervous system sets the stage for the evolutionary emergence of the global cerebellum. This more fully evolved, complex adaptive system of distributed cognition will transform the flood of data into information, knowledge, understanding, and, hopefully, wisdom. As the technical viability, social desirability, and economic profitability of living capital standards and markets become increasingly apparent to innovators and entrepreneurs, the metric infrastructure for lower transaction costs will organically emerge as a natural process, first within firms and local communities, then within industries and regions, and then nationally and internationally.

Today’s political, regulatory, and business failings seem to me to be functions of social capital market inefficiencies. When any individual’s, firm’s, or government’s stock of social capital is routinely measured and traded in public markets, and public opinion gets solidly behind the economics of Genuine Progress Indicators and Happiness Indexes, we’ll be in a better position to detect and prevent the kinds of failings and abuses we’re currently suffering and trying to recover from.

Taking up the ethical question raised by Matt in his comment on the previous posting here, at root, all violence is the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1967/1974). When prejudices, hegemonic agendas, fear, impatience, greed, etc. dominate relationships, we leap to unjustified conclusions and unfairly reduce others to caricatures of what they really are. This kind of reductionism and imposition of power is a choice in favor of violence over discourse. But if we choose discourse and the possibility of keeping the conversation going, then we have to stay open to seeking better representations of others and their positions. Of course, though we can remain open in principle to new information, we often have to make a decision at some point. And so things are complicated by those who stop short of physical violence, but who then shut down the conversation in various ways, preventing others from representing their social, economic, and political interests under the uniform rule of law.

So, recognizing that our judgments are always provisional and that no sample of evidence is ever absolutely conclusive, we have to be able to tell when our evidence is sufficient to the task of representing where someone stands. And as I’ve said here before, unjustified reductionism is abhorent, but reduction is inevitable, since no discourse, no text, and no inquiry of limited length and duration can ever fully represent a potentially infinite universe of all possible aspects of another’s being. This seems to me to be part of what Levinas (1969) is getting at in his ethics of totality vs infinity (also see Cohen & Marsh, 2002).

I love the way Ricoeur (1974, pp. 96-97) says that

This is why all philosophies are particular even though everything is to be found in any great philosophy. And as I am myself one of the violent particularities, it is from my particular point of view that I perceive all these total particularities that are also particular totalities. The hard road of the ‘loving struggle’ is the only road possible.

In accepting the inevitability of reduction and the associated inevitability of some loss or excess of meaning, we need to learn how to escape the fundamentalist rigidity of final conclusions without falling into the relativist laxity of no standards whatsoever.

A systematic implementation of an ethical choice in favor of discourse over violence must, then, have some structural means of keeping the question open. Many of our systems, of course, are already structured in this way, though in as yet incomplete manners. For instance, in education, children are tested in each subject using representative samples of items that are in no way intended to actually be the entire universe of tasks or challenges the children could likely successfully address. We need to follow through on this intention by providing the structure of a common language capable of relating each child’s performance on any given set of items to the universe of all possible items. This is what the Lexile scale (www.Lexile.com) does for reading, for instance.

A structural means of keeping the question open would be a framework in which new evidence could be incorporated without compromising the integrity of what came before. The need is for a linguistic economy in which the market of ideas is defined so as to allow different particular forms of human, social, and natural capital to be treated as though they are equivalent, reducing them without being reductionistic, metaphorically calling them the same, and having good reasons for doing so, even as we understand they are not.

As Plato showed in the Phaedo, language is inherently already such an economy (Ballard, 1978, pp. 186-190). To refer to two different people as people, as women, as teachers, as Chicagoans, or even just as two is to overlook everything that makes them unique in favor of something they have in common. We compensate for this reduction by recognizing each individual’s unique combination of different particularities, but each particularity is in some way connected with an impersonal universal insofar as it is put into words.

Science and capitalism are inherently already extensions of this linguistic economy. Concepts are the original universal metrics. Laboratory and market measurement methods and instruments of objective and equitable comparison emerged of their own accord, organically, as the conversation that we are unfolded.

