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Standardization and Commercialization during the Twentieth Century in Transnational Perspective

Dr. Uwe Spiekermann

Quality is everywhere. Most products and services today must adhere to the minimum quality
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Quality is a Scientific Fact, Time 47 (1946), no. 20, p. 37.
standards established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Since 1987, ISO 9000 standards have served as the basis of quality management structures used around the world and have regulated international trade and production. The ISO has broadened its formal concepts of quality in recent years by developing advanced standards for environmentally and ethically sound production. This has been widely criticized, however, as an imposition of expensive "Western" norms. Quality standards are supposed to stand for "the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs", not for different values. Formal definitions of quality facilitate trade and the sharing of technology and good management practices. But even if the utility of such definitions is generally acknowledged, the process of negotiating them remains difficult and controversial.

The ISO's norms were established for the most part in the past two decades, but the struggle to define quality can be traced back to the nineteenth century. The division of labor, mass production of consumer goods, and intensified global trade spurred the first attempts to give formal definition to the concept of quality during the early industrial era. Uwe Spiekermann's research project will analyze and compare the establishment, use and change of quality concepts set by firms, branches, states and NGOs since the late nineteenth century in a transnational perspective. It will try to explore the problem of values in emerging consumer markets and international trade, discuss the cultural background of economic success, and reinvestigate globalization both as a learning process on cultural self-definitions and as finding the lowest common denominator in formal standardization.