The development of the sociology of conventions in the context of educational sociology and educational policy in France

Interview with Jean-Louis Derouet

Regula Julia Leemann (Schoof of Education Basel, Switzerland)

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Jean-Louis Derouet is professor emeritus at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Lyon. In 1991, he defended his habilitation (postdoctoral qualification) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), prepared under the supervision of Luc Boltanski and published under the title École et Justice (Paris: Editions Métailié 1992). He led the Groupe d’Études Sociologiques of the Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique (INRP), later the UMR (Unité mixte de recherche) Éducation et Politiques. He founded the Network of Experts in Social Sciences of Education and Training (NESSE). He chairs the research committee (CR07) Education, Training, Socialisation of the International Association of French speaking Sociologists (AISLF). In addition, he is editor-in-chief of Éducation et Sociétés, an international journal for the sociology of education. Recent publications:
– Derouet, Jean-Louis/Mangez Éric/Benadusi, Luciano. 2015 (eds.). Where is the comprehensive project in Europe today? European Educational Research Journal 14 (3-4), pp. 195-205.
– Normand, Romuald/Derouet, Jean-Louis. 2016 (eds.). A European Politics of Education. Perspectives from sociology, policy studies and politics. London, Routledge.
– Derouet, Jean-Louis/Normand, Romuald. 2016. The modernisation of the educational system in France. The New Public Management between affirmation of the state and decentralised governance. In: Helen M. Gunter/Emiliano Grimaldi/David Hall/Roberto Serpieri (eds.), New Public Management and the Reform of Education: European lessons for policy and practice. London: Routledge, pp. 83-95.
– Derouet, Jean-Louis/Savoie, Philipp/Huo, Yioing/Charlier, Jean-Émile. 2017. La formation des élites en Chine et en France (XVIIe-XXIe siècles). Les apports de regards croisés: sociologie, histoire, philosophie politiques. Paris: L’Harmattan.
– Derouet, Jean-Louis. 2019. Die Soziologie der Konventionen im Bereich der Bildung. Wissenschaft, Politik und Gesellschaftskritik in Frankreich am Übergang vom 20. ins 21. Jahrhundert. In: Christian Imdorf, Regula Julia Leemann, Philipp Gonon (eds.). Bildung und Konventionen. Die „Economie des conventions“ in der Bildungsforschung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 47-90.


Leemann: Since the 1980s you have taken up the reflections and concepts presented by Boltanski and Thévenot in « On Justification. Economies of worth » (2006) on the foundations of social action in Western societies and fruitfully applied them to questions of pedagogical and educational practices. Could you tell us how you started working with EC [economics of convention / sociology of conventions]? What were your personal references to the authors? What were your first studies, on what topics? What relevance and significance did EC have for the development of your academic career?

Derouet: To answer this question, it is necessary to refer to the situation in France in the early 1980s. Politically, the left wing regained power after more than twenty years of absence. This revival raised many hopes, but also many questions. In the field of education, the aim was to resume the process of setting up the idea of comprehensive school, which was considered the keystone of the democratization program. The 1975 law on the modernization of the education system had imposed a centralized system that led to a paradox: the law was not strictly applied (about half of the principals continued to compose classes with different performance levels) and at the same time teachers, students and families complained that they had lost their references.

To get out of this confusion, some on the left wing proposed to be inspired by the Anglo-Saxon definitions of justice: it was no longer about giving the same thing to everyone, but about giving everyone what they needed. And for that, you had to know them. In order to implement this idea, decentralization was required, giving schools a certain degree of autonomy. These proposals worried another part of the left wing of Jacobin tradition, which feared that this opening on the local level would reintroduce into public education the influence of the notables (bourgeois) and churches that the Third Republic had pushed back.

I joined the INRP (Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique) for a program that accompanied the policy of school autonomy. The aim was to grasp the logics of the actors, which were in conflict; to follow the dynamics of their debates and to analyze the different forms of compromise to which they agreed.

On the theoretical level, the period was marked by a general distance towards structuralism and Marxism, which had dominated previous decades, and the arrival of constructivist and ethnomethodological approaches in France. In the field of the sociology of education, this development also corresponded to the upcoming of a generation that had been trained in the debate between the theory of reproduction and methodological individualism, and that mastered its achievements, but felt the exhaustion of this debate and wanted to do something else.

This generation met at the congress Pour un bilan de la sociologie de l’éducation (1984) in Toulouse, organized in 1983 by Jean-Michel Berthelot. He proposed a program that reflected the contributions of the new sociology of education in Britain by placing them in the French philosophical tradition. In particular, it was a matter of « opening the black boxes », i.e. of studying in classes and schools in a concrete way the difficulties encountered in implementing the policies of democratization. This program brought together a large number of French-speaking researchers who grouped together as the Research Committee for Education, Training and Socialization of the International Association of French-speaking Sociologists (AISLF), for which I took over responsibility after the premature death of Jean-Michel Berthelot.

It is in this perspective that I got closer to the team of the EHESS that would become in 1984 the Group of the Political and Moral Sociology. Under the supervision of Luc Boltanski, I wrote a PhD thesis on the conceptions of justice in education since the Enlightenment (École et justice [School and justice] (Derouet 1992)). Luc Boltanski was involved, together with Laurent Thévenot, in this anthropology of the ordinary meaning of justice that led to the publication De la justification (Boltanski and Thévenot 1991; engl.  Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). In this context, I identified the construction of a matrix that was based on the tension between an ideal of civic equality and a search for performance that prepares for the social division of labor. This tension has gradually discarded other definitions of the common good in education, in particular a domestic conception that insists on the integration of individuals into their community. Since the 1930s, the slogan of equal opportunity has moved the focus to the side of equity. In the 1980s, the scope of the A Nation at Risk report (1983) considered performance issues, but most of the debate remained within the above-mentioned matrix until the end of the century.

After the publication of École et justice in 1992, I formed a group at the INRP that established a continuum between research at University and groups of teachers in schools. This manner of original observation allowed us to observe the emergence of new compromises. International organizations have proposed to replace the ideal of equality by a perspective of equity that takes into account the specific (living) situations, and then shifting the promise of equal opportunities to equal outcomes at the end of compulsory schooling. The European Community sought to break down inequalities through lifelong learning. These suggestions have been carried out with varying degrees of success, but none of them has changed the education system in its foundations.

The matrix based on the tension between equality and performance was challenged in the late 1990s by the emergence of new social issues related to migration and the development of a new reference of justice, the recognition of differences. Approaches of intersectionality have reformulated the issue of inequalities in terms of discrimination and exclusion. The scope of the debate has broadened and has led the sociology of education to bring the issue of integration back into its mission. These developments were described and analyzed at the congress Repenser la justice [Rethinking justice] (Derouet and Derouet-Besson 2009).


Leemann: Research in social sciences of education in the German-speaking world is oriented on the one hand towards the institutionalist or structuralist tradition of Emile Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu, and on the other hand, and increasingly as mainstream, towards the individualist decision theory of Raymond Boudon. In your eyes, what are the blanks, the limitations of these approaches? What alternatives does EC offer here? What are its strengths? What can be better investigated, understood and explained with the EC approach?

Derouet: The sociology of conventions-approach clearly stems from the Durkheim-Maussian tradition adopted by Bourdieu in the 1960s. This becomes evident when we look at the trajectories of the people who initiated the movement: Boltanski, Thévenot, Desrosières; all went through Bourdieu’s lab. Boltanski rooted his approach in a program defined in 1972 by Bourdieu in l’Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique (Bourdieu 1972; engl. Bourdieu 1977). In the article, he contributed to the collective book Travailler avec Bourdieu (2003) [Working with Bourdieu], he explained how their paths subsequently diverged. Bourdieu’s analysis led to the concept of habitus, central in Le sens pratique (1980; engl. Bourdieu 1990), Boltanski opted for a softer approach that takes into account the logic of the actors.

