Getting real: heuristics in sociological knowledge

Dylan Riley, Patricia Ahmed, et Rebecca Jean Emigh (2020)

Theory & Society. Online first

Abstract. This article examines the connections among heuristics, the epistemological and ontological presuppositions that underlie theorizing, and substantive explanations in sociology. It develops and contrasts three heuristics: “doing as knowing” (DK), “categorizing as knowing” (CK), and “praxis as knowing” (PK). These are each composed of four dimensions: the theory of knowledge, the theory of reality, the theory of the growth of knowledge, and the theory of knowledge producers. The article then shows the importance of heuristics for empirical work by demonstrating how they shape explanations in the sociological subfield of the historical sociology of knowledge. The essay draws two main conclusions: it argues that PK offers a more useful basis for developing explanations in sociology than either of the two alternatives (DK and CK) that currently shape substantive work; furthermore, it claims that the exposition of heuristic assumptions is an important task for sociology.

Extract. “This article identifies and critiques two heuristics—we summarize them here in their most coherent forms to facilitate a comparison—that dominate contemporary sociology: a framework that equates the knowledge of things with the ability to manipulate them and a framework that equates the knowledge of things with the ability to categorize them. We call the first framework “doing as knowing” (DK) and the second one “categorizing as knowing” (CK). Both frameworks, for different reasons, accord an unrealistic power to expert knowers (whether they are located in states or in non-state institutions). We then develop an alternative to these two heuristics called “praxis as knowing” (PK), which recognizes that interacting knowledgeable agents constitute the main objects of knowledge in sociology. […] At the end of our article, we assess the utility of each of these heuristics for substantive theorizing in the burgeoning field of the historical sociology of official knowledge (Desrosières 1998, p. 1; 2008, p. 40; Loveman 2014, pp. 6–8; Mora 2014, p. 184; Nobles 2000, pp. 1–3; Porter 1995, pp. 5–6; Starr 1987, pp. 7–8; for a recent overview, see Diaz-Bone and Didier 2016, pp. 7–10).” (pp. 1/3)

Link to the article

Mass personalization: Predictive marketing algorithms and the reshaping of consumer knowledge

Baptiste Kotras (2020)

Big Data and Society 7(2), pp. 1-14

Abstract. This paper focuses on the conception and use of machine-learning algorithms for marketing. In the last years, specialized service providers as well as in-house data scientists have been increasingly using machine learning to predict consumer behavior for large companies. Predictive marketing thus revives the old dream of one-to-one, perfectly adjusted selling techniques, now at an unprecedented scale. How do predictive marketing devices change the way corporations know and model their customers? Drawing from STS and the sociology of quantification, I propose to study the original ambivalence that characterizes the promise of a mass personalization, i.e. algorithmic processes in which the precise adjustment of prediction to unique individuals involves the computation of massive datasets. By studying algorithms in practice, I show how the active embedding of local preexisting consumer knowledge and punctual de-personalization mechanisms are keys to the epistemic and organizational success of predictive marketing. This paper argues for the study of algorithms in their contexts and suggests new perspectives on algorithmic objectivity.

Extract. “How do these predictive algorithms for personalized marketing change the way corporations know and act upon their customers? As “personalization” constitutes the horizon of countless contemporary algorithmic devices (Lury and Day, 2019; Mackenzie, 2018), I study how this general promise unfolds in action, analyzing at a fine-grain level the discussions and material practices of the actors involved in the conception and use of predictive marketing algorithms. Drawing from STS and the sociology of quantification, I consider the epistemic and political consequences of these very practices and assemblages on the production of consumer knowledge (Bowker, 2005; Diaz-Bone and Didier, 2016; Espeland and Stevens, 2008). In particular, this qualitative study contributes to the reflections on the new forms of social ordering performed by Big Data analytics, and how these technologies shape and account for individuality (Bolin and Schwarz, 2015; Couldry et al., 2016). It focuses on the original ambivalence of personalized algorithmic marketing, which draws on both instrumental and humanistic arguments, as it simultaneously aims to optimize market strategies, and to take better account of persons, i.e. of each unique customer, defined by her specificities, needs and life trajectory. […] This result also suggests that we need to take seriously the moral claims made by data science, which are keys to its growing pervasiveness. Here, the promise of supporting better market relations, more adjusted to individual authentic aspirations, is part of a longstanding criticism of traditional statistical categories, considered as insufficiently precise to do justice to the specificity of individuals (Boyd and Crawford, 2012; Desrosières, 2011).” (p. 2/11)

Link to the article

Put to the test: For a new sociology of testing

Noortje Marres & David Stark (2020)

British Journal of Sociology 71(3), pp. 423-443

Abstract. In an age defined by computational innovation, testing seems to have become ubiquitous, and tests are routinely deployed as a form of governance, a marketing device, an instrument for political intervention, and an everyday practice to evaluate the self. This essay argues that something more radical is happening here than simply attempts to move tests from the laboratory into social settings. The challenge that a new sociology of testing must address is that ubiquitous testing changes the relations between science, engineering, and sociology: Engineering is today in the very stuff of where society happens. It is not that the tests of 21st‐century engineering occur within a social context but that it is the very fabric of the social that is being put to the test. To understand how testing and the social relate today, we must investigate how testing operates on social life, through the modification of its settings. One way to clarify the difference is to say that the new forms of testing can be captured neither within the logic of the field test nor of the controlled experiment. Whereas tests once happened inside social environments, today’s tests directly and deliberately modify the social environment.

