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

Lokale Konventionen in der Vermittlung von Gegenwartskunst by Svea Hallemann

Eine Studie zu Wirtschaftspraktiken unter Berücksichtigung des
eigenlogischen Forschungsansatzes

PhD, Technische Universität Berlin 04. July 2019


„Die Dissertation verknüpft das Konzept der „Eigenlogik der Städte“ mit dem der „Soziologie der Konventionen“, um aufzuzeigen, ob und wie ökonomische Handlungsabläufe über lokale Konventionen sinnhaft organisiert werden. Während das erstgenannte die Stadt als Untersuchungsgegenstand und Wissensobjekt konzeptualisiert, werden bei der Theorie der Economies des conventions (EC) die lokal vorherrschenden Konventionen thematisiert. Dieser theoretische Ansatz verortet sich im Bereich der neuen Wirtschaftssoziologie und thematisiert u. a. die „Notwendigkeit von Konventionen zur Überbrückung von Unsicherheit im wirtschaftlichen Handeln (…)“ […]. Ausgangspunkt ist hier die Annahme, dass Rationalität als interpretativ gerahmt wird und daher auf Märkten das Ziel und die Mittel der Zielerreichung kollektiv, interaktiv und gestaltend ausgehandelt werden. Ähnlich wie die EC legt auch der Ansatz der Eigenlogik der Städte „die Existenz lokaler Wertigkeitsordnungen nahe“ […]. Die Kombination beider Ansätze wurde für die Analyse des DFG-Teilprojekts „Lokale Konventionen des Friseurwesens“ […] erprobt und hat sich als fruchtbar erwiesen. Aus der Kombination der beiden theoretischen Ansätze ergeben sich zwei zentrale Fragestellungen: Werden über lokale Konventionen ökonomische Handlungsabläufe organisiert und lassen sich diese (sofern auffindbar) in lokalspezifische Eigenlogiken zusammenfassen? Sind die gefundenen städtischen Eigenschaften im Galeriewesen kompatibel bzw. vergleichbar mit denen des DFG-Teilprojekts bezüglich des Friseurwesens.”  (p. 3)


„The dissertation combines the concept of the “inherent logic of cities” with that of the “sociology of conventions” in order to show whether and how economic courses of action are organised meaningfully via local conventions. While the former conceptualizes the city as an object of investigation and knowledge, the theory of economics of convention (EC) focuses on the locally prevailing conventions. This theoretical approach is located in the field of the new economic sociology and deals, among other things, with the “necessity of conventions for bridging uncertainty in economic action (…)” […]. The starting point here is the assumption that rationality is framed as interpretative and that the goal and means of achieving it are therefore negotiated collectively, interactively and creatively on markets. Similar to the EC, the approach of the cities’ own logic also suggests “the existence of local value systems” […]. The combination of both approaches was tested for the analysis of the DFG subproject “Local Conventions of Hairdressing” […] and has proved fruitful. The combination of the two theoretical approaches raises two central questions: Are economic courses of action organised via local conventions and can these (if they can be found) be summarised in local specific logics? Are the urban characteristics found in the gallery system compatible or comparable with those found in the DFG subproject regarding hairdressing? (p. 3)

Promotionsausschuss (jury):
Vorsitzende: Prof. Dr. Martina Löw
Gutachterin: Prof. Dr. Nina Baur
Gutachter: Prof. Dr. Elmar Kulke

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No price without value: Towards a theory of value and price

Dave Elder-Vass (2019)

Cambridge Journal of Economics. Online first, pp. 1-14.

Abstract. “The relationship between value and price, a central focus of classical political economy, has fallen into the shadows of neglect in contemporary economics. This paper builds on a critical realist framework and findings from the economics of conventions and the sociology of valuation to develop a theory of value that returns to the relation between value and price. It argues that value is best understood as a view of the price that something ought to exchange at, and that these views are shaped normatively by a host of lay theories of value and the groups and organisations that advance them. Through their effects on our assessments of value, these theories also influence the determination of prices. Although prices in open systems are determined by many interacting factors, lay theories of value play a crucial role in the process.

Keywords: Conventions, Lay theories of value, Price, Value, Valuation

Link to the review

The Contested Moralities of Markets

Simone Schiller-Merkens & Philip Balsiger (eds.)(2019)
Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 63.
Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited

Philip Balsiger & Simone Schiller-Merkens: Moral struggles in and around markets (chap. 1), pp. 3-26.

“Moral struggles in and around markets abound in contemporary societies where markets have become the dominant form of economic coordination. Reviewing research on morality and markets across disciplinary boundaries, this introductory essay suggests that a moral turn can currently be observed in scholarship, and draws a direct connection to recent developments in the sociology of morality. The authors introduce the chapters in the present volume “The Contested Moralities of Markets.” In doing so, the authors distinguish three types of moral struggles in and around markets: struggles around morally contested markets where the exchange of certain goods on markets is contested; struggles within organizations that are related to an organization’s embeddedness in complex institutional environments with competing logics and orders of worth; and moral struggles in markets where moral justifications are mobilized by a variety of field members who act as moral entrepreneurs in their striving for moralizing the economy. Finally, the authors highlight three properties of moral struggles in contemporary markets: They (1) arise over different objects, (2) constitute political struggles, and (3) are related to two broader social processes: market moralization and market expansion. The introduction concludes by discussing some of the theoretical approaches that allow particular insights into struggles over morality in markets. Collectively, the contributions in this volume advance our current understanding of the contested moralities of markets by highlighting the sources, processes, and outcomes of moral struggles in and around markets, both through tracing the creation, reproduction, and change of underlying moral orders and through reflecting the status and power differentials, alliances, and political strategies as well as the general cultural, social, and political contexts in which the struggles unfold.”


Nadai, Eva/Canonica, Alan: The Moralization of Labor: Establishing the Social Responsibility of Employers for Disabled Workers (chap. 5), pp. 87-106.


As a “fictitious commodity” (Polanyi), that cannot be separated from the human being who is its owner, labor has a special moral significance. However, this moral quality is not a given but must be asserted in struggles over the value of labor. With the example of disabled workers in Switzerland, this chapter examines the moralization of labor as a means to revalue a category of workers who range far down the labor queue. Moralization mediates the tension between the normative societal goal of inclusion for disabled people and the freedom of employers to select the most “productive” workers. Drawing on the theoretical approach of the Economics of Convention the chapter analyzes the valuation frames proposed by economic and welfare state actors in political debates over the establishment of the Swiss disability insurance and the role of employers regarding occupational integration. A core concept used in negotiations of the value of disabled labor in the public arena and within individual businesses is the “social responsibility” of employers. Historically, employers’ associations successfully promoted the liberal principle of voluntary responsibility to prevent state interference in the labor market. In contrast, disability insurance argues predominantly within the market and the industrial convention to “sell” its clientele in the context of employer campaigns and case-related interactions with employers. Only recently, both sides started to reframe the employment of disabled people as a win–win affair, which would reconcile economic self-interest and the common good.”


Sarah Lenz and Sighard Neckel (2019): Moral self-commitment and economic expansion (chap. 7), pp. 127-148.


“German ethical banks have experienced a significant increase in customers, deposits, and lending. They aim to establish a fairer banking system. But the simultaneous pursuit of social, ecological, and economic goals leaves them vulnerable to conflicting orders of worth. The authors examine the normative foundations that ethical bank employees refer to when they describe their everyday practices and identify the specific problems that arise from negotiating between moral principles and economic demands to provide insights into the impacts, constraints, and paradoxes of normatively oriented business practices. Drawing on the theoretical framework of the sociology of critique, the authors assume that moral categories, social processes of interpretation, and justification are an essential part of markets. Ethical banking is characterized by the need to meet both market-limiting and market-expanding requirements, and this particularly becomes contentious when dealing with economic growth. By analyzing ethical banks’ freely accessible documents, the authors first outline the institutional guidelines. In a second step, the authors analyze 27 qualitative interviews with employees of ethical banks to gain insights into everyday lending practices and action-guiding normative orientations. The goal of this chapter is to examine the tensions that may arise from applying normative guidelines under the condition of increasing economic requirements and to disclose the way that ethical banks negotiate between mechanisms of expansion and limitation. The analysis of this chapter points out a paradox of ethical banking: due to the banks’ economic expansion, investments corresponding to their ethical commitments tend to become a luxury they cannot afford.”


Accounting for crime in the neoliberal world

Alessandro Stefano Ala & Irvine Lapsley (2019).

In: British Accounting Review. Online first, pp. 1-41.

