From economics to social sciences: conventions and pragmatism are inevitable

Interview with Elisabeth Chatel

Andrea Szukala (University of Muenster)

Elisabeth Chatel

Elisabeth Chatel is an associated researcher at IDHES, Institutions et Dynamiques historiques de l’Economie et des sociétés, at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris-Saclay (ENS). She led a « Groupe d’études en didactique des Sciences économiques et sociales » at the Institut National de Recherche pédagogique from 1988 to 2000. In 1996 she defended her doctoral thesis at Paris X University, prepared under the supervision of Robert Salais and published in 2001 under the title « Comment évaluer l’Education ? », Lausanne, Delachaux et Niestlé. In 2005 she defended her habilitation (postdoctoral) qualification at University Paris 8 under the supervision of Elisabeth Bautier.  She published in various fields:  heterodox economics, didactics and history of education, such as:
– Zwischen Expertenökonomie und Politischer Ökonomie: der Wirtschaftsunterricht an der französischen Gymnasien auf dem Prüfstand. In: Imdorf, C./Leemann, J. R./Gonon, P. (eds.). Bildung und Konventionen. Die „Economie des conventions“ in der Bildungsforschung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2019, p. 231-254.
– Pour une histoire et une sociologie de l’enseignement de l’économie,   L’enseignement de l’économie : conflits, débats, controverses », Numéro spécial Education et sociétés, 35/2015/1, p.5-21.
 – Du professorat commercial au professorat économique à l’ENSET de 1948 à 1974 », in Lebot F./Albe V./Bodé G./Brucy G./Chatel E., ENS de Cachan, le siècle d’une grande école des sciences et techniques, PUR, 2013, p. 179-195.
– with Dorothée Rivaud-Danset, « L’économie de conventions : une lecture critique à partir de la philosophie de John Dewey », 2006, Revue de philosophie économique, Recherches et débats en économie, philosophie et sciences sociales, n°13, 2006/1, p. 49-75.
– with Robert Salais and Thierry Kirat, Les dispositifs de l’action publique : institutions, économie et politique, L’Harmattan, 2005.
– L’action éducative et la logique de la situation ; fondements théoriques d’une approche pragmatique des faits d’enseignement. Revue française de pédagogie, N°141, Octobre-novembre-décembre 2002, p. 37-46.

Szukala: Could you tell us about your first contact with the approach of economics of convention/sociology of conventions? What was the decisive intellectual « click » for your conceptual thinking?

Chatel: The contact with the approach of economics of convention (EC) has been decisive in my intellectual trajectory. To put it briefly, it has given me hope for the future of an economic thinking, to which I can either contribute or at least adhere. But, in the end, this thought, which I will describe as pluralist and pragmatist, has above all substantiated my works in the social sciences and not economics.
But before talking about sociology of conventions and pragmatism, I would like to clarify the matters in the economics of convention that have given perspective to this hope that a  renewal of political economy would be possible. When I encountered this trend, or rather this emerging economic thinking in the early 1990s, it was promoted by a group of intellectuals, some of whom came from disciplines like mathematics and physics from French engineering colleges before undertaking economic studies. Several had worked at INSEE (the French national institute for statistics and economic research) and they approached economics from a critical point of view.
Their theorization was not complete. Their criticism seemed particularly interesting because it focused on the foundations of the dominant economic theory, especially on the principle of rationality. They proposed, in a non-dogmatic way, to make their personal questions bear fruit by trying to adopt a less unrealistic approach than is the standard approach to economic action. As a result, they reintroduced a social dimension into the consideration of economic behaviors and contextualized them. They wanted to consider the uncertainty constantly present in economic action, an uncertainty which is not always reducible to probabilities, nor always readable through computational processes.
The word « convention » served to focus a core of shared conceptualizations of their critical concerns. Some colleagues elaborated a fine understanding of the production of statistics and classifications from a historical perspective. The work of Alain Desrosières allowed us to show the « conventions » in the classifications necessary for quantification and to allow a critical look at how the measurement of social facts contributes to « building » reality. Others, such as Olivier Favereau, François Eymard-Duvernay and Robert Salais, were more concerned with the diverse forms of organization of work, enterprise, production, and therefore products, beyond the horizon, to which economy is often reduced, the various modes of market regulation.
In this works, the conventions concerned both the modes of measurement and the forms of conduct of the productive activity, from the beginning to the end of its processes. The question of value and prices was put back on the agenda by questioning the plurality of « worlds of production », the forms of work and the quality of products. The question of value, as it is approached in economic theory, has also been renewed thanks to the conventionalist approach, notably the work of André Orléan (2011). Afterwards, new generations of researchers have taken up the torch of the plurality of « conventions » (of quality, of work, etc.) and are joining other heterodox currents as well as the new economic sociology.

