« Why Convention Theory? »

Report by Taizo Yamamoto (Osaka Sangyo University, Japan)

On May 23, a session entitled « Why Convention Theory? » (https://conventions.hypotheses.org/10615) was held at the 24th Conference of Japan Society for Evolutionary Economics, JAFEE (at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan. https://jafee2019sendai.wixsite.com/evoeco/program ). The conference was scheduled for March, but was postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic and held online.

Convention Theory or Economics of Convention (EC), which is one of the French institutionalist approaches, was introduced to Japan after the 2000s by translated books and articles. In 2012, Olivier Favereau (University of Paris Nanterre, France), in 2015, Christian Bessy (École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay, France), and in 2018, Guillemette de Larquier (University of Lille, France) visited Japan and gave lectures. However, while the second generation and their students have developed EC, the recent movements have not been systematically introduced to Japan. Also, the advantages of the developed theory have been not clearly shown to Japanese evolutionary and institutional economists. Therefore, this session was organized to notice the recent development of EC and answer to the question why we dare to learn and to apply EC. The session consisted of the following three presentations:

  • Masafumi Yokemoto (Osaka City University, Japan)
    Quality Tests in an Alternative Food Network: A Case Study of Organic Farming by Minamata Disease Patients and Their Supporters
  • Kota Kitagawa (Kansai University) and Mihoko Morisaki (Osaka City University, Japan): Wagashi Crafting as a Service: A Place of Materials in the Immaterialization of Capitalism from the Perspective of Convention Theory
  • Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne, Switzerland): Convention Theory and Big Data
  • Moderator: Yuji Harada (Setsunan University, Japan)

Masafumi Yokemoto’s presented a case study of organic farming in Minamata supported by urban consumers. Minamata is well-known as the site of devastating health damage (Minamata Disease) caused by a chemical company’s (Chisso) methylmercury emissions. The linkage of producers and consumers can be seen as an example of alternative food networks (AFNs), which provide foods having characteristics differing from mass-distribution products by linking producers and consumers.

As such, the “quality” of goods is an important point, and in that respect AFN researchers have consulted convention theory. Certification systems enabled businesses to incorporate new types of worth (the environment and food safety) into the process of capital accumulation. On the other hand a strategy of AFN is to switch away from focusing on product qualities those are proved by means of a certification system, and instead use the criterion of “relationships” among producers and with consumers. In the case of Minamata, such relationships are especially important. Also, his analysis traces the emergence of cité of green in Japan.

Kota Kitagawa and Mihoko Morisaki’s presented a case study of new developments in wagashi confectionery industry of Japan as an example of the immaterialization of capitalism. In order to consider immaterialization as a way of creation or transformation of an arrangement, Kitagawa and Morisaki employed convention theory to analyze a valuation world by focusing on humans, things, discourses and their relationships. The typical case for wagashi-crafting as a service (as a performance), in the novel movement in the wagashi segment, was analyzed in the context of forming a « collection » for economic « enrichment » (cf. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, 2020: Enrichment).

Evaluating service as performance has been constructed by mobilizing not only the intangibles (new valuation criteria with the popularization of SNS, photogenic collection in SNS, and the unique skill and spirit of the performer) but also the tangibles (various equipment; the wagashi and its delicate shades; resonance between the performer and the audiences). From the perspective of the plurality of cités, beneficiaries of services need to be embedded with the cité of inspiration in the novel valuation world.

Rainer Diaz-Bone’s presentation was, first, a clear commentary on EC, and second, a critical review of the digital economy in the age of “big data” from the perspective of EC. Conventions are logics of coordination, interpretation and evaluation.

Conventions offer a link to a common good, therefore conventions are also the basis for the social construction and evaluation of quality. Here we reaffirm the importance of Alain Desrosières’s work. Data is not a mirror of pre-given facts. Categorization and quantification are the result of different steps of convention-based practices. When measurement is based on adequate conventions, data can be regarded as useful for collective actions.

Big data is seen as an innovation in economy today. But from the perspective of EC, big data also troubles economies, because many data generating infrastructures are private property and are not used to pursue a common good but to exploit data information asymmetry. The conventions for these data production and measurement are invisible. EC’s claim on big data is to bring the public back in and to implement public ownership into the data infrastructures or develop new public data infrastructures.

In this session, discussions on the floor were actively held, and it was a good opportunity for Japanese researchers to learn more about the significance of Convention Theory.