Conference in honor of Robert Salais

19-20 September at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay (Cachan)

Christian Bessy (ENS Paris-Saclay), Claude Didry (Centre Maurice Halbwachs, ENS Paris) & Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne)

These conference days (organized by Christian Bessy and Claude Didry), which resembled about thirty contributors, paid tribute to Robert Salais’ work and his activity in organizing and leading interdisciplinary research in the social sciences. Trained as an economist and statistician at INSEE (the National French Institute for Statistics and Economic Analysis), he created and directed the IEPE (Institutions, Employment and Economic Policy) from 1986 to 1996, then the IDHE (Institutions and Historical Dynamics of the Economy) from 1997 to 2007 in collaboration with historians.

These days allowed us to review the intellectual project of this laboratory that has since become IDHES. This project was initially part of the French approach of economics of convention (“économie des conventions”), which emphasizes the plurality of forms of coordination. The analysis of labor activity is at the heart of the surveys in order to take into account the possible production worlds on which an economy can base its development. Hence, the importance of international comparison in Robert Salais’ work and the European research projects he has directed to describe the specificity of national socio-historical trajectories.

Four research themes were selected and were the subject of contributions from members invited to participate:

– Work, employment and unemployment

– The production worlds

– The European question and the capability approach

– Quantification and democracy

The general introduction of these days resituated Robert Salais’ research program in the institutional environment of the time and its progressive mutation. Pierre-Paul Zalio (director of ENS Paris-Saclay) and Michel Margairaz (University of Paris 1) reported Robert Salais’s engagement at the laboratory IDHE and at ENS Paris-Saclay. Rainer Diaz-Bone (University of Lucerne) presented the progress of the internationalization of the conventionalist movement, from the pioneering research by Salais, Thévenot, Favereau, Orléan and Eymard-Duvernay to important development in the “sociology of convention” in Germany today, and an increasing international interest for this research movement.

Pierre-Paul Zalio, Christian Bessy and Claude Didry

Directly after the opening session, Robert Salais was awarded by the director of ENS Paris-Saclay with the medal of the ENS.

Pierre-Paul Zalio and Robert Salais

The next session reported on meetings with researchers from different backgrounds. Moments of discussion with the audience enriched the discussions around the research (organization) issues raised. All participants were unanimous in recognizing the originality of Robert Salais’ intellectual journey, which began with macroeconomic work on the « Philips curve » (link between inflation and unemployment) and continued with the fluctuation of participation rates and unemployment registration, leading him to a reflection on the statistics, with an emphasis on the statistical categories, used in the research, a reflection nourished by the experience of the employment survey and by the participation in the research group (with Alain Desrosières and Laurent Thévenot) around the operations of categorization of the economic and social world which have at the same time a cognitive, pragmatic and political dimension. The writing of The Invention of Unemployment (1986, with Bénédicte Reynaud and Nicolas Bavarez) is from this point of view a model of multidisciplinarity between economics, sociology, history and law.

Bénédicte Reynaud

Bénédicte Reynaud proposed a development of this approach built in the French context, to the history of unemployment in Britain. A double historical perspective was introduced by Jacky Fayolle, with a look at the history of Robert Salais who moved from a strong political commitment in the French left wing Government of the first half of the 1980s, to a historical research program crossing economic history and inquiries on innovation and restructuring in the group IEPE (Institutions, Employment and Economic Policies) Robert Salais founded in 1986. This research program leads to the consideration of a plurality of labour and unemployment conventions, the analysis of which was subsequently further developed in Les mondes de production. This book, co-authored with Michael Storper (1993, English translation published 1997 as Worlds of production), was based on the intersection of an analysis of the flexibility of productive organizations and an analysis of the different ways of producing and building markets. It was from the creation of in-depth company monographs that Robert Salais worked more fully with historians, which at the time was not at all obvious, as Michel Margairaz recalled, with whom they founded IDHE (also with the help of Michel Woronoff, later IDHE was renamed to IDHES: “and Societies”). By working on the modes of constitution and appropriation of productive knowledge, it has also aroused the interest of innovation economists, as Pascal Petit, economists also interested in the economic question of reducing uncertainty in the coordination of activities, pointed out.

It is this question of coordination that will be of wider interest to the economics of the convention of which he is co-founder with François Eymard-Duvernay, Olivier Favereau, Laurent Thévenot, André Orléan, and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see the special issue of the journal Revue économique in 1989). By placing at the center of the analysis the plurality of coordination regimes, this current will make it possible to articulate an approach based on production methods or « quality conventions » with that based on the analysis of arguments mobilized in disputes, in particular in working environments and in the general upsurges they cause, raising questions of justice and State intervention. As Robert Salais pointed out in the debates, and in the face of a macro-structural posture that would tend to locate the production worlds, each world has a global dimension and presupposes a form of State intervention.

Jean de Munck and Frédéric Marty

Frédéric Marty recalled his doctoral experience with Robert Salais, and showed how Salais’ conventions of the State was a way to open the understanding of economic policies which cannot be reduced to the tension between interventionism and laisser-faire. Beyond the duality of the convention of the exterior State and the convention of the absent State, he suggested proximity between the convention of situated State and German ordoliberalism. Hence, also Salais’ interest in pluralistic theories of justice, such as the one developed by Amartya Sen and based on the notions of capabilities and knowledge bases. Noel Whiteside and Simon Deakin witnessed how their commitment in historical comparisons between Britain and France, on the issue of labor market, unemployment, labor law and economic theories, in the 1990s opened a period of European programs in the 2000s. The mobilization of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach was seen as a way to deepen Salais’ State conventions, in the analysis of European social policies. Bénédicte Zimmermann developed the idea of “capabilizing organisations” such as public bodies or private firms which could enhance people’s capability.

Various contributions have made it possible to review the definition of statistical indicators in the context of European social policies. Many contributors also highlighted the collective work that Robert Salais has promoted in the various entities he has led, first within the Employment and Employment Division of INSEE (of which he was Director in 1973 and 1980), in particular around the Labor Force Survey, its design and exploitation, then the Research Unit of INSEE, IEPE and IDHE. He had his own way of getting economists, statisticians, sociologists, historians and lawyers to converse. Joëlle Affichard presented the line of work on the European Union’s strategy to implement a governance by numbers (as the open method of coordination) and the critique on labor politics to the harmonization of indicators. Laurent Thévenot’s address (he is also one of the founders of economics of convention) sketched the collective work on quantification at INSEE and the special atmosphere, Robert Salais and his collaborators established at INSEE in the era of the late 1960ies and the 1970ies.

Simon Deakin

As Simon Deakin (Professor of Law at University of Cambridge) mentioned, it has given us a better understanding of how law could constitute a mode of coordination because of the social meanings underlying it and the conventions it codifies and, more generally, to take law as a normative language that can come up against the qualification of certain things.

Jean de Munck (University of Louvain) also underlined the importance of this conception of law, which does not, however, go so far as to allow for further reflection in terms of legal pluralism. But the Salais method is also a way of collectively reading the texts of the great authors without ideological bias and gradually building a common score within the laboratory in order to train the youngest.

The days ended with a round table during which Olivier Favereau, as Robert Salais one of the of the founders of economics of convention, showed how Robert Salais’ work, after having opened convention theory to the conception of the State, can lead to a conception of the company, which has no legal definition, as a practice managed by a convention, following the model of state conventions.

Olivier Favereau

Alongside the Fordist company and the agency relationship chain company, one could consider a « situated company » participating in the co-production of a common between capital and labor, in the same way as the German practice of codetermination which was repressed in the 1980s. To a theory of the co-determined company, Valérie Boussard (university of Paris 10) added the idea of inventing a new accounting system less under the influence of finance and the manipulation of the accounts it generates.

Robert Salais concluded the days by taking up the idea of renewing the theory of the company with a form of co-determination with « nature » or a « parliament of things », by integrating environmental quality at all stages of product production and distribution.

Robert Salais

This continues the need to extend a culture of debate and deliberation in the development of indicators of well-being, as recalled by Florence Jany-Catrice (University of Lille), but in communication with nature.

Marie-Geneviève Michal-Salais and Robert Salais






The two days of the conference gathered companions, colleagues and former students of Robert Salais. All in all, more than 60 participants from France, UK, Germany, Japan, Belgium and Switzerland attended the conference, which covered events and research of more than 40 years initiated by Robert Salais. The conference made aware that the approach of economics of convention managed to reintegrate the analysis of economic institutions, labor participation, social justice, quantification, law and politics.

The conference program was completed by social gathering and a concert (with the band of Clément Salais, the son of Robert Salais, which was playing the bass.)

Download program of the conference