Szukala: How would you describe the role of EC in current sociology of education and/or curriculum studies?

Chatel: The approach of economics of convention is about economic facts. Education, therefore, is not directly in its field of concern, especially if one considers education without reducing it to the acquisition of productive skills, but, more broadly, as the transmission of values and culture from one generation to another. However, especially since the work of Gary Becker in the early 1960s, economists have expanded their field by considering education and training as a « human capital », as an investment deemed potentially profitable. Theories of economic growth, especially those of « endogenous growth », reflect this conceptualization focused on the acquisition of productive skills. In the field of the economics of education this allowed to ask new questions about the effectiveness of education. In « How to evaluate education? » (Chatel 2001) I tried to show the limits of how these theories conceive education and attempt to measure its effectiveness.
I want to pick up the thread that led me from economics of convention to a pragmatic sociology of the curriculum. Seeking to build on the economics of convention to elaborate a critique of the economic measure in education (in « How to evaluate education?”), I borrowed from the work of Robert Salais (Storper and Salais 1997) the concept of « worlds of production » to think about the specificity of the « production of education ». In this analysis, I imagined a modelling of the educational activity, in particular the forms that are carried out in school classes as interactions between teachers and pupils in confrontation with cultural artefacts. This allowed me to report on a very rich empirical material about what is happening in high school classes, collected at the NPRI in the 1990s. I have constructed different « modes of coordination » of educational action as it takes place in high school classes in France. Using these « models » I have been able to show a certain variety of modes of what is actually taught on the same item of a school program (in economics). The teachings differ according to the « worlds of education » constructed by distinguishing different ways of conceiving the knowledge of the discipline in relation to classroom knowledge. It depends on intellectual orientations and the level of the teacher’s mastery of the knowledge and the ways in which teachers conceive students’ ability to cope with the uncertainty in the classroom (students’ characteristics and the professional experience of the teachers are involved here). I then wanted to question the ambition to « measure », because the « product of education » is neither homogeneous nor linear.
Accepting the intrinsic diversity of ways to « produce education » leads us to argue for evaluative bodies that motivate education professionals to frequently debate their ways of appreciating student outcomes, rather than pretending to use a cardinal measure that erases different conceptions of educational value and thus bypasses the necessary debates about what is being evaluated.The aim was to restore the imperative of evaluating education appreciating its intrinsic value(s) rather than seeing it as a cardinal measure of skills.
In France, other researchers had already substantiated their work in the sociology of education by the conventionalist approach. Jean-Louis Derouet, with his team at the National Institute for Pedagogical Research NPRI (Derouet 2019), draws on the research of Boltanski and Thévenot’s « On justification. Economies of worth » (2006) to show how justice issues at school can jointly raise several orders of justice (see the interview with Derouet This way of analysing innate conflicts and contradictions of schools allows to get a better picture of what happens there by rendering a greater complexity. This facilitates an approximate description of what school actors do to keep an order alive, and under which circumstances they adjust to new principles in periods of uncertainty. To understand the uncertainties after the disenchantment with the egalitarian and meritocratic ideals that accompanied the development of what has been called « school massification » in France, Derouet (1992) wanted to expand the conceptual framework about justice at school considering « plural legitimate principles » of justice. This approach, inspired by a political philosophy of the school, has brought valuable elements to the understanding of the evolutions in the modes of decentralized management of schools. It allows Derouet (2019) to affirm that « the sociology of conventions is the science of the science of the actors ».

Szukala: I know that you are currently reflecting about the critique of Boltanski. What fascinates you and how would you think his critique may contribute to the development of economic and sociological theory?

