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Investments in Forms: Background and Continuing Developments

Laurent Thévenot (2024)

In Rainer Diaz-Bone & Guillemette de Larquier (eds.), Handbook of economics and sociology of conventions. Cham: Springer, Online first

Abstract. Implementing conventions does not only result from shared mental references (representations, values, beliefs). The power to coordinate uncertain actions is supported by the environment, once the agent takes it in a form made convenient by “investments in forms” [IF] such as classifications, labels, standards, benchmarks, good practices, instructions, etc. The costs and sacrifices required to give form result, as “returns on investment”, in the benefits of coordination from one situation to another, between human beings and their environment. IFs are characterized by the spatial and temporal extension of their validity and by their material solidity. IFs give a significant materialist impetus to the program of economics and sociology of conventions (EC/SC) by an environmental decentering of agency.
Once defined (1), IF is contextualized within the contested heritage of “symbolic forms” recast by Durkheim, Bourdieu, Foucault, Latour and Callon’s Actor-Network-Theory [ANT] (2). IF is then (3) situated at the crossroads of Thévenot’s sociology of “social coding” and Eymard-Duvernay’s economics of “specific investments”. Initial reception and critical discussion first focused on labor studies, industrial relations, and organizational theory. Subsequent developments (4) have integrated the concept into a broader analytical framework. They offer an environmental perspective on the architectures of communities and selves. Investments in standardized and certified forms govern across national boundaries while the new formatting of human beings in education and health care comes ever closer to living bodies. Lessons are drawn in conclusion (5) about the critical tension that is inherent in the investment and engagement of forms.

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