Clersé study days: ‘The socio-environmental issues arising out of the changes in contemporary capitalism’

Anaïs Henneguelle (LiRIS, Université de Rennes 2)

Version française (avec d’autres photos) / French version (with other photos)

On the 7th and 8th of June 2018, two study days were held at Clersé (University of Lille) around the theme of ‘The socio-environmental issues arising out of the changes in contemporary capitalism’ and the contributions that the economics of convention might make to the topic under discussion. These study days, which were significant because they brought together numerous French academics whose approach places them within the conventionalist school, were organised by Guillemette de Larquier (Clersé, University of Lille), Nicolas Postel (Clersé, University of Lille), Richard Sobel (Clersé, University of Lille), Philippe Batifoulier (CEPN, Paris 13), Nicolas Da Silva (CEPN, Paris 13) and Ariane Ghirardello (CEPN, Paris 13).

Richard Sobel, Guillemette de Larquier, Christian Bessy, Rainer Diaz-Bone, Gaël Plumecocq, Arnaud Le Marchand, Franck Bessis, Philippe Batifoulier & Delphine Remillon

The programme, full to overflowing, saw some 20 participants presenting their research in progress or taking stock of existing work in the conventionalist school. Particularly noteworthy was the presence of many doctoral students and young PhDs, which seems to suggest that the succession is already assured. Without looking at each presentation in detail, the main points that unite or divide the participants’ methodological or theoretical approaches can be summarised.

Thus the first difficulty anyone wishing to use the tools of the economics of convention encounters is how to define the term ‘convention’ itself and how he or she is to use it in their work.

In the first paper, which focused on the actors in domestic help services, Sylvain Vatan (Triangle, Université Lumière Lyon-2) used the term not in the sense of an intentional agreement or compromise but in that of a shared representation based on the ‘precedent principle’ that enables the actors involved to operationalize the prevailing rule imposed by a power relationship. In her case, pricing by the nature of the tasks performed by domestic support workers, which amounts to quantifying qualities to quote the oft-used expression, gives rise, she argued, to a new convention on the valorisation of work, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the coordination of the actors concerned. This approach is echoed in the work of Anaïs Henneguelle (IDHES ENS-Paris-Saclay) on judgments in the criminal courts. She showed that judges’ sentencing decisions are based on various conventions, which are shared by the public prosecutors and serve to homogenise decisions. She drew a parallel with recruitment procedures, which also constitute evaluation tests, the aim of which is to reach agreement on  employees’ future productivity, while judges seek to determine the quality of a case on the basis of the estimated likelihood of recidivism and reintegration into society and the labour market.

Adopting a different perspective, Nathalie Magne (University of Montpellier 3) was concerned with conventions in so far as they are based on principles of justice or legitimacy. In a re-examination of the transformation of ‘standard enterprises’ into cooperatives, she outlined the various types of legitimacy put forward by employees in justification of their chosen forms of corporate governance; in doing so, she drew on Suchman’s typology: normative or moral legitimacy, pragmatic legitimacy and cognitive legitimacy. In each case, there are distinct tests of legitimacy. Leslie Carnoye (Ethics, FUPL) adopted the ‘conventionalist’ approach in developing an environmentalist critique of capitalism. Taking as her starting point the absence of any ‘green’ order of worth or mode of justification (grandeur) and hence of a green polity (cité) in Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s justification model, she showed that there is a multiplicity of environmentalist critiques, ranging from  green growth (a critique endogenised by capitalism) via sustainable development (an intermediate form) to ‘degrowth’ (a radical critique). Philippe Semenowicz (Université Paris-Est Créteil), in his work on integration through economic activity, also adopted this definition of conventions as a principle of justice.

Philippe Semenowicz, Frédérique Genel, Christian Bessy & Victor Duchesne

Finally, the study by Nicolas Da Silva and Victor Duchesne (CEPN, Paris 13) drew on a definition of conventions based on principles of justification but without using the polities model in order to investigate the history of French social security. They identified three ‘social security conventions’: an anti-capitalist convention, a solidaristic convention and a liberal convention. Here, they spoke of conventions in the sense of vague, arbitrary arguments that do not have the force of law and whose origin is vague (this echoes certain criteria set out by Christian Bessy and Olivier Favereau in 2003[1]). From this perspective, it can be shown that the formation of arguments by the various actors concerned is conflictive and results from a sometime violent process of negotiation between divergent conceptions of the institution of social security.

