In any society where good (desirable) jobs and high social status positions are relatively scarce, elites put mechanisms into place to limit access. Whereas in traditional societies "proof of ancestry" served that gatekeeper function, in modern societies the gatekeeper mechanism is expected to be the system of qualifications. The German social theorist Max Weber famously noted the rise of education, and specifically certificates (diplomas), as the preeminent form of qualification in modern society. In delineating the distinction of a society/system dominated by bureaucratic form (as opposed to traditional or charismatic forms), Weber wrote that office holding in bureaucracy was a vocation that required at least a prescribed course of training and working experience and oftentimes specialized examinations. The system of examinations was, then, a way to ensure the qualifications of any applicant (of any social strata), and it took the place of the traditional selection by noble birth.


The sociologist Randall Collins, studying U.S. society closer to the turn of the millennium, noted that education and parent occupational level were indeed the most important predictors of occupational success. Yet Collins, in the influential book The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification (1979), challenged the notions that (1) education led to skills acquisition and that (2) skills were the main determinant of occupational success. Instead Collins posited that while educational credentials were still the key to occupational achievement, this correlational path need not, and often did not, run through the intervening variable of skills acquisition. Collins noted that most skills could be learned on the job, but the best jobs were saved for the applicants with the best educational credentials. This line of thinking was presaged by the work of postwar French sociologists such as Georges Friedmann (1946) and Alain Touraine (1955) who claimed distinctions between the concepts of qualification (a social construction with historical specificity) and skill (job-specific mastery). Touraine was particularly concerned with how the Industrial Revolution increasingly caused "social" qualifications to replace technical competence as measures of worker value.

Support for the value of education as one of these new qualifications was also proffered in economics by the Nobel laureate A. Michael Spence. Spence argued in 1973 that in a (labor) market characterized by imperfect information, individuals possessing qualifications would need to signal such qualifications to potential employers. Spence noted that education worked as a signal of qualification in the labor market. Taken together, the arguments of Collins and Spence suggest that whether or not education actually bestows qualifications, it bestows the presumption of qualifications in a competitive labor marketplace. As such, it is often not the actual possession of qualifications that leads to a job but rather a credential or signal of employability that leads to a job. That such credentials or signals are not equitably accessible by all members of a given society has been a continuing source of social science inquiry and popular consternation.

Historically, in societies stratified by race, gender, and class, educational credentialing has stratified correspondingly. Human Rights Watch concludes that children across the globe face discrimination in access to education, and thus the educational imparting of qualifications, based on race, ethnicity, religion, and other status. A 2003-2004 UNESCO report confirms that gender disparity in education remains a deep concern for much of the developing world. This concern is exacerbated in societies that are increasingly characterized by the need for knowledge and technological expertise acquired through education.

Yet in many Western postindustrial societies, gender parity in access to education (and even higher education) has been largely achieved. While women in these societies have made great strides in educational credentialing, racial minorities have fared slightly less well, and lower social classes still less well, even though progress has been made. For example, racial discrimination embedded both inherently in a qualification vehicle and in that qualification’s use as an exclusionary moving target was addressed directly by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1992. The U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Fordice, 505 U.S. 717 (1992), noted that the State of Mississippi had used minimum ACT test scores first as a way to racially segregate institutions of higher education and then, as black student scores on these exams rose, as a way to maintain segregation by setting minimums out of reach of even the highest performing students of color. In striking down Mississippi’s sole dependence on a discriminatory qualifier, the court further noted that most other states used a variety of qualifications in order to compensate for discrimination embedded in any one indicator and thereby improve racial balance on higher education campuses. The case demonstrates both the progress made and the barriers still to overcome in the United States’ use of qualification for selection purposes.


But even if women and racial minorities (though not necessarily lower and working classes) increasingly have access to qualifications (taught skills or merely credentials) afforded by attendance at both non-elite and elite colleges and universities, there is still evidence that coveted jobs are not meted out by qualifications alone. Indeed, social capital theorists are quick to point out that many individuals may share the same qualifications (or human capital) when seeking jobs yet may not achieve the same occupational outcomes due to the scarcity of opportunities. Groundbreaking research by Mark Granovetter in 1974 empirically confirmed the common wisdom that in job placement, it is often not "what you know" (formal qualifications) but rather "who you know." Even in postindus-trial, bureaucratized societies, then, traditional modes of meting out jobs based on social capital and networks oftentimes negate the value of educational qualifications.

Further, some occupational qualifications depend less on education and training and more on physical or biological traits. In the United States, for example, societal controversies have arisen over the stated qualifications for jobs such as firefighters and police officers: Admittance to these occupations typically entails passing physical ability and strength tests that have often discriminated on the basis of sex. U.S. statutes, such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin still allow exceptions in cases where an employer can demonstrate that sex, religion, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). British law, under the sex Discrimination Act of 1975, also allows for limited discrimination in recruitment, training, promotion, and transfer in a job for which the sex of the work is a "genuine occupational qualification" (GOQ). As in the U.S. law, the occupational qualification mandating preference for a particular social category exists when the essence of the job makes it unsuitable for persons in other social categories. In these cases, then, sex, religion, and national origin may denote actual job qualifications and not just mark inequitable access to job qualifications.

Due to the richness of the concept, social scientists have been interested in qualifications as both an independent and dependent variable. As noted above, there is a long social science tradition of trying to understand precursors and access to qualifications in the job market (often focusing on racial and gender disparity in possession of job qualifications). As well, newer literature is beginning to center questions of qualifications as independent variables in models of income and occupational prestige, for example. The French sociology of work tradition is a reminder that qualifications are often social constructions, manipulated in the interests of elites. And finally, a continuing challenge is the interchangeability of the constructs of job qualifications and KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) in the management and sociological literature coming out of the United States.