Cover image The British Accounting Review

“This paper examines the recent European public sector accounting reform which introduces controversial calculative practices for the recognition of criminal activities in national accounts. Namely, accounting for unlawful drug production and drug trafficking, and accounting for prostitution. Challenging the presumption of accounting neutrality, this study analyses this “accounting for crime” policy from a semantic and an epistemological view point as a cognitive system of creation of meaning and formation of knowledge. The analysis reveals the polyhedrality of neoliberalism, and the way it exerts its influence on society through its circuitous discursive process of social construction and transfiguration of reality which flows crosswise its multiple dimensions. At the macro level this policy operates as a ‘hegemonic project’: It bonds together the economic and political interests of different ‘historical blocs’, making the implementation of these practices a matter of ‘common sense’. At the micro level this policy functions as an ‘apparatus of governmentality’: It encapsulates the cognition of crime within a panoptic logic of economic rationality, transforming its outcome into a contributory value of a country’s prosperity. In this context, this study outlines the centrality of accounting practice as a pivotal tool of the neoliberal ideology: It permits extending the realm of calculative methodologies to the commodification of human weaknesses, addictions, and sexuality, in a rational process of accounting to balance the supply and demand of sex and drugs, between prostitutes and clients, pushers and addicts.
Keywords: Government accounting, crime, accounting neutrality, ideology, neoliberalism and accounting, neoliberal discourse hegemony, governmentality
The importance of accounting in society is accentuated by its potential for quantifying many aspects of contemporary life. The emergence of new calculative practices is a matter worthy of analysis due to their aptitude for translating matters of quantification into issues of the social order (Miller, 2001, Vollmer, 2003). Albeit accounting has an ‘aura of neutrality and objectivity’ (Funnel, 1998), its calculative practices are not an instrument of neutral depiction of reality. Accounting mediates the comprehension of the external reality through the use of ‘conventions’ (Diaz-Bone and Salais, 2011, 2012) which are ‘arbitrary, political and moral in nature’ (Chiapello, 2017, p. 57). In this sense, the calculative practices of accounting can be better explained as a cognitive tool through which some aspects of reality are mentally classified, understood and represented. […] Foucault theorises ‘neoliberal governmentality’ as a system of social construction of epistemological mechanisms necessary to channel the individual cognition of reality within a panoptic logic of economic rationality in a manner which is suitable to the pursuit of specific political and economic interests (in Foucauldian parlance these are called ‘apparatuses of conduct of conducts’). The use of Foucauldian discourse analysis implies, therefore, examining the calculative methodologies for the computation of the outcome of crime (and its corresponding representation in financial reports) through this theoretical lens to explain ‘the effects of the conventions incorporated into accounting’ (Chiapello, 2017, p. 57). In this light, in the discourse analysis the focus is on the way the policy of “accounting for crime” fulfils the objectives of ‘framing and education’, i.e. it ‘describe[s] the world from a specific standpoint and teaches users to see the world from that perspective’, and in the ‘construction of the world’, i.e. it brings ‘things into existence that would not exist without them’ (Chiapello, 2017, p. 57).” (p. 2/7-8)

From Myths to Markets: Power, Institutions, and the Reification of Imagined Histories

Elizabeth Carter (2019)

In: European Journal of Sociology. Online first, pp. 1-26.


“This article posits that institutionalized mythologies can create comparative production advantages. Myths shape collective identity, mobilize actors, and fundamentally reshape production dynamics. Myths are institutionalized in market rules, regulations and structures, leading to the reification of the myth. The myth functions as if it is true, not because it is true, but because it shapes the rules of production. Yet without the initial myth, specific production incentives—and even their institutional comparative advantages—would not exist. My theory integrates approaches from modernist historians (“imagined communities”) and economic sociologists (“imagined futures”) to explain how myths (“imagined histories”) shape contemporary market outcomes, using the example of the French wine market. This argument contributes to the historical institutionalist approach, which focuses on the historical power dynamics between competing groups and the present-day social and market consequence of their institutionalized solutions”

Plurality of values in mHealth: Conventions and ethical dilemmas

Valeska Cappel & Karolin Eva Kappler (2019)

In: Bächle, Thomas Christian/Wernick, Alina (eds.): The futures of eHealth. Social, ethical and legal challenges. Berlin: Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), pp. 31-37.



The pragmatic economics of conventions offers new insights into mHealth, providing a deeper understanding of current ethical problems. Valeska Cappel and Karolin Kappler focus on mobile health applications and shed light on potential lines of conflict in their development, implementation and diffusion by comparing the underlying conventions, investments in form and practices of different stakeholders.
Keywords: economics of convention, mHealth, plurality of values, materialities, ethical dilemma
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Quality conventions in the exported Finnish master’s degree programme in teacher education in Indonesia

Henna Juusola & Pekka Räihä (2019)
In: Higher Education

“In recent higher education research, quality in education export action has been explored from the perspective of traditional education export countries such as the UK and USA. However, less attention is given to novice education export providers that rely on different educational traditions. In this article, we explore quality of education as it is done in one exported Finnish master’s degree programme in teacher education in Indonesia. Our theoretical premise is based on the convention theory that relies on pragmatic sociology. The empirical data consist of 16 semi-structured students’ and staff members’ interviews gathered between the years 2016 and 2017 in Finland and in Indonesia. The results of this study stress the plurality of the quality factors that indicate the expectations by the students and the staff members, but also the priorities of the providers as to what is essential in exported degree-based education. From the perspective of convention theory, these considerations emphasize that the successful implementation of the exported master’s degree programme in teacher education is based on the professional-academic convention (as research-based teacher education) that together with the civic-domestic convention (as societal impact, local traditions and Finnish approach to pedagogy) influenced the content of the educational programme through personal interaction.”
Keywords: Education export, Quality of education, Finnish teacher education, Convention theory, Quality conventions

Employees’ evaluative repertoires of tourism and hospitality jobs

Anna Schneider & Corinna Treisch (2019)
In: International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management

This paper aims to examine employees’ evaluative repertoires of tourism and hospitality jobs and segments them based on a set of job attribute preferences. Understanding the social–cultural underpinnings of employees’ job preferences is vital if employers are to overcome the challenging task of finding and retaining talented employees in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Applying the Economics of Convention (EC) perspective, combining organizational job attributes and socially embedded evaluative repertoires provides a new approach to analysing and understanding employees’ job preferences.

Critical sociology and sociology of critique

Luc Boltanski (2019)

In: Graw, Isabelle/Menke, Christoph (eds.)(2019): The value of critique. Frankfurt: Campus, pp. 129-138.


The Value of Critique

“This essay is based on a revised version of the book On Critique which published six years ago. One of its main goals is to draw a frame aiming at integrating elements coming from two programs: critical sociology of the sixties and seventies and sociology of critical practices which started in the late eighties and is still practiced today. The first program owes much to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu who has been one of its’ most prominent contributors. The second program was partly inspired by some critics who were against the precedent program of a critical sociology. Yet, tl1ese critics had theoretical and not political issues. That second program involving a pragmatic turn to a sociology of critical practice was not oriented against critique – either in reproach or praise. On the contrary, one of its main aims was to renew the possibility of a critical sociology by focusing on the critical capacities of ordinary actors and their situatedness as subjects of empirical research unfolding in ordinary life-a life where actors put into play these capacities, especially in the course of disputes.” (p. 129)

Analytique et big data en ressources humaines. Une étude au prisme de la notion de justification [Analytics and big data in human resources. A study in the light of the notion of justification].

Clotilde Coron (2019)

Revue française de gestion 45 (no 280), pp. 57-74.


Revue Française de Gestion Image de couverture

“Le contraste entre la prégnance des notions d’analytique et de big data ressources humaines (RH) dans les discours managériaux actuels et le faible nombre de travaux académiques sur le sujet invite à s’interroger sur la réalité du changement introduit par ces notions. En mobilisant le concept de justification pour analyser de l’observation participante complétée par dix entretiens semi-directifs, les auteurs montrent que les dispositifs d’analytique RH font l’objet de discours similaires à ceux sur le reporting, alors que les dispositifs de big data RH donnent lieu à de nouvelles justifications. Cela invite donc à conclure que l’analytique RH ne constitue pas une rupture proprement dite, alors que le big data RH correspond à un réel changement.”
Mots clés: Big Data, analytique, RH, quantification, justification

“The contrast between the importance of the notions of Analytics and Big Data in HR in current managerial discourse and the low number of academic studies on the subject raises questions about the reality of the change introduced by these notions. Mobilizing the concept of justification to analyze participant observation supplemented by ten semi-directive interviews, this research shows that HR Analytics systems give rise to speeches similar to those on reporting, whereas Big Data systems correspond to new justifications. This suggests that HR Analytics does not constitute a disruption per se, whereas Big Data corresponds to a real change in HR.”
Key words: Big Data, analytics, HR, quantification, justification

EXCERPT (French/English)
“L’école française de sociologie de la quantification cherche à analyser les pratiques sociales autour de la classification et de la quantification (Diaz-Bone, 2016). Les travaux de Desrosières s’attachent ainsi à déconstruire l’idée selon laquelle les statistiques seraient le reflet neutre de la réalité (2008a). Ils montrent que les méthodes statistiques reposent sur des conventions sociales et non uniquement techniques, et que les statistiques créent de nouvelles façons de penser le monde et donc d’agir dessus (2008b). D’autres travaux s’inscrivent dans la même mouvance, soulignant par exemple la dimension sociale ou politique des choix sous-jacents à toute opération de quantification (Chiapello et Walter, 2016) ou l’effet des statistiques sur les individus ou les collectifs (Espeland et Stevens, 1998; Stevens, 2008). Ce cadre théorique se fonde entre autres sur la théorie des conventions. Il s’agit en effet d’identifier des « conventions de quantification » (Chiapello et Walter, 2016 ; Diaz-Bone, 2016), qui correspondent le plus souvent à des choix méthodologiques, techniques, statistiques, qui sont réalisés en amont et pendant les opérations de quantification. La notion de convention est directement liée à celle, moins utilisée en sociologie de la quantification, de justification. Plus précisément, l’économie des conventions s’intéresse à la construction de repères et de critères d’évaluation communs permettant de s’accorder sur la valeur d’objets, d’actions ou d’individus. Dès lors, une question centrale pour cette perspective est celle de la justification de la valeur (Eymard-Duvernay, 1989). Boltanski et Thévenot (1991) donnent ainsi des exemples de registres d’arguments et de justifications de la valeur d’une action ou d’une personne (les mondes, ou « cités »). […] Pour mieux appréhender les notions de big data et d’analytique et identifier les éventuels changements qu’elles introduisent, la sociologie de la quantification invite donc à se pencher sur les discours des acteurs (RH, informaticiens, statisticiens, notamment) sur les différents usages de la quantification en RH et sur les justifications qu’ils mobilisent.” (p. 58-59)

