Certifications Empirics

Certifications – a good forty years before we started writing about them

This post is based on Donald A Taylor’s ‘Certification Marks: Success or Failure’? https://doi.org/10.1177/002224295802300106.

Some of us, scholars studying certifications, like to think that our field is very new. Yet, Taylor was writing about certifications a good forty years before we started thinking about them.

To be clear, Taylor’s take on certifications is fairly descriptive. He was writing about a decade after the introduction of the ‘Lanham Act’ in the United States, which gave statutory recognition to certification marks. So, at that time, certifications were, actually, fairly novel, so there was a needd to inventorise them.

That said, Taylor’s thinking about certification contained pursue-worthy considerations.

  • He approached the matter comparatively by asking owners of 80 certifications about the objectives of their certifications.
  • He proposed, upon the ‘Lanham Act’, a foundational concept for certifications, namely, that the mark certifies presence or absence of product/service characteristics (i.e., verification of standards) and that the mark certifies persons other than the owner of the mark (i.e., no self-certification).
  • He classified the certifications in his sample as per the type of ownership (which is extremely similar to modern attempts to establish who is behind a certification) and even hypothesised about how the goals of certifications vary depending on their ownership.

Now, my favourite part of Taylor’s article is not, per se, that he did a bunch of things that we often think haven’t been done, but that he boldly went where many regulatory scholars seem scared to go…

Taylor noted that the government is one of the main providers of certification and that governmental certificatory efforts can be divided into two: those that certify against legal requirements and those that enhance customer information.

This is interesting because, nowadays, government-led certification is typically mandatory when it certifies that laws are being followed, but optional when it aims to inform consumers.

The latter type of government-led certification efforts is quite problematic for modern regulatory studies. Governmental actors run them and, yet, they share much with the kind of certification led by non-state actors. How can we study certifications that are comparable, at once, with mandatory regulation by governments and voluntary regulation by non-state actors?

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash.