PRAGMATIC REGIMES GOVERNING THE ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD
in Knorr-Cetina, K., Schatzki, T. Savigny Eike v. (eds.), The Practice Turn in Contemporary
Theory, London, Routledge, 2001, pp. pp.56-73.
*Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,
Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (EHESS-CNRS), Paris.
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 2
"We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
(The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1924, p.19) 1
The social sciences have benefited greatly from the elaboration of a concept of "practice" that contrasts
sharply with the model of rationally calculated action. "Practice" brings into view activities which are
situated, corporeal, and shaped by habits without reflection. This notion has been extraordinarily successful
and has now been extended to cover every sort of human activity. Not surprisingly, this success has
generated debate and revealed problems in this extended usage which covers an enormous diversity of
behaviors designated by that term. From one branch of the social sciences to another, the specific character
of what counts as a practice differs significantly. Yet, applied with decreasing rigor, the category serves
today as a sort of cement for the social sciences. It may be said that the felicity of the concept come from its
extraordinary breadth. It points equally well to agency of the most personal or intimate kind and to agency
that is collective, public or institutional. But the obvious cost of this extension is that it hinders the detailed
clarification of differences between types of agency. This is important because these differences are a major
feature of our contemporary societies.
The differentiation of "pragmatic regimes" is the main part of my research I want to clarify in this paper. In
order to characterize a concept of pragmatic regime and the way it differs from practice, I shall work through
two basic questions which I find insufficiently addressed by most usages of practice. One concerns what I
shall refer to as a lack of realism: theories of practice typically do not provide good accounts of our dynamic
confrontation with the world. The other concerns the moral element in practice which shapes the evaluative
process governing any pragmatic engagement.
I begin this essay with some reasons why I am concerned by to differentiate regimes. This will bring me to
comment on the two problems raised by the concept of "practice" as a way to introduce the most basic
elements of my own approach. 2 A second part of the essay offers a more concrete picture of the type of
pragmatic versatilityrequired in everyday life in contemporary society. Three commonplace and related
scenes, ranging from the most intimate to the most public, will help us to see how best to characterize the
configurations of activity. Part three advances the general features of my analytical framework, organized
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 3
around a differentiation of three main pragmatic regimes: familiarity, regular planning, and justification.
This allows us to bring out into the open the ways we detach ourselves from proximity and enter a public
space where critique and legitimate justifications hold sway. It will make clear the benefits and the costs of
such a move in contrast to the possibilities offered by more local regimes.
1. WHY DO WE NEED TO RECAST THE CONCEPTS OF PRACTICE AND ACTION IN SOCIAL
The concepts of practice or action constitute the elementary bricks of any construction in social sciences.
Reforming these concepts is a serious undertaking. Nonetheless, many social scientists are today involved in
such a task. The Sociology of Science and Knowledge (SSK) greatly contributed to this enterprise, with the
help of some philosophers of science and knowledge. I have followed a different road to arrive at a political
and moral sociology of an "equipped" or "furnished" humanity (Thévenot 2000a).3 Therefore, my approach
involving the plurality of pragmatic regimes is driven by an effort to relate them to a variation of scope in the
delimitation of what is good. However, by contrast to most political and moral philosophers, I am deeply
concerned by the various ways the natural and artificial equipment of the human world is involved in diverse
conceptions of the good. I shall defend a kind of realist orientation which departs from many philosophical
views but also from major trends in social constructivism.
The versatility of agency in contemporary societies : Engaging in a plurality of pragmatic regimes
It is not only the variety of activities covered by the term “practice” which pose a problem. In addition, one
must also take into account figures of action which, beyond showing habit and the body, point towards
intentions and plans, or towards forms of activity that require reflective argumentation. I am concerned with
the fact that in our contemporary societies human beings constantly need to change the scope of their
engagement, shifting along a scale between greater or lesser generality. The differentiation of pragmatic
regimes illuminates this necessity of moving between modes of intervention and agency engaged in local or
individual circumstances and those modes oriented towards the general or the public.
One of the canonical debates in the social sciences distinguishes between macrosocial structures and
microsocial behaviors. This has elicited various attempts to integrate these two levels -- notably by Bourdieu
and Giddens -- by way of conceptual schemes that show the circulation between reciprocally “structuring”
and “structured” elements. Like other researchers, I have given special attention to the contribution made by
agents in this integration. My research first examined the agents’ capacities to move from particularized
situations to general forms according to operations of “investment of form” (Thévenot 1984) which are
grounded in a relation to things and their transformation. These operations shape the world by forging
likeness and contribute to homogenization, across contexts, in the treatment of people and things
(classifications, codes, standards, etc.).4 Having identified these operations of making people and things
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 4
general, it became necessary to relate these "invested forms" to certain modes of coordinated action which
are conceived as more legitimate than others and for which these “shaped beings” are qualified. The next
step was realized in collaboration with Luc Boltanski. We related these operations of generalization to the
issue of legitimate evaluation, that is to the problem of ranking people and things in relation to conceptions
of the common good within a public regime of critique and justification.
I introduce here my subsequent research. It returns to the issue of practice and action. I want to situate a
public regime in a variety of more local regimes of engagement, in order to analyze this demanding and
strenuous pragmatic versatility which is required by our contemporary societies.
The lack of realism: Which reality is engaged?
Sociologists have heavily relied on practices viewed as habits, dispositions, routines, customs and traditions
to account for static perpetuation and reproduction of social order. There are some exceptions.5 The
inheritors of pragmatism emphasize the dynamics of practice and creativity (Joas 1993). De Certeau was
concerned to elaborate such a dynamics and thereby oppose the rigidity of Bourdieu's habitus (1972) and
Foucault's disciplinary arrangements (1975). He opened the path to "a science of everyday life" which
acknowledges the creative character of disseminated tactics and usages that resist the "monotheism" of
panoptical and formal disciplines (de Certeau 1990 ).
My approach aims to account for not only the movements of an actor but also the way his
environment responds to him and the way he takes into account theses responses. That is what I refer to as
the "realism" of each regime. Most conceptions of practice pay little attention to this type of responsiveness.
In my view, it is a matter of central importance. As long as the practice is seen as regular and stable, it can
hardly be viewed as a realistic adjustment to a resistant, changing and transformed world. Thus, it becomes
important for me to conceive of the dynamic aspects of activities, even where these are accounted for in the
static terms of practice, routine, or habit. Worry over this kind of realism has been disqualified by
sociologists who discarded the conception of a reality "out there", and who have spent much effort to
elaborate the alternative concept of a "constructed social reality". But the dynamics of this material
engagement between an agent and his environment is a central issue in my conception of pragmatic regimes.
Differentiating regimes brings to light variations in the relevant reality which is put to a test in the dynamics
of each kind of pragmatic engagement. The relevant reality depends on the different ways one has to “take
hold” of the environment.6
The absent moral element: Which good is engaged?
The second problem concerns the force that governs each pragmatic regime. Too many candidates present
themselves: value, norm, belief, interest, disposition, etc. In my view, the force is based on some conception
of the good. This conception differs from one regime to the other. The moral element is crucial. It is the
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 5
reason why pragmatic regimes are social. It drives both the agent in his conduct and determines the way
other agents take hold of or “seize” this conduct. This element might also be called "making sense of” if we
are clear that much more is at stake than meaning, language, and understanding.7 It originates in a notion of
the good that grounds each regime. In fact, my aim is to re-moralize sociology. It would be easy to
misunderstand what is meant by this, so I raise a flag of caution. For, by the moral element I mean various
conceptions of the good, and these appear in places where social scientists usually identify causal factors
such as interests or dispositions and not only in "morality" in the narrowed sense.
