Workshop Sociology of Conventions: The Format of « Bildung » or how research shapes Convention

Raffaella Esposito & Sandra Hafner (School of Teacher Education Basel, Switzerland)

On 14 and 15 September 2017, the biannual workshop ‘Sociology of Conventions’ took place in  Zurich, hosted by Philipp Gonon and Lea Zehnder from the chair of Vocational Education at the University of Zurich. It was the 8th meeting after prior workshops in Innsbruck, Basel, Vienna, Lucerne, Hamburg and Reutlingen.

Having discussed EC concepts and their appliance mostly in the economic field in former meetings, this workshop was specifically dedicated to the issue and format of ‘Bildung’ (education) as well as to methodological questions concerning the EC approach. Eric Verdier was attending as a special guest and keynote speaker as he works with the concept of conventions for comparative analysis of different national educational systems.

On Thursday morning, Philipp and Lea welcomed the audience and introduced into the topic. As usual, the workshop audience was as interdisciplinary as the EC approach itself and consisted of Sociologists, Economists and Historians as well as researchers from Educational Sciences and Social Work. This year, also a remarkable amount of PhDs was attending the workshop.

Katharina Pernkopf from the Vienna University of Economics and Business held the first talk. She presented a working paper based on an ongoing study on the implementation process of a law to reduce the work time of hospital doctors to comply with the European Work Time Directive. Trying to understand organizational change, the research team investigated the emerging conflicts and challenges for the hospitals as organizations and the doctors as professions from an EC perspective. Thereby she strived to inspire traditional strands of theory that usually deal with this research objective: new instutionalism, sociology of professions and human resource management literature. She could show that different organizations response and react differently to institutional pressure and that institutions in the sense of rules are interpreted differently. Especially highlighted was the explanatory power of EC concepts like regimes of engagement (Thévenot), investments in forms and actors’ competences.

Kenneth Horvath from the University of Lucerne shared thoughts and considerations about the applicability of interview research from an EC perspective. He presented snippets from his study on how teachers classify their students along different categories. He raised the question about the validity of the data, as the answers of the teachers could rather be seen as a reaction to the coordination situation in the interview situation than what they really do in the classroom on an everyday basis (teaching practices). As Horvath argued, teachers thus rather use classifications to communicate with outsiders than in the classroom – here, ethnography would come into play. It followed a discussion about the interview situation and how to use interviews as a tool for EC research, especially if methodic holism is strived for.

After the coffee break, Henning Middelschulte from the University of Bielefeld talked about methodological possibilities and limitations of computer based semantic EC-analyses (lexicon method). With this method, he and his research team tried to get a grasp of the question, whether economization of social sciences education in upper secondary education in Germany took place in the curricula. He presented some first results, which triggered a lively discussion about the appropriate use, operationalization and explanatory power of EC concepts in quantitative text analysis.

After lunch, Regula Julia Leemann from the School of Education in Basel presented some preliminary results from her ongoing research project on the positioning and profiling of the Specialized Middle School as a third educational track on upper secondary level in Switzerland. Applying concepts like valuation practices (Kornberger 2017), the power of conventions and investments in form, she could show how the Specialized Middle School was established as a new category on upper secondary level between 1970 and 1980. In this process, she could identify different valuation practices. The new school type was established in a process of assigning existing schools to a programmatic idea of that school type, based on a compromise of the domestic and civic convention. This compromise was later criticized and led to the integration of more market-industry based elements in the recent past.

Karin Büchel from the University of Zurich presented her PhD project. Her research was guided by the question, in how far the development of dual VET in Switzerland in 1954-1980 might be connected to the notion of educational expansion. She focused on the Canton of Lucerne and showed the benefits of a situational (yet historical) EC approach for explaining educational governance processes. Her presentation triggered a discussion about concepts of educational expansion and the explanatory power of EC.

In the later afternoon, the first round table of the workshop took place. Eric Verdier, Philipp Gonon and Esther Berner opened the discussion with their individual statements on the added value of EC concepts within the field of educational research.