“The French School of Sociology of Quantification seeks to analyze social practices around classification and quantification (Diaz-Bone, 2016). The work of Desrosières thus attempts to deconstruct the idea that statistics are the neutral reflection of reality (2008a). They show that statistical methods are based on social rather than purely technical conventions, and that statistics create new ways of thinking about the world and thus acting on it (2008b). Other studies are part of the same trend, highlighting, for example, the social or political dimension of the choices underlying any quantification operation (Chiapello and Walter, 2016) or the effect of statistics on individuals or groups. (Espeland and Stevens 1998, Stevens 2008). This theoretical framework is based inter alia on the theory of conventions. This is indeed to identify “quantification conventions” (Chiapello and Walter, 2016, Diaz-Bone, 2016), which most often correspond to methodological, technical and statistical choices that are made upstream and during the quantization operations. The notion of convention is directly linked to that less used in the sociology of quantification and justification. More specifically, the economics of conventions is concerned with the construction of common benchmarks and evaluation criteria for agreeing on the value of objects, actions or individuals. Therefore, a central question for this perspective is that of the justification of value (Eymard-Duvernay, 1989). Boltanski and Thévenot (1991) give examples of registers of arguments and justifications of the value of an action or a person (the worlds, or “cities”). […] To better understand the concepts of big data and analytics and to identify any changes they introduce, sociology of quantification therefore invites us to examine the discourses of the actors (HR, computer scientists, statisticians, etc.) on the different uses of quantification in HR and on the justifications they mobilize.” (pp. 58-59)

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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)

Lien vers la version française de l’interview

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


Boltanski, Luc. 2003. Usages faibles, usages forts de l’habitus. In: Pierre Encrevé and Rose-Marie Lagrave (eds,), Travailler avec Bourdieu, pp. 153-164. Paris: Flammarion.

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.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The logic of practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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.

Werten und Verwerten. Konventionen der Beschäftigung von Menschen mit Behinderungen in Wirtschaft und Wohlfahrtstaat

Valuating and exploitating. Conventions of employment of people with disabilities in economy and welfare state.

Eva Nadai, Alan Canonica, Anna Gonon, Fabienne Rotzetter, Martin Lengwiler Wiesbaden: Springer VS (2019)


“Der Wohlfahrtstaat kann die Arbeitsmarktinklusion von Menschen mit Behinderungen fördern, aber  die Entscheidung über die Beschäftigung liegt bei der Wirtschaft. Diese Studie untersucht die Koordination von Arbeitgebern und Invalidenversicherung in der Schweiz und fragt, wie die Wertbestimmung von Arbeitskraft in politischen und betrieblichen Arenen verhandelt wird. Sie rekonstruiert historisch und ethnografisch die Strukturen und widersprüchlichen Rechtfertigungen der beruflichen Eingliederung, die im Konzept der begrenzten freiwilligen sozialen Verantwortung von Arbeitgebern zum Ausdruck kommen.”

[“The welfare state can promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the labour market, but the decision on employment lies within the economy. This study examines the coordination of employers and disability insurance in Switzerland and asks how the valuation of labour is negotiated in political and business arenas. It reconstructs historically and ethnographically the structures and contradictory justifications of occupational integration that are expressed in the concept of employers’ limited voluntary social responsibility”.]

Fourth book in the series „Soziologie der Konventionen”


The elusive “good” : how performance measures shape the US child support enforcement program, by Ana Carolina Macatangay

PhD thesis. University of St. Andrews.


“Performance measures do not just capture an organization’s ‘good performance’; they intervene in the valuation and construction of what counts as ‘good’ so it can be valued, enacted, and measured. This is the central theme of this thesis. Using a performativity lens, and drawing on valuation studies and the sociology of quantification, this research investigates the framing processes and mechanisms by which the federal performance measures, through a network of actors and devices, enable a U.S. child support enforcement agency to enact the ‘good performance’ that can be measured. Using ethnographic and case study methods, the study examines how actors and devices, through a framing process, qualify and negotiate the boundaries of their interactions to produce the ‘good performance’ that can be counted and measured. The boundaries they establish, however, produce overflows that potentially threaten the production of the qualified and quantified ‘good’. Such overflows emerge due to unexpected events, different versions of ‘good’, and conflicting frames of valuation of what counts as ‘good’. Based on the findings, the study offers a taxonomy of performative framing to explain how measures stimulate the organizing work of an agency so the ‘good performance’ can be organized, articulated, produced, and validated. It also offers a taxonomy of counter-performation to describe the uncertainties, multiplicities, and rivalries that the measured ‘good performance’ generates.”


