Delphine Remillon

INED’s researcher tells us about the book "A dictionary of conventions"

(Interview conducted in December 2016)

What is French economics of conventions?

The term refers to an economics approach developed in France in the mid-1980s by economists and sociologists. Many of the economists involved were working at INSEE on the question of what statistical conventions to use as a foundation for quantification and assessment. Conventions correspond to collective representations, shared references that can be used to resolve problems of coordination in uncertain environments. They are conventional in the sense that they constitute one among several possible solutions and can always be called into question or changed. Economics of conventions analysis is therefore necessarily dynamic. According to Olivier Favereau, one of the founders and drivers of this approach, the aim is “not so much to provide a better theory as to open up the language of economic theory altogether.” The notion of conventions is already present in Keynes’ work, where it designates what guides financial market operators in their anticipations and interpretations. But there are many other areas where uncertainty prevails and conventions are needed to manage it: production activities (product quality conventions and business models), hiring, health systems, etc.

What was your purpose in publishing this dictionary?

We wanted to publish a work in honor of Olivier Favereau, who was retiring. As the response to the project was very strong and many authors wanted to participate, we decided on a dictionary. Contributors wrote short texts related to their particular research areas but that use and cite works in economics of conventions. The aim was also to establish the position and impact of the convention concept and related issues in the social sciences today.

The dictionary includes entries on such thinkers as Herbert Simon, Émile Durkheim and John Rawls; also on a subjects as varied as “health”, “art”, and “company”.

Yes, the work could be described as “a non-standard dictionary of conventions”—the title of our introduction. Beyond the reference to the categories of “standard” and “non-standard theory” that Olivier Favereau formulated in 1989, the expression clarifies that not all dictionary entries cover the key economics-of-conventions concepts. Not all 75 contributing authors are exclusively “conventionalists”. Olivier Favereau’s thinking—the starting point for this dictionary—has brought together researchers from a range of different disciplines, initiating a dialogue between economics of conventions and their own research. The diversity of the entries is an original means of accessing a considerable number of contemporary social science debates.

Can economics of conventions be used in economic demography?

Various dictionary entries illustrate the connections between the two. In Olivier Thévenon’s text, for example, the family is presented as a social entity based on a series of conventions that are in fact shared representations of the family and of the relationships that compose it. Probing those conventions is a means of understanding types of family cooperation and what drives that cooperation, how some family configurations become stable or evolve, and the conventions on which family policy is based. My entry on “careers,” which analyses unemployment histories, shows the usefulness of economics of conventions for understanding individual trajectories. Critical moments in those trajectories often arise from tensions between different representations, assessments and, more specifically, conventions.
Generally speaking, economics of conventions, like economic demography, is concerned  to take into account and use tools and contributions from other disciplines.