A pragmatic redefinition of value(s): Toward a general model of valuation.

Heinich, Nathalie (2020)

Theory, Culture & Society. Online first.


This paper is intended to draw the main theoretical lines of the notion of value, in order to avoid some flaws in the quantitative surveys on values as well as in some qualitative studies of value judgements. Through a number of redefinitions based on a pragmatic approach, inspired not only by Dewey’s concept of ‘valuation’ but also by the new French pragmatic sociology and by the pragmatist trend in linguistics, it tries to specify the conditions under which sociology can address the notion of ‘value’ while avoiding their reduction to scholarly supports for morals or normative guides for action and evaluation. Meanwhile, it tries to construct a unified concept of value that would work for all the concerned disciplines: not only sociology but also economics, psychology, anthropology, and even philosophy.


“Entering the issue of value through evaluative acts is a fundamental condition of the pragmatic approach. It means passing from the value of an object to the close observation of the operations by which actors actually manifest the value they assign to this object (Brosch and Sander, 2016; Heinich, 2017). It thus means focusing on acts (including this particular act called a ‘speech act’ as studied by pragmatic linguistics: Austin, 1955; Goffman, 1981) and not only on mental representations. Those acts implement what John Dewey called a ‘valuation’ (Dewey, 1939), that is, an attribution of value, which can be both positive (valorization) or negative (devalorization). In other words, value is obtained by action, in the process of qualification or requalification. This process has been introduced in the agenda of economic science by the French economic school called ‘économie des conventions’, where the notion of ‘qualification’ is central in the analysis (Eymard-Duvernay and Thévenot, 1983; Eymard-Duvernay, 1986; Callon, 2009). It implies that the actor, far from passively evaluating a given object, actively participates in its very definition: that is ‘exactly what Dewey was after as he used the word “valuation”, against the dualist one of evaluation’ (Hennion, 2015: 48). Here the new French economic school meets Dewey’s pragmatist approach around the notion of ‘qualification’, as a possible equivalent of ‘valuation’ (Trébuchet-Breitwiller, 2015: 171–2). In such a reversed perspective, value is no longer intrinsic to an object, and it is no longer the cause of the various forms of value attribution: rather it becomes the result of these valuations.” (p. 3-4)