Welcome to the Politics of Information

The Course

This course investigates the use of information to apply power and mobilize collective action. Ratings, rankings and certifications have become a ubiquitous form of power in American society, and particularly in the health and environmental fields (e.g. ENERGY STAR, USDA Organic). Why have they become so common, and who is behind them? How trustworthy and valid are they as metrics, and how effective and usable are they as a type of political strategy and a mechanism of social action? Do they complement or undermine regulatory approaches to policy issues? This course explores these questions and investigates this hotly-contested phenomenon of “information-based governance.” The course uses a range of social science concepts to analyze assessments of US hospitals, doctors, consumer appliances, food items, and other products by organizations such as US News and World Report, USDA, and the EPA. The role of federal agencies and interest groups in developing, framing and utilizing these assessments is explored extensively.

The Assignment

These readings provide relevant background and ideas for the primary assignment of the course, which is a group project focused on designing a new sustainability assessment of a particular sector or issue.  Each team researches the sustainability issues and existing ratings and certifications associated with their topic, and then creates a rating system based on publicly available data to evaluate the performance of entities within their sector.  Students learn how to use Microsoft Excel to develop their rating system, and submit their system as both a spreadsheet and a webpage.  The webpage provides both the ratings and a short explanation of them.  Teams also submit a project report that discusses the value, quality, credibility, usability, and effectiveness of their rating system, building on insights from each unit of the course.

This website course website provides links to each of the team projects and their respective ratings.  It also includes brief comparative analyses of ratings and certifications written by each team that are relevant to the sectors and product categories they are studying and evaluating.

The Ratings

Sustainable Cleats: This site site provides ratings related to the sustainable production of sports cleats by six major apparel companies, including Addidas, Nike, and Puma, based on the materials used in their cleats, the manufacturing processes used to produce their cleats, and the related outputs, programs and policies of the company.

Trashy Fast Food: This site provides ratings of the waste reduction policies and practices of 11 fast food restaurant chains, from McDonalds and Burger King to Chipotle and Panera, based on the materials they use, end-of-life options, in-store recycling options, and projected waste reduction efforts related to napkins, cups, utensils, and food packaging.

Sustainable Fast Fashion: These ratings assess the environmental, social and ethical practices of 5 fashion companies, including H&M, Gap, and Century 21, based on their environmental operations, clothing recycling programs, sourcing of animal and non-animal products, and the quality of their codes of conduct.

Conscientious Cosmetics: These ratings evaluate the social conscientiousness of 13 cosmetics companies, from Revlon and Cove Girl to Neal’s Yard and Lush, based on the materials used by the company, the production processes of the company, and the makeup of the company itself.

The Comparisons

Below are links to comparative analyses of existing ratings in the four sectors that we investigated over the course of the semester.  Each student team evaluated the strengths and limitations of the ratings in the sector for which they were also developing their own ratings.

The Students

Sustainable Cleats Team

Trashy Fast Food Team

Sustainable Fast Fashion Team:

Conscientious Cosmetics Team: