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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.

References

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.