Management Tools, A Social Sciences Perspective

Ève Chiapello & Patrick Gilbert (2019)

Cambridge University Press

About the book. No organization is immune from the influence of management tools. Such tools as norms, indicators, ranking, evaluation grids and management control systems have moved outside the managerial and consultancy realm within which they were first developed to reach public administrations and policy-makers, as well as a range of other governmental and non-governmental organizations. Taking management tools out of the practical and utilitarian contexts to which they are often consigned and approaching them from a social analytical perspective, this book gives primacy to these everyday objects that constitute the background of organizational life and remain too often unquestioned. Bringing together developing streams of research from anthropology, political science, social psychology, sociology, accounting, organisation theory and management, Ève Chiapello and Patrick Gilbert offer an unprecedented theoretical synthesis that will help managers, scholars and policy-makers to unpack the functional and dysfunctional roles and effects of management tools within and across organizations.

This book is an extended and updated version of a former French book publication from 2013.

Excerpt. “The conventionalist approach.
The notion of convention, put forward by the economics of conventions (Economie des Conventions, the school of thought to which Eymard-Duvernay and Thévenot’s research belongs), actually includes two different accepted meanings (Biencourt et al., 2001). According to one, the convention allows the resolution of a problem concerning the coordination of action in a context of uncertainty (e.g., choosing which side of the road to drive on). To this strategic perspective (elaborated by game theory), conventionalist economists have added an interpretative and cognitive perspective. According to them, the convention allows the coordination of both behaviours and representations. Key to coordination is actors’ agreement over the characterisation of situations and the things and people engaged in situations. In both cases we can refer to ‘conventions’ because, as different ways to act are possible, there is a plurality of evaluation models and ways of getting people to agree (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006). The judgements are expressed through ‘reality tests’ that allow the worth of the beings involved to be established (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006; Wagner, 1994). When these tests are formalised they presume investment in forms and, the wider their validity, the more it will be said that they are ‘instituted’. Their institution means that they are accepted as legitimate. They are supported by a system of justification that incorporates a definition of the common good (‘polities’ in the models of Boltanski and Thévenot (2006)). We can consider that certain management tools, e.g., performance evaluation systems, equip the reality tests of the business world (Bourguignon and Chiapello, 2005). Numerous works have studied economic phenomena from a conventionalist perspective (Diaz-Bone and Salais, 2011; Eymard-Duvernay, 2006a, 2006b; Karpik, 2010). Although the plurality in market functioning and the multiplicity of enterprise types have been made visible, this approach has rarely taken an interest in management tools themselves. This is because, with their background in economics, conventionalist authors have sought above all to develop an alternative concept of markets as opposed to ‘standard theory’ (Favereau, 1989). A notable exception is the work by Eymard-Duvernay and Marchal (1997) who were looking at the different ways of evaluating workers in the job market, just as Eymard-Duvernay (1989) had earlier sought different models of quality for products. They found that tools and devices for personnel selection were equipped with diverse ‘skills conventions’. Management tools sometimes appear as the means to disseminate a convention and to frame its interpretation. In the view developed by Gomez (1994, 1997), management tools are (along with other elements) part of ‘material devices’ that ensure the dissemination, understanding and repetition of the convention. Mercier (2003) studied the transformation of the forms of management at the RATP (Paris region transport authority). Particularly through the setting up of performance contracts and individual interviews, a double transformation emerged regarding the ‘convention of effort’ that regulates the employment relationship and the ‘quality convention’ that concerns production. The definition that predominates in these analyses is that of a convention that is rarely formulated or formalised but does in fact regulate behaviours and decisions. The works inspired by this perspective are most interesting for the study of management tools as they deal with formats and formatting of information (accounting, indicators, classifications), which are not themselves management tools but are frequently found in their composition […].

The sociology of quantification and classifications.
Desrosières, whose work is devoted to these questions, differentiates the notion of ‘quantification’ from that of ‘measure’, which ‘inspired by the traditional epistemology of natural sciences, implies that something exists in an already measurable form according to a realistic metrology, like the height of the Eiffel Tower’. However: ”the immoderate use of the verb ‘to measure’ leads us into error by leaving in the shadows the conventions of quantification. The verb ‘to quantify’ in its active form (making numbers), supposes that a series of conventions of equivalence should be drawn up and explained beforehand, thereby implying comparisons […] inscriptions, encodings, codified procedures that can be replicated and calculations leading to the same expression in numbers. Measurement properly speaking comes afterwards, as an implementation of conventions.” (Desrosières, 2008, pp. 10- 11, our translation). This sociological approach was applied very early to the different classifications used by the statisticians of the INSEE (French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), whether it was industrial classifications (Guibert et al., 1971) or those of socio-professional categories (Desrosières, 1977). Desrosières and Thévenot (1988) show that drawing up a classification of socio-professional categories was informed by categorisations developed in other social arenas.”

p. 118-121

Presentation & Table of contents

Link to the book