This brings us face-to-face with a main problem of modern social sciences. The question of the good is
inadequately addressed. I contend that the previously mentioned candidates for governing practice, or
action, are avatars of the good which result from the modeling of social sciences on the pattern of natural
sciences. With its inaugural rupture from political and moral philosophy, sociology distanced itself from
ideas of good. As a result, sociologists tend to mistrust such ideas because they are reminiscent of the moral
and political philosophy from which they believe to have liberated themselves. They replaced them with
concepts - like "norms" or "values" - which are supposed to be neutral and descriptive. This has led to the
strange situation in which most sociologists, while deeply concerned with political and moral issues
(sometimes overtly, sometimes not), generally offer accounts of the social world which poorly acknowledge
actors' preoccupation with the good.8
Worry over the good - whatever might be its definition and scope - has been currently transformed into a
category of "social norm". Thus, this category offers an opportunity to examine the reduction of the good to
a law-like regularity, within the frame of a classical conception of social practice. "Social practice"
designates a model of human behavior which is congruent with the Durkheimian perspective: regular
conduct to which the members of the same collective conform. The realism of this social practice is the kind
of objectivity which is typical of what Durkheim called a “social fact.” This objectivity holds as much for
the researcher as for the person implicated in the practice. For the sociologist, it is expressed when the
regularity and the collective character of practices is translated into scientific laws with the help of social
statistics. What about the good of social practices? Mauss conflates social practices with institutions (Mauss
1971 )and the concept of institution suggest some connection to a common good. But Mauss does not
elaborate such a good. The superposition of regularity and collective in the notion of institution has been
formerly made in two steps. First, Quetelet's construction of "l'homme moyen" in emerging social
statistics (Desrosières 1998 ) equated the mean of a series of human beings with the moral ideal.
Second, Durkheim gave a twist to Rousseau's political philosophy and assimilated his conception of a civic
general interest with a factual collective. Laws created by human beings become laws of regular and
therefore objective behaviors (Thévenot 1994a). Grounded by the operation of the statistical mean, “norm”
appeared in sociological theory as a powerful way to incorporate within an objective account of behavior the
significance of “the good” even while radically reducing its moral force. This approach was consistent with
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 6
the project of the social sciences to adopt the bases and models of natural science (Thévenot 1995b).
Linking the reality and the good engaged: Regimes of engagement
The problem may be summarized as follows. The category of "social norm" closely follows the definition of
the social; but the social also supports objectivity; hence, the sociological avatar of the good happens to be
very similar to sociological objectivity so that both categories are easily collapsed into the single core notion
Therein lies the problem. This reduction obliterates the main tension that human beings have to
resolve and which I view at the basis of all regimes. This general tension is between some kind of good
which governs the intervention and some sort of response that comes back to the agent from reality. I employ
the term engagement precisely because it captures the link between these two orientations. When used in
theories of practice, it usually signifies a material adjustment with the world. But it has a second acceptance
which points to a moral or political covenant.9
This second aspect makes explicit the agent's commitment to some kind of good. I contend that the kind of
pragmatic articulation between the two orientations, the engaged good and the engaged reality, is what
makes for the force of each regime. The notion of good needs to be put to a reality test where it is realized in
the evaluation of some performance. Symmetrically, the capture of relevant pieces of reality depends on the
outline of some good. This interdependence is precisely what turns a mode of adjustment into a common
régime. And this is eventually the characterization I would offer of the social.
2. FROM PERSONAL CONVENIENCE TO COLLECTIVE CONVENTIONS
I now turn to a concrete story which deploys different modes of engagement with the environment to
illustrate the way human beings are compelled to shift from one mode to the other. I will highlight the kind
of good which governs the engagement (varying from personal and local convenience to collective and
legitimate conventions) and the kind of realism which orients the way to treat the environment.
2.1. A scenario of pragmatic versatility
Personal and local convenience
When I have to present my research on pragmatic regimes to a new audience, I often develop my account by
starting from a widely shared set of "practices" which might be covered by the phrase: "inhabiting a home".
I ask people to give very concrete examples of the reason why their home is personally convenient, and to
point to how they accommodate a familiar environment. 10 To provide such examples in public is not an easy
task; indeed this difficulty is part of the issue I want to address. People feel embarrassed to publicize
practices which they rightly view as part of their intimate personality. What we call "pudeur" in French, or
what the British have refined with the spatial and moral conception of "decency, hinders such publicity.