Extract. “The notion that the sociology of testing should move beyond the laboratory or the field experiments of technologists was central to the work of the French sociology of critical capacities (in French: the sociology of épreuves, literally meaning trials). In the 1990s, this emerging school proposed that critical moments are ones in which justificatory claims, based on the principles of market, inspiration, efficiency, loyalty, fame, and the civic (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006), are put to the test (Stark, 2011).” (p. 425)

Link to the review

From starving artist to entrepreneur. Justificatory pluralism in visual artists’ grant proposals

Julia Peters & Hank Roose (2020)

British Journal of Sociology. Online first

Abstract. Inspired by French pragmatism and using Bourdieu’s notion of “refraction” as an indication of a field’s autonomy, we explore in‐depth what kinds of justifications visual artists deploy to legitimate their requests for government money. Based on 494 government grant proposals from visual artists between 1965 and 2015 in Belgium, we find six such justifications. The reputational, esthetic, and romantic justifications are grounded in autonomous criteria of worth, such as artistic CVs, the work of art itself, and a compulsive desire to make art. Since the 90s, social, academic, and entrepreneurial justifications bring in heteronomous criteria, or refractions of field‐external values. Artistic practices become increasingly legitimized through engagement with social/political issues, academic methods and terminology, and an entrepreneurial spirit. We empirically show how the refraction of governmental logics is multi‐faceted, yet always related to or combined with artistic concerns, which we interpret as characteristic for the artistic field’s persisting autonomy in the face of heteronomous pressures.”

Excerpt. “Using unique archival records of grant proposals from visual artists asking for government funding between 1965 and 2015 in Flanders (Belgium), our objectives are twofold. First, we investigate the justifications used by visual artists to legitimize their work as worthy of state support. These proposals present one of the few loci where artists are forced to legitimize themselves as artists discursively. Thereby, they typically seek to “bridge private assessments and collective values” (Gielen, 2002, p. 126, translated from Dutch), that is, artists try to strike a balance between formulating their applications in line with their own artistic dispositions and what they perceive to be the criteria deployed by the government to distinguish good from bad art(ists). Our focus on justifications is inspired by French pragmatic sociology, which analyses how actors draw on a variety of “orders of worth” to justify their actions within certain situations (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006; Heinich, 2000, 2011; Lamont, 2012). »

Link to the review

Quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it!

Interview with Emmanuel Didier

Walter Bartl (University of Halle)

Emmanuel Didier is a full professor (directeur de recherche CNRS) at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (École Normale Supérieure, Paris) and a member of the Center for the Study of Invention and Social Process (Goldsmiths University of London). He taught at the University of Chicago and at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and now teaches at Ecole Normale Supérieure and Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique (ENSAE), both in Paris and Ecole Polytechnique in Paris-Saclay. He is a member of the French National Advisory Council on Ethics.

Originally trained as a statistician, Emmanuel Didier very soon specialized in the study of statistics as a tool of government. His first book – revised and updated for the recent English edition – entitled America by the Numbers. Quantification, Democracy and the Birth of National Statistics, bore on the relationship between the invention of random sampling in the US and State interventionism and State planning during the New Deal. His second book, written with Isabelle Bruno, is on Benchmarking. The book shows how management by number, imported in government from private companies, changed the meaning and practice of the French State. His third book, Statactivisme, is an edited volume (with Isabelle Bruno and Julien Prévieux), dedicated to analyze ways in which ordinary people use statistics to enhance their power against institutions. Furthermore, he edited the last book of the late Alain Desrosières, entitled Prouver et gouverner, une analyse politique des statistiques publiques, who deceased before he had a chance to finish it. Recently he has been working on a project on big data in the domain of health and especially in genomics.

WB: How did you get in touch with the economics or sociology of convention?

ED: Well, it depends what you call economics or sociology of convention. When I was a student at ENSAE (Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique) to become a statistician – this was in the first half of the 1990s – I happened to read Luc Boltanski’s book Les Cadres (Boltanski 1982; engl. Boltanski 1987). I became literally enthusiastic for the book. As a socio-history of a social category, I immediately saw that it was a way to think reflexively about statistics. I remember that I was particularly struck by the experiments of social psychologist Eleanor Rosch about the category of dogs, described in the book, showing that some examples of dogs were more typical to the category than others. And I remember that I was also completely convinced by the way the author (Luc Boltanski) was totally reflexive and paid attention to the consequences of his own findings for the very text he was writing. I wrote a letter to Luc – at that time, letters were handwritten – telling him about my enthusiasm and asking if I could work with him. And he said yes! I worked under his supervision on the notion of “social exclusion”. I showed that the originality of the notion is, that, contrary to “the poor” or “the destitute”, it is not a social category, it invites to action but without clearly delineating the individuals that should benefit from it (Didier 1996). Meanwhile, he introduced me first to Alain Desrosières and then to Bruno Latour, who the year after became my PhD supervisor.
At the CSI (Center for the Sociology of Innovation), I learned that something called “economics of convention” existed. I remember: we invited François Eymard-Duvernay and Laurent Thévenot – who are at the core of the economics of convention – to the monthly seminar. But I never felt that I belonged to the group; it was not even clear to me that it was a group. These economists were friendly to us, and vice versa, but I had the feeling that we had diverging agendas. We were not explicating the differences and similarities between us; I did not care whether a group of “conventionalists” was existing, even though I was often interested in their writings. It was simply a biographical matter that I did not get really involved with them. At that time the more heated debate (to me) was evolving between the sociology “of critique” (Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (GSPM) which is the group formed within École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) by Boltanski, Thévenot, Desrosières and others after their separation from Pierre Bourdieu’s approach) and the Actor Network Theory (at CSI – the Group of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and others). To put it in a nutshell, the question is, whether a sociologist can presuppose a totally flat world without any transcendental level (Actor Network Theory) or whether they need to presuppose a two levels world to give room to an exteriority of normativity (GSPM) (cf. Latour 2009).

WB: Alain Desrosières was a crucial figure in the formation of sociology of quantification. What was his role in the development of your interest in quantification processes?

ED: Alain had several specificities. First, he was not working in academia but at the INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques) and was a part time professor at the ENSAE. Therefore, he remained all his life a civil servant as much as a researcher. For me, as a student, I saw his position and, I was to discover very quickly his work too, as a little unusual, a little unexpected, very original. Besides, this position gave him direct access to core questions concerning the production of statistics and its relation to the government. He remained all his life, actually, the only one to care authentically about statistics from a reflexive point of view. I mean the whole Parisian flock was aware of the fascinating sociological questions statistics raised, but fairly soon they relied on him, personally, to produce actual studies and reference papers to be cited on this point.  Third, his position gave him a kind of exteriority within the academic field that allowed him to be, at the same time, an insider and an outsider. It must be said that this social exteriority was also bearing on a vast and profound knowledge of the literature. He knew about the squabbles between the different subgroups living in the ecology of the Left Bank, but he could remain outside of them. He often reinterpreted them from the viewpoint of statistics in a way that wound up being a synthesis of the different positions. Finally, Alain was also extremely generous intellectually. He was always very happy to introduce you to a paper you’d missed, to a colleague that could help you out of a difficulty; he read intermediate versions of your texts and never took you down, on the contrary, he gave important and wise inputs. I guess these points influenced me in trying to follow his path.

WB: Recently, Desrosières was honored by the INSEE, where he worked all his professional life, by naming a library after him. There is a video on that on the Internet (see How might his reflexive spirit be able to survive in a public institution that is increasingly confronted with a neoliberal environment and tight budgets?

ED: I love the video, your readers should take a moment watching it! It gives many different, yet coherent, viewpoints on the importance of Alain, and gives a hint on his relationships to representatives of the conventionalist movement. I also love the fact that the library was baptized after him. I would like to insist on the point that Gael de Peretti, an INSEE administrator, encouraged strongly this nomination and is also the kingpin of the biannual « Alain Desrosières’ prize » for the best scholarly essay in the socio-history of quantification. I think, those talking in the video, those who directed it, and Gael’s initiatives are examples of the answer to your question: friends of Alain will make his spirit survive, especially if we find institutions such as a library to solidify the group. This being said, I would like to add that a reflexive spirit on quantification is especially necessary in a world in which arguments about the budget or economic liberalism become so prominent. Actually, I tend to think that this spirit will develop in any case because people need to find degrees of freedom to live their life. It happens that the Social Studies of Quantification are lucky enough to have an inspiring predecessor such as Alain, and it will be useful.

WB: Which aspect of the economics or sociology of convention do you consider problematic or critical with regard to its further development?

ED: Given my previous response, this question is a bit hard to answer. But still, I would like to say something about sociology in general. Society is constantly evolving. There are forces that make it change, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, but it changes. The problem of sociology is to keep up with these transformations. It has essentially to constantly reinvent itself, so that its methods and findings fit to the transformations it aims at capturing. Some conventionalist works contribute to this necessary creativity of the discipline. But sometimes sociology falls for dogmatism. Particularly for pedagogic reasons, or to establish positions of power (both of which, I must say, are not to be neglected neither), it establishes rules and procedures that must allegedly be followed. Dogmatism is the end of sociology because it is the end of creativity. I hope that no conventionalist has fallen into this trap.

WB: What makes the second generation of scholars in the conventionalist tradition unique?

ED: The first economists of convention organized a conference where they could all sit down together. And their communications fit into one single edited volume (Salais and Thévenot 1986). What is very striking today is the number of people who might be seen as conventionalists and the diversity of the topics, methods, problems that they are tackling, within very different disciplines and countries. I doubt it would be possible to gather all these people in one single room. Rainer Diaz-Bone’s “EC-news-letter” which comes I think at least once in a week, presents at least three or four publications each time. It is really impressive. The first generation of conventionalists did succeed in following God’s order of the Genesis (1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply ”.

WB: The “Social Studies of Quantification”, as you termed the currently emerging interdisciplinary field, draws on a variety of scientific disciplines. Are there any common theoretical assumptions in “Quantification Studies” or are the assumptions held rather specific to certain approaches to the subject?

ED: I don’t know whether there are any theoretical assumptions unifying Social Studies of Quantification. Maybe there is this very general argument, which we all agree to, that quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it. But I think of Quantification Studies as a group of researchers, each following their own path and engaging with the works of others. Even “quantification” is not strictly defined. Some include data and “big data”, some don’t. Some include lay practices of counting, others don’t. Thus, I think the group of scholars interested in it resembles rather a “flock”, using the concept taken from ethology, than a theoretically established research program. To use another ethological concept, I recently heard about something called “Fish aggregating devices” (FAD). These usually consist of buoys or floats tethered to the ocean floor with concrete blocks. Fish are fascinated with floating objects. They use them to mark locations for mating activities. They gather in considerable numbers around objects such as drifting flotsam, rafts, jellyfish and floating seaweed. The objects appear to provide a visual stimulus in an optical void, and offer refuge for juvenile fish from predators. The gathering of juvenile fish, in turn, attracts larger predator fish (see Even though FADs are used now with the awful aim of industrially fishing countless quantities of fish, I’d like to see Social Studies of Quantification as a non-fishing FAD, something that helps researchers gather, discuss, exchange simply because they are attracted by the whole device and the sociality that corresponds to it.

WB: The sociology of quantification has been developed to a considerable degree with regard to the (historical) production of official statistics. Nowadays, public and private life seems to be increasingly permeated by numbers that are collected and analyzed by private tech companies. The conventions of quantification in these companies are generally not in the public eye. What does that mean for the sociology of quantification?

ED: The answer is in the question. I agree with your diagnosis: public and private life is more and more permeated by private numbers. Numbers, even public numbers, are produced with a series of new techniques, originally from the private sector. It’s interesting to see for example the success of an expression such as “data mining”, coming from the big private tech, whereas public statisticians used to simply say “data analysis”. The power that laid with the government, and that the former generation of sociologists of quantification wanted to analyze and criticize, lays now for a large part with private companies and operates very differently. So yes, obviously, I think that research focusing on tech companies, and especially on the intersections of tech companies and government, is extremely interesting. This is particularly striking in medicine and health where public health and private interests have intersected constantly for a very long time.
For example, the debates about a “Stop Covid” app is very interesting – an app that would detect infected people passing by your phone. Public health systems in most countries wanted to develop their own app to make sure that they would control the data. But Google and Apple just announced (September 2020) that they will install automatically an app in the operating system of our phones. So, they just bypassed public health systems! And now they have the data!
One of the difficulties raised by the big tech companies is that their economic model rests on free service or open source development for the users. Their private services look a lot like the ones public authorities might provide. They seem to be for free! But the data is not used the same way, and moreover, there is a long history of the social control of state power. The control of giant private companies’ power yet needs to be developed. Social studies of quantification could really help in this.

WB: What are the challenges and opportunities of Big Data for official statistics?

ED: William Davies wrote an interesting piece on the topic in the Guardian in 2017. It was entitled “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next” (Davies 2017). His main point was that the world has accelerated a lot recently and that the nation-state borders correspond less and less to the reality of the economy, but remain fundamental for statistics. Thus, statistics produce information on entities that are not significant anymore and hence lose their authority. On the contrary, Big Data is able to capture the mood of populations (through “likes” or Google queries), which a new genre of experts know how to put to use. However, they are more into math and physics than the good old statisticians, who are closer to sociology and economics. Especially, Davies warns, they enable populist uses of the information – as it has been the case with Cambridge Analytica.
But official statisticians are not helpless. For example, technically, they are developing very interesting techniques to produce reliable information through many channels at the same time – offline as well as online questionnaires – sufficiently robust to be aggregated in one single survey. It’s called “multimodal data production”. More generally, Walter J. Radermacher, a former head of Eurostat, just published a very good book in which he synthesizes all the innovations made by public statistics bureaus in relation to Big Data (Radermacher 2020). In particular, he argues that public statisticians are very good at producing reliable data and thus in fighting against “fake news” – whereas the “data scientists” working on “big data” are not always on top in this respect.

WB: The COVID-19 pandemic shows once again the importance of reliable (official) statistics. At the same time, there is a lot of insecurity attached to these numbers – for very different reasons. What can the sociology of quantification contribute to the common good in such a crucial situation?

ED: The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been also a pandemic of numbers. It was amazing to see the amount of numbers that we, as the public, were fed every day: numbers of infected persons, numbers of hospitalized persons, numbers of death, numbers of recoveries, etc. – all this in our own country and compared to others. Sociology of quantification did intervene in the media at the time. First it described the strength and limitations of the different methods used to produce these numbers. Especially it pinpointed methodological differences between countries that complicated the comparison. It underlined the social constraints that explain the different methodologies adopted by several public systems.
The best example concerns the number of deaths. It is a long and complicated process to establish the cause of a death – especially in the case of the Coronavirus which goes very often with comorbidities. A doctor has to see the body and be able to establish a cause of death. And it is also a long process to aggregate all the cases of death. Each country has its own method, depending on the history of the public health information system. The result is that international comparison is not always straightforward. Especially it is not clear what to do with the death of old people living in nursing homes. Sociology of quantification is particularly well equipped to explain all these subtleties to the public.
Another use of our discipline is to analyze the effects of the data on several publics. How does it affect the public if it is barraged with numbers? What does it do to the government to rely so heavily on data? I was involved in a collective paper finally publish in Nature about the ethical aspects for statisticians, to see their models at the heart of public policies. We highlighted how predictions need to be transparent and humble to invite insight, not blame (Saltelli et al. 2020).
Finally, social studies of quantification can help open up the range of things that should be counted. It was striking at the beginning of the lockdown how much we were fed only and uniquely with public health figures measuring how the country was hit by and resisted the virus. Yet, at the same time, we heard stories here and there about how hard it was for poor families to stay put in their small homes in the banlieux, stories of domestic violence, artist friends who told us that the containment policies were making them go broke, etc. But there was absolutely no figure (at least in France) to aggregate all the drawbacks of the lockdown.  Statactivism, is the activist side of social studies of quantification (Bruno et al. 2014b; Bruno et al. 2014a). It is a political resource, imagining: “The problems, which we encounter could be quantified and it would help our cause.” In the case of the lock down, people suffering from the situation finally reclaim other numbers (Didier 2020c).

WB: The economics or sociology of convention has been developed mainly in France with important efforts of internationalization having been made more recently by translating crucial works into other languages. For example your book on Statistics in the United States has recently been translated into English (Didier 2020a). Which places of academic work outside of France do you consider promising for the future development of the conventionalist approach?

ED: What’s an interesting group? I think it is a small group of people knowing each other, if possible being even close to one another, and thinking about questions that appear in their own vicinity, and that have not been answered yet, but which they are able to relate to very general questions of interest to a wide variety of scholars. That’s exactly how sociology of quantification, economics of convention, and actor network theory appeared in Paris. Lately I have been invited by you guys, people in Halle, a former GDR university, a very peculiar context, but at the same time with some interesting international ties. Your interdisciplinary discussions on “Schlüsselindikatoren” [key indicators] as a very powerful governing tool were very exciting (cf. Bartl et al. 2019), and your work has already begun to bear its first fruits.[1] The other group I met recently was in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a small and super active group of people all working on quantification, with an activist perspective, fiercely opposing Bolsonaro’s populism, demanding justice for the favelas and a better control of the police forces. We featured them in a special issue of Statistique et société. The very peculiar situation in which they find themselves, plus their energy, freshness, and shrewdness is producing very interesting and original results.

WB: You are the editor in chief of Statistique et Société, the French leading journal in the Social Studies of Quantification. How do you define your role as an editor there?

ED: Well, the first task, and probably the most time consuming one, is simply to make sure that the three issues per year are indeed published in time. More generally we, as an editorial board consisting of seven persons, try to make visible some interesting work and to give it a platform. In a sense, the journal is part of the Fish Aggregating Device. It aims at attracting the interest of people working on quantification and that of other people that are interested in topics that we focus on. For example, our next two issues will be on the Yellow Jackets in France and on the numbers of the pandemic. In both cases, we want to show that these two highly mediatized events, on which we tend to think that we have heard everything, can in fact be understood in a very fresh and yet very significant way if we focus on the numbers that they have co-produced. For example, to understand the Yellow Jackets it is crucial to understand that they have produced their own numbers about themselves. It let them dream of refusing any human representative – because they hoped these numbers could represent them. This appeared to be crucial in the development of the movement, yet very few people made the point. With the pandemic, it’s the same, quantification plays a crucial role in its development because the policies established to control it rely heavily on numbers, models, maps. But still, the “political” role played by the experts producing and processing these numbers (and I don’t say it in a critical tone: I am glad they were here to fight the disease!) has not been analyzed enough. We’ve already said a word about it above. So I would like to make the point that social studies of quantification are interesting for a public as wide as possible. Quantities are now everywhere, they always have political effects, and thus everyone should be authorized to understand and maybe participate in these decisions. This is the objective of Statistique et société.

WB: Which academic project are you working on currently and what are your plans for the next year?

ED: I would like, first, to have opportunities to discuss more the concept of “quantitative marbling”, which was the topic of my Amo Lecture at your university last year (Didier 2019, 2020b). Then, the “Decodeurs” of Le Monde (the newspaper’s fact checkers) sent me the dataset of all the questions they received from their readers during the pandemics. They stretch from very practical questions “How far from home can I take a walk?” to more general ones “Is the virus an artificial production?”. I would like to find time to analyze these data. This would take place in a larger work I have been engaged in for several years, which is on the transformations of truth in a time of digital information and disinformation – for the general public as well as for scientists.

WB: Sounds riveting! I am very much looking forward to the first results. Emmanuel, many thanks for your thoughts and your time.


Bartl, Walter; Papilloud, Christian; Terracher-Lipinski, Audrey (2019): Governing by numbers: Key indicators and the politics of expectations. An introduction. In Historical Social Research 44 (2, Special Issue), 7-43. DOI: 10.12759/hsr.44.2019.2.7-43.

Boltanski, Luc (1982): Les cadres. La formation d’un groupe social. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Boltanski, Luc (1987): The making of a class. Cadres in French society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Prévieux, Julien (eds.) (2014a): Statactivisme: comment lutter avec des nombres. Paris: Zones.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Vitale, Tommaso (2014b): Statactivism. Forms of action between disclosure and affirmation. In Partecipazione e Conflitto 4 (2), pp. 198–220.

Davies, William (2017): How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next. In The Guardian, 1/19/2017. Available online at

Didier, Emmanuel (1996): De l’«exclusion» à l’exclusion. In Politix. Revue des sciences sociales du politique 34, pp. 5–27. DOI: 10.3406/polix.1996.1029.

Didier, Emmanuel (2019): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7 [Video]). Available online at

Didier, Emmanuel (2020a): America by the numbers. Quantification, democracy, and the birth of national statistics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Didier, Emmanuel (2020b): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification. Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Halle (Saale) (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7).

Didier, Emmanuel (2020c): Politique du nombre de morts. In AOC media – Analyse Opinion Critique (blog), 4/15/2020. Available online at

Latour, Bruno (2009): Dialogue sur deux systèmes de sociologie. In Marc Breviglieri, Claudette Lafaye, Danny Trom (eds.): Compétences critiques et sens de la justice: colloque de Cerisy. Paris: Economica, 359-390.

Radermacher, Walter J. (2020): Official statistics 4.0. Verified facts for people in the 21st century. Cham: Springer.

Salais, Robert; Thévenot, Laurent (eds.) (1986): Le travail: marchés, règles, conventions [table-ronde, 22-23 novembre 1984]. Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. Paris: INSEE Économica.

Saltelli, Andrea; Bammer, Gabriele; Bruno, Isabelle; Charters, Erica; Di Fiore, Monica; Didier, Emmanuel et al. (2020): Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto. In Nature 582 (7813), pp. 482–484. DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01812-9.

[1] Petra Dobner, Dirk Hanschel: The use of SDG-indicators for water-related aims as an instrument of domestic political and legal disputes (DFG project 432912052). Christian Papilloud: Translation in Nanomedicine. « Qualitative indicators » of medical innovation research in the European Union (DFG project 432916842). Richard Rottenburg, Alena Thiel: How Democracies Know: Identification technologies and quantitative analyses of development in Ghana (DFG project 432915420).

Tamensourt, une ville nouvelle à la merci des spéculateurs immobiliers

Saïd Arab (2020)

Espace Géographique et Société Marocaine, 37/38, pp. 29-56

Résumé. Le présent article montre que la spéculation immobilière irrationnelle a contribué au ralentissement du rythme d’urbanisation de la ville nouvelle de Tamensourt. En effet, le promoteur public Al Omrane, qui est chargé de produire la grosse part des biens immobiliers de Tamensourt, a transféré la majeure partie de son offre de logements et de terrains aux spéculateurs immobiliers, au lieu de la vendre directement aux ménages qui ont en besoin réellement pour l’habitation. Ainsi, à cause de ces spéculateurs, ces biens immobiliers ne trouvent pas facilement d’acquéreurs. Il en découle une très faible augmentation du nombre de nouveaux ménages résidant à Tamensourt depuis sa création en 2004. D’où le ralentissement du rythme d’urbanisation de cette ville nouvelle.

Extrait. “Par ailleurs, comme il a été démontré par André Orléan (2004), le prix ne constitue pas toujours une valeur fondamentale à laquelle se réfèrent les agents économiques. Ceux-ci s’appuient aussi sur un raisonnement fondé sur ce qu’André Orléan appelle la « convention » et « le mimétisme » : «…chacun se détermine, non pas à partir de son estimation de la valeur fondamentale, mais à partir de ce qu’il pense que les autres vont faire.» (André Orléan, 2004, p. 39).”

