9th Workshop Sociology of Conventions: Pluralities of Conventions

Sandra Hafner (School of Teacher Education Basel, Northwestern Switzerland)

On 14 and 15 June 2018, the workshop ‘Sociology of Conventions’ took place in Hamburg for the second time. This ninth edition was hosted by Esther Berner and her team from the chair of Educational Science at the Helmut-Schmidt University of the German Federal Armed Forces. Esther welcomed us warmly at the officers’ mess and introduced into this year’s workshop topic, “Pluralities of Conventions”. It was inspired by the observation, that since the original publication of On Justification by Boltanski & Thévenot in 1991, the areas of application of Convention Theory have multiplied. Hence, this year’s workshop specifically evolved around issues of the double complexity of orders of worth and regimes of engagement, the status of coordination principles with and without semantic content – especially in times of digitalization, and the possible emergence of a new bio(s)-convention. Tackling new and open questions right at the core of Convention Theory, the workshop group was very happy to welcome Laurent Thévenot as a keynote speaker and much valued contributor to all workshop discussions.

Esther Berner opened the workshop with the first sketch of a preliminary research plan about the qualification of the officer in Western Germany after World War II. As nowadays the German Armed Forces are under increased pressure to legitimate themselves as representatives of military forces in a democratic state, she strives to investigate pragmatic situations of negotiation in the highly conflicted field of the military. She assumed that in this highly equipped (e.g. clothing, badges, architecture, language) field, competent actors construct qualities in a discursive manner with reference to the material equipment as well as cognitive forms and classifications, which leads to a specific type of subjectification for the German soldier. Conceptualizing this constellation as a specific dispositive of education, training and leadership, Esther envisaged conducting a dispositive analysis by complementing a Foucauldian with a conventionalist perspective.

Esther Berner introducing the workshop group to the location

Nina Pohler (Humboldt University of Berlin) and Sam van Elk (King’s College London) presented findings about how management consultants handle the conflicting regimes of familiar engagement (creating local solutions, engaging in on-site networks, being ‘insiders’) and planned action (being ‘outside’ standardizers, perception as experts) in their everyday work. They identified five key practices how management consultants deal with the conflicting regimes of engagement: narrowing regime differences, rebalancing of regimes, creating & deploying mediating forms, precipitating blurred visions, and attacking conventional-particular links. In the discussion, questions about the distinction between conventions and regimes of engagements emerged, as well as how possible symptoms of the constant struggle to handle the conflicting regimes could look like.

After the coffee break, the first two Method and Research Question Spaces of the workshop took place. Katharina Pernkopf and Dominik Zellhofer (Vienna University of Economics and Business) raised questions about the interplay of EC concepts and how to capture them empirically, particularly grasping regimes of engagements in interview situations. They shared their considerations on the ‘how to’ of the interview itself (scene setting, interview partners, research bias) as well as identifying and reconstructing regimes of engagement on the basis of interview data.

The presented interview excerpts triggered a discussion about the interview itself as an appropriate tool to shed light on regimes of engagement, considering the format itself as a complex situation of double coordination. Hence, a more ethnographic research strategy was proposed, and questions about the status of language and discourse in different regimes emerged.

Dominik Zellhofer and Katharina Pernkopf

In her Method and Research Question Space, Anna Gonon (University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland) presented an ongoing research project about the employability of unskilled workers, which was initiated by Eva Nadai. She discussed employability as the result of evaluation of workers’ abilities by employers and intermediaries and raised the question whether it is possible to uncover and conceptualize workers’ skills that are not valued and remain hidden in the construction of employability. Although this question remained open, the discussion pointed to the EC framework as suitable for questions on how to frame ‘skills’, how skills are constructed through a situation, and how these situations match workers. Among the many interesting contributions in the discussion, the idea of different ‘power(s) of valorization’ emerged as a promising concept

The participants enjoying lunch at the officer’s refectory

After a hearty meal at the officer’s refectory, Sandra Hafner (School of Teacher Education Northwestern Switzerland) presented some preliminary results of her current PhD project about the valorization of two different school types on upper secondary level, that lead into teacher education studies at tertiary level. Looking a few decades back, one of the two educational tracks showed to be rather ‘unwanted’ in the political debate, but surprisingly, nevertheless was institutionalized. Sandra applied a conventionalist perspective on teacher education governance and showed that due to educational federalism, a plurality of historically relevant conventions had to be respected. Their integration into a materialized compromise in the form of regulations allowed the second pathway to get institutionalized in spite of being target to major critique.

Raffaella Esposito (School of Teacher Education Northwestern Switzerland) put up for discussion an issue that she struggled with during the analysis of empirical data from her PhD project. In that data, she found that different actors mutually critiqued each other on the basis of the same convention – the domestic order of worth. To be able to proceed in her analysis, she proposed a further differentiation of the domestic convention in the field of education, consisting of a school-based and a company-based dimension of the domestic convention. Her inspiring and demonstrative talk triggered a lively discussion, which led to the broad agreement that it might be worth it to have a closer look at compromises between different conventions and regimes of engagement in this case.

