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“Expropriation by Law”: On the Financialization of Intellectual Property Rights and the Effects on Labor, Creativity and Value

Interview with Christian Bessy

By Simon Schrör (Weizenbaum Institute, Berlin)

Christian Bessy is CNRS-researcher at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS) at Paris-Saclay and works at the laboratory “Institutions and historical dynamics of economy and Society” (Institutions et dynamiques historiques de l’économie et de la société, IDHE.S), of which he is assistant director.

Christian Bessy

He belongs to the French approach of the economics of conventions (in short EC) and has written many articles and five books: “Les licenciements économiques. Entre la loi et le marché” (1993), “Experts et faussaires. Pour une sociologie de la perception” (together with Francis Chateauraynaud, 1995), “La contractualisation de la relation de travail” (2007), “L’organisation des activités des avocats” (2015), and “L’expropriation par le droit. Propriété intellectuelle, valeur, travail“ (2022).

Bessy also has co-edited five books : “Les intermédiaires du marché du travail” (together with François Eymard-Duvernay 1997), “Des marchés du travail équitables? Approche comparative France/Royaume-Uni” (together with François Eymard-Duvernay, Guillemette de Larquier and Emmanuelle Marchal, 2001) and “Droit et régulations des activités économiques et institutionalistes” (together with Thierry Delpeuch and Jérôme Pelisse, 2011), “Les biens communs en perspectives” (together with Michel Margairaz, 2021), “L’économie est une science réflexive (in tribute to Robert Salais)” (together with Claude Didry, 2023).

The recent publication of his latest book, “Expropriation by Law. Intellectual Property, Value and Labor” is the occasion for this interview about his work and the long-term developments in his field of research. The interview was conducted via email exchange between January and February 2024.

SSc:  Your new book is entitled “Expropriation by Law”. How did you get the idea to write this book?

CB:   This book is the translation of my French 2022 book “L’expropriation par le droit” with a few additions to make it readable for an international audience. It represents over 30 years of research, which began with the study of counterfeiting cases with my sociologist colleague Francis Chateauraynaud (EHESS) from the point of view of expertise capacities that these affairs presuppose (Bessy and Chateauraynaud, 1995). Afterward, I delved deeper by studying the collective management of intellectual property rights, in short IPRs (Brousseau and Bessy, 2006), particularly through the practices of licensing technology agreements (Bessy and Brousseau, 1998). My work in the early 2010s on the role of lawyers in the definition of law and the emergence of highly profitable law firms specializing in IPRs led me to question the way in which they participated in their financial valorization, constructing them as a new asset class that could be traded on a market. The rampant financialization of IPR in the contemporary era will have consequences for the allocation of these rights, generating increasing litigation, particularly within companies. It is this chain of events that my book seeks to analyze, using a database of court cases and interviews with legal professionals in the field. It’s a project that I had put off for a while, and it was the period of confinement that gave me the availability I needed to find this thread of “expropriation by law”, by cross-referencing virtually all my previous research.

SSc: You mentioned the rampant financialization IPR and brought up the role of actors like lawyers. Looking back on the developments in the IP-driven sector over the last 30 years. How was it possible to implement and stabilize such changes?

CB:   Our analytical framework shows different conventions for valorization IPRs and their synergy over time, making patents into negotiable assets. The market for patents nonetheless is not developing on a large scale and testifies to the failure of modern finance, as we have shown using the example of Silicon Valley and the key role of new patent intermediaries who have allied themselves with financiers. Nonetheless, it’s a market that’s developing with the strengthening and development of IPR on other objects, as well as companies’ open innovation strategies. This financialization of IPR can be explained by institutional factors and corporate strategies, particularly in the new information and communication technologies.
But the whole thesis of this book is that, far from playing a passive role, IP attorneys play a decisive role in shaping policy and its globalization by contributing to strong inequalities between firms, between countries and between workers. Katherina Pistor (2019) has clearly highlighted how global lawyers, with their codifying engineering of know-how, create exclusive, sustainable, universal, and convertible capital, to the benefit of companies and often against nation states. In this way, they participate in a veritable global legal industry, which is highly prized by investment funds. The success of this IP market is based more on the collective belief in the value of IPRs than on their intrinsic qualities.

SSc: Before talking more about the role of these intermediaries, can you describe the sectors and the kinds of IPs, that are particularly relevant nowadays?

CB:   In the book, we use patent law as a starting point, since this is the field we began to investigate and in which financialization began very early on, calling into question the way patent offices operate. Although the focus is on patent rights, our analysis applies to all IPRs, in particular to copyright, the economic stakes of which have become increasingly important with the development of cultural industries following an entrepreneurial logic and predatory behavior. Moreover, many objects that were protected by other IPRs, such as software, perfumes, or recipes, are now protected, under certain conditions, by the patent. In addition, the criteria of patentability, such as novelty and inventiveness, are penetrating the jurisprudence concerning copyright, leading to the introduction of an economic logic that is more and more prevalent in IPRs. Finally, lawyers and counsels in different areas of IP law are grouping together in the same firms, with the added bonus of their concentration within the same geographical jurisdiction that deals with litigation in this area. Finally, European law is evolving in an identical way on all IPRs, with the emergence of an intellectual property market that is more and more attractive to investors that finance law firms and IP brokers.

SSc: In “Expropriation by Law”, so-called legal intermediaries play a central role – you already mentioned IP lawyers. Can you give a brief overview of these intermediaries and describe why they are so important?

CB: We distinguish between different legal intermediaries and analyze their transformation, in particular through the evolution of IPR valuation and attribution conventions that they help to define and disseminate. We mention the decisive role played by patent office examiners and judges in defining patentability criteria in each technological field.
But our focus is on patent attorneys, who play an important mediation role in the institutionalization of rights. They connect different levels and tailor legal statements to the specific needs of industries, particularly in terms of patentability and the appropriation of knowledge. Mobilizing both their legal skills and their knowledge of markets, these legal intermediaries develop models of compliance with the law that minimize companies’ risk of litigation. Like any legal intermediary (Bessy et al., 2011), they can also fulfill a purely strategic role by taking advantage of a system flaw, which subsequently raises the question of their regulation. Nevertheless, they are able to capture this regulation by lobbying, particularly the global lawyers at European level. The power of legal intermediaries contributes to renewing the vision of capitalist development by raising this group of actors to the level of financiers, with whom they maintain privileged relations, and of innovative entrepreneurs, whom they confirm in their superior status.

SSc: This sounds like lawyers – with their structural connection to financiers – utilize their legal strategies to also impact the value of assets. How are the construction of the value of things and their legal assessment entangled?

CB:  I think we need to distinguish between two levels. At the global level, how IP lawyers have contributed to making IPRs tradable assets on a market through a series of “investments in forms” (Thévenot, 2024), and how in a particular case they will fight to defend the value of a title or the recognition of a particular right, such as the fact that know-how will be protected with reference to a patent or copyright, thus aiming to increase its economic value.
The emphasis in this book is first on their contribution to the social construction of the value of IPRs, even if an individual intellectual property title may have no value at all. The central idea we combat is that this economic value, the price, would be determined on a market with reference to “fundamentals”. Yet despite the normative proposals of certain economists to create a market for patents, attempts to organize auctions, for example, have ended in failure. The market for patents only operates on a small scale, and essentially by mutual agreement. Yet IP lawyers, as a professional group, have done everything upstream to reduce uncertainty about the legal value of titles, as illustrated in recent years by the construction of a European patent law by these lawyers and patent office judges. In particular, the creation of a specialized patent court (European unified jurisdiction) similar to the one in the United States (Chapter 5 of the book).

SSc: Even if, or maybe because, the market for patents is not functional, it has created a number of new intermediaries that exploit the system. Especially when it comes to holders of IP-Portfolios, where you distinguish between defensive and offensive patent aggregators. What makes the latter offensive, or even aggressive?

CB:   These new intermediaries acquire patent portfolios either to secure them or, on the contrary, to search for infringements. Based on the American case, an author such as Allen Wang (2010) distinguishes between “defensive patent aggregators,” who license their patent portfolios in complete security to subscribers, and “offensive patent aggregators,” who also seek to provoke infringement situations in order to make money, like the famous patent trolls. It is, in fact, to counteract this strategic use of the patent system that the first ones appeared, thus increasing the potential of the IP market. These defensive patent aggregators are similar to the intermediary organizations that collectively manage patent licenses, since they deal with the use authorization, control use of the license, the collection of royalties, and the settlement of disputes. The difference lies in the fact that they are real companies driven by a profit logic and not professional associations based on the pooling of resources, as are societies of authors (Brousseau and Bessy, 2006).
So, these new “players” pose a problem of competition with traditional IP intermediaries. They pursue private goals that do not contribute to the advancement of public knowledge. If some of them contribute to the fluidity of the market for patented technologies, the offensive aggregators are more at odds with the objective of the patent system, which is to encourage innovation.

SSc: You address the tension between different justifications of intellectual property. Private pursuit of profit versus public knowledge and resources. Are there actors or intermediaries in this system who defend and uphold the latter, civic idea of IP?

CB:   All the legal intermediaries we have analyzed (patent attorneys, examiners, and office judges) do not always make strategic use of the law, and therefore converge on what makes a “good patent” and promote the construction of a public domain. Schematically, they seek to ensure that the allocation of IPRs is proportional to investment in creative activities. Or they promote the creation of knowledge commons, or combat inequalities in the attribution of IPRs, particularly within companies or in asymmetrical subcontracting relationships.

SSc: To conclude the area of financialization and legal intermediaries: What role has the rise of tech companies like Google, Apple, or Meta played in the global IP system? These companies have enormous financial resources and concentrate a large potential for innovation.

CB:   The economists Cecilia Rikap and Bengt-Åke Lundvall (2020) have developed the notion of a “Corporate Innovative System” to account for the predation of knowledge by multinational companies, such as the GAFAs, on the ecosystem of SMEs that they dominate and that has gradually aggregated to initially form a global knowledge common. The success of these “big tech” companies is based on IPR and strategic acquisitions, as Neil Fligstein (2001) has also highlighted. These big tech companies share some projects with the open-source community by placing them on their development platform and taking ownership of some of the developments that are integrated into complex systems. Such an asymmetry of power exists not only in the pharmaceutical sector, but also, more generally, within each country, between large companies and SMEs rooted in territories and lacking the legal resources to protect their expertise.

SSc: Now the financialization is by far not the only area, where IPRs have an impact. What about the people who create the basis for what is protected in the end? E.g. the creatives, designers or developers. How is their situation affected?

CB:   The financialization of IPRs and their exchange on a market presupposes that their holders are not constrained by forms of co-ownership with those who are at the basis of the creation of these intangible assets, which presupposes that innovators or creators cede their rights, sometimes with monetary compensation, which they sometimes consider insufficient. This form of expropriation by law is then a source of disputes. It is the emergence and resolution of these disputes that we analyzed in the last two chapters 6 and 7 of the book.

SSc:  Chapter 6 is primarily concerned with court disputes over these issues of financial participation and expropriation. What did you find out about the system of court disputes on remuneration issues?

CB:   I long wanted to work on disputes over employee inventions, because I had learned that there was a National Conciliation Commission (Commission Nationale des Inventeurs Salariés in French, CNIS) that could help employees avoid going to court. Modeled on the German commission, it was created in France in 1978 to accompany the French politics of patent. It is made up of non-professional judges who represent different sectors of activity, and who therefore judge rather fairly (en équité in French), according to the conventions specific to the world of production.
We wanted to explore the functioning of this conciliation body from the perspective of the search for “good law” (bon droit in French) as a field of normativity that is an intermediary between positive law and practices within the company (Cottereau, 2002). This institution can be considered as a legal intermediary, articulating different sources of normativity and highlighting the importance of professional circles in the definition of work and employment rules. It allows for a final settlement of 80% of disputes. However, for reasons of confidentiality, we do not have access to the conciliation decisions of this commission. We have therefore fallen back on judicial decisions, which are more imbued with formalism. The fact remains that they are sufficiently detailed to fully understand the nature of the disputes and the characteristics of the parties.SSc:  Analyzing this empirically on a broad scale is a major undertaking. Can you elaborate a little on the methodological challenges that arose with the study?

CB:   The construction of our basis for judicial decisions was not easy because certain decisions are unique and pose a problem of equivalence (n=123, 2000-2018). In a first stage of exploitation of this database, we proceeded to a rather simple statistical coding (about 40 variables): the protagonists and the nature of the disputes, the characteristics of the companies and of the salaried inventors, the amounts of the remunerations or more generally of the compensations. The main objective is not to go back over the judgment criteria used by the judges, but to link the nature of the disputes to the characteristics of the actors involved in these disputes.
From these variables, we have built a statistical typology of cases around two axes. The first axis would reflect the degree of objectification of inventive missions and of the remuneration policy. The chances that the employee inventor will succeed in some of his claims before the court increase along this axis. The second axis opposes inventors according to their socio-professional category, in particular “engineers” in consulting and R&D activities, to “intermediate professions” working in consumer goods or other industries. Each class therefore refers to a world of production.
Thus, we were able to identify an important class of decisions where the dispute concerns the insufficiency of the additional remuneration, as illustrated by the cases of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Nevertheless, our typology of judgments reveals another important type of litigation, in particular in innovative SMEs where IP policies are less objectified and where the creators–founders of the start-up seek to fully appropriate the inventions.

SSc:  The analysis of the legal disputes reveals some of the disputes that creative workers have with their employers over the appropriation and ownership of creative results. What other forms and fields of conflict exist here?

CB:   In the last chapter of our work, we sought to give more extension to the processes of expropriation of workers’ know-how. In particular, by emphasizing the decline in forms of co-ownership of intangible assets, and therefore of “intellectual commons”. This decline is linked to the financialization of these assets and the development of a platform economy, modifying the forms of work organization. More generally, we question the attribution of IPR between those who design new products and those who produce them, knowing that traditionally, rights are more attributed to the former than to the latter. Following this perspective, we have distinguished different conventions for IPR attributions according to the worlds of production (Storper and Salais, 1997). In the so-called creative industries, we are witnessing a form of dualization between designers who are considered as artists giving a certain aura to things and, at the other end, forms of self-exploitation based on free work.

SSc:  Looking back on the entire book and its findings: How would you summarize what you have discovered about the interplay between labor, value, and intellectual property in general?

CB:   The challenge in this book has been to articulate two projects that I had initially conceived separately. A reflection on what makes patents valuable and the role of intermediaries in this valuation process. A study that I had put off for a long time on disputes regarding employee invention. It follows on from my previous work on the contractualization of the employment relationship (Bessy 2007), which began with an analysis of institutional transformations concerning the termination of the employment contract (Bessy 1993).
There was indeed the idea that the value achieved by certain patents could lead inventors to have a piece of the pie, but it was necessary to highlight a whole series of mediations to account for the two dimensions. In particular, we have shown the role played by patent attorneys in the legal security of titles and the limitation of forms of co-ownership. It is also important to underline their rather individualistic conception of innovation, particularly when they magnify the start-up model, which refers in a certain way to the initial revolutionary intellectual right based on individual genius.

SSc:  You mentioned that the book is also a review and summary of over thirty years of research into intellectual property. As retrospectives always define a starting point for something new: What plans do you have for further research and what unanswered questions have you identified?

CB:   We will continue to analyze the development of the intellectual property market, particularly through its extension to new objects (AI, genome) developed by start-ups. The idea would be to identify “varieties of capitalism” in this area and the role played by lawyers. But we began to explore the issue of IPRs in the world of design in which they play, as you know, a more and more important role (Bessy and Schrör, 2024). The recent trend is for designers’ lawyers to defend their work by relying on copyright, in particular by proposing narratives that mobilize the ‘collection form’ of valuing things (Boltanski and Esquerre, 2020). The development of geographical indications also goes in this valuation form. Another current research is to focus on the development of copyright (droit d’auteur in French) in terms of moral rights concerning respect for the integrity of works. A particular question is whether this right of preservation diminishes or not with different generations of rights holders.

The Book “Expropriation by Law. Intellectual Property, Value and Labor” has been published in February 2024 at Edward Elgar (Cheltenham, UK). 204 pages, ISBN: 9781035326143, DOI:  10.4337/9781035326150









  • Bessy, C. 1993, Les licenciements économiques. Entre la loi et le marché, Paris CNRS éditions.
  • Bessy, C., 2007, La contractualisation de la relation de travail, Paris: Ed. L.G.D.J., collection Droit et Société.
  • Bessy, C., 2015, L’organisation des activités des avocats, entre monopole et marché, Paris: Lextenso éditions, collection forum.
  • Bessy, C., 2022, L’expropriation par le droit. Propriété intellectuelle, valeur, travail, Paris: EHESS, series: “En temps & lieux”.
  • Bessy, C., 2024, Expropriation by Law. Intellectual Property, Value and Labor, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
  • Bessy, C. and F. Chateauraynaud, 1995, Experts et faussaires, pour une sociologie de la perception, Paris: Métailié.
  • Bessy, C. and F. Eymard-Duvernay (eds), 1997, Les intermédiaires du marché du travail. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Bessy, C and E. Brousseau, 1998, Licensing of technology: Various contracts for diverse transactions, International Review of Law and Economics, 18, 451–89.
  • Bessy, C., Eymard-Duvernay, F., G. de Larquier and E. Marchal (eds), 2001, Des marchés du travail équitables? Approche comparative France/Royaume-Uni, Brussels: PIE-Peter Lang.
  • Bessy, C., T. Delpeuch and J. Pélisse (eds), 2011, Droit et régulations des activités économiques: perspectives sociologiques et institutionnalistes, Paris: L.G.D.J. Lextenso éditions, collection Droit et Société.
  • Bessy, C. and M. Margairaz (eds), 2021, Les biens communs en perspectives – Propriété, travail, valeur, XVIIème–XXIème siècles, Paris: Editions de la Sorbonne.
  • Bessy, C. and C. Didry, 2023, Law in Convention Theory: Regulation in Regularities, in: R. Diaz-Bone and G.d. Larquier (eds), Handbook of Economics and Sociology of Conventions, Cham: Springer.
  • Bessy C. and S. Schrör, 2024, Creative labor, design and convention theory, in: R. Diaz-Bone and G.d. Larquier (eds), Handbook of Economics and Sociology of Conventions, Cham: Springer. (Forthcoming)
  • Boltanski, L. and A. Esquerre, 2020 (2017), Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities, Catherine Porter trans, Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Brousseau E. and C. Bessy, 2006, Public and Private Institutions in the Governance of Intellectual Property Rights, in B. Andersen (ed), Intellectual Property Rights: Innovation, Governance and the Institutional Environment, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 243–77.
  • Cottereau, A., 2002, Droit et bon droit: Un droit ouvrier instauré puis évincé par le droit du travail (France XIXè), Annales HSS, 6, 1521–57.
  • Fligstein, N., 2001, Le mythe du marché, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 139, 3–12.
  • Pistor, K., 2019, The Code of Capital: How Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Rikap, C. and B.-A. Lundvall, 2020, Big Tech, knowledge predation and the implications for development, Innovation and Development, 12(2), 1–28.
  • Storper, M. and R. Salais, 1997 (1993), Worlds of Production: The Action Frameworks of the Economy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Thévenot, L., 2024, Investments in Forms. Background and Continuing Developments, in: R. Diaz-Bone and G.d. Larquier (eds), Handbook of Economics and Sociology of Conventions, Cham: Springer. (Forthcoming)
  • Wang, A., 2010, Rise of the patent intermediaries, Berkeley Law Journal, 25(1), 159–200.

« Tout écrivain met en lumière des contradictions qui sont au principe d’un trouble collectif. » Entretien avec Luc Boltanski

“Every writer brings to light contradictions that belong to the roots of a collective trouble” Interview with Luc Boltanski

Interview de Luc Boltanski par Chloé Chaudet and Ivanne Rialland (2023)

Études de la littérature française des XXe et XXIe siècles, 12, Online.

Introduction. “Dans Énigmes et complots. Une enquête à propos d’enquêtes (Gallimard, 2012), le sociologue Luc Boltanski s’appuie sur des œuvres littéraires – romans policiers, romans d’espionnage – pour analyser les formes symboliques de l’enquête et du complot. Plus spécifiquement, il s’agit de montrer en quoi ces romans, à la fin du xixe siècle et dans la première moitié du xxe siècle, traduisent une inquiétude concernant « la réalité de la réalité » que le sociologue associe au développement de l’État-nation comme projet d’organisation du réel, et aux tensions que créent les logiques divergentes du capitalisme en expansion. Loin d’être un hapax dans l’œuvre du sociologue, Énigmes et complots trouve ses racines dans son étude du sens de la justice, ses prolongements dans l’analyse du fait d’actualité, et son fondement dans ses réflexions sur le rôle de la sociologie et du sociologue.”

Introduction. “In Énigmes et complots. Une enquête à propos d’enquêtes (Gallimard, 2012), sociologist Luc Boltanski uses literary works – detective novels, spy novels – to analyze the symbolic forms of investigation and conspiracy. More specifically, the aim is to show how these novels, at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, reflect a concern about “the reality of reality” that the sociologist associates with the development of the nation-state as a project for organizing reality, and with the tensions created by the divergent logics of expanding capitalism. Far from being a hapax in the sociologist’s oeuvre, Enigmas and Conspiracies finds its roots in his study of the meaning of justice, its extensions in the analysis of current events, and its foundation in his reflections on the role of sociology and the sociologist.”

