The peculiar connection between common good and self-interest

Valeska Cappel (University of Lucerne)

The question about the relationship between the common good and self-interest was the frame of plenary sessions, panel discussions and keynote-speeches at this year’s Congress of the Swiss Sociological Association (SSA), June 21 – 23th 2017 at the University of Zurich.

Relating to this topic Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne) and Luca Pattaroni (EPFL Lausanne) organized the plenary session “Experience, conventions and the common good”.

It was a great opportunity to give space and attention to different conventionalist researches in various fields of social science relating to the topic of common good and self-interest. Regula Leemann (School for education Basel) and Jean-Michel Bonvin (University of Geneva) talked about convention theory in the field of education and social welfare, before special guest Laurent Thévenot (EHESS Paris) shared his thoughts about convention theory (CT) in the urban studies.

The aim of Regula Leemann’s presentation was to show the explanatory power of the theoretical framework of the convention theory in the research field of education. First, she referred on post-compulsory education in Switzerland. Her concern was to show how different orders of worth in the public sphere (“compound communities”) are constitutive for supplying the post-compulsory education as a common good.

Secondly, she talked about the different modes of coordination of individuals with their environment (“compound personalities”). She investigated how individual academics in Europe coordinate themselves with their professional academic and private environment. By focusing on a situation, constructing the EU as a political project of establishing a common market with the fundamental treatments of free movement of people and capital, she pointed out how a dispositive of transnational academic mobility is shaping the individual coordination between professional status and the private conduct of life.

Regula Leemann

Referring to the main topic of the congress, Jean-Michel Bonvin highlighted in his speech the theoretical challenges to bring social welfare into social actions. Relating to the capability approach (CA), he depicts the need to understand that social politics is not just a technical matter that can be defined and implemented. He claimed that there are different normativities and rationalities depending on the level of interaction (parliamentary areas, street-level bureaucrats, beneficiaries), which have to be considered. In combining the CA and the convention theory (CT) he proposes a solution for this problem: The concepts of CT, like the “economies of worth” (Thévenot) or “pragmatic regimes of engagements”, allow to understand the situation and what matters in social action. The additional benefit of consulting the CT could be to understand, why sometimes the implemented social welfare, constructed from a specific point of view, in particular situations is not receiving.

Jean-Michel Bonvin

The highlight of the session was the input of the cofounder of the convention theory, Laurent Thévenot. Besides his inspiring comments on the other lectures he presented his thoughts on newer developments in the convention theory and the recent pragmatic turn of urban studies.

In particular, he focused on three main issues: First he pleaded to abandon the comparison of a public and private sphere in urban environments and focus instead on the various ways how city dwellers engage with their environment. Building commonality in the end is a result of “orders of worth backed by conceptions of the common good and the “realism” of individual interest” (Thévenot).

Secondly, in considering this point, he developed the idea of an extended view on constructions of commonality in the plural. By doing that, he identified three grammars of communality in the plural:  1) the grammar of plural orders of worth, 2) the grammar of interested individuals choosing among options in a liberal public, 3) the grammar of personal affinities to multiple common-places.

Thirdly, he spoke about his transcultural comparative research in urban studies (Europe, Russia, America), where he discovered, that the grammar of personal affinities to multiple common-places is characterized by familiar, personal and local engagement but simultaneous instrumental by authoritarian populism.

Laurent Thévenot

Altogether, the session was a short but impressive proof to see how convention theory is growing forward in different fields of social science and develops its explanatory power. Of course, there remain some mutual reception issues based on language barriers – but what, if not at an inspiring congress like this one, would be a decent step to overcome these problems?

Jean-Michell Bonvin, Laurent Thévenot & Rainer Diaz-Bone

Rainer Diaz-Bone, Laurent Thévenot & Luca Pattaroni