Abstract. This article shows that irrational real estate speculation has contributed to the slowdown in the pace of urbanization in the new city of Tamensourt. Indeed, the public developer Al Omrane, which is responsible for producing the bulk of Tamensourt’s real estate assets, has transferred most of its supply of housing and land to real estate speculators, instead of selling it directly to households in real need of housing. Thus, because of these speculators, these properties do not easily find buyers. As a result, there has been a very small increase in the number of new households residing in Tamensourt since its establishment in 2004. Hence the slowdown in the pace of urbanization of this new city.

Extract. “Moreover, as demonstrated by André Orléan (2004), price is not always a fundamental value to which economic agents refer. They also rely on reasoning based on what André Orléan calls « convention » and « mimicry »: « …each one determines himself, not on the basis of his estimate of the fundamental value, but on the basis of what he thinks the others will do ». (André Orléan, 2004, p. 39)”

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The Work of Art Criticism: Collaboration, Communication, Community

Matthew Bowman (2020)

Arts 9(4), 101, pp. 1-15.

Abstract. This essay aims to reconsider the practice of art criticism. The first part aims to clear away some misconceptions that reduce art criticism to a fundamentally negative discourse that asserts a theory/practice distinction. In the second part, the essay tries to think of art criticism as collaborative writing alongside rather than about an artist. The third part, however, highlights some problems insofar as communication and collaboration have become imbricated within post-Fordist socioeconomic frameworks. In addition, the fourth part seeks to propose another direction by suggesting why art criticism and Kantian aesthetics may discover a renewed interest in one another through rethinking the sensus communis as an alternative to post-Fordist sociality.

Extract. « Published in France in 1999, and translated into English during 2007, Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s book The New Spirit of Capitalism provides an in-depth sociological analysis of these economic changes—especially as these appertain to France but also with a general applicability to other nation states. Historically situated as a counter-response to Fordist capitalism, they argue, were two modes of critique, namely, social critique (which focuses on inequality, poverty, egoism, and exploitation) and artistic critique, which, in Boltanski’s words “criticizes oppression in the capitalist world (the domination of the market, the discipline of the factory), the uniformity of mass society and the commodification of everything, and it valorises an ideal of liberation and individual autonomy, of uniqueness and authenticity” (Boltanski 2008, p. 55). Although identified as two different types of critique, insofar as capitalism is their mutual target, then social and artistic critique may be regarded as two sides of the same coin. Artistic critique is not here the same thing as art criticism but, rather, is closer to artistic practice and names attributes that may be found in both artistic practice and art criticism (to an extent, art criticism might function somewhere between social and art critique). Historically, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, social critique would be more prevalent than artistic critique, which is mostly restricted to particular avant-garde circles. » (p. 7-8)

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Reality tests: navigating education to work transitions into weak-form occupations

Rebecca Ye (2020)

Journal of Education and Work 33(3), pp. 242-253

Abstract. Drawing on pragmatic and occupational sociology, this paper examines how individuals in Sweden embark on occupations that are in nascent stage and for work tasks that are weakly defined. I accompanied a group of aspirants as they moved from a higher vocational education programme into the labour market, following their learning journeys towards emerging occupational roles. The present paper focuses on how they face reality tests related to their unclear occupational futures and the navigation of ethical grey zones when in the labour market. These tests occur in transition from education to work, and particularly for emerging occupations, due to the uncertain and fragile logics that surround new work tasks; in this case, offering digital data services. Through encountering these tests, aspirants are offered the opportunity to negotiate and develop moral competence, although they vary in their coping strategies. The findings of this analysis set out to contribute to the literature on how individuals are prepared for emerging occupations and propose the concept of ‘weak-form occupations’ as a means to characterise and examine education to work pathways that are less intuitive or predictable.

Link to the review

Rationalité autoréférentielle et mimétisme

André Orléan

Séminaire le 9 octobre 2020 – 12:00 – 13:30 – Pacte
Sciences Po Grenoble – Amphi F

Lors des crises financières, la panique prend brutalement le pas sur l’euphorie. L’économie casino conduit alors à des situations a priori incohérentes. Cette exubérance des marchés n’est pourtant pas irrationnelle. Bien au contraire, elle révèle la nature autoréférentielle des anticipations sur les marchés financiers. La prise en considération du mimétisme des comportements permet ainsi d’appréhender la déconnexion de la finance avec l’économie réelle et souligne l’impérieuse nécessité de la réguler.

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L’empire des chiffres

Olivier Martin (2020)

Paris: Armand Colin.

Résumé. L’heure, la qualité d’un restaurant, la température, le taux de chômage, le QI, la durée d’un entraînement, la réussite d’un lycée, la richesse, une cote de popularité… Il semble impossible d’échapper aux chiffres  ! Mais à quoi servent-ils exactement  ? D’où viennent-ils  ? Et pourquoi met-on le monde en chiffres ? Les chiffres régissent une bonne partie de nos vies  : ils servent à coordonner nos actions, à établir des règles de vie commune et à trouver des conventions au sein des collectifs. Ils contribuent aux prises de décision et à l’exercice du pouvoir. Ils participent à nos quêtes de justice et d’harmonie, et à la construction de la confiance. Et ils prétendent aussi refléter la réalité de façon objective. La puissance des chiffres provient-elle de leur capacité à énoncer des certitudes, de notre soumission volontaire à des artifices utiles, de leur aptitude à fabriquer un monde et à nous l’imposer, ou des leviers qu’ils nous offrent pour s’entendre et agir ? À travers une analyse sociologique et historique de la quantification, Olivier Martin nous montre toute l’étendue de l’empire des chiffres dans nos sociétés.