From original institutionalism to the economics of conventions and Inventing Value: An interview with Dave Elder-Vass

Dave Elder-Vass & Jamie Morgan (2023)

real-world economics review, issue no. 105, pp. 87-110


JAMIE: In any case, we still haven’t said much about conventions theory so we should start to turn more explicitly to that. Who would you say have been the most prominent of the conventions theorists?

DAVE: Over the years prominent figures associated with the tradition include Alain Desrosières, Francois Eymard-Duvernay, Olivier Favereau, André Orléan, Robert Salais and Laurent Thévenot. But perhaps it would help to say a little about where conventions theory first came from. It originated in the 1980s when a group of French economic statisticians, partly under the influence of the sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu (so interdisciplinarity was baked in from the start), became critical of some of the positivist assumptions of traditional statistics (Desrosières 2011). Statistics were widely seen as objective neutral reflections of self-evident facts about the world. The conventions theorists, however, recognized that statistics reflected judgements about what should count and thus what should be counted, judgements about how to count, and in particular judgements about how to classify (or “qualify”) the things being counted. Once statistics had been produced in a particular way, this tended to embed and be perpetuated. Judgements were repeatedly re-used in further work and became stabilised as taken for granted assumptions. The conventions theorists took the essentially social constructionist view that these assumptions represented somewhat arbitrary choices, yet once made they became stabilised by social use, but those choices could have been made differently (Diaz-Bone and de Larquier 2020: 5–6). This core concept of conventions then came to be extended and applied in different contexts beyond statistics.

JAMIE: And, to reiterate, like any other approach conventions theory exhibits dispute and diversity…

DAVE: That’s right, and as a result the concept of a convention has been used in a variety of rather different ways in the tradition, making it difficult to provide a clear and unambiguous definition. Diaz-Bone and de Larquier, in the introduction to their Handbook of Economics and Sociology of Conventions (still under construction), describe them as “institutional logics for the valuation or valorization of goods, actions, and persons” (Diaz-Bone and de Larquier 2020: 1–2). That has the merit of being loose enough to accommodate the full range of cases, but at the inevitable cost of leaving it rather unclear what would count as a convention.

JAMIE: Still, before moving on to discuss your recent book Inventing Value and how it relates to conventions theory, it might be worth here just summarising what conventions theory “is”…

DAVE: Well, I can’t guarantee to be any more definitive than Diaz-Bone and de Larquier, but perhaps I can give a definition that complements theirs: conventions theory is a trans-disciplinary tradition that focuses on how stabilised shared understandings shape our classification, evaluation, and valuation practices and as a result influence our social interactions, including our economic interactions. In a sense it therefore provides a more socialised and realistic alternative to the mainstream view of decision-making as purely a process of the rational calculation of self-interest. So, for the statisticians for example, shared understandings of different classes of labour are employed to generate labour statistics. Or for Boltanski and Thevenot, shared understandings of standards of judgement are used to resolve social disputes. Or for André Orléan, shared understandings of how we should value financial assets, like Keynes’s conventions, shape outcomes in financial markets, which I hope we can discuss in more depth shortly. From a critical realist perspective, I would want to extend the argument a little further: we should see decision-making as multiply determined by many different causal mechanisms, so that a fully realistic account of it would take into account both conventions and rational calculation, but also other factors, such as the habits or dispositions we take for granted (as stressed by some institutionalists) and our emotional commitments.

JAMIE: When you first became interested in the subject of value, valuation and pricing was it immediately obvious that your work and conventions theory overlapped?

DAVE: No, it took me a while to realise (or perhaps decide?) that the work I was doing on value fell within the conventions tradition as well as the critical realist one. It had struck me that the concept of value, in the sense of the monetary value of assets and commodities, was central to the operation of our contemporary economy and yet it had almost disappeared from view, in the shadow of two enormously powerful misconceptions of value and its origins: the neoclassical sense of value as the equilibrium price of a good and the Marxist sense of value as a quantity of socially necessary labour power. I recognised that we only buy things because we ascribe value to them, and hence the commodity and asset economies depend utterly on the processes through which buyers (but also sellers) come to ascribe and quantify monetary value. But the Marxist analysis ignores that, and the neoclassical analysis collapses the whole question of the prices people are willing to pay to the exogenous preferences of buyers, thereby ignoring many of the most important factors that shape what prices people are willing to pay for things.

DAVE: […] One of the more important arguments I develop in Inventing Value is that valuation conventions, and value narratives that are used to connect individual assets and commodities to particular valuation conventions, are strongly shaped by deliberate discursive work, in particular work done by people I call value entrepreneurs (I mentioned this with the Snap example if you recall). Value entrepreneurs, usually operating on behalf of larger structures like corporations, actively seek to influence how the assets or commodities in which they have an interest are valued by influencing the discursive environment. The luxury goods industries, for example, have gradually but cumulatively built a sense that the goods they produce have status because they embody heritage and heritage should be valued – as Boltanski and Esquerre have argued in their recent work on enrichment (Boltanski and Esquerre 2020). One extraordinary example is the way in which the guitar company Fender, having recognised that worn guitars have a prestige arising from the sense that they have served expert players well for many years, have started to produce pre-damaged new guitars and sell them at a premium.

JAMIE: These are interesting examples, but they seem to rest on physical qualities of commodities. Your main focus though is financial assets…

DAVE: Because they don’t have clear material consequences for our well-being on which to hang valuations, conventions are even more significant for financial assets. Their value rests entirely on future revenue streams, which of course takes us back to your quote from Keynes. As Keynes said, financial valuations rest quite heavily on the thoroughly unreasonable expectation that things will continue as they are, and hence that future income streams can be taken as read for the purpose of valuing assets. But what does it mean for things to “continue as they are”? Does it mean, for example, that a stock will continue to yield the same percentage dividend indefinitely or perhaps that internet firms will be able to extract a certain number of dollars of advertising revenue per user per annum, or…? What versions of “continuing as they are” are going to be transformed into conventions, and which one of them (or which ones) is going to apply to any given asset? Each of these is a different way of imposing a sense of predictability on an inherently uncertain future, and the prices that can be achieved for financial assets are highly sensitive to which of them is applied. Just as in commodity exchange, firms have a powerful interest in influencing the conventions applied to assets and so engage in shaping value discourses. Financial value entrepreneurs are in the business of developing favourable conventions for the assets they are marketing and producing a sense that this is the natural and obvious way of valuing the assets concerned. But different conventions could have been applied, with the result that investors would have valued the assets concerned quite differently.

Download the full interview

“À vos marks! 1923, l’hyperinflation ruine l’Allemagne”

To your marks! 1923, hyperinflation ruins Germany

André Orléan & Marie-Bénédicte Vincent (2022)

Radio Podcast, France Culture, Radiofrance, 16/12/2022

Présentation. Allemagne, 1923. Face à l’augmentation effrénée des prix, l’État peine à imprimer suffisamment de monnaie pour répondre à la demande, l’opinion perd toute confiance dans le Papiermark, la famine menace, le pays semble au bord de la guerre civile. Que s’est-il donc passé pour en arriver là?

Presentation. Germany, 1923. Faced with skyrocketing prices, the state struggles to print enough money to meet demand, public opinion loses all confidence in the Papiermark, famine threatens, the country seems on the verge of civil war. What has happened to bring this about?

Lien / Link

Influence médiatique, médias sous influences. Entretien avec Luc Boltanski, Arnaud Esquerre et Julia Cagé

Media influence, media under influence. Interview with Luc Boltanski, Arnaud Esquerre and Julia Cagé

France Culture, 10/02/2022 (Podcast): 43 min

L’information comme élément majeur de la vie démocratique. Un point de départ pour un entretien entre deux sociologues et une économiste.

L’information, les médias et la politique. Le sujet n’est pas nouveau, on vous l’accorde. Mais il est évolutif. La confiance dans les médias est à la baisse, les phénomènes de concentration à l’aube d’une nouvelle hausse. Les spécialistes et analystes, eux, continuent de progresser dans leur compréhension des mécanismes et des relations qui unissent information et politisation, médias et pouvoir. Et en période de campagne électorale, il est attendu, normal et légitime que le rôle et la place de l’information soient observés avec plus d’acuité encore. Si l’influence médiatique dans la vie électorale est questionnée, pour beaucoup d’analystes, les médias continuent de co-produire un agenda, de co-hiérarchiser les questions débattues, et donc d’orienter et cadrer en grande partie l’attention publique. Pour les sociologues Luc Boltanski et Arnaud Esquerre, c’est bien par le truchement de l’actualité, quand elle vient se mêler à la réalité vécue, que les personnes se trouvent concernées par la politique. Leur étude d’un corpus basé sur les commentaires en ligne leur fait aussi dire que l’actualité politique, versée dans la conversation, est un important dispositif pour quiconque veut se lier, s’identifier ou se différencier. L’économiste Julia Cagé prend donc très au sérieux le sujet de l’information. Pour elle, il ne s’agit ni plus ni moins d’un bien public. Un bien public qu’il nécessite donc de penser la production, le modèle économique et la qualité.

Information as a major element of democratic life. A starting point for an interview between two sociologists and an economist.

Information, media and politics. The subject is not new, we grant you. But it is evolving. Trust in the media is on the decline, and the phenomena of concentration are on the verge of a new rise. Specialists and analysts, on the other hand, continue to make progress in their understanding of the mechanisms and relationships that link information and politicization, media and power. And in times of electoral campaign, it is expected, normal and legitimate that the role and place of information is observed with even more acuity. If the media’s influence in electoral life is questioned, for many analysts, the media continue to co-produce an agenda, to co-hierarchize the issues debated, and thus to orient and frame public attention to a large extent. For sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, it is indeed through the news, when it is mixed with lived reality, that people are affected by politics. Their study of a corpus based on online comments also tells them that political news, poured into the conversation, is an important device for anyone who wants to connect, identify or differentiate themselves. The economist Julia Cagé therefore takes the subject of information very seriously. For her, it is neither more nor less than a public good. A public good that it is therefore necessary to think about the production, the economic model and the quality.

Lien / Link

Worlds of Education: employing EC for studying schools, training, and higher education

Regula Julia Leemann and Christian Imdorf interviewed by Arne Böker and Kenneth Horvath

The field of education has played a crucial role for the German speaking reception of the Sociology of Conventions. Christian Imdorf and Regula Julia Leemann are key figures of this development. Christian is professor of sociology of education at the Leibniz University of Hannover (Germany), Regula holds a professorship at the University of Teacher Education FHNW and is adjunct professor at the Institute for Educational Sciences of the University of Basel (Switzerland). In the following interview – jointly conducted by Arne Böker (Institute for Higher Education Research, Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany) and Ken Horvath (University of Lucerne, Switzerland) – they share their views on the past, the present, and the future of interdisciplinary educational research that builds on French pragmatic sociology.



