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User-Driven Standards

User-Driven Standards

In the governance, performance, and reflection of educational or pedagogical practices (in the broad sense), two current trends seem to oppose each other: standardization and user-influence. Surely, establishing and imposing ‘what works’, using the authority of a science that claims a certainty about simple objectives derived from impersonal quantified data and formal procedures - all that must be directly antithetical to shaping practice in a qualitative dialogue that recognizes the validity of individual users’ perspectives?

In fact, however, the relation between standardization and user-influence is more complex. (1) The two can be said to include or even presuppose one another theoretically. Thus, it can be claimed that any user-influence requires a knowledge of effects, and that evidence-based practice was always meant to be implemented in dialogue with users’ preferences in specific situations. Conversely, an ever so qualitative dialogue is itself a proposed standard, and it cannot but utilize and impose standards if it does achieve any common meaning - denying this would be paternalism. (2) Historically, the two emerge together. In recent decades, for instance, New Public Management defines a pseudo-market in which users are required to choose between services that are defined in terms of standard costs and effects; in longer terms, the ‘disembedding’, invention and (re-) application of standards in Modernity is at the same time the ‘emancipation’ of the individual as ‘free’ subject.

In short, User-Driven Standards may be a contradiction in terms, but nonetheless they are alive, important and worth studying. This is all the more pertinent since that contradiction currently imposes itself in ever new forms and places. The theme is hot, and practical debates evolve that range from general ethics and politics through specific professional issues to concerns in each local institution. Often, varieties of standardization and/or user-influence are suggested that are ‘new’ to particular practices, and people ask themselves about their implications: questions like these: “Will this user survey corrode the essence of child care, or does it only make explicit what is anyway standard procedure?” Or: “Can we, should we, or must we refrain from, developing our own local way of implementing aspects of this program?”

The category of the “user” can be seen to move between or combine different articulations, such as ‘customer’, ‘client’, ‘participant’, ‘co-author’, ‘citizen’ etc., each with different versions of what ‘user-driven standards’ might mean and imply. In each case, the nature (or standard) of that which is ‘used’ takes a specific shape. Thus, positioning university students as either ‘customers’ or ‘co-authors’ of academic knowledge implies very different standards of and for teaching.


Our research into the problem draws on science & technology studies (STS), and contributes to the expansion of this field from science in the narrow sense, through tightly standardized fields such as engineering or certain parts of medicine, and on to a broader inquiry into the socio-anthropology of knowledge. The STS tradition helps us reconfigure standardizing technologies as situated practices, yet pay attention to material constraints and ideological implications that may be transferred and only partly transformed or translated - as when testing institutes a radically new performance of school through apparently banal formalizations of learning or motivation as visible.

This is a research that develops a ‘second order knowledge’ (to meet the demand sketched above). Thus it must deal with relations between knowledges. For instance, in “Writing Drug Cultures”, Morten Nissen studied the different ways in which professional expertise - and clinical and pharmacological knowledge - can be aligned with users perceptions (and youth subcultures) around drug use.