Extrait. “L’ouvrage s’appuie sur plusieurs domaines de recherche : l’histoire sociale des pratiques ordinaires de mesure et la métrologie historique; l’histoire sociale du temps et de ses usages sociaux (encadrés ici et ici) ; la sociologie historique de la quantification; l’histoire et la sociologie des pratiques savantes de mesure; la sociohistoire des pratiques évaluatives ; et bien sûr les quelques travaux de philosophies, historiens ou anthropologues consacrés à des analyses transversales de la mesure. Nous souhaitons ici souligner quelques points généraux concernant l’ensemble de ces sources. Alors que chacune de ces gammes de travaux aborde, à sa manière, les questions de « mise en chiffre », il est frappant de constater à quel point ces travaux partagent très peu de références et ne se citent presque jamais entre eux : par exemple, les travaux consacrés à la mesure de l’heure ne s’intéressent pas à ceux étudiant la mesure des faits sociaux ; et ces derniers ignorent très largement les publications sur l’histoire des systèmes de poids et mesure ; qui à leur tour n’intègrent pas les résultats en sociologie historique des statistiques. Même les textes récents qui prétendent proposer des synthèses ne traitent que de quelques aspects de la manière dont le monde s’est fait nombre (Bardet, 2014 ; Bruno, Jany-Catrice, Touchelay, 2016 ; Diaz-Bone, Didier, 2016 ; Rey, 2016 ; Muller, 2018 ; Berman, Hirschman, 2018 ; Bartl, Papilloud, Terracher-Lipinski, 2019 ; Jaclin, Wagner, 2019), y compris lorsqu’ils soulignent « l’importance de comprendre la pluralité de la quantification » (Mennicken, Espeland, 2019). Ils oublient très généralement toutes les pratiques de mesure du temps ; et ils ne traitent, au mieux, que marginalement de la métrologie (ordinaire comme savante). C’est aussi le cas des nombreux travaux conduits par un des initiateurs de la sociologie de la quantification en France, Alain Desrosières (cf. encadrés ici et ici). Nous aurons de nombreuses occasions de revenir sur ses travaux mais, pour l’instant, retenons qu’il excluait de ses analyses les opérations de mesure du monde naturel, les pratiques de mesure des poids, longueurs et durées. Il maintenait, d’une certaine manière, ce type de pratiques dans le giron de la philosophie réaliste de la mesure : « l’idée de mesure, inspirée de l’épistémologie traditionnelle des sciences de la nature, implique que quelque chose existe sous une forme déjà mesurable selon la métrologie réaliste, comme la hauteur de la tour Eiffel » (Desrosières, 2008a, 10). Il distinguait les pratiques de quantification des sciences humaines et sociales et les démarches de la statistique sociale et économique d’une part, et les pratiques de mesure des sciences de la nature d’autre part. De fait, ses travaux n’ont jamais inclus de recherches sur la mesure des « grandeurs physiques ou naturelles » et se sont concentrés sur les domaines des faits sociaux, culturels, économiques, démographiques : il définissait la sociologie de la quantification comme la sociologie de la statistique, de la comptabilité et de l’évaluation des politiques publiques (Desrosières, 2005, 23). Son ouvrage phare La politique des grands nombres (1993) comme ses articles ultérieurs ont toujours acté, de manière au moins implicite, l’existence d’une différence entre la mesure du monde physique et la mise en nombre de l’économiste ou du sociostatisticien.”

Abstract. The time of day, the quality of a restaurant, the temperature, the unemployment rate, the IQ, the duration of a training session, the success of a high school, the wealth, a popularity rating? It seems impossible to escape the numbers! But what exactly are they used for? Where do they come from? And why do we put the world in numbers? Numbers govern a good part of our lives: they serve to coordinate our actions, to establish rules for living together and to find conventions within collectives. They contribute to decision-making and the exercise of power. They participate in our quest for justice and harmony, and in building trust. And they also claim to reflect reality in an objective way. Does the power of numbers come from their ability to state certainties, from our voluntary submission to useful artifices, from their ability to make a world and impose it on us, or from the levers they offer us to agree and act? Through a sociological and historical analysis of quantification, Olivier Martin shows us the full extent of the empire of numbers in our societies.

Extract. « The book is based on several fields of research: the social history of ordinary measurement practices and historical metrology; the social history of time and its social uses (framed here and here); the historical sociology of quantification; the history and sociology of scholarly measurement practices; the sociohistory of evaluative practices; and, of course, the few works by philosophers, historians or anthropologists devoted to cross-disciplinary analyses of measurement. We would like to highlight a few general points concerning all of these sources. While each of these lines of work deals, in its own way, with the question of « numerical measurement », it is striking to note how little reference is made to these works, which almost never quote each other: for example, works devoted to the measurement of time are not interested in those studying the measurement of social facts; and the latter are largely unaware of the publications on the history of systems of weights and measures, which in turn do not integrate the results of the historical sociology of statistics. Even the recent texts that claim to offer syntheses deal only with a few aspects of the way the world has become numerous (Bardet, 2014; Bruno, Jany-Catrice, Touchelay, 2016; Diaz-Bone, Didier, 2016; Rey, 2016 ; Muller, 2018; Berman, Hirschman, 2018; Bartl, Papilloud, Terracher-Lipinski, 2019; Jaclin, Wagner, 2019), including when they stress « the importance of understanding the plurality of quantification » (Mennicken, Espeland, 2019). They very generally forget all time measurement practices; and they deal, at best, only marginally with metrology (ordinary as well as scholarly). This is also the case of the numerous works conducted by one of the initiators of the sociology of quantification in France, Alain Desrosières (see boxes here and here). We will have many opportunities to come back to his work but, for the moment, let us remember that he excluded from his analyses the measurement operations of the natural world, the practices of measuring weights, lengths and durations. In a way, he kept this type of practice within the realist philosophy of measurement: « the idea of measurement, inspired by the traditional epistemology of the natural sciences, implies that something exists in a form that is already measurable according to realist metrology, such as the height of the Eiffel Tower » (Desrosières, 2008a, 10). He distinguished between the quantification practices of the humanities and social sciences and the approaches of social and economic statistics on the one hand, and the measurement practices of the natural sciences on the other. In fact, his work never included research on the measurement of « physical or natural quantities » and focused on the fields of social, cultural, economic and demographic facts: he defined the sociology of quantification as the sociology of statistics, accounting and public policy evaluation (Desrosières, 2005, 23). His seminal work The Politics of Large Numbers (1993), as well as his subsequent articles, have always acknowledged, at least implicitly, the existence of a difference between the measurement of the physical world and the enumeration of the economist or sociostatistician. »

