Economics/Sociology of Conventions: An Interdisciplinary Workshop for Methods and Theory Development (with Special Focus on Education)

Leibniz University Hannover 15th and 16th September 2022

Report by Laverne Iminza Chore (University of Innsbruck)

The Leibniz University Hannover recently hosted the 12th Economics / Sociology of Conventions (EC/SC) workshop for methods and theory development with a particular focus on education. Christian Imdorf, Arne Böker & Christian Schneijderberg jointly organised the event held on the 15th and 16th of September 2022, which received support from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. The workshop saw scholars from German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), France, and Sweden come together to advance the EC/SC discourse in the field of education and beyond.

Romuald Normand (University of Strasbourg), whose research spans international comparison of education policies, the European construction of lifelong learning, globalization and transformations of higher education, and actors and policies of innovation in education accepted the invitation for a keynote. In his talk, he proposed to renew the critique of neoliberalism in the field of education and analyzed how EC/SC and European sociologies in education could engage in constructive and reflexive dialogue for this purpose. Romuald Normand showed how the use of EC/SC can offer possibilities for extending the critique of neoliberalism by analyzing plural modes of coordination and evaluation in quality and accountability policies in education systems and the underlying grammar.

The congregated scholars addressed social and educational inequalities, educational governance, skilling, sustainability and change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The two presentations centered on inequalities included Kenneth Horvath’s (University of Teacher Education, Zürich) work on educational inequalities and Leonie Bisang’s (University of Lucerne) early career project on social inequality. In his presentation “The conundrum of how to test for talent”, Kenneth Horvath posed the critical question of whether French pragmatic sociology offers a novel perspective on racism. His session clarified that talent and merit are impossible to test. He elaborated on why it is challenging to test for talent by pointing out the ambiguities, potentialities, plurality and contextuality that engulf it. Kenneth Horvath’s work proposes that instead of testing for talent, research should concern itself with inquiring about racism. The paper is still in the formative phase, but the potential outcomes for EC/SC and how it influences perceptions on tests is something to anticipate. Leonie Bisang, in her presentation on “Social inequality in the transition from school to university: university or university of applied sciences?” posited that social backgrounds play a significant part in shaping the educational trajectory of young people. She highlighted a possible connection of Pierre Bourdieu’s approach with EC/SC using the example of the transition from upper secondary to tertiary education. From her work, two approaches are conceivable: If one takes situationalism seriously, the question arises regarding situations in which habitus is an active support. If, on the other hand, one considers the habitus as the primary explanatory principle, actors only come into situations through this. It is intriguing how the conceptualization fits the empiric as this early career project unfolds.

The second stream of sessions revolved around the governance of educational transitions with presentations by Raffaella Simona Esposito (University of Teacher Education FHNW) and Regula Julia Leeman & Sandra Hafner (University of Teacher Education FHNW). In her presentation, Raffaella Esposito showed how, in the transition from compulsory to post-compulsory upper secondary education, the supply of and access to vocational middle schools is steered (in an active/passive and direct/indirect way) employing targeted strategies and instruments. Using the example of two cantonal case studies, she showed that both cantons studied restricted these school-based vocational programs, not least because this allows the balance of power between company-based vocational education and training (VET) and school-based VET to be maintained and company-based VET to be reproduced and stabilized as an unquestioned standard within the Swiss VET system. The discussion after this presentation revolved around possible elements of a power analysis guided by conventional theory. Regula Leemann, Sandra Hafner and Raffaella Esposito presented the first results of a study on the importance of key indicators in the political governance of educational transitions and a related traffic light system in a selected canton in Switzerland. Based on documents and interviews, they demonstrated that the construction of the indicators is based on different common goods, providing the responsible actors with a map for orientation and a warning system to cope with uncertainties in governance and enable legitimacy of governance towards the taxpaying public. At the same time, these indicators unfold as standards of normative power typically oriented towards a statistical average of, e.g., the historical development of reference entities like other cantons or Switzerland as a whole. Therefore, key indicators not only support responsible actors in reaching a common good but also restrict their views and way of action as they are narrowed down to the measurable indicator and target, reducing the plurality of modes of engagement to quantifiable outputs. In the discussion, Romuald Normand pointed out that these indicators, which are oriented toward the civic convention, can counter market logics that influences many national education systems. Kenneth Horvath suggested that the limitations and restrictions in the coordination of action by indicators need to be reviewed critically.

