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.

Convention and the Origins of Ownership

Rory Smead & Patrick Forber (2020)

Philosophy of Science 87(5), pp. 884–896

Abstract. We examine contemporary game-theoretic accounts of ownership as a convention. New results from dynamic networks complicate matters, suggesting that if ownership is conventional, it should not be as prevalent as it seems to be. In fact, such models reveal a tendency toward antiownership norms. The value of resources may be crucial: low stakes lead to conventional ownership, but ownership norms rarely evolve; high stakes lead to a predominance of ownership at the cost of its conventionality. We argue that conventional ownership norms can originate in nonconventional ways and discuss some philosophical implications.

Link to the review