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 7
Elias and Goffman devoted a large part of their work to the study of public civility and to the management of
the self in public. But we need to pay as much attention to the familiar engagement which is wrecked by the
People meet another interesting difficulty in their testimonies. The everyday use of language, which is such
an efficient means to carry an event by a discursive representation, is not very suitable to picture these
familiar practices. Persons would do better to show me photographs or invite me to visit their home and
refrain from anything but a very indexical use of language. Young people are more inclined to disclose the
gestures of accommodation by which they aim at a personal and local convenience. A Russian student
admits, blushing slightly, that he puts most of his clothes in an old armchair now entirely dedicated to this
usage normally reserved to a shelf. A Mexican girl refers to the way she arranged a table with piles of books
supporting a board. An American graduate mentions tinkering with his rickety car, with an adjustable
wrench in place of a missing door handle. A French man mentions the peculiar way he found to hold the
match and simultaneously press the gas button to turn on his old water-heater.
"Intimate" familiarization evokes a direct corporal implication, the idea of a tight union between bodily
gestures and an environment which makes for highly local convenience. The dynamics of the relationship
between the human and non-human entities which compose familiar surroundings are highly dependent on
personal and local clues that were made out as salient features for adjustment in the commerce with all these
familiar beings. In this regime, agents are guided by a wide range of sensorial data, including not only visual
but also tactile, auditory, and olfactory clues, as well as indications from spatial positioning (Conein et
Jacopin 1993). Such clues are very widely distributed in the web of connections which sustain familiarity.
None of this familiar accommodation is "social" in the sense of "social practices" which designate
collectively aligned gestures. Other persons might get accustomed to my home if they cooperate in
accommodating this habitat into a convenient setting. It does not follow that they have identified the same
clues for their own use, since these marks depend strongly on the person and on his or her "path -dependant"
process of learning. The resulting "collective", if we can speak of any, spreads from one person to the next
and is deeply supported by the familiarized environment. The arduous and gradual task of becoming capable
of living with another person’s environment does not actually consist in "sharing" objects or practices. It
requires getting accustomed to another personality through connection with that other person's used habitat
and familiar world. This process involves weaving and extending the web of all these idiosyncratic linkages
with an entourage. By contrast, the clues which have been deposited during the tuning process are not
available to any unfamiliar visitor who might enter the appropriated habitat. Such mannerisms will appear
bizarre to any observer lacking the intimate knowledge that has been learned through a long process of
accommodation. This intrusion of an "outsider" leads us to the next scene which is governed by a more
conventional arrangement of the world.
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 8
When speaking to a young audience, I usually refer to a painful but common experience which introduces
the critical encounter between the regime of familiarity just considered and the one we shall consider in this
section. I ask them to recount the scene when they were asked by their parents, as children, to put their room
into order. Indeed, it is part of the empirical methodology developed by Boltanski and myself to work on
such critical situations, paying close attention to the kind of tensions which are at stake.11
Such critical situations induce the agents to disclose the pragmatic requirements of each regime in terms of
the engaged good and reality. Young people are very loquacious when it comes to such upsetting
happenings. They are inclined to criticize an undue authority or rule which reduces their local arrangement
and even their personality by calling it a “mess.” To facilitate a more balanced view on both regimes and
distance from the heteronomous imposition of an order, I would ask my students to imagine the following
move from the first to the second scene: "leaving your home for an internship, you propose that a friend
comes to live in your room during this period." Most people arrive quickly at the following point. However
convenient our familiar belongings are for us and other cohabitants, we cannot leave the environment in a
state which, from the newcomer's point of view, appears to be nothing but a mess. To allow an unfamiliar
visitor a conventional utilization, the first thing to do is to put our home and belongings in a different sort of
order, one that is appropriate for a regime of engagement based on regular action and utility. To do this, we
must destroy a fair amount of the familiar capacity of the complex web of our habitat. In addition, we need
to restore to their normal state the things that were heavily used, in spite of the fact that we had found ways
and clues to handle them with great success. The armchair regains its utilization for sitting, the books are
made available for reading, the car handle is fixed to serve as a conventional handle, detailed instructions are
added to the water-heater.