A further group of sessions falling under the theme of sustainability and change was led by Sarah Lenz (Hamburg University), and Eltje Gajewski (University of Duisburg-Essen) & Simon Schrör (Weizenbaum-Institute/Humboldt University). In her presentation, Sarah Lenz addressed the question of how the theory of social worlds and arenas – the US-American pragmatist approach – can contribute to the study of conventions. Starting from the emerging discourses about the mutual effects of digitalization and sustainability, she argues that the pragmatistic-interactionist theory of social worlds and arenas is much more concerned about the micro-sociological preconditions in light of heterogeneous perspectives. Analyzing how actors of different interests collide within arenas as zones of conflict, defending, contesting their positions, negotiating, manipulating, or even excluding others, provides direct insight into “power in action” and the emergence of inequalities and new paradoxes. Taking the example of a collaboratively developed “action plan for sustainability in the digital age”, she shows how actors create objects they can all refer to together without denying their positions. Such boundary objects allow – in contrast to how the sociology of conventions would suggest – also “compromises without consensus”. Thus, from the perspective of the sociology of conventions, it is worthwhile to examine such boundary objects and the normative infrastructures they stabilize. Elte Gajewskis and Simon Schrör’s research looks at the ecological reconfiguration of product presentation by empirically investigating drugstore products. They demonstrate how standard products are enriched through varied analytical and narrative forms of presentation with a promise of sustainability. The theoretical argument draws from Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre’s view of the economics of enrichment. The take-home message from the discussion was that their work appears to be a robust scheme to apply to further empirical research. At the same time, an emphasis on the mechanisms behind the enrichment strategies, especially on meta price, could help develop an in-depth middle-range theory that integrates the presentation and the price-setting of sustainable products. Christian Schneijderberg (University of Kassel) conducted a presentation that addressed accreditation, audit and evaluation regimes in higher education and provided an integrated approach and analytical framework to study them as effective long-term governance means or higher education policy tools. Drawing from Thévenot, he emphasized that when studying organizational procedures, multiple conventions apply during the process, primarily industrial but also domestic, inspired and civic conventions. The complex situation could be analytically divided into several sub-situations in a study on investments in form. For example, organized procedures legitimized by civic action (situation 1, e.g., law-making by parliament about the accreditation of universities), which are adapted in law-applying by legitimate representative bodies of actors (situation 2, e.g., accreditation council, including representatives of the academic profession, students, etc.), which decide on regulations (e.g., accreditation criteria) to guide the work of organizations (situation 3, e.g., accreditation agencies and expert groups (i.e., another collective of actors in the law-application)), etc. After analyzing all sub-situation separately, the “overall” picture of organized procedures could be constituted by comparatively looking at specificities (e.g., differences) and commonalities (e.g., similarities) reflected in the ideal types of conventions/orders of worth. Christian Schneijderberg further elaborated on this with the following commentary: “EC/SC is very much “stuck” on analyzing the micro- and/or macro-levels, including the micro-macro link. The responses to my presentation make it clear that the sociological meso-level – addressing organizational behavior and organized procedures – seemingly needs to become more present in theory and methods development and application”.

Two presentations focused on positioning EC/SC in other established fields, such as HRM and organization studies. In her presentation of a soon-to-be-published book, Julia Brandl (University of Innsbruck) questions why human resource management has yet to catch up with the EC/SC approach. She highlights common themes and questions that both fields touch on and illuminates how labor conventions provide a rich avenue for exploring how employment practices influence employee behavior and enable coordination at the workplace. Julia Brandl relates EC/SC to the pluralist HRM paradigm that acknowledges the coexistence of conventions and how that is a condition for democracy. The presentation culminates with a prescription of how the sociology of conventions may enrich human resource management research. Simon Weingärtner, Monika Hasenbruch and Juan S. Guse (Leibniz University Hannover) also touched on EC/SC and sociology/organization studies. Their paper presentation on “organized justification” gave an insight into their findings on merit-based selection procedures for “gifted” people in different organizations. Building on ethnographic observations, they argued for expanding Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s regime theories of action or “engagement”, which takes into account formal organization as an independent context of justification processes and stresses the role of “compromise objects”. The presentation was remarked on by Lisa Knoll (University of Paderborn), who agreed that the organization phenomenon deserves more attention in EC/SC analyses. Her critique focused on what she perceived as an essentialist notion of organization which she views as incompatible with methodological situationalism. Her comment was followed by a lively discussion about the role of organizations within the EC/SC framework.