Chatel: Well, let’s return to the curriculum issues that have been the subject of my recent work. The question of curriculum is an important domain of the sociology of education. To be fair, it is necessary that the knowledge that is taught in schools, and which, therefore, serves to educate the youth, can be considered legitimate. But how the contours of this knowledge are determined and how its legitimacies are elaborated, is a core question asked by the sociology of the curriculum. This question has been mine in recent years.
I approached it at the crossroads of didactics, curriculum sociology and the history of school subjects. The sociology of the curriculum is the discipline encompassing the question of the social determination of the curriculum. So, it is a big question implying numerous political issues. But, at the same time, the didactics’ perspective seemed very necessary to me, because the essential underlying mechanisms of the knowledge taught in class is based on didactics. It is embedded in the singular relationship between a class and a teacher providing knowledge to be transmitted in a specific field. But didactics tend to define more precisely how the knowledge that is taught and learned is determined, also with the intention of sustainably improving the teaching processes and teacher training. I benefitted from a collaboration with a group of SES teachers [sciences économiques et sociales] at the National Institute for Pedagogical Research, with whom we conducted didactic research between 1988 and 2000. On this occasion, I studied the school curriculum of SES in France: its formation, its evolution. I did it at the level of the « formal » curriculum, e.g. regarding the texts prescribing the teaching, but also at the level of the real curriculum, which supposes to be interested in the actors, the teachers and the pupils and their daily exchanges. We conducted conversational analyses as well as educational situation analyses (Chatel 1998, 2002).
At the same time, I analysed the controversial public debates about the content of economic education in French high schools referring to the interactionist sociology of the curriculum (and by analogy with other cases). However, I was not satisfied with the standard explanation that social groups only defend their proper interests, which is especially represented in the work of Cooper (1997). These interpretations are not at all interested in the didactics and in the pedagogical content of the teaching profession. They do not sufficiently take into consideration the professional ethics’ dimension that permeates teachers’ positions on their teaching. As for the critical works of structuralist and Marxist inspiration, such as Basil Bernstein’s, they did not allow me to work at the research level that I had adopted: the classroom. In fact, I was working on the teaching of one discipline and not on the organisation of a secondary curriculum. Moreover, I was concerned with the transformations of knowledge that actually occur in the classroom because of the purpose of teaching.
In Champy’s sociology of professions I found some elements that allowed me to better assert the ethical dimension present in the teaching work and to see teaching as a profession « with sensible practices » because of the constant uncertainty a teacher confronts in practice (Champy 2009). Nevertheless, as regards the teaching of the economy, a subject with a very important political content, I wanted to better understand what was being played out at the didactic and at the curricular level because of the specific characteristics of economic and social knowledge as well as the political content and the role in the public debate. I had to combine a macro-social approach with this very local work of description and understanding of classroom interactions. The history of the vicissitudes, the controversies relating to the outlines of the economic education of high schools in France also pushed me to it. The theoretical framework constructed by Luc Boltanski has offered me insights, because it suggests articulating the levels of micro analysis and the macro-social level. So I used this approach to interpret both the emergence of conventions and/or values because of the teaching experience in the classroom; and secondly the controversies at the level of curriculum that require disputes, public debates, justifications relating to the contours of school curricula to methods of teaching and evaluation in economics. These recurrent controversies showed that professors did not hesitate to oppose program changes that would put them at odds with their conception of the content that conveys civic, critical and social emancipation (Chatel 2019).
In his 2011 book, Luc Boltanski explains how he sees the role of critique in the evolution of institutions. Contrary to the critical sociology built around Pierre Bourdieu, he does not want to consider that the phenomena of domination would transform actors into highly submissive agents, dominated by the symbolic violence that is done to them. He sees them capable of confronting problematic situations which are open to a certain plurality of interpretations, forged by the multiple affiliations of the actors. Boltanski maintains that there is no alignment of beliefs on an axis that would be that of the dominant ideology. On the contrary, he thinks that the actors still have a possible grip on reality; they act in the event of disputes based on their knowledge of the situation and their sense of justice. They can try to acknowledge a new protest in the public space by joining a collective, denounce what seems to them inaccurate or unfair and sometimes they succeed in bringing out new “worths”. I perceive a social criticism that can be rooted in everyone’s social experience, in both a pragmatic and a critical sense.

