EC related presentations during the “Kolloquium Sozialforschung” at University of Lucerne (autumn 2017)

Guy Schwegler (University of Lucerne)

During last semester’s social research and methods lectures at the University of Lucerne, three presentations were given that relied heavily on convention theory (EC). Two of the researchers, who gave a speech, applied the theory in the realm of educational research—Leemann’s methodological considerations and Horvath’s presentation of his post-doc research—while Cappel is focusing on the subject of digitalisation and health in her PhD project.

Regula Leemann (FHNW Basel): “The Sociology of Conventions in Social Science’s Educational Research: Methodological Considerations and Experiences”

Regula Leemann presented her approach to EC in the educational research for the “Kolloquium Sozialforschung”, the social research and methods lecture series at University of Lucerne. The former primary school teacher and now professor for educational sociology has been one of the most visible EC theorists in Switzerland. Consistent with the focus of the lectures, Leeman talked about methodological issues related to a study she did a while ago. After a commissioned evaluation of a school gender day—a future career day intended to question/re-think gender-typical job images—, she used the collected data for a secondary study.

Regula Leemann

The establishing of this gender day, she argued, could be viewed as a critical moment with two situations to analyze. On one hand, there were the individual reactions of teachers and school representatives in the conducted group interviews. On the other hand, the specific situation the schools applied to establish the day could be analysed as well. Through this example study, Leemann presented various EC concepts as well as how she applied them, what methodological challenges arose and how she dealt with the challenges through formulating methodological rules for herself. Not least, Leemann also re-formulated a neoinstitutionalist isomorphism thesis of adopting such a gender day. She was able to locate the establishment of the gender day on the level of the actors as wells as their justifications—therefore living up to EC’s combination of pragmatism and structuralism. Leemann went on to present her methodological rules for the EC concepts she used in her secondary analysis of the gender day. With the idea of a plurality of the conventions, she put the role of the researcher itself into perspective, as also her judgments (within the evaluation) should use the justifications given—and not prior normative starting points. With the ideas of justice and justesse, she stressed the fact that not only intense moments during group discussions should be of interest, but also the ones, were sought-after reactions from the participants didn’t occur. With EC’s demand for an extended actor concept, Leemann also present the limits of her secondary analysis—as she was not able to go beyond a few central actors (teachers and school officials). The discussion that followed her presentation mostly centred on the connection between the domestic convention and questions of gender. Are certain justifications via the domestic convention outdated if it comes to gender? (A discussant pointed out this article for further insights: see Talahite 2011). Or are there possibilities to imagine different gender roles (e.g. non-binary and non-stereotypical) with the domestic convention? Another aspect of the discussion brought forward that within the educational sector especially, certain conventions seem to have unchallenged notions—be it always unproblematic (civic conventions), problematic (domestic convention) or for the most part never questioned (industrial convention) like with the example of the notion of ‘fit’ students shows. Leemann’s presentation not only showed the importance of such detailed conventional question, but also their very specific methodological relevance.

Kenneth Horvath (University of Lucerne): “Measuring Educational Classification Knowledge”

For the second EC related presentation in the “Kolloquium Sozialforschung”, Kenneth Horvath presented first ideas for his post-doc research projects. Since August 2017, Horvath is working at the University of Lucerne as a post-doc researcher at Sociology’s chair for qualitative and quantitative methods. Before that, he held a position at the Karlsruhe University of Education—where he extended his former studies on migration to education, which also will be the subject for his upcoming research. He’s move to Switzerland reflects this shift not least again, if one considering EC strong position in educational issues amongst Swiss researchers. In the lecture (see Horvath et al. 2017), Horvath first presented his own starting point, moving from issues of migration to education, as he has been dealing with research topics such as children with migration background and highly gifted children.