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Tous à nos cabanes

Frédéric Keck (27 Sept 2020)

Terrestres. Online essay

“Comment penser les cabanes comme des lieux de l’élan critique et pas du repli psychologique ? Dans cette traversée de planches en planches, inspirée par Marielle Macé et Luc Boltanski, l’anthropologue Frédéric Keck nous invite à mettre à bas la « cité par projets » du capitalisme contemporain et à faire de ses débris des matériaux pour nos cabanes.”

“How can we think of the huts as places of critical impulse and not as places of psychological withdrawal? In this journey from plank to plank, inspired by Marielle Macé and Luc Boltanski, the anthropologist Frédéric Keck invites us to put down the « project-based city » of contemporary capitalism and to turn its debris into materials for our huts.”

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Sustainable Financial Risk Modelling Fitting the SDGs: Some Reflections

Christian Walter (2020)

Sustainability, 12(18), 7789, pp. 1-28

Abstract. This article argues that any ecological finance theory devised to fit the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) needs a paradigm shift in the morphology of randomness underlying financial risk modelling, by integrating the characteristics of “nature” and sustainability into the modelling carried out. It extends the common diagnosis of the 2008 financial crisis with considerations on the morphology of randomness and the reasons why neoclassical finance theory is not sustainable from this perspective. It argues that the main problem with unsustainable neoclassical finance risk modelling is its underlying morphology of randomness that creates a dangerous risk culture. It presents Leibniz’s principle of continuity and Quetelet’s theory of average as cornerstones of classical risk culture in finance, acting as a mental model for financial experts and practitioners. It links the notion of sustainability with the morphology of randomness and presents a possible alternative approach to financial risk modelling defined by rough randomness. If morphology of randomness in nature is properly described by fractal and multifractal methods, hence ecological finance theory has to include fractal properties into financial risk models. The conclusion proposes a new agenda for future research.

Extract. “2.2.1. Socio-Technical Instruments: The Financialised Tools

An important aspect of the performativity of mathematical financial risk modelling is the socio-technical dimension of the mathematical models. Financial instruments derived from mathematical models and financialised evaluation play an important role in the financialisation of the economy [33–35]. To better understand how a particular risk culture is created based on a probabilistic hypothesis, it is interesting to note a detail of the dialogue between Sarah Robertson and Jared Cohen in Margin Call: Robertson’s remark “we were wrong”. The use of the word “we” denotes a form of socially elaborated and shared knowledge with a practical aim, which helps to construct a culture of models common to a financial group, the culture of “how a model works” [36]. The culture of models is based on calculation and quantification conventions [37,38]. Quantification conventions ensure the same risk culture for financial practitioners. The culture of models is an “epistemic culture” in the sense of Knorr Cetina [39], specific to each group of financial practitioners: This culture diffuses a general way of thinking about technical objects. The technical objects of finance are overloaded with probabilistic techniques. Probabilistic techniques have had an enormous influence on risk assessment and the formation of quantification conventions [40]. Much work has been carried out on the basis of these methodological premises and I take the liberty of referring the reader to the references indicated so as not to lengthen the text excessively. (p. 5)

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Re-politicizing financial regulation: a sociological analysis of the debate on loan-to-value regulation in Norway

Trond Løyning (2020)

Housing Studies, Online first

Abstract. While financial regulation became highly contested in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the specifics of such regulation is usually debated among professionals, in specialized fora. This article analyses an exception to this; the debate on the loan-to-value ratio regulation introduced in Norway in 2010. Newspaper articles are analysed, using Boltanski & Thévenot’s pragmatic perspective on how actors legitimize their arguments and critique. Unlike other critical approaches (i.e., critical discourse analysis) this perspective focuses on actors own critical capacity and it is argued that the approach is useful in analyzing re-politicizing efforts of social actors. The main finding is that most arguments opposing the regulation are based in the civic “regime of justification”, while arguments supporting the regulation are based in the industrial regime of justification. Few arguments enact the market regime as justification. The article discusses reasons why the regulation has not been repelled, despite the widespread criticism.

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Media Ethics, Moral Controversies, and the Sociology of Critique

Thomas Hove (2020)

Communication Theory, Online first

Abstract. Communication scholars have begun to investigate various links between empirical research and normative theory. In that vein, this article explores how Boltanski and Thévenot’s sociology of critique can enhance our empirical and normative understanding of controversies in media ethics. The sociology of critique and its justification model provide a comprehensive descriptive framework for studying practices of moral evaluation and the social goods at stake in them. First, I discuss some prevailing approaches in media ethics. Second, I explicate how the sociology of critique defines situations of normative justification and supplies a model of their basic requirements. Third, I show how this model can be used to analyze the social background of a media ethics controversy. Last, I suggest how the descriptive approach of the sociology of critique can identify conditions in morally pluralistic social settings that pose challenges to normative theories.

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« Ma mort, mon choix » ; analyse de postes pro-choix à la lumière de la théorie des cités de Boltanski et Thévenot

Camille Gambi (2020)

Mémoire de Master (Criminologie), Université catholique de Louvain

Promoteurs : Bertrand Renard & Jean-François Cauchie

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