During the ensuing discussions, some participants wondered whether the notion of ‘polities’ (cités) was a strictly necessary part of defining oneself as a conventionist. Nevertheless, it was argued, the polities model has the advantage of revealing the ideologies at work behind institutions and reminding us of the deep-rooted normative conflicts that run through the social world. The question of the transformation of these justification mechanisms into conventions in the broader sense was also raised. Conventions as cognitive aids or higher principles of justice should not blind us to the grand narrative that structures contemporary capitalism; one way of rediscovering that narrative might be to take up once again Michel Foucault’s concept of the ‘dispositif’ or apparatus. Participants were also reminded of the importance of not losing sight of power relations in their analyses.

On this point of the rise in generality, the paper presented by Christian Bessy (IDHES ENS-Paris-Saclay) proved invaluable. In order to explain the changes taking place in capitalism, the economics of conventions had moved from an economics of quality or of worlds of production to an economics based on the value and valorising power of certain economic actors. From this point of view, Luc Boltanksi and Arnaud Esquerre’s 2017 book Enrichissement might lead economists in the convention school to further develop the forms taken by the valorisation of things by placing greater emphasis on the new sources of profit and capital accumulation than on moral judgements that reflect different ways of establishing the common good.

Like that given by Christian Bessy, the various presentations often highlighted the plurality of values, of rationalities and of forms of valorisation (or quality conventions) that characterise the various facets of contemporary capitalism.

Turning firstly to the social and solidarity economy, Philippe Semenowicz highlighted the apparently contradictory objectives pursued by the social enterprises in France supporting integration through economic activity (structures d’insertion par l’activité économique/SIAEs): financial viability and continuity of production but also support for populations who are marginalised in the labour market as they seek to return to work. Taking up the concept of an ‘enterprise’s founding convention’ put forward by François Eymard-Duvernay, he showed that the SIAEs are based on a civic founding convention and that they display a certain degree of social voluntarism’. The difficulty, in his view, lies in the linkage between that convention and the market and industrial principles with which the SIAEs also have to deal; this difficulty can be mitigated by a ‘civic-connectionist’ compromise. Daniel Urrutiaguer (Passages XX-XXI, Université Lumière Lyon 2) also showed that there is a multiplicity of principles around which action and evaluation are organised, this time in the worlds of the theatre. Thus evaluations may be artistic, connectionist, civic or even market in nature. Driven by mechanisms based on financial solidarity, which take different forms in the world of commercial theatre and that of publicly subsidised theatre, the market principle often combines with a principle that is more artistic or civic in nature.

Gaël Plumecocq (INRA, AGIR), in his work on environmental valuation theory, shows that there are a number of different environmental valuations rather than just the single one generally envisaged by economists in the form of a price[2]. Here, the value of the environment is regarded as fundamentally social and therefore inseparable from the evaluation processes put in place. In particular, the evaluation method has several political effects, such as the elimination of nature in favour of ‘financial compensation’ should the evaluation be monetary. Camille Chaserant (CES, Université Paris 1) and Sophie Harnay (BETA, Université de Lorraine), in their presentation on the deregulation of the legal profession, focused not on the plurality of valuations but rather on the plurality of quality conventions that serve to coordinate the activities of these representatives of the law. They drew on Lindenberg’s goal-framing theory (Lindenberg 1993) in order to examine the effects of opening up the legal professions in Europe to competition. It would appear from their research that the regulations specific to each legal practice produce different effects. For example, there is a “high-end” segment of practices in which the predominant organising principle is innovation and the strengthening of the market principle could result in higher prices as a quality signal. The diversity of the quality conventions characterising legal practices was also highlighted by Franck Bessis (Triangle, Université Lumière Lyon-2).

During the discussions, it was noted in particular that the economics of convention was proving to be of great heuristic value in understanding the inequalities generated by the contemporary economic system that may affect certain communities that have suffered a deterioration in their situation (which also brought to mind the question of power relations mentioned above). For example, certain communities affected by environmental degradation have succeeded in gathering evidence of the cumulative impact of pollutants by drawing on their local knowledge, which has enabled them to enforce their individual rights in the courts[3].

