Laurent Thévenot: "New forms of power: standards and measurable objectives"

Laurent Thévenot (Alexei Kouprianov, Wikipedia).
Laurent Thévenot (Alexei Kouprianov, Wikipedia).

Institutional Communication Service

14 February 2017

Conventions, such as industrial standards, govern today much of our economic and social activities. A convention is a behavioral pattern that is established and to which individuals adapt (for example, traffic codes). One of the economic consequences of conventions is the reduction of transaction costs. Since the 1980s in Paris, they have become the central element of the so-called "convention economy". Among the founders of this school of thought is the French sociologist Laurent Thévenot who, together with his colleague Luc Boltanski, published in 1987 'Les économies de la grandeur', a text translated into many languages. The new theory questioned the assumption that the economy was solely regulated by the market and competition, thus studying the multitude of conventions and those governing our daily way of life (law, customs, social codes, etc.) that help to shape and coordinate our actions. Professor Thévenot was invited by the USI Institute of Marketing and Communication on Wednesday, 26 October 2016, on the Lugano campus, for a conference on 'New forms of power: the role of certification standards'. 

Prof. Thévenot, you are among the founders of the economics of convention. Can you explain what it means?

This trend on conventions in economics, economical sociology and sociology, which has now spread in French, English and German language, challenges the main assumption of orthodox economics, which regard market competition coordination as the unique or normatively preferable mode of coordination. Instead, the "Economics of conventions" explores the plurality of conventions (from legal norms to local customs) which contribute to the coordination of action in worlds of uncertainty, their search for legitimacy, and their critical tensions the possibilities of compromises (Boltanski & Thévenot On Justification).

Certification standards: are they conventions, too? In which way?

Among conventions, standards, which originated in industry are nowadays developing in all domains, reach our everyday life and are used to certify not only market goods and services but also even cities, leading to what I called "governing through standards".

Should we trust them? Are they not an arbitrary decision?

Although standards have been frequently part of State sovereignty, in the protection of citizens from fraud, they are mainly private nowadays. In some cases, large-scale standards (ISO) are discussed between representatives from various national standards organizations. Yet in most cases, the ethical and political legitimacy of standardizing conventions is not systematically addressed, in contrast to legal conventions.

Who makes the decisions? Is it fair?

As an agreement between some experts and actors concerned, standard setting is not a fair process although it covers nowadays ethical and political issues (fair-trade, sustainability, labor rights for market goods). In reaction to criticisms against this lack of fairness, recent global transnational standards have implemented "round-tables" between "stakeholders", such as the "Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil" which we have been studying in detail with Emmanuelle Cheyns. Our research showed that this structure, which regulates the certification standard, does not allow the weakest and more numerous "smallholders" (small planters) to voice and fully express their complaints.

Is what has happened until now (e.g. industries like Volkswagen) the proof that they are a call to “disobey”? Are they something more?

Since the main source of power on others' action, without direct personal subordination, rests on coordination conventional forms, actors frequently aim at their strategic manipulation. The Volkswagen scandal pointed to the simple possibility of untruthfulness and cheating. Yet research is needed to investigate more complex strategies to influence standards.

Will we ever get rid of conventions? On the other hand, will we have to live with more and more of them?

Conventions, and the heavy material infrastructure which support them, make the difference between human beings coordination and other non-human animals' one. They are designed to avoid the need for constant reaffirmation of direct strength. Since coordination conventions are main sources of power, we should not leave them to the domain of technical expertise but address their content and legitimacy in public and critical debates.