Theory and Society

, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 265–301 | Cite as

Dequantifying diversity: affirmative action and admissions at the University of Michigan

  • Daniel Hirschman
  • Ellen Berrey
  • Fiona Rose-Greenland


To explore the limits of quantification as a form of rationalization, we examine a rare case of dequantification: race-based affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. Michigan adopted a policy of holistically reviewing undergraduate applications in 2003, after the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional its points-based admissions policy. Using archival and ethnographic data, we trace the adoption, evolution, and undoing of Michigan’s quantified system of admissions decision-making between 1964 and 2004. In a context in which opponents of the system had legal avenues to engage a powerful outside authority, we argue that three internal features of the University’s quantified admissions policy contributed to its demise: its transparency, the instability of the categories it quantified, and the existence of qualitative alternatives. Our analysis challenges the presumed durability and inevitability of quantification by identifying its vulnerabilities and suggests that quantification should be understood as a matter of degree rather than a simple binary.


Quantification Organizational routines Rationalization Race Gratz Grutter 



We thank Emily Bosk, Jamie Budnick, John Carson, Tony Chen, Russ Funk, Gabrielle Hecht, Steve Hoffman, Greta Krippner, Kathy Lin, John Mohr, Jason Owen-Smith, Michelle Phelps, Rachael Pierotti, Elizabeth Young, and audiences at the Economic Sociology Workshop and the Science, Technology, and Society Colloquium at Michigan, the Society for Social Studies of Science in Cleveland, and the American Sociological Association in Denver for helpful comments on earlier versions of this work. This work was supported by the American Bar Foundation, the National Science Foundation [Grant No. 0418547], the Northwestern University Center for Legal Studies, and the Northwestern University Graduate School.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel Hirschman
    • 1
  • Ellen Berrey
    • 2
  • Fiona Rose-Greenland
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of SociologyBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Neubauer Collegium for Culture and SocietyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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