“Individuals, organizations, and societies use categories to make sense of and interact with the world. Categories (e.g. car types by engine size or hotel quality by star rating), which have been ‘collectively crafted, sustained, and enforced’ (Fourcade, 2016: 176), often are held as fact and used for determining how things are similar and, by implication, different from others that have been excluded from a ‘category’. They enable the ordering of things based on a general principle of worth (Boltanski &Thévenot, 2006) and guide or format people’s choices and actions. They are used to assess, compare, or assign values (e.g. price or scores) to things, and to interpret the social and physical world. When things or entities are qualified into some type of ‘thing’, their qualities are reduced to a finite number that will unify them, establish their ‘equivalence’ (Desrosières, 1998), and turn them into realizable and recognizable categories (Diaz-Bone & Didier, 2016). The qualities that make the ‘thing’ (e.g. engine size for car type) become the parameter for sorting and grouping entities into a category to which other entities could be assigned through a process of encoding. As Desrosières (1998) explained, coding signifies a ‘reduction’, a ‘sacrifice’, as other qualities have been disregarded. But by doing this, entities could easily be coded to discrete categories and compared to others based on their selectively compressed qualities (Espeland & Lom, 2015) that had been articulated through the coding’s evaluative form. By making entities and their selective qualities visible, they become measurable ‘objects of reference’ (Centemeri, 2012) for interpretation, coordination and action, supported by huge ‘investments in conventional forms’ (Thévenot, 2015) – such as the use of indicators, statistics, ratings, etc. – to formalize the categories and classifications of information. It may be said therefore that while qualification defines categories, quantification formalizes them. The very forms that help name or construct them also reveal them; and by revealing them, they are made ‘real’ (Desrosières, 1998; Fourcade, 2016).” (p. 44)

Supervisors: Philip Roscoe and Shona Russell

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The quality-turn in coffee, an option for producers, but to what extent?

Interview with Stefano Ponte

Xiomara F. Quiñones Ruiz (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, BOKU Vienna)

Stefano Ponte is a leading researcher and professor at the Centre for Business and Development Studies (CBDS) at Copenhagen Business School. He is primarily interested in transnational economic and environmental governance, with focus on overlaps and tensions between private authority and public regulation. He is particularly interested in how sustainability labels, certifications and codes of conduct shape power relations in global value chains, and in how different forms of partnerships affect sustainability outcomes.

Quiñones Ruiz: Could you share with us your main researGrabsch interests and/or fields of study and how you embarked (got connected) to the convention theory?

Stefano Ponte

Ponte: My research interests coalesce around the topic of governing economic life – through markets, regulation and hybrid forms of governance. My primary interest lies in transnational economic and environmental governance, with focus on overlaps and tensions between private governance and public regulation. My research, fieldwork, teaching and policy work is informed by international political economy approaches, global value chain analysis and convention theory.

I analyze governance dynamics and economic and environmental upgrading trajectories in global value chains — especially in developing countries and in Africa. I am particularly interested in how sustainability standards, labels and certifications shape agro-food value chains, and in how different forms of partnerships affect sustainability outcomes. I am also involved in projects critically examining the role of celebrities and branding in these processes, new forms of corporate social and environmental responsibility, and cause-related marketing.

I started being interested in convention theory when I attended a workshop in Copenhagen on global value chains and the filière approaches in mid-1999. I had just moved to Denmark to join a research project on value chains in the agro-food sector in Africa, which was coordinated by Peter Gibbon. It was the first workshop of the programme and the group had decided to discuss a series of relevant theoretical readings. Benoit Daviron of CIRAD was part of that project and he had suggested reading a recent publication by John Wilkinson in the Review of International Political Economy, discussing convention economics and regulation theory, plus some Francophone literature on the filière approach, economics of convention (Eymard-Duvernay’s work in particular) and pragmatic sociology (especially Thévenot and Boltanski’s opus magna: Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). This first engagement eventually led to my long-lasting relationship with Daviron and Gibbon (2005) and the publication of two co-authored monographs in 2005 on the role of quality conventions in governing value chains in general, and in the coffee sector in particular. Benoit Daviron also facilitated my first personal contacts with key French figures in the field of regulation theory and pragmatic sociology – Gilles Allaire, Robert Boyer and Laurent Thévenot in particular – with whom I have interacted and collaborated regularly over the years.

Quiñones Ruiz: Indeed, you have made a great and inspiring contribution related to the understanding of the coffee paradoxes, namely, your co-authored masterpiece The Coffee Paradox (e.g. coffee crises in producing countries (i.e. very low prices paid to producers), coffee boom in main consuming countries usually based in the North; producer countries mainly selling material quality while actors in consuming countries sell symbolic and in-service quality). Since the publication of the Coffee Paradox, what are the developments observed to reduce or to cope with the coffee paradoxes?

Ponte: A lot has happened since the publication of the Coffee Paradox (Daviron and Ponte 2005). The industry has gone through two phases since about 2008 – one of diversification followed by one of reconsolidation. The latter has been marked by a new wave of restructuring of coffee roasters that has reverberated across the entire industry. During the first period (around 2008 – 2012), in response to a general economic slowdown, the diversified multinationals that had previously held great market power sold or spun off their coffee portfolios amidst the global recession and a general slow-down in the sector. During the second period, from 2010 to 2014, the explosive growth of the specialty sector allowed companies such as Starbucks and Keurig Green Mountain, as well as smaller boutique roasters, to increase their market shares. This trend provided some hope that the balance of power along the value chain could be somewhat re-equilibrated to the advantage of producers, at least those operating in the specialty sector (often larger farms and more organized cooperatives).