With respect to Boudon’s approach, the sociology of conventions is part of a tradition that refuses to reduce the explanation of social behavior to interests. In the field of education, Boudon explains, for example, the strategic decisions by a cost/benefit calculation: working class families do not necessarily have an interest in engaging for long educational trajectories for their children aged 11 or 12. This approach requires a substantial investment for a distant and uncertain profit. This analysis is correct, but strategic decisions are not made solely on the basis of a calculation of homo economicus. Many other dimensions are involved: the love for the child and the will to give him the means to flourish, the hope of social progress, the dudgeon of parents who have not been able to do the studies they wanted …

The interest of the sociology of conventions is to reintroduce values, political principles, and the sense of justice into sociology and at the same time to highlight the plurality of reference systems. The deployment of different definitions of general interest makes it possible both to frame social debates and to build a new external position for the social sciences. This contribution seems to me very essential in a context that calls for the development of forms of local democracy. Coordination of action cannot be based on the simple application of national directives. It is also based on local engagement by the actors.

This is the purpose of the school projects that were requested from primary schools, lower secondary schools and high schools from 1982 onwards. In a world of plural justification, agreement is unlikely: the natural movement of the debate is to expand. In contrast, it is possible to converge different logics on common objects or devices for the organization of work, the supervision of students, the evaluation of their performance, etc. Such an undertaking requires new competencies from teachers and supervisors. The sociology of conventions contributed to their construction with the European Policy Network on School Leadership (EPNoSL). The autonomy of institutions profoundly changes the tasks of teaching and managing: people in charge must be able to frame the debates, to master the translation procedures between different logics, to bring out convergences … This new definition, political, of their competences implies a new type of training.

Educational policy

Leemann: To what extent did the sociology of education, in particular the sociology of conventions, developed in the context of social tensions and educational policy? To what extent have the theoretical developments and results of the sociology of education influenced educational policy decisions, i.e. have they been taken into account? Can you provide concrete examples?

Derouet: To answer this question, a detour is needed on the relationship between the social sciences of education, politics and opinion in the last fifty years. These have been marked by several crises. The first concerns educational research. It was conceived in the 1960s on an experimentalist model: A pedagogue has an idea; it is tested on a small sample that makes it possible to develop an implementation protocol; then the minister must be convinced to generalize these practices by circular. This was the model on which the INRP was operating. The experience regularly showed the failure of these generalization procedures.

The greatest defeat was, at the beginning of the 1980s, the reception given to Louis Legrand’s report Pour un collège démocratique [For a democratic lower secondary school]. Since 1967, Legrand had been conducting action research on twelve experimental lower secondary schools and proposed to generalize their functioning. These propositions were unanimously rejected by teachers, families, and public opinion: the practices of some militant groups, supported by exceptional means, were not transferable in ordinary situations. It was necessary to move to another model that would trust in the capacities for initiatives of the field, follow the practices of the actors and try to understand their logic before prescribing.

This perspective opened up opportunities for sociological endeavors such as the sociology of conventions, but at the same time, the relationship between the social sciences and society was affected by a crisis of trust. After the Second World War, there was a great trust between the social sciences and the social democracies that were establishing themselves in Europe. This alliance has been concretized, in the field of education, by the promotion of the different forms of the comprehensive school, in France the comprehensive lower secondary school. This reformist position was shattered by the radical criticisms of 1968. It did not withstand the difficulties of implementation; yesterday’s allies tore each other apart. The process of democratic opening, the support for students with difficulties have been accused of having led to a decline of the level of educational performance; criticism of traditional authority has been accused of promoting laxity and indiscipline; cultural relativism has been suspected of having facilitated the rise of Islamism, and so forth.