What we need to do is deliberately and scientifically extend the linguistic economy yet again. In one sense it will happen to us in its own time, whether we will it or not. But there is another sense in which this addition of a new paragraph in the ongoing footnote to Plato will be written in a far more conscious and overtly intended way than any of the previous ones were.

We can arrive at this place only by letting things be what they are, by entering into dialogues with each other and things in the world in ways that allow them the opportunity to assert their own independence as forms of life. This is ultimately what objective measurement is all about. A basis for measurement and a provisionally acceptable reduction of an infinite potentiality is established when a construct repeatedly shows itself as something that is repeatedly identifiable across questions asked and people answering, or across criteria and behaviors observed.

We leave ourselves open to the possible refutation of the independence of the form of life, or of any particular representation of it, by continuing to check the consistency of new observations. And new observations can be provided using new questions or criteria applied to new samples of respondents, examinees, or behaviors. Anomalies and consistent inconsistencies will demand explanation and will entail the assertion of new constructs or populations, the correction of errors, the forgiveness of careless mistakes, or the acceptance of special strengths. Individual interests in accuracy and precision, or the lack thereof, will be both augmented by and challenged by the scientific capacity to reproduce the results obtained. A transformation of research, regulation, markets, watchdogs, and more is in the offing.

And so, what I mean, of course, by a structural means of systematically keeping the question open is akin to an item bank in which new questions are calibrated so they take their positions on the scale without changing the positions and values of existing items. This has long been a routinely implemented technicality in computer adaptive testing and item banking (Choppin, 1968, 1976; Wright & Bell, 1984; Lunz, Bergstrom, & Gershon, 1994). But in the dominant conceptualizations of social measurement methods, adding items changes the meaning of the scores that are mistakenly treated as measures, and so the violence of the premature conclusion is enacted as a matter of course simply as a way of maintaining some semblance of a common metric and frame of reference.

The hermeneutic persistence in pursuing what is questionable demands a framework in which new evidence can be evaluated for its consistency with the integrity of what came before. Further, it must be possible to incorporate new data and new questions within the framework of an existing language’s words and concepts—except when that framework is no longer sufficient. Sufficiency has to be taken seriously as an explicitly evaluated and necessary part of reduction (Fisher, 2010). The ontological method’s process of reduction, application, deconstruction, and return to a new reduction is already the unrecognized, implicit norm of historically effective consciousness. is one in which items are calibrated in a bank. Recognizing this method and systematically incorporating it into theory and practice is the challenge of our day.

Reiterating yet again the French revolutionaries’ association of universal human rights and universal metrics, what we want are systematically institutionalized ways of recognizing ourselves in each other, in finding meaningful commonalities that do not force us into rigid sameness. We want measures of our abilities, health, performances, trustworthiness, and environmental quality that we all can understand and use, that we value for their fair and equitable representation of who we are, that make life better for all of us by giving credit where it is due and by illuminating proven paths to growth and advancement.

Alder (2002, p. 2) says it well: “the use a society makes of its measures expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale is a widespread symbol of justice. … Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.” And so, as I say, we are what we measure. It’s time we measured what we want to be.


Ballard, E. G. (1978). Man and technology: Toward the measurement of a culture. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Choppin, B. (1968). An item bank using sample-free calibration. Nature, 219, 870-872.

Choppin, B. (1976). Recent developments in item banking. In D. N. M. DeGruitjer & L. J. van der Kamp (Eds.), Advances in Psychological and Educational Measurement (pp. 233-245). New York: Wiley.

Cohen, R. A., & Marsh, J. L. (Eds.). (2002). Ricoeur as another: The ethics of subjectivity (L. Langsdorf, Ed.). SUNY Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Lunz, M. E., Bergstrom, B. A., & Gershon, R. C. (1994). Computer adaptive testing. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 623-634.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Wright, B. D., & Bell, S. R. (1984, Winter). Item banks: What, why, how. Journal of Educational Measurement, 21(4), 331-345 [http://www.rasch.org/memo43.htm].


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