Arne Böker: You have both been active in promoting and applying the Sociology of Conventions to the German speaking social sciences and, more specifically, to the field of educational research. Could you tell us more about how this journey began for you?

Christian Imdorf: I caught the virus in 2004. Back then, I worked as a postdoc at the University of Fribourg (CH) and was involved in a research project (funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation / SNF) on apprenticeship recruitment processes. We wanted to understand how employers perceive and evaluate young applicants. Initially, I planned to use Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital as main theoretical resource for analyzing our interviews and field work data. But that proved overwhelming: In a way, everything that had been said and observed could be read as expressing “cultural capital”, it seemed impossible to further differentiate on this conceptual basis. I then talked to a colleague about these problems while we were traveling home from a summer school. He suggested I engage myself more closely with Luc Boltanski’s moral sociology which could help understand the varying criteria that employers use for evaluating candidates. I thus devoted some time to “The New Spirit of Capitalism” by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello. After that project had ended, I successfully applied for a mobility grant by the SNF which allowed me to re-analyze my empirical data on apprentice selection through the analytical lens of “orders of justification”. Franz Schultheis then proposed that I contact the Laboratoire d’Économie et de Sociologie du Travail (LEST), where I met Eric Verdier and also found time and space for studying Boltanski and Thévenot’s “On Justification” in detail. Following my time at LEST, I went to Glasgow where I finally had my first more extensive encounter with Regula.

Regula Julia Leemann: I was also doing research on vocational training – investigating “training networks” (called “Lehrbetriebs- oder Ausbildungsverbünde” in Switzerland and Germany), i.e. networks of companies that jointly train their apprentices. At that time, I had already read some of Christian’s work. When Christian did a sabbatical, I spent some time at the Center for Educational Sociology (CES) in Scotland in Edinburgh. After meeting in Glasgow and Edinburgh, we submitted a project proposal to the SNF that was first rejected but later accepted in revised form. This project inquired into selection and supervision processes in training networks from an EC perspective. The problem in the first application round was that there was virtually no one in the German speaking social sciences who had already worked with this theoretical framework. Neither could we cite any German sources on how to apply this framework to the field of education. When we started revising our funding application, first introductory texts and also first translations had appeared in German, on the initiative of Rainer Diaz-Bone. We ourselves had also published on the topic in the meanwhile. That was helpful for demonstrating that the theory we were talking about was actually known and helpful. During this time, we also put a focus on the sociology-of-organization aspects of our research phenomena. Our exchange with Lisa Knoll in the context of a contribution to an edited book on “organization and convention” (Knoll ) was very important in this regard. Lisa offered us a lot of feedback and helped to better link our theoretical framework with our research interests.

CI: I guess that was the moment when our in-depth involvement with the Sociology of Conventions really started. Before that, we had strongly focused our attention on the idea of orders of justification, leaving the rest of EC’s conceptual repertoire aside. In 2013 we also established links to Julia Brandl in Innsbruck with whom we shared an interest in the methodological implementation of EC concepts and ideas. Our regular EC workshop series evolved out of this context.

AB: What EC concepts were (and are) central for your research?

CI: At the beginning, I worked a lot with the concept of orders of justification. That theoretical framework proved practical for my secondary analysis, even if my empirical data had originally not been generated on the basis of EC notions. Orders of justification allowed to identify the actual and plural criteria mobilized to evaluate young human beings during application processes, and hence to fill a gap in the sociological study of discrimination in recruitment processes. Previously, discrimination had mainly been conceived of in economic terms, but the categories themselves on which these mechanisms relied, were never put into focus. It was all about the performance of students and the productivity of companies. Back then, I realized that this understanding was too narrow to accurately interpret the narratives in the interviews we had conducted with those responsible for recruitment in companies. The idea of orders of justification helped broaden and enhance our understanding of these actors’ accounts. Soon after, I discovered the concept of worlds for my research. I started to differentiate organizational contexts according to their anchoring in different worlds in which economic actors develop their understanding of situations and their strategies of handling them. On this basis I could ask how well potential new employees fit into the worlds that were of relevance in different company settings. All in all, that allowed to conceptualize recruitment processes in completely new terms. I also quickly realized that this novel understanding could not only be conveyed to other social scientists but could also be used in conversation with teacher trainees, students, professionals, and experts. I found it fascinating that a sociological theory can work productively for knowledge transfer. Of course, there were also people who found this perspective irritating. For example, I argued that what “merit” [“Leistung” in German] means differs between different worlds of education – among others I showed that this variety helps understand the justification of the negative selection of migrant pupils in educational transition processes. This thinking in worlds was, of course, strongly informed by the earlier work of Jean-Louis Derouet (1992).

RJL: In our project on training networks we mainly worked with the idea of varying logics of practice. Christian and I tried to understand how such complex organizations function and how and why ruptures and problems emerge in these collaborations. These networks are so complex that they could hardly be established as durable new model for vocational training. The concept of plural logics of practice helped understand how the management of such networks – which we interpreted in terms of intermediaries – needs to navigate between different logics, implying the constant task of finding compromises. The on-going emergence of problems and the subsequent search for solutions that are so typical for these network organizations could be described and understood very effectively with EC concepts. The next step for me together with Christian was a research project financed by the SNF on the institutionalization of the Swiss school form of “Fachmittelschule” which we investigated in a historical perspective, comparing and relating it to already established traditional institutions of upper secondary education. We focused on quality concepts to understand how the third educational pathway of “Fachmittelschulen” could be established in addition to the “Gymnasium” and classical vocational training, and looking at the disputes, conflicts, and compromises that this process entailed. At the moment, I am engaged in a new SNF research project together with two postdocs on educational governance, especially regarding the governing of transition processes in the federally organized Swiss school system. So far, these transitions have been mostly analyzed as individual educational trajectories. We know little about how these transitions in the different cantons are politically regulated and managed by actors on different levels of the education system. In this context, I realized that I had to put more emphasis on processes of quantification, as outlined in Desrosières` “Governing by Numbers”, since indicators and numbers are crucial instruments for the governance of education.

AB: You are also co-editors of a collected volume on EC in the field of education, published in 2019 (Imdorf et al., 2019). How did the idea for this publication project come up? What was your motivation, and what were your objectives with this ambitious publication project?

CI: Our focus on vocational training allowed us to promote EC ideas in Swiss educational research. When we met Philipp Gonon during a conference in Lille, we jointly decided to start the project of editing this volume for which Rainer Diaz-Bone and Lisa Knoll had invited us. We then organized a workshop for our prospective authors in Cologne and invited colleagues who already worked with conventionalist concepts and ideas. We also published an open Call for Papers and received promising proposals from various scholars in response. That was very interesting for us, because we saw that there were several colleagues in German educational research that worked on this theoretical basis than we had been aware of. Rainer Diaz-Bone proposed to also include French speaking authors. Of course, we were familiar with this idea of international exchange through the EC-Workshops, even if the French participants in these workshops had not come from the field of education. But we did already have first contacts to Eric Verdier, Jean-Louis Derouet and Elisabeth Chatel, who all later contributed to our collected volume.

RJL: As editors, we found it essential to support and guide our authors intensively throughout the process of writing and publication. We made many suggestions regarding concepts etc. Our authors were very open and thus the collaboration with them worked very well. A big piece of work for us as editors was subsequently the supervision and support of the externally organized translation from French to German.

CI: We demanded high standards of our own work as editors. Among others, we ourselves were eager to move beyond purely descriptive uses of concepts such as orders of justification. Hence, we also wished that our authors do more than just identify different worlds or orders. Rainer Diaz-Bone motivated and supported us in our attempt to move towards more explanatory modes of working with the Sociology of Conventions. The challenge when moving from descriptive to explanatory research is that one must take the underlying EC methodology seriously. Among others, that implies inquiring into everyday methods of knowledge production, of generating and employing data that themselves structure situational practices. To give an example, in research on recruitment processes a possible focus would be on formats of examination and testing. Who developed these tests? Who is in charge of them? Who implements them? I believe that this is one way of moving beyond a purely descriptive approach.

Ken Horvath: How did you experience the conditions of reception for EC-inspired research in the German speaking social sciences? And how, in turn, do you assess the role of educational research for the Sociology of Conventions in France?

CI: Research on school and education is a very wide and varied field. Regarding the sub-field of vocational training, my impression is that there is an increasing number of scholars and especially PhD students working with EC frameworks. During my stay at LEST I realized that it is a difficult endeavor to refer the works of Boltanski and Thévenot because their ideas were highly contested in the French sociology of education. In France, the dominant Bourdieusian school of thought is very skeptical of pragmatic sociology. That was an important experience – implying that it was actually easier in the German speaking social sciences to refer to these theories and to work creatively with them. In sum, I would therefore see the reception context in German countries as favorable, especially in younger fields such as vocational training in Switzerland. Vocational training is also an interesting case because it itself is a compromise between educational systems and the labor market. The Sociology of Conventions helps grasp this complexity and to differentiate this whole educational apparatus, e.g. regarding how different qualities of education are implemented and lived.

RJL: I served as a board member of the sociology-of-education research network of the German Sociological Association for quite a long time. This network was also very strongly dominated by orthodox Bourdieusian perspectives. One of my key objectives was to launch new themes and novel approaches into a field – for example the Sociology of Conventions, but also neo-institutionalism, systems theory etc. Today there is far more conceptual variety. However, there is still a very strong methodological divide. In particular scholars working quantitatively and with rational-choice frameworks are organized in their own circles. Sometimes they applied for events organized by the sociology-of-education network but were not invited. There just was and still is this very clear separation.

CI: In the meantime, I have become involved in the board of this network. My impression is that the board today is very open for quantitative research. We really do not want to reproduce this methodological cleavage that does not only pervade educational research but the whole German sociological landscape. But of course, these are the conditions in which we need to push through our own “conventionalist” projects. In this context, one promising field of application for the Sociology of Conventions is the study of social research itself. So what is actually going on in sociology or in educational research. There is an increasing amount of research being done in this context, for example on the rise of empirical education research, an interdisciplinary research field that is primarily concerned with the standardized measurement of educational quality and outcomes. It would be more than worthwhile to contribute an EC angle to this debate. But in essence there would have to be a professorship or some institutionalized position dedicated to promoting this kind of research and reflexive perspective. I believe that a lot is going on among younger scholars, and we might have to wait until they end up in these more powerful positions.

KH: French pragmatic sociology is renowned for its conception of the capable social actor. What does that imply for how we think about and also how we organize the relation between scientific research and everyday pedagogical practice?

