Why ranking rankles

Fulfilling the desire to compare everything and everyone has become a profitable business today


It is human nature to compare, which some would say is the start of all our problems. Siblings get into fights with their parents pointing out perceived differences in treatment, only to receive that extra whack on the head. Companies keep salaries confidential so employees can’t compare and disrupt the harmony in the office.

Nations too want to know how they are doing in relation to everyone else. It results in the same surfeit of envy and disappointment, although it should, at least in theory, also motivate them to do better.

Now thanks to globalisation, these league tables ranking countries on specified criteria have become a booming business. Every organisation or ’cause’ wants to put out a ranking list, hoping it will be frequently mentioned and cited, for increased publicity.

I decided to keep a watch for just over a week and sure enough, there they were. Several dealt with money and wealth since they grab our attention the most. In the dailies, names like Mukesh Ambani and Bill Gates are always preceded by the standard prefix: ‘world’s wealthiest’ or ‘richest’.

Doing better
Forbes a US newsmagazine took the lead in this and it should be no surprise that the Chinese, who are rapidly rising among the league of the world’s richest, want to take control of the magazine. So Forbes’billionaires list is out telling us who are the richest people in the world. If others can do it, the Chinese can do it better and already Hurun’s, a Chinese research firm, has released its own list of the wealthy ones.

While on this theme, the Knight Frank Global Wealth Report tells us that the US, China and Russia will occupy the top three slots in terms of having the most number of billionaires. Hmm, if you are already collecting data on high networth individuals to offer them services, why not create a ranking list around it?

Other lists
When you talk of wealth, the word ‘integrity’ is not too far behind, so the Global Financial Integrity rankings show which country has high levels of financial outflow.

I also saw a list of the most admired companies in the world put out by Fortune, a business magazine and wondered if the companies were hiring or firing?

We have already seen surveys of the best places to go to after retirement. The Worldwide Cost of Living Survey tells us which are the costliest among 131 cities, so you can plan your travel accordingly. But wait, also look at places with the worst hotels in the world (with our very own Delhi at the top) which the Trivago Reputation Ranking lists using data from its own online booking service. But bear in mind what your statistics teacher told you about generalising with self-selected, non-random data.

Even if you do not initiate a data collection survey yourself, it is but a small step away with the help of a good statistician. A recently published survey of 29 countries by OECD looked at how much time men and women spend on chores, personal care, sports and so on.

If you have a point to make, assign weights and come up with your own ranking list, and then do not forget to start promoting it!

Top representation
One ranking I was happy to see was the one that allows Uganda to get back at those who usually list that country low on stability and corruption. The Inter-Parliamentary Union puts Uganda at the top of 189 countries on the basis of number of women representatives in parliament (60 per cent).

Finally, the ranking I was waiting for appeared. The 2014 World Reputation Ranking by Times Higher Education Magazine listed the top 200 universities of the world. No Indian institution appeared on the list, although two made it last year. I’m not surprised since one criterion is reputation for research and Indian institutions have only recently begun to pay attention to research.

This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line .

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