Szukala: How do you feel about left outs and left overs of EC and what do you think will be the most promising future developments in EC-research?

Chatel: To close my remarks, I wish to insist on what appears to me as the specific and valuable contribution of the conventionalist approach, whether in economics or sociology. There was a time when the term « convention » did not seem relevant to me to define the specific contribution of this school of thinking. Above all, I thought that the economics of conventions was a method of research focused on the uncertainty of economic action, which was especially considering the depth of the courses of action, their « pragmatic » dimension (Chatel and Danset 2006).
Today, my work does not belong to the field of economic discipline but concerns education in the broad domain of social sciences. The notion “convention” seems to me to bear precisely the pragmatic concern, that of the present moment of an action. Now it is important to maintain in our research the perspective on the present moment of action in that it is partly drawn in the past and that it directs the future. The present of the action allows us to reintroduce in our analyses the potential inventiveness of the courses of action. The conventionalist analysis proposes tools to identify the enigma of the courses of actions with several, « conventions » or « conventional supports of the action » resulting from past actions, adjust, adapt, or fail to do so in the actual courses of events because an action always conveys a future expectation and therefore a potential unknown. Equally, trying to understand the emergence of new practices, new conventions, new legitimacy, new values, requires the study of the « present ». The conventional supports of the action analysed by Dodier (1993, 2019) are of all kinds: internal as dispositions inscribed in people, external as texts, objects, rules, devices that the past has deposited outside the actors; they mobilize them or not according to the situations, the aims, the future expectations etc. The sociology of conventions is not only a way of introducing the plurality of principles of coordination of action or justification by external support already there, it is also a way of thinking about institutional change and developments in articulating them with the present moment of action.
Consequently, this school offers a methodology, which tries to articulate the analyses at different levels of the social. Certainly, the analysed actions follow singular people and not collectives, but considering the pragmatic constraints of their action, the analyses comprise rules, norms, values, socio-technical objects, devices, classifications, which support conventional actions that are, as we have seen, deposits of earlier acts. The question of aggregation becomes a question to be studied for itself and not only a priori position of the analyst.


Boltanski, L. (2011): On critique. A sociology of emancipation. London: Polity Press.

Boltanski, L./Thevenot, L. (2006): On justification. Economies of worth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chatel, E./Richet, A. (1995): Dialogues en classe et savoirs enseignés. Spirale 16, pp. 203-222.

Chatel, E. (2002): L’action éducative et la logique de la situation. Revue française de pédagogie 141, pp. 37-46.

Chatel, E. (2001): Comment évaluer l’éducation. Neuchâtel: Delachaux et Niestlé.

Chatel, E./Danset, D. (2006): L’Economie des conventions: une lecture critique à partir de la philosophie de John Dewey. Revue de philosophie économique, pp. 49-75.

Chatel, E. (2019): Zwischen Expertenökonomie und Politischer Ökonomie: der Wirtschaftsunterricht an den französischen Gymnasien auf dem Prüfstand. In: Imdorf, C./Leemann, R./Gonon, P. (eds.), Bildung und Konventionen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 231-254.

Champy, F. (2009): Sociologie des professions. Paris: PUF.

Cooper, B. (1997): Comment expliquer les transformations des matières scolaires? In: Forquin, J.-C. (ed.): Les sociologues de l’Education américains et britanniques. Brusseles: De Boeck INRP, p. 66-75.

Derouet, J.-L. (1992): Ecole et justice. Paris: Metailié.

Derouet, J.-L. (2019):  Die Soziologie der Konventionen im Bereich der Bildung. In: Imdorf, C./Leemann, R./Gonon, P. (eds.), Bildung und Konventionen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 47-90

Dodier, N. (1992): Les appuis conventionnels de l’action. Eléments de la pragmatique sociologique. Réseaux 11/62, pp. 63-85.

Orléan, A. (2014): The empire of value. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Storper, M./Salais, R. (1997): Worlds of production. The action frameworks of the economy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.