CI: I already mentioned my experience that EC notions and ideas are easy to convey. Surely this is a matter of finding the right words, but all in all the main ideas are easy to grasp. An important question will be in what direction research funding will develop, and how much weight is given to the transfer of knowledge. My feeling is that this development is only beginning in Germany. On a European scale this question of broader impact seems to be more established for successful grant applications. These are favorable conditions for the Sociology of Conventions. At the same time, there is this state of perpetual disappointment by politicians who are guided by this idea of evidence that immediately translates into decision making. That was one big hope linked to the promotion of empirical education research – a hope that has already at least in parts given way to a certain disenchantment. Empirical research can demonstrate correlations between factors, but for pedagogical practice what counts is to understand how these correlations come about. My impression is that against this background the demand for qualitative research is rising, because of its more immediate relevance for practitioners.

RJL: Our ongoing project on the governance of transitions in the Swiss education system shows, again, that there is this imagination – in social sciences and politics alike – that there is one final solution, one answer to how these transitions should be designed in a fair manner. The promise of the Sociology of Conventions is that it demonstrates that there never is only one answer because there are different forms and notions of educational justice that are relevant for everyday practices. Every form of governing transitions will lead to each own set of positive and negative selection effects. It is all about making this complexity visible and to show how actors necessarily need to deal with a variety of rationalities and conditions. As a project team we are currently working on an article in which we compare two Swiss cantons that differ in many regards. On the one hand a very small canton that is strongly marked by the domestic world, on the other hand a large canton that is characterized by industrial logics. The Sociology of Conventions allows to illustrate how institutional configurations lead actors to choose some particular transition procedures and some specific ways of governing them – and to understand the conflicts that arise as a consequence. That is the key strength of a pragmatic approach. Of course, we cannot tell or influence whether and in what ways political actors will make use of these insights.

KH: In your view, what are the main fields of development, the main challenges but also the most important opportunities for the future development of the Sociology of Conventions in the field of education?

RJL: I see a huge potential especially in primary education, regarding the study of lessons, of teaching and learning, and of the pedagogical profession. This is a huge field that leaves plenty of scope for defining relevant research questions. Something similar can be said about the topic of digitization; likewise, the field of educational governance still offers many opportunities for EC-inspired research. Over the coming years, it will be interesting to see whether the conventions identified by Boltanski, Thévenot, Chiapello & co. will remain to guide research – or whether perhaps new conventions emerge. I believe that this is a field of development for the near future. Further, I hope that in the coming years scholars will pay more in-depth attention to methodological questions, from the production of empirical data to their analysis. In this context, it would of course be helpful to have academic positions dedicated to research methodologies in education.

CI: In my own research, I wish to investigate educational biographies and trajectories from an EC perspective. I would like to develop a better understanding of the educational organizations that co-produce these trajectories. The concept of “tests” could prove valuable for move towards a sociological explanation of these processes. I also see a need to study non-formal educational settings. In addition, I believe it would be valuable to conceptualize notions of general and academic education in terms of the Sociology of Conventions. I notice that there is more and more interesting research being done in the Scandinavian social sciences too. French pragmatic sociology is increasingly read and employed internationally, mirroring developments we have already seen in German educational research. One important question will be, whether these strands of research can be institutionalized. I am optimistic that a few young researchers will manage to obtain professorships. One idea would be to establish a format such as summer schools for younger scholars, in addition to the already existing EC workshop series, in order to build and strengthen academic networks.


Derouet, Jean-Louis. 1992. École et justice. De l’égalité des chances aux compromis locaux? [School Education and Justice. From equality of opportunities to local compromises?]. Paris: Métailié.

Imdorf, Christian, Regula Julia Leemann & Philipp Gonon (eds.). 2019. Bildung und Konventionen. Die „Economie des conventions“ in der Bildungsforschung [Education and Conventions. The ‘Economie des conventions’ in Educational Research]. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Knoll, Lisa (ed.). 2015. Organisationen und Konventionen. Die Soziologie der Konventionen in der Organisationsforschung [Organisations and Conventions. The Sociology of Conventions in Organisation Research]. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Convention Theory as “a Fruitful Opportunity” for Researching Arts and Culture

Interview with Daniel Urrutiaguer

by Guy Schwegler (University of Lucerne)

Daniel Urrutiaguer is professor for performing arts studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. Through the lens of conventions theory, his research is concerned with the socioeconomics of the theatre sector: its aesthetic, social, and monetary value; the relationship between the artistic organizations, the public, and companies; the evolution of cultural policies; as well as the links between artistic creations and the construction of identity. These various interests he combined in his seminal work on the “worlds” of theatre (2014) and in numerous other publications.

With his interest in theatre, Urrutiaguer is one the more rare cases of convention theory researchers interested in the artistic and cultural sector. Guy Schwegler asked him a few questions about such an approach to the arts and culture in general, and how Urrutiaguer got into contact with convention theory in the first place.

Guy Schwegler: When, why and how did convention theory become important for you?

Daniel Urrutiaguer: When I was a teacher in economics and sociology in a high secondary school (Lycée), my request for an educational leave for a master in economics was accepted at the beginning of the 1990s. The main motive was to get an opportunity to become a professional actor and I chose the courses with the least number of teaching hours. So I decided to undergo a master 2 in labor economics at the University of Paris 10. Initially, I planned to do research on the evolution of work organisation in car factories. By accident, I discovered the existence of convention theory and some economists’ interest in cultural economics. I was fascinated when I saw an early morning slot for Françoise Benhamou’s seminar in cultural economics on the door of an elevator. I also chose to take part in Olivier Favereau and Laurent Thévenot’s course on convention theory, just out of curiosity. The content of their programme and Favereau’s pedagogical skills impressed me. I was particularly interested by the perspective’s consideration of coordination problems through the tensions between different logics of action and valuation.

As I failed a test for becoming a professional actor after two years, I decided to do a PhD instead. I wanted to apply convention theory in the theatre sector and I asked Olivier Favereau to be my supervisor. He proposed to work on Harrison White’s model of sustainable market profiles (White 2005) and its conventional interpretation as quality orders. At the same time, my aim was to build a database for an econometric model. There, I wanted to test the influence of different quality judgements on the attendance of nationally approved theatre institutions, especially the main newspaper critics’ judgement and the directors’ institutional reputation. Building my database required months of full-time work.

My econometrical work contrasting the influence of critics’ judgements and directors’ institutional reputation got an international recognition through a publication in the Journal of Cultural Economics (2002). Favereau, Eymard-Duvernay, and Biencourt have proposed a rather qualitative association between White’s sustainable market profiles and the domestic, market, and industrial quality conventions (Favereau et al. 2002). I tried to use my econometrical estimations for the computation of the elasticities of the satisfaction and cost functions according to the volume and the perceived quality. The computations were rather unclearly complicating the model and there was a kind of distortion by switching from sustainable market profiles to non-profit highly subsidized organisations.

I did not try to go further in this quantitative application of the conventional framework to White’s market profiles. Nevertheless, the different logics of action and valuation in the economics of worth were a more relevant theoretical framework for my field of research. Even though I did not refer explicitly to convention theory in the published academic papers and the national survey on the territories and resources of performing arts companies in France (Urrutiaguer et al. 2012), it has been an undergoing framework to put into perspective some observed features.

GS: How would you describe your specific convention theory inspired approach in Les Mondes du Theatre (2014)?

DU: I switched my main theoretical framework towards Boltanski’s approach in pragmatic sociology of critique. To obtain the “Habilitation à diriger les recherches,” I worked on an essay for understanding the causes of disenchantment with cultural policies in two different theatre worlds: the mainstream public world and an emerging alternative world, favouring the links between artistic activities and sustainable development. Following Boltanski’s recommendation, I added the private theatre world for the book publication.

Whereas Howard Becker is more focusing on the conventions as patterns of behaviour in the art worlds he analyses (Becker 2011), I am more sensitive to the conventions as patterns of judgment which direct the distribution of states of worths. I tried to specify the political and moral grammar which characterizes these three theatre worlds. What are the common principle of justice for equity, the states of worths and the tests for their access, the definition of nature? Each theatre world is characterized by a compromise between justification orders of conventions.

The world of private theatre is directed by the principle of the private production of artistic entertainment. The logic of artistic inspiration for cheerful innovativeness and the market logic to capture attendants’ willingness to pay intersect in this world with the network logic to reduce risk-taking. Half of the French Supporting Fund for Private Theatres (ASTP) is financed by a tax on box office revenues and the remaining half by public subsidies. The ASTP dependency on subsidies, the increasing competition, and the financial concentration of big Parisian theatres are destabilizing this world.

The world of public theatre is historically lead by a parallel public support to artistic excellency and to cultural democratization for broadening the social composition of the attendance at highbrow and delicate plays. The states of worths are opposing the high value of artistic humanism and the low value of social and cultural liveliness. A quantitative evaluation of the production results (rather than qualitative approaches), the increasing market power of theatrical institutions, the systemic pressure to decrease programmers’ risk-taking, and the development of market relationships with attendance are destabilizing this world. Here, the market and industrial logics are more heavily intersecting the civic logic of action and evaluation.

The world of cultural sustainable development is based on economic cooperation and the preservation of cultural diversity in a respective area. Culture is considered as a fourth pillar of sustainable development. The high value valorises the combination of aesthetical, technical, and pedagogic competencies for driving an emancipatory intercultural dialogue, whereas the low value depreciates hermetic artworks. Local cultural pluralism characterises this scale of worth. Economic solidarity is confronted with the competition for increasing or consolidating artistic reputation whereas taking into account cultural diversity can justify a market approach for the segmentation of artistic production. Furthermore, the research of intercultural dialogue has to deal with cultural and social conflicts.

GS: If you had to highlight one thing, what would be the specific advantage of researching theatre production and the worlds of theatre this way, i.e. three different worlds and their respective political and moral grammar?

DU: I think the framework of political and moral grammar (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006) gives a fruitful opportunity to understand the orders of quality according to the main scale of judgment on shows’ relevance. Each world of theatre is oriented by a central logic of action and valuation which orientates a collective sense of justice, and it is questioned by other logics that influence patterns of behaviour. Furthermore, the analysis has to take into account the compromise between the logic of artistic inspiration and the logic of networks with other scales of judgment on states of worth in each world of theatre.

GS: When thinking beyond the worlds of theater, what could be an advantage of a sociology of the arts and culture that uses convention theory?

DU: Using convention theory offers perspectives for analyzing individual patterns of behavior through coordination problems in the artistic value chain. By giving attention to public debates and the justifications that stakeholders give for their standpoints and actions, we may approach the practical ways in which specific actions are evaluated.

The pragmatic sociology of critique highlights the devices of artistic coordination with regards to cultural establishments, public authorities, non-artistic partners, attendance, and local populations. It is interesting to work on the material, cognitive, and moral support that the actors of a world can recognize and use in their joint actions as well as their quality judgements

GS: What could be the emphasis of such a sociology of convention of the arts and culture?