Eric Verdier, Philipp Gonon, Esther Berner

All three highlighted the concept of investments in form as one of the most innovative and promising ideas of EC and especially suitable for educational research. In this field, many cognitive and materialized forms like classifications, rules, instruments, routines and devices can be found e.g. in certifications, school programs, curricula, diplomas, regulations etc. The concept of quality conventions was discussed as equally suitable for research on education, as it allows grasping and explaining different forms and ideas of evaluation and evaluation practices, quality constructions and ideas of the common good that are observable in this highly moralized, highly public sphere of society. Here, norms and justifications play a crucial role. As a third benefit, the discussants highlighted the suitability of an EC approach to educational research because of its dynamic view of social phenomena. As a re-combination of the mega paradigms of structuralism and pragmatism, EC analyses help to conceive social processes as way of mobilizing entities and stabilizing conventions at the same time. In addition, the explanatory power and limitations of EC concepts in historical research were discussed. Overall, the conclusion of the roundtable was that EC is very fruitful to apply in the field of educational research, e.g. of organizations and organizational change, analyses of law, concepts of work, classifications and more.

To close the first day, Eric Verdier held a keynote speech about education and training regimes from an international and comparative perspective. He showed how in Europe, various compromises between conventions remain country-specific. The same reform will take on a different meaning depending on the concerned societal (historical and political) context. He proceeded to present Morocco as an interesting case of an unstable social compromise, source of non-quality in Education and Training and cause of conventional crisis.

The first workshop day then came to a happy end with a yummy dinner at the restaurant Commihalle.

On Friday morning, Eva Nadai and Anna Gonon from the School of Social Work in Olten went back to a traditional field of EC research – the analysis of labour market and employment. They presented findings from their study about the valuation of disabled labour, respectively formats and employment of ‘non-standard’ workers. Similar to Pernkopf, they could show how organizations or firms react differently when faced with challenges – in this case the valuation of disabled work. Based on a multi-data design they could show how the value of disabled workers is assessed along two models of compromise between the market, industrial, civic or domestic convention. The operational and state forms structure which conventions become relevant when evaluating a worker. Nevertheless, these formats function as dispositives for coordination, and have to be mobilized.

Katharina Pernkopf

Katharina Pernkopf presented a conceptual paper concerning the fruitfulness and applicability of the EC approach for HRM research. She and her co-authors Julia Brandl, Arjan Kozica and Anna Schneider criticized that mainstream HRM research isn’t yet aware enough of the different logics or the co-presence of market (hiring ‘the best’ from outside) and bureaucracy-based (making use of employees within the organization) managing models in real organizations. Therefore, they proposed the EC approach with its situational stance and its pragmatist approach as more suitable to grasp the complexity of actual decision making employment issues.

Before and after lunch, the method and research question spaces took place. This format was introduced back in January in Reutlingen, and offers (especially for PhDs) the possibility to discuss particular questions concerning EC concepts’ applicability in one’s own research project. Reinhold Hedtke, Andrea Szukala and Claude Proeschel discussed the construction of the ‘Good Citizen’ in French and German schools, while Valeska Cappel presented first considerations about her PhD investigating discourses, classifications and conventions in the field of health apps. Michael Steurer discussed his PhD Project, where he analyzes conventions for critical work practices in inter-firm relationships. At the same time, Raffaella Esposito, Lea Zehnder and Sandra Hafner raised questions about analyzing investments in forms in the field of education.

The two workshop days closed with a final round table on investments in forms, power and pragmatism. The statements by Rainer Diaz-Bone, Patrick Bühler and Philipp Gonon triggered a discussion about the position of EC between pragmatism and structuralism. Again, the importance and explanatory power of concepts like investments in form and the plurality of quality conventions were highlighted, and the exertion of power from an EC perspective was discussed. Different discussants voiced the need to discuss, clarify and conceptualize the notion of actors’ competences in future workshops.


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