Kenneth Horvath

The connected questions to those two topics are related to educational inequality and educational classification knowledge. Horvath named the three major approaches to the question of inequality in education: competencies and educational research, ethnographic studies in education as well as the institutional discrimination theory. All of these three approaches, he summed up, are having troubles dealing with the relationship of structure and practice and argue from an inner-educational standpoint when explaining inequality. Educational classification knowledge as used by teachers themselves on the other hand, is very much an interface between such insider and more broader knowledge—and therefore connected to wider issues to answer inequality within education. With examples of transcripts from recent qualitative interviews (where teachers had to describe their classes), Horvath then went on to explain his idea of classification knowledge through the descriptions the teachers made of their pupils. These descriptions did not only evaluate the students and their respective skills in schools, but also tried to explain why each child acted and performed the way it did. All those descriptions were in term related to certain justifications and used certain categorisations—but they did not only relate to pedagogical realms. Especially when the teachers went beyond a mere reason of their evaluation and classification to an understanding of the child, a change from justification to a regime of familiarity took place. The question for Horvath is how to measure and to quantify the knowledge that teachers use, also in their own quantifications. Other approaches (mostly the competence paradigm) are using Likert-scales to measure such classification knowledge, while somewhat ignoring the scale’s background to measure political views and possible social desirability issues. Dissatisfied with Liker-scale measurements, Horvath tries to approach the classification from a more experimental-setting—following Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s study (1983). To finish his presentation, he introduced two ideas to measure educational classification knowledge that he is currently considering. Unlike Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s experiment, Horvath would like to work quantitative. He thus presented first the idea of factorial surveys, where participants need to choose between descriptions (vignettes) in somewhat dilemma like situations ( Horvath referred to MIT’s Moral Machine ( and wiki surveys as an inspiration for the factorial survey). Especially interesting for Horvath would be a way to give the teachers a possibility to re-integrate their own descriptions in the survey. This first idea was all about adding an experiment like quality to a quantitative survey. His second idea to measure educational classification knowledge would be to make use of the active community of teachers in online forums. In scraping these forums, he should be able to get a solid data foundation to quantify the teachers’ classification knowledge and therefore—as with the idea of the factorial survey—get insights into the way they not only justify their evaluation of the pupils but also their descriptions of and explanations for pupils. The discussion following Horvath’s presentation started with the issues of the teachers’ self-awareness (in theoretical topics related to their work) and possible self-portrayal—and which of the two methods would be more prone to this issues. As Horvath argued, he is also very much interested in these mechanisms—not the teacher as a private, but as professional person is the focus of the research. Further discussions were concerned with how to move away from a mere discovery approach (and therefore structuralism) to explaining the processes at hand in a different way. Within this discussing, Horvath referred to the category of migration and how it is applied within the teachers’ differentiating knowledge. The ideas Horvath presented were not only interesting for their use of EC as an alternative to existing approaches in pedagogic and school settings, but because of the fact how he is aiming at categorisations and quantifications as well as the way they are the established (within and outside of a pedagogical realm) and used. The methodological ideas he presented to approach this kind of meta-perspective on the process of educational classification knowledge added another interesting level to an already worthwhile idea and presentation.

Valeska Cappel (University of Lucerne): “Health Apps – An Investment in Form for a Digital Health Condition?”

Valeska Cappel

For the third EC-related (and final) presentation in the “Kolloquium Sozialforschung”, Valeska Cappel presented her project on health apps. Cappel started with her PHD this year at the University of Lucerne and for the lecture, she gave some first insights into the conceptual work she did so far. The health apps that are the focus of Cappel’s PhD project act as preventive data trackers (in contrast to certain programs for specific diseases)—such as “fitbit” or Swiss medical insurance CSS’ “myStep”. She described three particular developments related to the health trackers. First, the general usage of those apps seems to increase and they therefore gain social science’s interest more and more. However, a general focus of studies on those apps deals with motivation of usage, mostly ignoring wider consequences of such usage. Second, a new kind of interconnectedness related to (preventive) health issues takes place: between a scientific and a commercial field, individuals, welfare state and more. The recent law of the electronic patient dossier (“Gesetzgebung Elektronisches Patientendossier”) in Switzerland is an example of how also legislation needs to deal with such an interconnectedness. Finally yet importantly, the apps seem to introduce new preventive vital parameters that are quantifying every-day actions for health purposes. Against the background of those three developments and the emerged situations, Cappel wants to ask what categories and standardisations are introduced via the apps and what logics are at work. The reason she chose EC as her theoretical framework is that not an actors’ perspective is what is of interest, but how those apps are working in situations, how an interplay between physicalness and material is taking place. The central EC concept—as the title suggests—are investments in form and how apps achieve new investments and initiate coordination. In addition, the quality conventions are at play as Cappel exemplified by the “myStep” app. From the market convention, such an app is a unique feature for the health insurance company—while for its users it is a way to pay less for their insurance. Both sides are therefore primary concerned with other issues than health itself. Her empirical work as she outlined it during the presentation would include expert-interviews with health related actors (e.g. doctors, patients, developers of the apps …) accompanied by document analysis and a qualitative experiment. In the experiment, participants should develop/discuss a new health app or a new preventive health course and defend one option in a group setting. While the first approach would describe the general situation of the apps and the references being made in those situations, the experimental part would show in which situations the apps are actually working. Cappel ended her presentation with some open questions regarding her PHD project. Are those health apps just another example of a digitalisation of classification? Alternatively, is there something genuinely new happening on a cognitive level related to health? Also, the question of whether such a digitalisation is actually working and having consequences is one that needs to be addressed. The discussion that followed this last presentation of the colloquium was mainly concerned with a deepened understanding of Cappel’s research interest. In addition, some more specific issues such as how change (through the health apps) can be integrated and addressed in her methodological framework or whether health apps (as a health practice of quantification) are actually something new. Overall, Cappel’s PhD project promises already in its early stage interesting insights into digitalisation, classification and health—not at least through the application of EC.


Boltanski, Luc, and Laurent Thévenot. 1983. “Finding one’s way in social space” study. Social Science Information. 22(4/5), pp. 631- 680.

Boltanski, Luc, and Laurent Thévenot. 1999. “The Sociology of Critical Capacity.“ European Journal of Social Theory 2(3), pp. 359-377.

Horvath, Kenneth, Anna Amelina, and Karin Peters (eds.) (2017): Migration regimes in the spotlight: The politics of migration in an age of uncertainty. Special issue of Migration Studies 5(3).

Talahite, Fatiha. 2011. “L’engendrement chez Luc Boltanski et Pierre Legendre: lectures croisées.“ Enfances, Familles, Generations. 14, pp. 113-138. 

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