Irina Wais and Patricia Stöckli (University of Lucerne)
On the occasion of the Colloquium on Social Research at the University of Lucerne (Switzerland), which took place in two-hour sessions spread over the fall semester of 2022. The colloquium was organized by Prof. Dr. Rainer Diaz-Bone and Guy Schwegler. Six lectures mainly related to the economics and sociology of conventions (EC/SC) were presented.
The first lecture was given by Jürg Huber from the Hochschule Lucerne on «Strategien zur Bewältigung heterogener Textkorpora in einem vertrauten Feld: Beispiele aus einer Diskursanalyse zum schulischen Musikunterricht» [Strategies for coping with heterogeneous text corpora in a familiar field: examples from a discourse analysis on school music teaching]. Followed by two presentations from France by Prof. Dr. Guillemette de Larquier from the University of Lille (CLERSÉ) on “The substance of conventions in economics (of convention)” and Prof. Dr. Philippe Batifoulier from the University of Paris 13 (CEPN= on “Covid crisis, mainstream economics and economics of conventions”. This was followed by a presentation from Germany with Dr. Sarah Lenz from the University of Hamburg on «Moral infrastructures of digital economy. Wie die Tech-Industrie die Klimakrise lösen will» [How the tech industry wants to solve the climate crisis]. The colloquium was concluded with two Swiss presentations. On the one hand, Prof. Dr. Marion Schulze and Prof. Dr. Alain Müller from the University of Basel with the topic «Durch Materialitäten denken» [Thinking through materialities] and on the other hand with Valeska Cappel from our home university Lucerne on «Digitale Gesundheit: Klassifizierung und klassifizieren von Gesundheit mittels Gesundheits-Apps» [Digital health: classifying and categorizing health using health apps.]. The lectures took place partly at the University of Lucerne and partly online via Zoom.
Convention theory wants to answer the question how the world is looked at. Depending on the field, there are different conventions. In the case of industrial convention, for example, there is standardization and efficiency. The discipline originated in France, particularly in economic sociology and socioeconomics. Today, the theory of conventions is applied in various social science research areas. This is made possible by the transdisciplinarity of the approach.
On September 21, 2022 Jürg Huber presented his research on «Strategien zur Bewältigung heterogener Textkorpora in einem vertrauten Feld: Beispiele aus einer Diskursanalyse zum schulischen Musikunterricht». This session presented how the discipline of music education reflects about its strategies of music teachers traing in relation to the schools and in relation to the music education as a science.
On October 5, 2022, Guillemette de Larquier gave a presentation on the substance of convention in the Economics of Convention. Like convention theory, economics starts from four general features: Conventions serve to coordinate between actors, they involve regularities in behavior, they are arbitrary, and they are responses to uncertainty. For economists, this raises three questions: what kind of uncertainty is involved in coordination? What kind of rationality do individuals use? On what kind of normativity are conventions based?
For the game theory philosopher David Lewis (Convention, 1969), a convention is an arbitrary, self-sustaining solution to a recurrent coordination problem. Following a convention Lewis describes as a social process of equilibrium selection is where a convention acts as a solution. For Lewis, a convention is self-sustaining. Although conventions are neither legal nor contractual, there is no reason for actors to deviate from it when others conform to it. Conventions set priorities, which may be determined by cultural, cognitive, or biological factors, and facilitate coordination when rational considerations are insufficient. In doing so, actors always reason in terms of the past: they adhere to a convention because they have already adhered to it in previous situations and this has always been the best decision. The actors thus make use of a bounded but calculated rationality. Regarding normativity, the question is whether the convention as a solution is a good (efficient) solution. According to H. Peyton Young, conventions can promote economic welfare because conventions reduce transaction costs by coordinating expectations and reducing uncertainty. On the assumption that a convention is good per se, Young advises cautious optimism. We perceive giving a pregnant woman a seat as a “good” convention. Some time ago, however, blacks in the U.S. had to give up their seats to whites. Young points out that conventions are not always for the common good of all. This is because people can also follow “bad” conventions, since the only “normativity” of a convention lies in its self-reinforcement.
According to economist John Maynard Keynes (The general theory of employment, interest, and money, 1936), the financial investment market is characterized by a radical uncertainty problem arising from the future value of an investment. This problem of valuation in a situation of uncertainty is what Keynes calls speculation. Market value would thus be a self-referential mechanism based on what everyone thinks, what others think, what others think, and so on.
To stop this speculative spiral, there are conventions, such as the assumption that the price tomorrow is likely to be what it was today and what it was yesterday. Although this conventional way of valuing the market does not provide a sufficient basis for a calculated mathematical expectation, as long as the parties involved rely on maintaining the convention, it confers a sufficient degree of stability and continuity. Thus, it is more reasonable to discontinue calculations and follow a convention instead.
