Die Soziologie der Konventionen. Beiträge zur Analyse von Wohlfahrtsmärkten im Wandel

Lisa Knoll (2019)

The sociology of conventions. Contributions to the Analysis of Changing Welfare Markets

Cumulative Habilitation in Sociology, University of Hamburg, Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences

Lisa Knoll (2020): « Geldsoziologie. Eine Diskussion und kritische Reflexion aktueller Debatten » [« Sociology of money. A discussion and critical reflection of current debates »] Lecture given at University of Hamburg (22 June 2020) to finish the habilitation procedure.

Jürgen Beyer (University of Hamburg)
Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne)
Anita Engels (University of Hamburg)
Stefanie Kley (University of Hamburg)
Katharina Manderscheid (University of Hamburg)
Sieghard Neckel (University of Hamburg)


This compendium of work provides a contribution to the understanding of welfare markets and their transformation. On the basis of research projects on welfare taxation, carbon markets, social impact bonds, energy performance contracting, and nudging, Lisa Knoll highlights how the governing regimes of welfare markets change alongside a paradox: on the one hand market theories deny the state as an intervening force and on the other hand the state is required to acertain just market structures. It seems that a great deal of political frustration stems from this paradox: promising the absence of the state on the one hand, but still producing a lot of bureacracy on the other (which is then associated with the “regulatory frenzy” of politicians, without any connection to liberal politics). The habilitation of Lisa Knoll illuminates this free market-paradox with the social science toolkit of the Convention School of Economics (Économie des conventions).

With its claim to overcome the state vs. market divide, its take on the omnipresence of critique, and the constant pragmatic adaptation of institutions and structures, the Convention School is well equipped to shed light onto the critical struggles that make welfare markets change their character over time. Lisa Knoll shows that important debates within welfare economics itself can be analyzed as a cycle of criticism over the question of how the state should and should not intervene. Economic debates do not appear as a monolithic bloc in Lisa Knolls work, but as an outcome of constant struggles over the question of justice. Market interventions, such as social impact bonds are deeply connected to state and governance structures and to something, Lisa Knoll and Eve Chiapello call “welfare conventions”. Lisa Knoll highlights in her work, how struggles over the welfare or justice question are deeply inscribed into the institutional repertoire of governance. When new welfare market instruments become institutionalized, they are confronted with an institutional legacy they need to transform and compromise. The process of implementation is thus far from obvious and full of critique from different sites. Together with Konstanze Senge, Lisa Knoll shows how the German brake on debt gets confronted by more entrepreneurial/ neoliberal styles of public sector accounting that are carried with instruments such as the energy performance contract.

Furthermore, Lisa Knoll illuminates the cycles of re- and depolitization within the process of market-making. The private, technical and natural aura of markets gives the particular institutional structures an apolitical pretense, which is constantly confronted by moments of critique and repolitication.[1] Lisa Knoll’s work is impregnated by thoughts of Laurent Thévenot on the regimes of engagement or Luc Boltanski on modes of action. She highlights the dynamic process of critique and critique avoidance in different parts of her work. The moments of de- and repolitization of markets often arise in moments of quantification, evidence-building and commensuration (the very moments of depolitization). Lisa Knoll, with reference to the work of Alain Desrosières, puts great emphasis on showing how the avoided struggles over justice reappear in moments of quantification/ commensuration (for example, the emission rights allocation in carbon markets, or the contract negotiations of social impact bonds and energy performance contracts). The Convention School of Economics particularily highlights the historical and political character of statistics and metrics. In the work of Lisa Knoll the disputes over these techniques play a pivotal role and she connects these questions to the subject of de- and repolitization of markets.

[1] In an interesting side-way, Lisa Knoll discusses how this is also true for the subject of gender. The maneuvers of naturalization can be observed as maneuvers of depolitization with different phenomena.