Two EC related lectures in the “Social Research Colloquium”

“Kolloquium Sozialforschung” at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland (Autumn 2019)

Guy Schwegler (University of Lucerne)

During the autumn semester 2019, the bi-weekly colloquium at the University of Lucerne took place, which was organized by Rainer Diaz-Bone and Kenneth Horvath. The format features speakers from both academia as well as private and public research institutions to deal with the methodological challenges of social science in a broad way. The various presentations given this past autumn dealt with subjects such as bibliometric reviews (Isabel Steinhardt, University of Kassel), large data sets and maps (Timo Ohnmacht, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts), or the question of representativeness in surveys (Stephanie Steinmetz, University of Lausanne). Furthermore, two researchers were also part of this semester’s program that relied heavily on convention theory (EC). For the very first presentation of the colloquium, Valeska Cappel (University of Lucerne) presented her PHD project’s perspective on the think-aloud-method. And for the very last one of the semester, Simon Schrör (Weizenbaum Institute Berlin) focused on the furniture industry. For his newly started PHD, he examines the role of conventions in the digital transformation of this industry.

These two latter presentations and their subsequent discussions will be summarized in this blog post.

Valeska Cappel:
“Die Think-Aloud-Methode: lautes Denken zur Erfassung impliziter kognitiver Wissensvorgänge” [Using the Think-Aloud Method to Grasp Implicit Cognitive Knowledge-Processes]

Valeska Cappel

In her PHD project, Valeska Cappel focuses on the digital classifications of health within software applications on smartphones (i.e. apps). She has been presenting her project in numerous forums already (see here for some reports on her presentation on this very blog). For her most recent presentation on the subject, she focused on a very specific part of her empirical work, namely the possible application of the think-aloud-method.

As Cappel put it, her project has three aims when it comes to health classifications in apps. First, there is a (more historical and general) side to the establishment of these digital classifications that she looks into. Here, she hopes to identify the equivalences and form-investments present. Second, she also will look at tensions, conflicts and non-intended consequences that result from the implementations of the classifications within and through the helath apps. Third, Cappel wants to examine closely the actual handling of the apps within specific situations, where users interact with the objects, the software and therefore the classifications. Although her three goals co-constitute each other and are somehow inseparable, she approaches each part with a different methodological emphasis. For her third aim—the handling of the apps within situations—Cappel sees the think-aloud-method fit to capture data about the cognitive processes the users bring forward in interaction with the apps.

After these introductory remarks, Cappel went on to introduce the method and different approaches to it. These approaches of the think-aloud-technique range from an “introspective” and immediate verbalization of the participants during process over to “retro-“ or post-process verbalizations, that can happen either just after a respective action or in a delayed manner. For Cappel, all of these approaches to the method promise ways to approach the peculiarities of people dealing with classifications in situations. The more immediate verbalizations, for example, seem to relate better to the ideas present in the regimes of engagement concept while the delayed approach seems more fit for justifications. The main challenge of the method, however, lies in the fact that its basic assumption lead to a psychological explanation of the underlying processes all too fast. A path to use the method in the context of EC concepts, in relation to the ideas of technologies of the self by Foucault, or with the symbolic interactionism in mind, as Cappel intends to, does not present itself easily.

The challenge was also at the heart of the discussion that followed the presentation. Here, however, participants stressed that a similar tension as in the method also lies in Cappel’s very subject, i.e. the knowledge category “health”. The idea of “cognition” with and through the category as a psychological process is connected to the sociological issue of the “handling” of the category. Various approaches to this tension then were discussed. One proposed solution was the idea to re-focus the method on the situation as only accessed by the talking participant (instead of focusing on the thinking participant). Another proposal was to apply the method in sessions with couples (and therefore two participants) or to create some sort of “crisis” experiments, and not just observe daily routines.

Simon Schrör:
“Digital-basierte Konventionen und Designmöbel. Transformation einer Industrie” [Digital based conventions and Design Furniture. Transformations of an Industry]

Simon Schrör

Simon Schrör only recently started with his PhD project that focuses on the digital transformation of the furniture industry and its related implications for modes of productions, justifications, and the likes. In Lucerne, he began his presentation with a little introduction of the Weizenbaum Institute, a joint venture project of Berlin’s universities that focuses on the digital transformation of the society, where Schrör is engaged as researcher. As part of one of the twenty research groups of the interdisciplinary institution, he especially focuses on the new governance forms and norms that result from digitalization.