These two study days also provided an opportunity to raise methodological questions about the economics of conventions, both in concrete terms and in terms of the organisation of the economics discipline itself. With regard to the practical application of the economics of conventions, the presentation by Franck Bessis dwelt on the notion of “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) as a means of analysing qualitative interviews. The aim, after all, was to avoid the mistake of “tacking” the polities model (modèle des cités) on to all subjects indiscriminately (what he describes as “routine conventionalism”), as well as that of producing only a partial interpretation of empirical data that merely confirms previously held ideas. In concrete terms, this theory makes it possible to interpret the material more systematically by coding it in the form firstly of labels, then of properties and finally of categories. Thus the aim is to raise the level of abstraction by taking the initial interviews as a starting point and subjecting them to conceptual cross-checks. A similar procedure was used to isolate the main strands of the typology of legal practices and to clarify the links between quality conventions, the representation of market dynamics and the forms of reflexivity.

Rainer Diaz-Bone, Philippe Batifoulier & Olivier Favereau

The round table “Around the Dictionary of Conventions”, at which the discussants were Olivier Favereau (University of Paris Nanterre) and Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne), focused on the diffusion of the economics of convention. The lack of textbooks was highlighted, despite Rainer Diaz-Bone’s book in German. This book marked the beginning of a new book series entitled “Sociology of conventions”. In French, the Dictionnaire des conventions simply cannot be ignored. Olivier Favereau also presented an overview of the conventionalist paradigm, showing how this dictionary extended two earlier synthesis essays (the first following the article in the 1989 Revue économique, the second following the book edited by François Eymard-Duvernay, L’économie des conventions. Méthodes et résultats, which was published in 2006).

During the discussions, it was suggested that joint seminars could be held on the economics of convention or that we could contribute articles on this “French theory” to English-language journals.

These questions about the future and legitimacy of the economics of convention in the academic world were raised on numerous occasions during the discussions. One question that was raised particularly frequently was that of the relationship between the convention and régulation schools. In his presentation, for example, Christian Bessy, emphasised the specific approach of the economics of convention, which bases its arguments on the existence of a plurality of evaluations, in contrast to regulation theory.

More broadly, the second round table, which was entitled “What is the future of the convention school?” (there was a debate on the very notion of a “school”, which is far from being universally accepted), provided an opportunity to take stock of the current situation. It brought together Thomas Lamarche (Ladyss, University of Paris 7), André Orléan (CNRS) and Nicolas Postel (Clersé, University of Lille) for the closing event of these two study days.

Thomas Lamarche, André Orléan, Nicolas Postel & Guillemette de Larquier

Thomas Lamarche highlighted the importance of not confining oneself to the macroeconomic dimension but also investigating the meso-economic level and the way in which it does or does not function independently. He also mentioned the possibility of investigating “futurity”, i.e. the projection of the actors into the future, which may in particular be translated into conventions as well as into representations or even confrontations (for example, what will the term “excellent” encompass in the so-called “universities of excellence” and who will define it?). For his part, Nicolas Postel noted that the future of the economics of conventions did not lie in the word “conventions”, which caused more problems than it resolved. The aim rather was to manage to link the problematics around values, coordination, reproduction and rationality in order to understand collective agreements. In particular, we had now to understand how capitalism could continue and regulate itself in a post-nation state context. To end these study days, André Orléan noted that the economics of convention was concerned with the question of group formation outside the framework of methodological individualism. According to the philosopher John Searle, collective intentionality cannot be reduced to individual intentionalities, which gives institutional phenomena a conventionalist dimension, in the general sense of collective agreement. To that extent, the conventionalist project is situated at the intersection of a number of disciplines (economics, philosophy, sociology, anthropology).

Finally, it should also be remembered that these study days were also an occasion for much conviviality, both formal and informal, which is undoubtedly essential for the incubation of future research.

[1] Bessy Christian and Favereau Olivier, “Institutions et économie des conventions”, Cahiers d’économie politique 2003/1, N°44, pp. 119-164

[2] As a matter of interest, let us recall that the value of the environment was evaluated in 1997 at 33,000 billion dollars per year, which represents 1.8 times global GDP. In 2011, a fresh evaluation put the value of the ecosystem at 130,000 billions dollars per year (these figures are available here).

[3] On the question of the development of ‘environmental justice’ in the USA, see Francis Chateauraynaud and Josquin Debaz, Aux bords de l’irréversible. Sociologie pragmatique des transformations, Editions PETRA, 2017.


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