In the session “Telemedicine during the Covid-19-pandemic: conventions, competencies, and collaboration – the case of Covid-19-teleconsultations”, Karolin Kappler (FernUniversität in Hagen) presented three scenarios of teleconsultations-uses, which she and the team in Hagen around Stefan Smolnik worked out from interviews with intensive care physicians who used Covid-19-teleconsultations. During the vivid discussion, the attendees emphasized the importance of focusing on the negotiation processes and the upcoming moments of conflicts and negotiation between different stakeholders involved in the acceptance, adoption and use of teleconsultations. Furthermore, for the ongoing research on the implementation of teleconsultations for further indications (such as heart failure or rare diseases), possible research questions and methodological approaches were discussed. This presentation was part of the pandemic and crisis theme that was also dominant in the show-and-tell sessions featuring Karolin Kappler’s “Corona as an Accelerator of Digitization-border-work in times of home-office, home-schooling, and home-everything”, Sarah Lenz’s “Society at Risk-Sociality as Risk. Situational Experience and Coping with Uncertainty during the First Lockdown” and Valeska Cappel’s “Corona-Apps-once familiar data is given a new purpose, regimes turn into conventions”.

When comparing lifelong learning systems across Europe, Swedish vocational education and training has been heralded as representing a universal regime with a strong emphasis on solidarity, egalitarianism and social citizenship. However, the introduction of higher vocational education (HVE, yrkeshögskolan), a post-secondary training form mandated to train people to meet local labor market needs, complicates these composite descriptions. Rebecca Ye (Stockholm University) expounded on the questions about the Swedish VET as representing a universalist, statist and school-based ideal type. Building theoretically on the sociology of conventions, the paper probes the plural worlds of higher vocational education participation beyond simplistic understandings of human capital accumulation or universalistic welfare. Drawing on interviews with trainees and archival material, the project examines forms of justifications evoked by ordinary actors engaged in this training form. The analysis reveals that HVE participants do not enroll merely to “get work” or “get ahead”. Instead, their participation is described as a response to constraints in terms of geographical and social proximity to challenging the difficult circumstances they encounter in the labor market. Or their enrolment is a result of contingency and vacancy chains. Taken together, she suggests that HVE serves as a mode of governing vocational knowledge through operating as a projective institution within reach that offers compromises between a plurality of interests. “From the lively discussion that followed after the presentation of our working paper, comments received from esteemed members of the EC/SC workshop spurred us to consider how we can discuss these findings, and the popularization and transformation of a skilling regime in Sweden, concerning the temporality of welfare conventions. Moreover, there were suggestions for our analysis to go further to identify and locate the common good. As we progress our work, we will also embark on a more in-depth discussion on the implications of projective institutions for the contemporary governance of vocational knowledge and competencies” Rebecca Ye commented.

Early career project presentations at this workshop also included Martin Gehrig’s “Coordination of Action in Curriculum Development”. After his presentation, Martin Gehrig remarked that the feedback was pivotal in highlighting that he still needs to find a way out of the mess of the social negotiation processes in the curriculum project. In his own words: “Against the background of the EC/SC, I now want to tell a story of my own about the project – a story that doesn’t ignore the uncertainties and conflicts and traces the role of conventions and objects in stabilizing it”. Sandro Stübi in his dissertation project presentation “Recognition of prior learning in Switzerland’s collectively organized skill formation system” found the workshop a valuable springboard for idea exchange and advancing one’s questions.

To wrap up what had been a stimulating workshop, Rainer Diaz-Bone and Ken Horvath shared their latest thoughts on how EC/SC could be a foundation for the sociology of social research and for the sociology of quantification, more specifically. In their presentation entitled “On data worlds, social research and convention theory”, they emphasized that measurement, which is key for linking social theory and quantification, is organized by a plurality of conventions and epistemic values in different data worlds. EC/SC could therefore address several issues that have been foreclosed in much social research, spanning from the social problems to which the development of methods provides answers over the application of established methods in different situations to the loss of their acceptability and relevance. This presentation inspired interesting questions and conversations for the future directions of EC/SC and marked a culmination of the workshop.

We are very grateful to the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for the generous support provided for the EC/SC workshop and the Leibniz University Hannover for hosting this year’s edition.