Quality control is a management process that provides information about the conformity of either products or services to prespecified standards of utility. This function first became professionalized during the nineteenth century as a means for addressing the growing problem of the asymmetric distribution of product information that attended the rise of giant business enterprise and the emergence of mass markets. On the firm level, the growing scale and scope of manufacturing created pressure for the development of new metrics for informing management decision processes. While cost accounting was effective in ascertaining profitability, it provided little insight into the factors that affected output quality. This represented a potentially serious informational shortcoming as the largest manufacturing entities sought the realization of economies of scale through long production runs of standardized products.

On the consumer level, industrialization changed the nature of the relationship between consumers and producers. Unlike the shop economy of the preindustrial era, the line of communication connecting these groups for resolving quality issues became attenuated by the intermediation of longer supply chains and more impersonalized distributional arrangements. Industrialization also displaced indirect modes for assuring quality through guild or craft union validation of artisan skills through apprentice, journeyman, or master status. Many firms following scientific management principles enhanced the efficiency of their production lines by systematizing work effort through worker time-and-motion studies. These initiatives de-emphasized the role of the skilled craft practitioner and encouraged the placement of greater reliance in mass production on cheaper un- or semiskilled labor.

Quality assessment had within its compass the ability to surmount the problems of informational asymmetries about product quality in two ways. First, firms could apply quality standards to define what constituted a steady-state condition in their manufacturing. This new firm-specific knowledge, used in conjunction with accounting and financial data, could enhance efficiency by extending organizational capacities for planning, coordinating, controlling, monitoring, and evaluating production activities. Such study was also important to corporations in determining the economic limits of product inspection. Second, the dissemination of reliable information about product standards helped to eliminate asymmetries in external markets, thus contributing to a reduction in consumer risk perceptions. Such knowledge also helped consumers weigh more objectively the tradeoff between performance benefits and costs in project analysis. Moreover, quality standards affected producer reputations by providing consumers with a basis for making grading comparisons between the output of rival suppliers.

Initially the focus of quality assessment centered on products rather than processes. The measurement of key design attributes and their alignment with engineering design standards became paramount. This involved the use of such measurement devices as gauges, calipers, jigs, and meters to determine if products met physical and performance requirements detailed in specification documents and blueprints. Such evaluation also involved destructive testing to measure the physical limits of materials. These early approaches, however, proved insufficient because they lacked an effective means for assessing the significance of test data. The statistical summarizations of this period were mere enumerations, devoid of a scientific basis for defining the nature of quality or for determining whether it had been effectively controlled in production.

The Bell System in the United States achieved a major breakthrough in surmounting problems of quality definition and analysis in the 1920s by developing new approaches that emphasized process and probability theory. The initial focus of innovation centered on the captive manufacturing subsidiary Western Electric, which supplied most of the material requirements of the Regional Bell Operating Companies. Such methodological innovation responded to regulatory pressures to provide more economical and efficient communication services through the deployment of more reliable equipment. In 1925, quality-control research centered on the inspection engineering department of the Bell Laboratories. Prime movers in establishing what became known as "statistical quality control" included Walter A. Shewhart of the theory and special studies unit and Harold F. Dodge of the inspection methods and results unit. Working in close coordination with the firm’s manufacturing departments, they defined a unifying theory and set of applied methodologies that revolutionized quality engineering by 1928.

The assessment of quality at Bell benefited from several new analytical constructs based in probability theory. The control chart, for example, exploited the properties of the normal curve to clarify the economic limits of control. It distinguished between "common causes of errors" that were random and uncontrollable and "assignable causes of error" that could be rectified through management action. The trade-offs inherent in sample selection and evaluation became better illuminated from the specification of consumer’s risk (Type I) involving the incorrect acceptance of an unreliable sample and producer’s risk (Type II) involving the incorrect rejection of a valid sample. Customer planning was facilitated by the determination of the "average outgoing quality limit," a steady-state metric indicating the maximum number of defects in product shipments. In these and other ways probability theory increased the analytical power, flexibility, and range of quality engineering.

The new knowledge subsequently gained higher professional status in the United States and abroad. Shewhart taught the first collegiate course in quality engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology during the late 1930s, and soon thereafter Armand V. Feigenbaum of General Electric wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the subject at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During World War II, the new techniques were applied extensively in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps with the assistance of Bell System advisers. W. Edwards Deming was also instrumental in organizing training programs for national defense industries through the War Production Board. In the postwar era, engineers with the Civil Communication Service of Supreme Command Allied Powers helped to revive interest in the topic in Japan. The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers began sponsoring courses presented by Deming, Joseph Juran, and others. In 1947 a new professional association, the American Society for Quality Control (now the American Quality Society), was founded. In 1956 the European Organization for Quality Control was formed.

While manufacturing quality control has continued to evolve, the new frontier involves the use of its concepts to address problems of informational asymmetry for services. The U.S. General Accounting Office, for example, reflected a concern about quality in audits of federally financed projects by requiring the evaluation of program effectiveness and results. Studies of environmental pollution, for example, often employ the probabilistic tools initially developed for industry. The notion of quality has also affected professional governance, albeit in a less quantitative way. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants since the 1980s has required accounting firms to evince compliance with practice-quality standards as a condition of membership.

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