From lists to rankings

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries”.

Umberto Eco (Beyers and Gorris 2009)

eco-23-160_0In the excerpt above, Umberto Eco advocates that the list is the origin of culture, being part of the history of art and literature as a tool to make the infinite comprehensible. For the Italian semiotician and medievalist, this attempt to “grasp the incomprehensible” operates though lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries – understood as cultural achievements. In his book “The Vertigo of Lists”¹, Eco comprehensively explores the compilation of the vast repertory of lists over the centuries, organizing them in different typologies: visual lists, lists of things, lists of places, lists of wonders, lists by the properties and essence of things, chaotic lists and giddy lists, among others – reflecting infinite possibilities of systemizing humanity’s cultural elements and alluding to the founding structure of Western thought, conditioned, over time, by reason and order: “Se o ser humano sempre procurou padrões que unem ou diferenciam tudo o que existe, é porque essa tem sido sua ferramenta para lidar com uma inquietação atávica: a necessidade de dar ordem ao caos” ² (Marthe 2010).

In this book, besides giving an insight into how the innumerable uses and customs of lists evolved throughout history, Eco also suggests that this compulsion to list functioned as an element of distinction and economic interest: “A presença de uma relíquia constituía, na Idade Média, um motivo de atração para uma cidade ou para uma igreja e, portanto, representava, além de um objeto sagrado, também uma preciosa ‘mercadoria’ turística”³ (2010), with collections of ancient religious relics provoking competition between cities and European medieval churches as they vied for pilgrims.

From Umberto Eco’s list to the sophisticated technological artifacts of information organization in the age of globalization, there are profound changes in these records of ordering and distinction, culminating in the emergence of global hierarchical listings showing the positioning of universities, also known as rankings. The current rankings of universities represent the optimization of lists and other proven forms of listing in different historical periods, with the intention not only of organizing information, but also its prominence as conferred by society. The ancient lists evolved right up to the emergence of League Tables – the global rankings of universities – in a context that culminates in the current globalized era, where knowledge-based assets have become a cornerstone of economic, social and political power, determining the historical locus favored for the emergence of these listings. The growing internationalization of higher education is also bringing about a growing interest in attracting students, that base their choice on the rankings of the educational institution in which they will study, which brings us to the analogy with the lists of collections of relics which attracted pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

The means change, but does the essence remain?


¹ ECO, U. A Vertigem das Listas. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2010. 408 p.

² Translation: “If human beings always sought patterns that unite or differentiate all that exists, it is because this has been their tool for dealing with an atavistic restlessness: the need to bring order to chaos”.

³ Translation: “The presence of a relic was, in the Middle Ages, a reason of attraction for a city or a church and thus represented, not only a sacred object, but also a precious tourist ‘commodity'”.


BEYERS, S. and GORRIS, L. Spiegel Interview with Umberto Eco. Der Spiegel, 11 nov. 2009. Available from:

ECO, U. A Vertigem das Listas. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2010. 408 p.

MARTHE, M. A lista das listas. Revista Veja, 22 dez 2010, 2196th ed., vol. 43, nº 51.


Sibele FaustoAbout Sibele Fausto

Collaborator on the SciELO program, post-graduate in Information Science from the School of Communication and the Arts of the University of São Paulo (PPGCI-ECA-USP), specialist in Health Sciences information at the Federal University of São Paulo in partnership with the Latin American Center for Health Sciences Information (UNIFESP-BIREME-PAHO-WHO), Sibele Fausto is a librarian in the Technical Department of the Integrated Library System of the University of São Paulo (DT-SIBi-USP).


Translated from the original in Portuguese by Nicholas Cop Consulting.


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

FAUSTO, S. From lists to rankings [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2013 [viewed ]. Available from:


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