After this introduction of the institute and its focus, Schrör went on to present design furniture and the changes that present themselves with the digitalization of this field. For him, the furniture objects resemble an interesting case for the digital changes. Consequences in legal, technical, as well as social norms and regulation here find their way into a specific and material object—the ways to coordinate in the digital realm are present in the furniture. Taking a step back further, Schrör then went on to present the wider societal change since 70ties as described by Andreas Reckwitz with the term late-modernity (“Spätmoderne”, see Reckwitz 2017/2020) again as mirrored in the design furniture field. Here, the former idea of design as a process inherent to mass production has been flipped on its head and the changes resulted in a questionable new role of the once standardized furniture. Now, design furniture are presented as luxury objects and a form of singularity. At the same time, however, they are being copied and cheaply manufactured by a mass market with instant and global availability.

To grasp these changes in a more systematic way, Schrör presented the concepts of the four commodity structures respectively forms of valorization that Boltanski and Esquerre introduced in Enrichment (“les formes de mise en valeur”, 2017/2020). With these four characteristics alongside the quality conventions, he went on to describe the differentiated practices to produce furniture present in the industry today. According to Schrör, furniture producers can be grouped with regard to three licensing regimes, each with respective (but non-exclusive) characteristics of goods and valorization. First, a license-based furniture production focuses on luxurious “design” furniture. Here, especially the collection form (“forme collection”) is present while a justification follows the convention of inspiration. Although emblematic of the current societal situation (singularities, enrichment), the licensed-based regime is especially challenged by processes of digitalization—and by the second type of furniture manufacturers. In this second regime type, companies have become specialized in an unlicensed production of the former regime’s products, e.g. “copying” the design products. Here, the digitalization enabled the companies to access the global distribution chains of Amazon and the likes that guarantee a certain amount of safety due to globalization (and lack of regulation). And, of course, this resulted into more and more difficulties for the license-based companies to track down their “copy-cat” counterparts. The companies under the unlicensed regime operate with the standard as well as the trend form (“forme standard/tendance”) for their goods, and justify their actions with the grammar of the civic regime. The second regime type seems to be profiting from the changes made possible through digitalization in an unapologetic manner. The third way of producing furniture, on the other hand, resemble a genuine “post-digital solution”. This regime is based on the Open Source idea, where licenses are available publicly on various online channels. These licenses then are forwarded to local producers (again, via specific channels or “platforms”). Here again the standard form becomes present, with promises to an asset form (“forme actif”), while a domestic justification organizes the production.

For Schrör, the approach of value setting in Enrichment as well as the EC in general enables the researcher to look at processes like the ones happening in digitalization from a more structural viewpoint while at the same time never losing sight of actual practices—and their possible contradictory effects (see also Boltanski and Esquerre 2017:495ff). As a first empirical idea, Schrör presented a possible chain of production that he’d like to follow and where the respective conventions should be identified. According to Schrör, an artefact analysis becomes central in following this chain of production.

During the discussion that followed his presentation, the participants of this last colloquium of the semester talked about three distinctive issues. First, the idea of following the design furniture as artefacts was discussed. Schrör presented the fabrication process in an ideal type model. Participants then pointed out that the situations of “production”—and their respective qualities and justification—shouldn’t be pre-fixed, but rather emerge in empirical work. What the actual “furniture” as an artefact is then should be questioned within various situations. The second subject discussed was the issue of digitalization. In a similar manner as with the first issue of the production process and its “artefacts,” participants pointed out that digitalization as a process also need to be specified empirically: in what function and form does the digital manifest itself, and what are the problems actors try to solve with these novelties? As a third discussion point, some weaknesses of convention theory were addressed. On the one hand, the commodity structures introduced by Boltanski and Esquerre seems to be focusing primarily on actual goods and their consumptions. Non-productive industries, the service sector and their respective “goods,” however, are not yet easily placed within the framework. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that the exact identification of a certain convention or justification in a systematic way has never been laid out—and remains a challenge both in Schrör’s project as well as in EC research in general.

References

Boltanski, Luc and Arnaud Esquerre (2017) Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise. Paris: Gallimard.
Boltanski, Luc and Arnaud Esquerre (2020, forthcoming) Enrichment. A Critique of Commodities. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.
Reckwitz, Andreas (2017) Die Gesellschaft Der Singularitäten: Zum Strukturwandel Der Moderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Reckwitz, Andreas (2020, forthcoming) Society of Singularities. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.