Raffaella Esposito illustrating the challenge with her empirical data

After another coffee break, Karolin Kappler (University of Hagen) and Valeska Cappel (University of Lucerne) opened the first Roundtable of the workshop, which was concerned with the issue of power in political economy of health and social insurance. As a result of their ongoing research on self-tracking via health apps, its effects on everyday practices and its role in social insurance, they shared their considerations from a conventionalist perspective. As former research on self-tracking had been mainly focused on the Foucauldian technologies of the self, health apps could also be seen as form of critique eroding power of dominant constellations by questioning its legitimacy. Further, it was discussed if the emergence of health apps and self-tracking could lead to a new bio(s)-convention, whose common good could be named as ”self-care”. Likewise, this development could also imply new characteristics for classifications through health apps, where questions of form-investments as standards with no semantic foundation, issues of scope in a digitalized world, and related practices by actors and algorithms would have to be tackled.

The first day ended with a very inspiring lecture of Laurent Thévenot (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales EHESS, Paris), which was open to public and attracted quite a few students and professors from the Helmut-Schmidt University and members of the general public. In his presentation titled Making the World Calculable and Valuable. The Power of Plural Conventions, Thévenot argued that in the example of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the political debate between disputing citizens engaging in favor of plural conceptions of the common good has been replaced by the individual consumers’ choice between certified market goods. To analyze the processes in question, he suggested a dual approach to the dynamics of a) personalities and b) communities. Whereas different regimes of engagement are perceived as components of a composite and conflicting personality and stabilize a dynamic personal identity, grammars of commonality characterize different ways of maintaining a composite community. According to Thévenot, these two analytical tools offer a dual view of the dynamics of complex personal identities and composite conflicting communities, which is needed to account for the current modes of governing selves and communities and the debate about the so-called neoliberal governance.

After this very intensive first day, everyone enjoyed a hearty dinner at the restaurant Zum Alten Lotsenhaus at the Harbor of Hamburg.

The workshop participants waiting for a well-deserved dinner

The second day began with Anna Schneider (University of Innsbruck) presenting her current research on employee’s evaluation of job quality in the tourism and hospitality sector, based on the empirical problem of the ”leisure time/ leisure work paradox” – who is actually willing to work at places where others pass their holidays. In contrast to existing models that perceive job attributes and qualities as inherently given, Anna and colleagues argue that employees are not only subject to valorization by market organizations, but themselves evaluate jobs drawing on different conventions.

Anna Schneider explaining the “leisure time / leisure work paradox”

Based on a conjoint based experiment and cluster analysis, they found that features of the civic, domestic and the green convention seem most important from the employee’s perspective. After discussing the possible impact of such findings for the field of tourism, the workshop participants shared their view about operationalizing EC concepts in quantitative research, methodological challenges of Convention Theory, and further analytical approaches that could be promising for EC research.

In the second Roundtable of the workshop, Rainer Diaz-Bone, Lisa Knoll, Katharina Pernkopf and Laurent Thévenot shared their view on the issue of plurality from a conventionalist perspective.

Roundtable II: Laurent Thévenot, Katharina Pernkopf, Lisa Knoll, Rainer Diaz-Bone

Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne) emphasized that from a conventionalist perspective, pluralism is to be understood as a co-existing reality of different worlds and ontologies rather than a single principle dominating a certain area of society (e.g. market convention in the market). He highlighted that a real pluralist perspective would necessarily have to take a closer look at combinations, constellations and different articulations of various conventions, where one principle could be shown as hegemonic but nevertheless be linked and intertwined with others. Further, he argued that in the context of plurality, there are also different kinds of coordination logics to consider – such with semantic and moral content like the orders of worth, but also other structuring and coordinating principles like standards without distinct semantics. Lisa Knoll (University of Hamburg) linked these considerations to the previous discussion about digitalization, and how the phenomenon of techniques and algorithms leave Convention Theory with a problem – that there are standards and classifications which detract from evaluation and critique. Regarding the rise of digitalization, the pluralism of conventions and standards, the presented research about self-tracking and the possible emergence of a new ”bio(s)-convention”, she also asked about the need to reconsider the eugenic body of thought as a part of the conventionalist framework again. Katharina Pernkopf noted that not only the theoretical framework of Convention Theory, but also the research community itself is becoming increasingly pluralist in the way EC concepts are used and tailored to one’s own research interest. From her perspective, this pluralism of concepts and areas of application on one hand are fruitful and liberating, on the other hand could hinder bringing across arguments to other research communities. Therefore, a more clear and structured (and for once more structuralist than pragmatist) overview over the different complexities and linkages between EC concepts could be worth striving for, integrating pluralities of conventions, regimes, grammars and the respective principles of critique and coordination. Answering to Lisa’s thoughts on eugenics, Laurent Thévenot explained that it originally was excluded from the orders of worth because of its contradiction to the principle of a common humanity. Nevertheless, the eugenic body of thought is still existing, and from a conventionalist and therefore pluralist perspective it is worth it to keep an eye on kinds of valuation that escape the common humanity based grammar. Further, he also shared his thoughts on power in the face of plural conventions, regimes and grammars. He argued that as soon as coordination takes place, there is some form of power involved – especially when the semantic content of the coordination principle is not obvious. The following discussion ended with the general agreement, that it would be interesting to have a closer look on ”empty signifiers” in the sense of coordination principles and/or standards without obvious semantic content and how they are de-semantisized in coordination situations.