The (original French) economics and sociology of conventions enriches convention theory with further insights, such as the recognition that there is a plurality of forms of valuation and action. Uncertainty arises from this plurality of existing conventions. Viewing rationality as interpretive, the French economy of convention assumes that actors have a judgmental capacity about what is appropriate and what is not. Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot (On justification, 2006) emphasize that each convention, described as a value order, corresponds to a particular form of coordination and a particular conception of value. Each convention is thus associated with an evaluation of the good functioning of the collective (common good). In this way, a convention that is perceived as “bad” can be criticized and still remain in place because it is not an arbitrary solution, but a convention.
Prof. Dr. Philipp Batifoulier’s presentation on October 19, 2022, entitled “Covid crisis, mainstream economics and economics of conventions” demonstrated the importance and ubiquity of values in healthcare. For example, every medical profession has a professional ethic based on a “deontological code” that defines the ethical stance to be followed. This is in stark contrast to the notion of mainstream health economics (MHE), which reduces every conceivable behavior to the logic of homo economicus. However, the goal of a physician is not merely his self-interest, but also his professional commitment and the well-being of his patients. MHE, which is primarily concerned with economic and financial dimensions, makes values a question of efficiency – in the sense of “your money or your life”.
To capture the prevailing diversity of values in health care in terms of convention theory, Batifoulier draws on “framework of orders of justification” by Boltanski and Thévenot (2006), which understands orders of value as models of valuation to assign value to people and things. In the field of health care, Batifoulier distinguishes six orders of value: the market order (competition, favorability, value for money), the civic order (welfare, solidarity, public access), the industrial order (efficiency and performance enhancement), the domestic order (proximity, neighborhood, tradition), the opinion fame order (popularity, public recognition, audience), and the inspired order (research, innovation, creativity). What is a good doctor or a good hospital can be justified from this perspective in different ways, depending on the value order chosen. Quality depends on conventions and is based on the values that a particular community holds for the common good of its members.
Using the example of hospital reforms in Western countries, Batifoulier illustrated this plurality of values. While these reforms are based on an industrial quality convention that has justified, among other things, the regrouping of and closure of local hospitals, patients place more value on home-based quality, that is, on high-quality care that is accessible in time and space. Patients even oppose these reforms in the name of industrial quality if it makes access to care more difficult.
Batifoulier’s analysis also focuses specifically on the processes of valorization/devalorization. The power structure and health policy prescribe value orders by defining what is more and what is less valuable – they valorize and devalorize. The dominance of certain conventions/qualities thus reflects prevailing power relations. Actors who possess the “power of valorization” determine which convention/quality is preferred. In the health sector, this power of valorization belongs to politicians and the health bureaucracy, which valorize market quality: Health care must therefore be cost-effective, and a “good” hospital physician should be both a qualified medical professional and a professional who makes money for the hospital.
The COVID-19 crisis makes visible developments and problems that often remained veiled in the ordinary situation. The crisis has reminded us that humans are mortal. Unlike homo economicus, the individual suffers and is often particularly helpless and weakened in the face of illness. A dogmatic position on values, as the MHE does, cannot be used to understand the COVID-19 crisis. The EC/SC, on the other hand, insists on the empirical reality of a plurality of values. This was extremely important in mastering the crisis. If a single mode of coordination (or quality convention) had been assumed, the crisis would have been even greater. Nurses represented different values, and mastering such a crisis also meant appealing to a plurality of values. The COVID-19 crisis is thus also a crisis of collective forms of coordination, interpretation, and evaluation.
In conclusion, Batifoulier emphasized that an analysis of health policy should always be value-based, and the EC/SC provides a helpful framework for this. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how critique from a health-preferred perspective, can bring economic activity to a halt. Convention theorists can examine whether health capitalism takes this critique and adapts by emphasizing concern for the self and the healthy body.
On November 2, 2022, Dr. Sarah Lenz presented her research on site, “Moral infrastructures of digital economy. Wie die Tech-Industrie die Klimakrise lösen will”.
In her research, Sarah Lenz links the theory of social worlds and arenas with the economics and sociology of conventions (EC/SC) in order to sociologically grasp the relationship between the transformational dynamics of digitalization and sustainability. Her guiding question is thus: How do societies respond to such challenges?
To begin, Lenz described the legitimation crises of digital and ecological modernization. Both the ecological critique and the call for democratic digitalization have been around since the 1990s; both visions are grounded in perspectives critical of capitalism, deal with issues of inclusion, and are more necessary today than ever. The vision of democratic digitization, for example, has not only failed to materialize, but has even taken an opposite direction. Commercialization, monopolization and surveillance are central elements of the new digital world.