DU: Such a sociology of the arts and culture can emphasize the valuation and justifications that the artists and their stakeholders formulate for their specific actions. To focus on the evaluation scales of the aesthetical, social, and political values of artworks, and the pedagogic relevance of artistic educative actions, gives an opportunity to study the ways of transforming judgements on quality into monetary value in the networks of production and diffusion. As compared to Bourdieu’s sociology of critique, for example, which focus on material and symbolic power, the added value is to recognize the importance of moral stances that interfuse artistic life.

To combine a moral framework and the plurality of political orders of worth is a relevant approach to analyse the complexity of the coordination through the study of situations. Artistic inspiration oriented toward originality and networking capacity are transversal logics to the different worlds of art. In all cultural sectors and to some degree, artistic teams have to compose with every order of worth in mind: the orders of fame and market, which orientate attendants’ willingness to pay and affect programmer’s willingness to program; the civic logic according to the dominant political interpretation of a general interest; the industrial order oriented toward efficiency and standardization; and the domestic order rooted in personal ties.

GS: What could be ignored or could be a “weak” spot when researching this societal area with convention theory?

DU: Convention theory is well fitted to understand the causes of difficulties and disputes in coordination problems through the combination of different logics of action and valuation, and the contradictions humans are faced with. It can be extended to the analyses of engagement regimes as Thévenot and Boltanski did for other cases of human coordination, which do not require references to common goods (Thévenot 2006). Nevertheless, this general framework can be less well equipped to analyze the causes of protagonists’ conflicts over income sharing and the group dynamics in tensions. Convention theory has to take into account a systemic analysis of the dominant order associated to the setting of the different worlds of art.

Social scientists also have to be careful with modelling effects in their surveys. Whereas a conventionalist objective is to go beyond the limits of essentialist theories, a more or less mechanical application of the orders of worth to actors’ chain of actions may substantiate people’s minds. The main negative effect is therefore to transform the convention theory framework into a normative grid of rationalities—as it has been the case in some business management research.

GS: What could be ways to amend these two “weak” spots? So, what frameworks would you recommend to complement the analyses of causes of protagonists’ conflicts (or others) when researching artists or cultural producers? And how can one make sure to avoid a mechanical application of the orders of worth when researching the arts?

DU: The relevance of convention theory is to focus on justification for understanding how people try to refer to common orders of worth, so that they could agree in their quality judgements and a distribution of states of worth based on equity in productive efforts. To analyze conflicts in income sharing, for example, one needs to take into account the interconnectedness of individual evaluation and classification systems. People evaluate works of art through aesthetical, ethical, technical, or social criteria, which are related to their education and their past experiences. Therefore, classification systems shape people’s grids of cultural references and orientate their taste judgments. As classification systems are embedded in social institutions, the dominant relations in artistic legitimacy play a role in the conversion of aesthetical value into monetary value in the circuits of production and diffusion.

Avoiding a mechanical application of the orders of worth requires an attention in the sense of a grounded theory: the objective is to identify the discourses and the objects that the actors are referring in their coordination process and their scale of judgement. The analysis of professional literature and the conduct of interviews have to be aware of the plurality of justifications without any modelled presumption on the behavior of actors in professional situations.

GS: Next to business management, scholars from various fields have used convention theory to analyze the production of food, job market, finance, public statistics and classification, or more recently, health, education, and climate change. Artistic practices and the production of culture, however, do not seem be part of these prevalent and re-occurring subjects yet. Would you assess the situation in a similar way? Or if not, may this be due to the fact that most of this research has been done in France/published in French, therefore making it just a blind spot for non-French speaking convention theory researchers?

DU: We have to take into account most economists’ limited interest for culture, particularly for performing arts for which box office revenues are much lower than in other cultural industries. When it comes to the stakes of the economy, theatre is regarded as a marginal activity. Therefore, only some more passionate researchers in economics, or sociology and aesthetics, are concerned with the composition of the actors’ logics of action and valuation in the worlds of performing arts. Moreover, cultural economics are also faced with the dominance of mainstream quantitative approaches. More sophisticated econometric results are supposed to be guarantees for scientific quality—and the publication of academic papers is not always fitted for convention theory. Even though there are few researchers in the performing arts sector—such as Bérénice Hamidi-Kim (2013) or Rachel Brahy (2019)—, convention theory and the literature produced under this perspective offers interesting materials and a semiotic perspective to analyse the defaults of coordination through the disputes on the higher common principles of justice in the different worlds of art. And of course, the lack of English translation of the French papers and books which apply convention theory to performing arts does not help spreading this research approach.


Becker, Howard Saul. 2011. Art worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boltanski, Luc, Laurent Thévenot. 2006. On justification. The economics of worth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Boltanski, Luc, Arnaud Esquerre. 2020. Enrichment. A critique of commodities. Hoboken: Wiley.

Brahy, Rachel. 2019. S’engager dans un atelier-théâtre. À la recherche du sens de l’expérience. Mons: Éditions du Cerisier.

Favereau, Olivier, Olivier Biencourt, François Eymard-Duvernay. 2002. Where do markets come from? From (quality) conventions! In: Favereau, Olivier, Emmanuel Lazega (eds.), Conventions and structures in economic organizations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 213-252.

Hamidi-Kim, Bérénice. 2013. Les cités du théâtre politique en France depuis 1989. Montpellier: L’entretemps.

Thévenot, Laurent. 2006. L’action au pluriel. Sociologie des régimes d’engagement. Paris: La Découverte.

Urrutiaguer, Daniel. 2002. Quality judgements and demand for French public theatre. Journal of Cultural Economics 26, pp. 185–202.

Urrutiaguer, Daniel. 2011. Theatre. In Ruth Towse (ed.), An handbook of cultural economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 420-424.

Urrutiaguer, Daniel. 2014. Les mondes du théâtre: désenchantement politique et économie des conventions. Paris : L’Harmattan.

Urrutiaguer, Daniel. 2016. Théâtre. Quelles articulations entre conventions et mondes ?, in Philippe Batifoulier et al. (eds.), Dictionnaire des conventions. Autour des travaux d’Olivier Favereau. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, pp. 279-283.

Urrutiaguer, Daniel, Philippe Henry, Cyril Duchêne, and Guillaume Boudy. 2012. Territoires et ressources des compagnies en France. Culture Etudes 2012-1.

White, Harrison C. 2005. Markets from networks. Socioeconomic models of production. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Retrouver la confiance avec… Épisode 1 : André Orléan, spécialiste de la monnaie

André Orléan (2020)

Interview 8 December 2020 on France Culture. Audio file online

“Philosophie, sociologie et science politique placent la confiance au fondement de notre société et de la démocratie. Pourtant, bien qu’elle fasse l’objet de grandes déclarations, la confiance demeure un champ encore peu exploré par la théorie économique.”

“Philosophy, sociology and political science place trust at the foundation of our society and democracy. Yet, despite being the subject of great declarations, trust remains a field still little explored by economic theory”.

Quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it!

Interview with Emmanuel Didier

Walter Bartl (University of Halle)

Emmanuel Didier is a full professor (directeur de recherche CNRS) at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (École Normale Supérieure, Paris) and a member of the Center for the Study of Invention and Social Process (Goldsmiths University of London). He taught at the University of Chicago and at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and now teaches at Ecole Normale Supérieure and Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique (ENSAE), both in Paris and Ecole Polytechnique in Paris-Saclay. He is a member of the French National Advisory Council on Ethics.

Originally trained as a statistician, Emmanuel Didier very soon specialized in the study of statistics as a tool of government. His first book – revised and updated for the recent English edition – entitled America by the Numbers. Quantification, Democracy and the Birth of National Statistics, bore on the relationship between the invention of random sampling in the US and State interventionism and State planning during the New Deal. His second book, written with Isabelle Bruno, is on Benchmarking. The book shows how management by number, imported in government from private companies, changed the meaning and practice of the French State. His third book, Statactivisme, is an edited volume (with Isabelle Bruno and Julien Prévieux), dedicated to analyze ways in which ordinary people use statistics to enhance their power against institutions. Furthermore, he edited the last book of the late Alain Desrosières, entitled Prouver et gouverner, une analyse politique des statistiques publiques, who deceased before he had a chance to finish it. Recently he has been working on a project on big data in the domain of health and especially in genomics.

WB: How did you get in touch with the economics or sociology of convention?

ED: Well, it depends what you call economics or sociology of convention. When I was a student at ENSAE (Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique) to become a statistician – this was in the first half of the 1990s – I happened to read Luc Boltanski’s book Les Cadres (Boltanski 1982; engl. Boltanski 1987). I became literally enthusiastic for the book. As a socio-history of a social category, I immediately saw that it was a way to think reflexively about statistics. I remember that I was particularly struck by the experiments of social psychologist Eleanor Rosch about the category of dogs, described in the book, showing that some examples of dogs were more typical to the category than others. And I remember that I was also completely convinced by the way the author (Luc Boltanski) was totally reflexive and paid attention to the consequences of his own findings for the very text he was writing. I wrote a letter to Luc – at that time, letters were handwritten – telling him about my enthusiasm and asking if I could work with him. And he said yes! I worked under his supervision on the notion of “social exclusion”. I showed that the originality of the notion is, that, contrary to “the poor” or “the destitute”, it is not a social category, it invites to action but without clearly delineating the individuals that should benefit from it (Didier 1996). Meanwhile, he introduced me first to Alain Desrosières and then to Bruno Latour, who the year after became my PhD supervisor.
At the CSI (Center for the Sociology of Innovation), I learned that something called “economics of convention” existed. I remember: we invited François Eymard-Duvernay and Laurent Thévenot – who are at the core of the economics of convention – to the monthly seminar. But I never felt that I belonged to the group; it was not even clear to me that it was a group. These economists were friendly to us, and vice versa, but I had the feeling that we had diverging agendas. We were not explicating the differences and similarities between us; I did not care whether a group of “conventionalists” was existing, even though I was often interested in their writings. It was simply a biographical matter that I did not get really involved with them. At that time the more heated debate (to me) was evolving between the sociology “of critique” (Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (GSPM) which is the group formed within École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) by Boltanski, Thévenot, Desrosières and others after their separation from Pierre Bourdieu’s approach) and the Actor Network Theory (at CSI – the Group of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and others). To put it in a nutshell, the question is, whether a sociologist can presuppose a totally flat world without any transcendental level (Actor Network Theory) or whether they need to presuppose a two levels world to give room to an exteriority of normativity (GSPM) (cf. Latour 2009).

WB: Alain Desrosières was a crucial figure in the formation of sociology of quantification. What was his role in the development of your interest in quantification processes?