However, as the economy recovered from 2012 onwards, and the new consumer segment of “millennials” acquired more spending potential, the coffee market – and in particular its specialty segment – was recognized as strategic long-term investment opportunity for private equity firms such as JAB Holding. This initiated a major re-consolidation movement. Nestlé, after years of relatively unchallenged market leadership, suddenly had to face a serious contender for global dominance in JAB Holding. This battle for market dominance also reverberated across the industry, causing other roasters to strengthen their own portfolios. It further led to greatly increased downward price pressure on green coffee, and all upstream actors, in particular growers and traders, had to work with slimmer margins.

Large traditional roasters have made massive investments in recapturing at least part of the high-margin specialty market, and in the process have brought their large market power to bear on it. Nestlé, for example, has aggressively developed its high-end single-serve capsule Nespresso line, while Starbucks has now grown to become the sixth largest roaster globally. Other major roaster groups have been acquiring specialty roasters at a high speed: JDE, for example, acquired Peet’s Coffee in 2012; its holding company (JAB) took over Keurig Green Mountain coffee in 2015. As they aim to scale up their performance in this lucrative sector, roasters frequently adopt top-down sourcing management schemes that negate the aspirational equal-footed relations and quality conventions pursued in relationship coffees. For instance, the sustainability verification systems used by Starbucks and Nespresso allow them to obtain precious information on suppliers’ cost structures as well, thus strengthening roasters’ bargaining power and ability to extract value in higher-margin markets.

In other words, the potential held by specialty coffee, indications of geographic origin, sustainability certifications and direct trade to tilt the balance of power in the coffee value chain towards producers has been tamed. This is casting doubts on whether specialization in differentiated coffees allows for sustained shifts in the socio-spatial distribution of value and risk. In sum, we find new dependency relationships emerging, which are closely linked to Northern-dominated quality conventions.

At the same time, and despite the widespread dismantling of coffee institutions, several important countries have bolstered their institutional power by supporting their coffee value chains through enforceable (Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire) or suggested (Brazil) minimum prices for export contracts. Some countries still operate export auctions (Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia) and regulate export quality and/or require licenses for exporters. Several other support mechanisms are being applied, such as price stabilization funds, disease prevention support and producer income assistance, support for the development of geographic indications, and programs targeting climate change adaptation and improvements in quality and sustainability. These steps thus have helped to curtail some of the power otherwise exercised by large-scale traders and roasters through public intervention. This slow renaissance of institutional involvement and power in the coffee value chain culminated in the 2017 World Coffee Producers’ Forum, convened by the Colombian Federation of Coffee Producers, which openly discussed the inadequacy of current market-based price discovery mechanisms in generating prices that cover producers’ production costs, and called for an investigation of price and cost trends – along with the determination of a sustainable minimum price. Industry insiders see these steps as possible precursors to renewed attempts to align producing country strategies, especially as production is getting increasingly concentrated in three origins (Colombia, Brazil, and Vietnam).

In sum, although recent changes in the coffee Global Value Chains (GVC) toward a more heterogeneous and stratified product portfolio may have lent some power to producing country actors, particularly when proposing new specialty coffees, the overwhelming tendency in current re-consolidation efforts is one where large disparities in bargaining power persist – translating also into buyers being able to impose increasingly stringent terms onto their suppliers (in some cases, roasters’ payment terms to traders increased from 30 to 180 days). The simultaneous but partial renaissance of producing-country institutional power, and through unilateral and incipient multilateral means (e.g. the World Coffee Producers’ Forum), constitutes an important effort for addressing unequal exchange. However, as the experience of the International Coffee Agreement has shown, such efforts frequently face collective action, free-rider, and rent-seeking problems. [I owe many of these insights to Janina Grabs, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Münster – see also Grabs and Ponte, 2019 ]

Quiñones Ruiz: In the EC, conventions are understood as interpretative frames on how to handle institutions (e.g. rules, practices) in situations of coordination. Could you tell us how EC has been beneficial to your research work so far, especially in the coffee sector?

Ponte: EC was absolutely essential in my research for understanding how negotiations over quality along the coffee value chains shaped power relations, the governance of the value chain and associated distributional outcomes. This showed that critiques of EC focusing on its purported lack of attention for power relations were misplaced. I found EC extremely useful in addressing key issues in international political economy. Engaging with EC, first through quality conventions and the work of Eymard-Duvernay, and later more broadly in relation to the pragmatic sociology of Thévenot, allowed me to examined power relations along value chains in a much more nuanced way than in mainstream political economy approaches. This was the case not only in relation to my work on the coffee industry, but also in other empirical settings (e.g. wine, seafood and other agro-food products). Theoretically, it has been the very base for my current work with Mark Dallas and Timothy Sturgeon that seeks to provide a typology of power in global value chains which can be used to unpack not only bargaining relations or institutional settings, but also what we call “demonstrative” and “constitutive” power. These two forms of power are closely related to some of the insights of EC. Finally, my recent book Business, Power and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains (2019, Zed Books) builds upon these foundations.