With regard to the present, Lenz emphasized the simultaneity of both crises. The crisis of sustainability and digitalization are interrelated. On the one hand, digital technologies have a major impact on the climate crisis. Besides the high energy consumption, the production of digital technologies, such as the production of smartphones, consumes valuable natural resources (“precious earths”). On the other hand, digital technologies are also seen as having potential for combating the climate crisis, in the form of “environmental monitoring”. This raises the question of whether digital technologies promote or impede the implementation of sustainability goals. Whether digital technologies are considered sustainable is subject not least to the interpretative sovereignty of the IT industry. In this context, Lenz also focuses on forms of power and inequality that result from the interaction of both transformation dynamics.
Methodologically, Lenz is guided by the Grounded Theory situation analysis according to Adele Clarke. The situation to be analyzed, the relationship between digitalization and sustainability, involves individual and collective action and is characterized by radical uncertainty as well as different normative reference points – hence the link to the sociology of conventions. The basic idea is to link the EC/SC approach with the concept of social worlds, with the idea of a sociology in crisis mode. According to Lenz, one challenge that might arise from this is based on the fact that EC/SC focuses more on static states, while Lenz’s research interest is in transformational dynamics.
With the concept of boundary objects, Lenz wants to connect EC/SC with the study of social worlds. This is because boundary objects enable coordination between different worlds. From a pragmatic perspective, Lenz wants to ground EC/SC materially with the help of boundary objects. As boundary objects, Lenz considers models, theories, global standards, or climate networks that mediate the interface of the social world of digitalization and the social world of sustainability.
A key boundary object is the “Action Plan for a sustainable Planet in the digital age”. This Action Plan has three concerns. First, a change in values and norms, such as breaking away from profit orientation. Second, sustainable digitization and third, the promotion of sustainable digital innovations.
On November 23, 2022, Prof. Dr. Marion Schulze and Prof. Dr. Alain Müller gave a lecture on «Durch Materialitäten denken».
Schulze and Müller presented their research individually, but emphasized that they are “materially” interwoven. Both researches are an attempt to reunite social scientific thinking on the question of materialities. Methodologically, they use recursive heuristics to think social scientific thinking from artisanal expertise and practices.
Müller’s research explores the question of realism in the practice of constructing mountain reliefs. Thus, he argues, a successful relief looks confusingly similar to the real mountain, in the sense of a parallel shift between the model and the copy. Theoretically, Müller draws heavily on Bruno Latour.
Müller has also noted the central importance of this reference to reality among the authors and readers of “realistic” Franco-Belgian comics. There is a strong expectation that the drawings faithfully reflect reality. At the same time, the community also accepts a certain degree of creative and artistic representation. Müller wonders what conventions are maintained in the negotiation of this tension in the community.
As an anthropologist of science, Müller’s methodological approach is ethnographic. On the grounds that ethnography emerged under the influence of realist literature and is thus in a realist tradition. Furthermore, ethnography focuses on matter and locally situated practices, which is why this method lends itself to the practice of relief construction. In his fieldwork, Müller visited Hugo Lienhard’s workshop for mountain reliefs and used the method of photo-ethnography. He asked himself what rhetoric Hugo Lienhard used in the process of making reliefs to capture the process from model to likeness.
Müller related that Hugo Lienhard always walks off the mountain to be depicted in advance in order to “feel” and experience it. In the subsequent construction process, however, it is only about the mountain and aesthetic or energetic aspects have to be left out. For Müller, this raises the question of how plural realities are represented as singular realities.
Schulze’s research is to be placed in the field of gender studies. She is interested in “doing weaving,” practices of weaving in the genealogy of feminism. Schulze shows how weaving comes to be used in different feminist practices.
The last talk was given by Valeska Cappel on December 7, 2022, on the topic of digital health, «Digitale Gesundheit: Klassifizierung und klassifizieren von Gesundheit mittels Gesundheits-Apps».
Valeska Cappels’s ongoing research aims to find out to what extent health classifications are changing and how the operationalization of health happens. Compared to the past, today health is dealt with in a preventive way, this change happened through digitalization and the accompanying health apps. The core question of the research is how do the users deal with the concepts of health apps? After all, health can be viewed from different “convention views” and thus approached differently accordingly. The current state of research at the talk we heard was that there are three ideal types of health app users. The balanced, the subjected, and the misappropriated. The balanced have knowledge of health themselves and use the apps to reflect that knowledge. The subjected have their behavior influenced by these apps. The misappropriated used the apps but without a specific goal.