ED: Alain had several specificities. First, he was not working in academia but at the INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques) and was a part time professor at the ENSAE. Therefore, he remained all his life a civil servant as much as a researcher. For me, as a student, I saw his position and, I was to discover very quickly his work too, as a little unusual, a little unexpected, very original. Besides, this position gave him direct access to core questions concerning the production of statistics and its relation to the government. He remained all his life, actually, the only one to care authentically about statistics from a reflexive point of view. I mean the whole Parisian flock was aware of the fascinating sociological questions statistics raised, but fairly soon they relied on him, personally, to produce actual studies and reference papers to be cited on this point.  Third, his position gave him a kind of exteriority within the academic field that allowed him to be, at the same time, an insider and an outsider. It must be said that this social exteriority was also bearing on a vast and profound knowledge of the literature. He knew about the squabbles between the different subgroups living in the ecology of the Left Bank, but he could remain outside of them. He often reinterpreted them from the viewpoint of statistics in a way that wound up being a synthesis of the different positions. Finally, Alain was also extremely generous intellectually. He was always very happy to introduce you to a paper you’d missed, to a colleague that could help you out of a difficulty; he read intermediate versions of your texts and never took you down, on the contrary, he gave important and wise inputs. I guess these points influenced me in trying to follow his path.

WB: Recently, Desrosières was honored by the INSEE, where he worked all his professional life, by naming a library after him. There is a video on that on the Internet (see How might his reflexive spirit be able to survive in a public institution that is increasingly confronted with a neoliberal environment and tight budgets?

ED: I love the video, your readers should take a moment watching it! It gives many different, yet coherent, viewpoints on the importance of Alain, and gives a hint on his relationships to representatives of the conventionalist movement. I also love the fact that the library was baptized after him. I would like to insist on the point that Gael de Peretti, an INSEE administrator, encouraged strongly this nomination and is also the kingpin of the biannual “Alain Desrosières’ prize” for the best scholarly essay in the socio-history of quantification. I think, those talking in the video, those who directed it, and Gael’s initiatives are examples of the answer to your question: friends of Alain will make his spirit survive, especially if we find institutions such as a library to solidify the group. This being said, I would like to add that a reflexive spirit on quantification is especially necessary in a world in which arguments about the budget or economic liberalism become so prominent. Actually, I tend to think that this spirit will develop in any case because people need to find degrees of freedom to live their life. It happens that the Social Studies of Quantification are lucky enough to have an inspiring predecessor such as Alain, and it will be useful.

WB: Which aspect of the economics or sociology of convention do you consider problematic or critical with regard to its further development?

ED: Given my previous response, this question is a bit hard to answer. But still, I would like to say something about sociology in general. Society is constantly evolving. There are forces that make it change, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, but it changes. The problem of sociology is to keep up with these transformations. It has essentially to constantly reinvent itself, so that its methods and findings fit to the transformations it aims at capturing. Some conventionalist works contribute to this necessary creativity of the discipline. But sometimes sociology falls for dogmatism. Particularly for pedagogic reasons, or to establish positions of power (both of which, I must say, are not to be neglected neither), it establishes rules and procedures that must allegedly be followed. Dogmatism is the end of sociology because it is the end of creativity. I hope that no conventionalist has fallen into this trap.

WB: What makes the second generation of scholars in the conventionalist tradition unique?

ED: The first economists of convention organized a conference where they could all sit down together. And their communications fit into one single edited volume (Salais and Thévenot 1986). What is very striking today is the number of people who might be seen as conventionalists and the diversity of the topics, methods, problems that they are tackling, within very different disciplines and countries. I doubt it would be possible to gather all these people in one single room. Rainer Diaz-Bone’s “EC-news-letter” which comes I think at least once in a week, presents at least three or four publications each time. It is really impressive. The first generation of conventionalists did succeed in following God’s order of the Genesis (1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply ”.

WB: The “Social Studies of Quantification”, as you termed the currently emerging interdisciplinary field, draws on a variety of scientific disciplines. Are there any common theoretical assumptions in “Quantification Studies” or are the assumptions held rather specific to certain approaches to the subject?

ED: I don’t know whether there are any theoretical assumptions unifying Social Studies of Quantification. Maybe there is this very general argument, which we all agree to, that quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it. But I think of Quantification Studies as a group of researchers, each following their own path and engaging with the works of others. Even “quantification” is not strictly defined. Some include data and “big data”, some don’t. Some include lay practices of counting, others don’t. Thus, I think the group of scholars interested in it resembles rather a “flock”, using the concept taken from ethology, than a theoretically established research program. To use another ethological concept, I recently heard about something called “Fish aggregating devices” (FAD). These usually consist of buoys or floats tethered to the ocean floor with concrete blocks. Fish are fascinated with floating objects. They use them to mark locations for mating activities. They gather in considerable numbers around objects such as drifting flotsam, rafts, jellyfish and floating seaweed. The objects appear to provide a visual stimulus in an optical void, and offer refuge for juvenile fish from predators. The gathering of juvenile fish, in turn, attracts larger predator fish (see Even though FADs are used now with the awful aim of industrially fishing countless quantities of fish, I’d like to see Social Studies of Quantification as a non-fishing FAD, something that helps researchers gather, discuss, exchange simply because they are attracted by the whole device and the sociality that corresponds to it.

WB: The sociology of quantification has been developed to a considerable degree with regard to the (historical) production of official statistics. Nowadays, public and private life seems to be increasingly permeated by numbers that are collected and analyzed by private tech companies. The conventions of quantification in these companies are generally not in the public eye. What does that mean for the sociology of quantification?

ED: The answer is in the question. I agree with your diagnosis: public and private life is more and more permeated by private numbers. Numbers, even public numbers, are produced with a series of new techniques, originally from the private sector. It’s interesting to see for example the success of an expression such as “data mining”, coming from the big private tech, whereas public statisticians used to simply say “data analysis”. The power that laid with the government, and that the former generation of sociologists of quantification wanted to analyze and criticize, lays now for a large part with private companies and operates very differently. So yes, obviously, I think that research focusing on tech companies, and especially on the intersections of tech companies and government, is extremely interesting. This is particularly striking in medicine and health where public health and private interests have intersected constantly for a very long time.
For example, the debates about a “Stop Covid” app is very interesting – an app that would detect infected people passing by your phone. Public health systems in most countries wanted to develop their own app to make sure that they would control the data. But Google and Apple just announced (September 2020) that they will install automatically an app in the operating system of our phones. So, they just bypassed public health systems! And now they have the data!
One of the difficulties raised by the big tech companies is that their economic model rests on free service or open source development for the users. Their private services look a lot like the ones public authorities might provide. They seem to be for free! But the data is not used the same way, and moreover, there is a long history of the social control of state power. The control of giant private companies’ power yet needs to be developed. Social studies of quantification could really help in this.

WB: What are the challenges and opportunities of Big Data for official statistics?

ED: William Davies wrote an interesting piece on the topic in the Guardian in 2017. It was entitled “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next” (Davies 2017). His main point was that the world has accelerated a lot recently and that the nation-state borders correspond less and less to the reality of the economy, but remain fundamental for statistics. Thus, statistics produce information on entities that are not significant anymore and hence lose their authority. On the contrary, Big Data is able to capture the mood of populations (through “likes” or Google queries), which a new genre of experts know how to put to use. However, they are more into math and physics than the good old statisticians, who are closer to sociology and economics. Especially, Davies warns, they enable populist uses of the information – as it has been the case with Cambridge Analytica.
But official statisticians are not helpless. For example, technically, they are developing very interesting techniques to produce reliable information through many channels at the same time – offline as well as online questionnaires – sufficiently robust to be aggregated in one single survey. It’s called “multimodal data production”. More generally, Walter J. Radermacher, a former head of Eurostat, just published a very good book in which he synthesizes all the innovations made by public statistics bureaus in relation to Big Data (Radermacher 2020). In particular, he argues that public statisticians are very good at producing reliable data and thus in fighting against “fake news” – whereas the “data scientists” working on “big data” are not always on top in this respect.

WB: The COVID-19 pandemic shows once again the importance of reliable (official) statistics. At the same time, there is a lot of insecurity attached to these numbers – for very different reasons. What can the sociology of quantification contribute to the common good in such a crucial situation?

ED: The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been also a pandemic of numbers. It was amazing to see the amount of numbers that we, as the public, were fed every day: numbers of infected persons, numbers of hospitalized persons, numbers of death, numbers of recoveries, etc. – all this in our own country and compared to others. Sociology of quantification did intervene in the media at the time. First it described the strength and limitations of the different methods used to produce these numbers. Especially it pinpointed methodological differences between countries that complicated the comparison. It underlined the social constraints that explain the different methodologies adopted by several public systems.
The best example concerns the number of deaths. It is a long and complicated process to establish the cause of a death – especially in the case of the Coronavirus which goes very often with comorbidities. A doctor has to see the body and be able to establish a cause of death. And it is also a long process to aggregate all the cases of death. Each country has its own method, depending on the history of the public health information system. The result is that international comparison is not always straightforward. Especially it is not clear what to do with the death of old people living in nursing homes. Sociology of quantification is particularly well equipped to explain all these subtleties to the public.
Another use of our discipline is to analyze the effects of the data on several publics. How does it affect the public if it is barraged with numbers? What does it do to the government to rely so heavily on data? I was involved in a collective paper finally publish in Nature about the ethical aspects for statisticians, to see their models at the heart of public policies. We highlighted how predictions need to be transparent and humble to invite insight, not blame (Saltelli et al. 2020).
Finally, social studies of quantification can help open up the range of things that should be counted. It was striking at the beginning of the lockdown how much we were fed only and uniquely with public health figures measuring how the country was hit by and resisted the virus. Yet, at the same time, we heard stories here and there about how hard it was for poor families to stay put in their small homes in the banlieux, stories of domestic violence, artist friends who told us that the containment policies were making them go broke, etc. But there was absolutely no figure (at least in France) to aggregate all the drawbacks of the lockdown.  Statactivism, is the activist side of social studies of quantification (Bruno et al. 2014b; Bruno et al. 2014a). It is a political resource, imagining: “The problems, which we encounter could be quantified and it would help our cause.” In the case of the lock down, people suffering from the situation finally reclaim other numbers (Didier 2020c).

WB: The economics or sociology of convention has been developed mainly in France with important efforts of internationalization having been made more recently by translating crucial works into other languages. For example your book on Statistics in the United States has recently been translated into English (Didier 2020a). Which places of academic work outside of France do you consider promising for the future development of the conventionalist approach?

ED: What’s an interesting group? I think it is a small group of people knowing each other, if possible being even close to one another, and thinking about questions that appear in their own vicinity, and that have not been answered yet, but which they are able to relate to very general questions of interest to a wide variety of scholars. That’s exactly how sociology of quantification, economics of convention, and actor network theory appeared in Paris. Lately I have been invited by you guys, people in Halle, a former GDR university, a very peculiar context, but at the same time with some interesting international ties. Your interdisciplinary discussions on “Schlüsselindikatoren” [key indicators] as a very powerful governing tool were very exciting (cf. Bartl et al. 2019), and your work has already begun to bear its first fruits.[1] The other group I met recently was in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a small and super active group of people all working on quantification, with an activist perspective, fiercely opposing Bolsonaro’s populism, demanding justice for the favelas and a better control of the police forces. We featured them in a special issue of Statistique et société. The very peculiar situation in which they find themselves, plus their energy, freshness, and shrewdness is producing very interesting and original results.