After the round table, Qamar Ali (University of Innsbruck) presented his current research, in which he applies the conventionalist approach to explain how individual actors exert power in public negotiations and to what extent they were successful. After going through classical power paradigms, he shared his considerations on how Convention Theory could complement current approaches to power analysis. Drawing on data from negotiations on developing a teachers housing society in a Pakistani University, he showed how actors endowed with critical capacities were able to ‘open their eyes’ in a coordination situation. He illustrated how the situation was defined by a multitude of conventions, regimes of engagement, actors and objects, and how power as well as critique were reinforced due to this situations’ specific equipment.

Quamar Ali on power from a conventionalist perspective

In the parallel Method and Research Question Space, Guy Schwegler (University of Lucerne) presented a first draft and current state of his PhD project on extended performativity within music. After an introduction into the change happening within music from a bourgeois, to a modern and now a post-modern era, Schwegler went on to introduce the performative effects of social theory happening in music. As a result of this effects, Schwegler claimed, a new field of expertise for social science and music emerged where social theory is not only used, but also advanced. Artists and music critics lead this new field, whereas academic knowledge on social process for and in music is more and more left behind. So far, the PhD project mostly is informed by ideas of Actor Network Theory – like Callon’s performative effects –, while possible roles for EC were discussed after the presentation. Another major point introduced by Laurent Thévenot in the discussion was whether or not this new field is building up expertise and whether and how academic knowledge can still differ from that expertise.

Guy Schwegler receiving advice from Laurent Thévenot

After lunch, the workshop group again split up into two parallel sessions. Kenneth Horvath and Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne) presented Hilary Putnam’s concept of ”epistemic values” and discussed its relevance for Convention Theory. This concept’s goal is to analyze values underlying social science’s methodology. The values determine for example how research in itself should work and be done – independently of qualitative or quantitative approaches –, what results should be or what a good research questions is. Horvath and Diaz-Bone’s goal was to show the value-laden construction of empirical data through epistemic values and how these values are a starting point for all research. Furthermore, the idea is to look into conventions as a base for these values. This project, they claimed, is a necessary effect of pragmatist thinking. Following Putnam and his 2002 The Collapse Of The Fact Value Dichotomy they were trying to show a continuity between facts and values — and not a separation of the two. Their own empirical application of the concept will focus on law and judges’ decisions in courts. The discussion that followed the presentation mostly revolved around the clarification of what these epistemic values are and where they are visible although hardly discussed in general.

Matthias Alke (Humboldt University Berlin) and Doris Graß (German Institute for Adult Education Bonn) presented their current research on educational profiles in adult education. After an introduction to the research topic and research questions, they distributed excerpts from interviews with educational mangers from adult education centers. The group was invited to share thoughts about how to interpret the data with the aim of reconstructing the relevant conventions used to justify and organize educational work. After a first silent reading, a lively discussion about the data, possible interpretations and methodological challenges in EC research emerged. As the day before, the issue of how to conduct and analyze interviews from a conventionalist perspective showed to be a sticking point.

Doris Graß commenting on considerations concerning the analysis of her empirical data

Lisa Knoll (University of Hamburg) then provided the last talk of the workshop, sharing her theoretical considerations about the necessity to analyze sustainable markets from the perspective of the state. Caused by the multiple ways of constructing differences between state and market, welfare economists’ conceptual struggles could be resolved by applying a conventionalist view. Due to its pluralist approach, Convention Theory overcomes the state-versus-market divide and is able to grasp disputes and compromises between different conventional forms. Lisa presented an analytical grid displaying four logics of sustainable markets, and showed how the state is relevant in all four models – but in a different manner and with different relevance. Her inspiring talk was followed by a discussion about the consequences of her conceptualization and how this could imply different forms of agency. As one of the recurring themes of this workshops, the role and impact of digitalization in the different logics of relation between market and state was brought up again and provided an adequate close of the workshop.

Lisa Knoll on logics of sustainable markets

The next workshop Sociology of Conventions will take place on 25./26. April 2019 at the University of Innsbruck organized by Julia Brandl, Anna Schneider and Qamar Ali.

Laurent Thévenot at Hamburg beach looking at the Hamburg Harbor


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