Quiñones Ruiz: Would you say, that a country such as Colombia, where the coffee sector is heavily regulated in terms of quality control, origin, minimum prices (i.e. by developing own quality standards, geographical indications, trademarks, Juan Valdez coffee shops outside Colombia, garantía de compra, etc …), combines several conventions, for instance domestic but also market and industrial conventions? Could you elaborate on this? And even with these conventions put in place why the situation of producers does not improve? One of the possible explanations is that producers still sell mainly green coffee (material quality)?

Ponte: Well, Colombia has actually done a lot more than other countries to create and control value domestically / for farmers and their institutions. The Juan Valdez coffee shop chain is one example, and efforts to defend and manage the “Café de Colombia” denomination have been quite important. However, there has been much less effort done to develop more local and specific indications of geographic origin – actually Peru and Guatemala, for example, have been more advanced than Colombia. But even with these in mind, the fact that the coffee industry has gone through a period of re-consolidation with mainstream roasters buying formerly-known as specialty or “independent” roasters is not a good sign. In the period before the current one (see above), with increasing fragmentation we did see both increases in international market prices and in returns to farmers (but usually those who are more advanced and/or are part of more sophisticated cooperatives).

Quiñones Ruiz: Sometimes I feel a bit disappointed by the fact that the green convention is disregarded by important coffee stakeholders with explanations concerning low productivity, lower incomes, “if producers do not get well-paid, they would not take care of the environment”, etc. However, without soil, water, natural resources; changing climate conditions, producers would not be able to produce coffee and consumers would hardly find a cup of coffee …. What is your opinion on this?

Ponte: Climate change is a real threat, and roasters are indeed very worried about future sources of coffee, especially Colombian-type Arabicas. At the same time, though, they continue to squeeze margins and increase payment terms to international traders (now up to 180 days for some!). So on one hand they know they need to pay better prices, but on the other they continue to take short-term profit maximization approach, which will create further problems down the road. This is really a conundrum, as these roasters at the same time engage in all these “development projects” that are framed as “Corporate Social Responsibility” or “helping farmers” but are really investments in minimizing strategic origin supply risk.

Quiñones Ruiz: Additionally, to what extent should our desire to consume quality coffee (mild washed Arabica) only be the result of a washed production method?

Ponte: I do not see much potential in other places (meaning outside of Ethiopia) or beyond very small niches. Properly washed Arabica is still the top processing method. Drinking straight Ethiopian naturals requires quite an adjustment of taste, and very often they are best mixed with washed Arabicas in high-end espresso blends (instead of Robusta)

Quiñones Ruiz: In addition to the three quality types as clearly illustrated in The Coffee Paradox, that is, material, symbolic and in-person service, a) do you think that a new type of quality can be included, namely, a kind of origin/social quality describing the roasting of green coffee at origin by producers (e.g. themselves with own/collective brands or by contracting the services of local roasters)? or b) this does not make any sense?, or c) should it be added to the already symbolic category?

Ponte: Another very good set of questions! I have been reluctant to engage in adding a new category of quality convention (green) in the past, despite many others having actually made an argument for it (including Bruno Latour). I think that what has been happening in the past few years, and especially with the setting of the Sustainable Development Goals, made me change my mind. I am now thinking that environmental issues have their own special place, not only as a sub-category of “symbolic” quality, but rather as a category on their own, as they being in hybrid physical/symbolic elements at play.

Quiñones Ruiz: Now, I pose these questions because for the proposed symbolic quality it is assumed that this happens in the North (main consuming countries). Despite the relatively recent booming of local markets for specialty coffee in the producing countries, it is well-known the little know-how and lack of facilities and machineries/technology to roast at origin. (By the way, we in the South do not truly drink coffee, only recently this trend has started!) I have asked some third-wave roasters about buying roasted coffee at origin, the usual answers are: the quality is not good/I am roaster of specialty coffee/at origin, they do not know how to roast/producers should “specialize” in producing good [material] quality.

Ponte: I think that the trend of coffee consumption in the Global South is strong and very important, not only in producing countries, but also in emerging markets such as China. In these two segments, the strategies for value addition will probably be quite different. In producing countries, it will probably involve a better approach to roasting and consumption experience, which has been there in Brazil and Ethiopia all along, but not so much in other locations. In non-producer emerging economies, there will be a bifurcated approach I think: low-end cheap coffee (mainly Robusta) and very-high end consumption patterns that may reflect the Chinese craze for top-top quality (e.g. in the wine sector). I think delivering material quality remains important, but symbolic and indeed green content will become increasingly central for value addition and capture.

Quiñones Ruiz:  A way to “cultivate” consumers (at origin and abroad) might be by proposing a kind of origin/social quality that goes beyond taste – or cupping as one of the coordination devices for quality –, but proposing a way (alternative) to trigger a fair value distribution and acknowledgment (i.e. of the hard work done represented in a product), not only based on export but also in local markets? Here again your argument concerning the massive investments and capital flows of the big fishes in the coffee industry, right?

Ponte: Cupping at origin is still very important, and the Cup of Excellence competitions have shown that it can pay off handsomely for those producers and cooperatives who have invested in this learning trajectory. But it will have still to be accompanied by major strides in adding symbolic/green content at origin and promote/control it throughout the value chain.



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