WB: You are the editor in chief of Statistique et Société, the French leading journal in the Social Studies of Quantification. How do you define your role as an editor there?

ED: Well, the first task, and probably the most time consuming one, is simply to make sure that the three issues per year are indeed published in time. More generally we, as an editorial board consisting of seven persons, try to make visible some interesting work and to give it a platform. In a sense, the journal is part of the Fish Aggregating Device. It aims at attracting the interest of people working on quantification and that of other people that are interested in topics that we focus on. For example, our next two issues will be on the Yellow Jackets in France and on the numbers of the pandemic. In both cases, we want to show that these two highly mediatized events, on which we tend to think that we have heard everything, can in fact be understood in a very fresh and yet very significant way if we focus on the numbers that they have co-produced. For example, to understand the Yellow Jackets it is crucial to understand that they have produced their own numbers about themselves. It let them dream of refusing any human representative – because they hoped these numbers could represent them. This appeared to be crucial in the development of the movement, yet very few people made the point. With the pandemic, it’s the same, quantification plays a crucial role in its development because the policies established to control it rely heavily on numbers, models, maps. But still, the “political” role played by the experts producing and processing these numbers (and I don’t say it in a critical tone: I am glad they were here to fight the disease!) has not been analyzed enough. We’ve already said a word about it above. So I would like to make the point that social studies of quantification are interesting for a public as wide as possible. Quantities are now everywhere, they always have political effects, and thus everyone should be authorized to understand and maybe participate in these decisions. This is the objective of Statistique et société.

WB: Which academic project are you working on currently and what are your plans for the next year?

ED: I would like, first, to have opportunities to discuss more the concept of “quantitative marbling”, which was the topic of my Amo Lecture at your university last year (Didier 2019, 2020b). Then, the “Decodeurs” of Le Monde (the newspaper’s fact checkers) sent me the dataset of all the questions they received from their readers during the pandemics. They stretch from very practical questions “How far from home can I take a walk?” to more general ones “Is the virus an artificial production?”. I would like to find time to analyze these data. This would take place in a larger work I have been engaged in for several years, which is on the transformations of truth in a time of digital information and disinformation – for the general public as well as for scientists.

WB: Sounds riveting! I am very much looking forward to the first results. Emmanuel, many thanks for your thoughts and your time.


Bartl, Walter; Papilloud, Christian; Terracher-Lipinski, Audrey (2019): Governing by numbers: Key indicators and the politics of expectations. An introduction. In Historical Social Research 44 (2, Special Issue), 7-43. DOI: 10.12759/hsr.44.2019.2.7-43.

Boltanski, Luc (1982): Les cadres. La formation d’un groupe social. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Boltanski, Luc (1987): The making of a class. Cadres in French society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Prévieux, Julien (eds.) (2014a): Statactivisme: comment lutter avec des nombres. Paris: Zones.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Vitale, Tommaso (2014b): Statactivism. Forms of action between disclosure and affirmation. In Partecipazione e Conflitto 4 (2), pp. 198–220.

Davies, William (2017): How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next. In The Guardian, 1/19/2017. Available online at

Didier, Emmanuel (1996): De l’«exclusion» à l’exclusion. In Politix. Revue des sciences sociales du politique 34, pp. 5–27. DOI: 10.3406/polix.1996.1029.

Didier, Emmanuel (2019): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7 [Video]). Available online at

Didier, Emmanuel (2020a): America by the numbers. Quantification, democracy, and the birth of national statistics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Didier, Emmanuel (2020b): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification. Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Halle (Saale) (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7).

Didier, Emmanuel (2020c): Politique du nombre de morts. In AOC media – Analyse Opinion Critique (blog), 4/15/2020. Available online at

Latour, Bruno (2009): Dialogue sur deux systèmes de sociologie. In Marc Breviglieri, Claudette Lafaye, Danny Trom (eds.): Compétences critiques et sens de la justice: colloque de Cerisy. Paris: Economica, 359-390.

Radermacher, Walter J. (2020): Official statistics 4.0. Verified facts for people in the 21st century. Cham: Springer.

Salais, Robert; Thévenot, Laurent (eds.) (1986): Le travail: marchés, règles, conventions [table-ronde, 22-23 novembre 1984]. Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. Paris: INSEE Économica.

Saltelli, Andrea; Bammer, Gabriele; Bruno, Isabelle; Charters, Erica; Di Fiore, Monica; Didier, Emmanuel et al. (2020): Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto. In Nature 582 (7813), pp. 482–484. DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01812-9.

[1] Petra Dobner, Dirk Hanschel: The use of SDG-indicators for water-related aims as an instrument of domestic political and legal disputes (DFG project 432912052). Christian Papilloud: Translation in Nanomedicine. “Qualitative indicators” of medical innovation research in the European Union (DFG project 432916842). Richard Rottenburg, Alena Thiel: How Democracies Know: Identification technologies and quantitative analyses of development in Ghana (DFG project 432915420).

Paradigmenwechsel oder Rejustierungen von Megaparadigmen? Die Potentiale des Neopragmatismus und des Neostrukturalismus. Ein Experteninterview mit Prof. Dr. Rainer Diaz-Bone.

Tamara Schwertel (2020)

Soziologiemagazin 1/2020, pp. 7-17. Open access.

Auszug. “In Frankreich haben sich seit den 1990er Jahren dann die sogenannten „neuen Soziologien“ (Corcuff 2017) herausgebildet, die im Grunde als ein Wiedererstarken des Pragmatismus in Frankreich zu verstehen sind. Daher kann man auch von einem soziologischen Neopragmatismus in Frankreich sprechen, zu dem zentral die Soziologie der Konventionen zählt (Corcuff 2017; Diaz-Bone 2011a; Nachi 2015). Der französische Neopragmatismus findet seit den 2000er Jahren auch mehr und mehr Beachtung in den deutschsprachigen Soziologien. […] In Frankreich stehen die Soziolog*innen zudem im engeren Austausch mit der Wirtschaftswissenschaft, der Rechtswissenschaft, der Philosophie und der Geschichte und sie werden auch als Kooperierende angefragt und ernst genommen − wie dies für die Soziologie der Konventionen gilt, die dort zuerst in der Wirtschaftswissenschaft und dann interdisziplinär präsent ist (als ‘Ökonomie der Konventionen’[…]).” (p. 8/10-11)

Paradigm shift or readjustments of megaparadigms? The potentials of neopragmatism and neostructuralism. An expert interview with Prof. Dr. Rainer Diaz-Bone

Extract. “In France since the 1990s, the so-called “new sociologies” (Corcuff 2017), which are basically a resurgence of pragmatism are to be understood in France. Therefore can also be derived from a sociological Neopragmatism in France, to which centrally the sociology of conventions counts (Corcuff 2017; Diaz-Bone 2011a; Nachi 2015). The French Neopragmatism since the 2000s. Also more and more attention in the German-speaking sociologies. […] In France, sociologists are also in a closer exchange with economics, law, philosophy and history, and they are also asked to cooperate and are taken seriously – as is the case with the sociology of conventions, which is first present in economics and then interdisciplinary (as ‘economics of convention’ […]). ” (p. 8/10-11)

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Quatre interventions d’Olivier Favereau sur l’entreprise et la loi Pacte

Xerfi Canal a reçu Olivier Favereau, économiste, professeur émérite de sciences économiques à l’université Paris-Nanterre (2020)

L’entreprise n’appartient pas à ses actionnaires !

A qui appartient l’entreprise ou qui appartient à l’entreprise ?

Les limites de la loi PACTE : l’entreprise et intérêt général

Loi pacte : déception sur la démocratisation de la gouvernance d’entreprise

«Aux origines de la rareté»

Radio session on France Culture 12 June 2020 with André Orléan. Podcast online

La science économique pose traditionnellement la rareté à la base de la rivalité économique entre les hommes. Mais peut-on envisager l’inverse ? Que la rivalité soit première et institutionnalise la rareté ? De Smith à Sartre, quel est le visage de la rareté ?

« Toute aventure humaine, au moins jusqu’ici, est une lutte acharnée contre la rareté”. Voilà ce qu’écrit Jean-Paul Sartre en 1960 dans la Critique de la raison dialectique. Comment passer en effet de la rareté à l’abondance ? Voilà un problème économique qui a interpellé les plus grands penseurs, d’Adam Smith à Keynes en passant par Walras.

“Pour Keynes comme pour Marx, le capitalisme fait partie de la préhistoire de l’humanité. Chez eux, le capitalisme est même un état assez déplorable mais qui est nécessaire pour l’advenue d’une société d’abondance.” (André Orléan)

To the origins of scarcity

Economic science traditionally lays scarcity at the root of economic rivalry between men. But can the reverse be envisaged? That the rivalry is primary and institutionalizes scarcity? From Smith to Sartre, what is the face of scarcity?

“Any human adventure, at least up to now, is a bitter struggle against scarcity”. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1960 in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Indeed, how can we go from scarcity to abundance? This is an economic problem that has challenged the greatest thinkers, from Adam Smith to Keynes to Walras.

“For Keynes as for Marx, capitalism is part of the prehistory of humanity. For them, capitalism is even a rather deplorable state, but necessary for the development of an affluent society.” (André Orléan)

Penser l’engagement solidaire en temps de crise

Interview with Tommaso Vitale (2020)

Revue projet. Online access.


La crise sanitaire mondiale que nous traversons questionne fortement notre engagement solidaire, de surcroit en condition de confinement. Comment assurer une présence active auprès des personnes les plus vulnérables ? Quelles relations tisser ? Comment nourrir une appartenance commune ? Pour en discuter, nous avons interrogé le sociologue Tommaso Vitale, professeur à Sciences Po Paris. Italien travaillant en France, il nous partage son regard sur ce qui émerge de part et d’autre des Alpes.

Thinking about solidarity commitment in times of crisis.


The global health crisis that we are going through strongly questions our commitment to the soil and air, especially in conditions of containment. How can we ensure an active presence among the most vulnerable people? What relationships should be forged? How can we nourish a common belonging? To discuss this, we interviewed the sociologist Tommaso Vitale, professor at Sciences Po Paris. An Italian working in France, he shares his views on what is emerging on both sides of the Alps.

From economics to social sciences: conventions and pragmatism are inevitable

Interview with Elisabeth Chatel

Andrea Szukala (University of Muenster)

Elisabeth Chatel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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