A new contract gradually emerged at the end of the 20th century that re-established a form of trust, based on accompaniment and support: Validation and synthesis sites make research results available to actors, propose a broadening of international perspectives; an evaluation that allows real-time readjustment of emerging shortcomings … This was the purpose of our work when we set up the first European network of expertise in the field of the sociology of education, NESSE (Network of Experts in Social Sciences for Education and Training). It was not easy to convey to managers the principle of the plurality of logics of actions as they tend to measure everything according to the scale of efficiency and prefer positivist approaches. However, the emergence of new social issues in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies has changed the situation: the current slogan of inclusive societies implies an understanding of the different logics that inspire actors.

Current topics of the sociology of conventions in France and abroad

Leemann: You are the editor-in-chief of the journal Éducation et Sociétés. You are always very active in the organization of conferences and symposiums and you publish regularly. What are the main developments in school, in the field of education that you are currently working on with colleagues?

Derouet: I continue to follow the parallel recompositions of conceptions of justice, of programs of education, training, socialization, and forms of public action and this field is evolving very rapidly. I mentioned intersectionality, and how it reformulates issues of justice in terms of discrimination. This is an important field that is opening up: how can we think together about objectives of redistribution and of recognition of differences? How can we rethink redistribution in the context of globalization, i.e. by taking into account the inequalities between the countries of the North and the countries of the South? In the same vein, the slogan of inclusive societies developed by international organizations implies a new program of socialization: how to orient oneself in a world where several discourses of truth are in competition?

This program requires that the question of moral education, which was at the origin of the sociology of education but in a renewed context, be brought back into the profession. Durkheim had thought of it from a national integration perspective. Today, it is a question of defining a new cosmopolitanism. This approach undoubtedly implies an opening on the emerging fields of resistance studies and post-colonial studies. Theories of justice have been thought of in the North even if their principles aim to take into account the interests of all mankind. It may be time to open this reflection on the epistemologies of the South. In particular, they articulate a demand for a curricular justice that implies another relationship with the knowledge or learning practices of traditional societies (Éducation et Sociétés 2017 et 2018).

Following the evolution of references of justice also means following the new definitions of the common good that are emerging. The end of the 20th century saw a questioning of the great division between human being and nature. The Sustainable Development Goals set out by international organizations outline the profile of a homo sustainabilis aware of its responsibilities towards the environment and other living beings. Finally, in the field of education, the sociology of conventions has always been confronted with the relationship between worlds governed by equivalent forms of justice and worlds without equivalent forms: how do children move from a universe governed by violence and love to debates of justice? This issue is revitalized both by the highly visible presence of violence in contemporary societies and by the development of a sociology of emotions. These different perspectives undoubtedly call for a reflection in order to achieve a profound curriculum recomposition.

Jean-Louis Derouet and Regula Julia Leemann


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Boltanski, Luc and Laurent Thévenot. 1991. De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur. Paris: Gallimard.

Boltanski, Luc and Laurent Thévenot. 2006. On justification. Economies of worth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1972. Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle. Paris: Seuil.

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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. Le sens pratique. Paris: Minuit.

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Derouet, Jean-Louis. 1992. École et justice. De l’égalité des chances aux compromis locaux? Paris: Métailié.

Derouet, Jean-Louis and Marie-Claude Derouet-Besson (eds.). 2009. Repenser la justice dans le domaine de l’éducation et de la formation. Bern: Peter Lang.

Éducation et Sociétés 40 (2017) / 41 (2018). Vingt ans après: la sociologie de l’éducation et de l’éducation francophone dans un univers globalisé, edited by Sarah Croché and Marie-Claude Derouet-Besson.

Pour un bilan de la sociologie de l’éducation. 1984. Colloque de Toulouse, 16-17 May 1983. University of Toulouse-Le-Mirail. Cahiers du Centre de recherches sociologiques 2.