However, this configuration of conventional utility and regular action includes substantial latitude within the
particular way to achieve the action and concerning the state of the object. What counts as "good working
order" is supposed to be common knowledge, but no warranty of any sort can lead to a more precise
qualification. Everyday narrative use of language, with its loose denomination of actions and objects, is
sufficient to monitor the propriety of the engagement. This is in marked contrast with both "personal and
local convenience of the first scene and "collective conventions" to which we come in the third and last
Legitimate conventions of qualification
In which circumstances does the previous regime of engagement happen to be insufficient to handle an
agent's commerce with people and things? When do we have recourse to a more conventionalized way to
seize beings and their relationships? The following answer, frequently given by someone among the
audience, offers a good opportunity to explore the shift to a third regime governed by conventions with the
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 9
highest degree of legitimacy. The new situation is created when the home is rented. The extension of the
good which governs the engagement goes a step further, resulting in a more conventionalized handling of
persons and things. We imagine that things are not going well for the tenant. An accident occurs because
the newcomer to the home did not know how to handle adequately one of the appliances. Such mishaps
normally result in nothing more than polite and mutual apologies for misuse and misinformation concerning
the appliance. But perhaps the guest or the host are particularly acerbic people, or the accident is serious
enough to raise questions about responsibility. The format of "conventional utility" used to capture things
and their relations to people was fine while everything was running smoothly. It is not sufficient when a
dispute arises, however, because it assumes a large tolerance concerning the regular utilization of objects.
Should the dispute grow, both parties would go beyond the implicit assumptions of an object in "good
working order." They would begin to refer to general principles of efficiency (of the car handle), or safety
(of the water-heater), or market price (of the books), or patrimony (of the antique armchair), to justify their
claims. They would ground their arguments on broad conventional requirements that human or non-human
entities need to satisfy in order to "qualify" for being offered as evidence of the argument. If the issue is
efficiency, the "qualification" is clearly different from the case where price is at stake. And things or persons
are put to different tests. For instance, by referring to operating instructions, disputants question the action
of the user. They may attempt to identify "misuse" and thereby disqualify the other party as incompetent.
Or they might point to the "deficient behavior" of the object in terms of efficiency to identify a "defect" and
thus disqualify the object. By contrast, efficiency would not be a good test if the market value of a torn book
is at stake. In that case, qualification would be based on price. Each characterization indicates that the thing
is relevant for some general form of evaluation which orients the kind of repair appropriate to the incident.
The dispute leads the parties to make reference to the most legitimate collective conventions. The arguments
and the evidence which back up their claims rely on conventionalized linguistic terms and entities.
I chose to locate the scenario in a home space but I could as well have placed it on a different stage, for
example the commerce with a ticket selling machine in a public space (Bréviglieri 1997), or the workplace.
In this latter case, conventional qualifications would commonly be more prevalent, while personal and local
convenience are less commonly taken into account.12
2.2. Lessons to be drawn from observed pragmatic versatility
The three scenes discussed above offer a first way of seeing the plurality of modes of engaging the world. I
am now in a better position to comment on the analytical options introduced in the first section and to
confront them with other orientations in the literature on practice.
The relation between human agency and material environment
I share with series of authors in the sociological tradition a main interest in the relation between human
agency and material environment. Unlike Durkheim, Mauss’ notion of practice goes beyond a consideration
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 10
of social sanctions to take into account bodily gestures, or "techniques du corps," and the agents’s
dependence on a local environment (Mauss 1934). This figure stresses an agent's ability to adjust his
gestures to a natural or artificial environment. This interest in what shall be called later an "ecological"
approach to activity is illustrated, for instance, by Mauss' regrets that telegraph workers do not generally
climb the "primitive" way, with the help of a belt around the pole and their body (Mauss 1934). Mauss'
interest in a dynamics of adjustment which encompasses gestures, objects, and natural elements of the
environment was a guiding inspiration for all the work of Leroi-Gourhan -- who pointed to the risk of
"pouring the social realm into material realm" (Leroi-Gourhan 1964: 210) -- and Haudricourt (Haudricourt
1987, Sigaut ed.). Among sociological literature, works on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK)
have been unusually concerned with the relation between human agency and material environment and have
traced many avenues of research in this direction. The sociology of scientific controversies developed by
Latour (1987) and Callon (1985) pictures human agency as the a posteriori attributions that result from the
network linkage between human beings and non-human entities (Callon and Latour 1981). Recent literature
on the role played by the material environment in action and cognition (Conein, Dodier and Thévenot, 1993;
Conein and Thévenot, 1997) connects with perspectives in cognitive anthropology and cultural studies that
stress the fact that human cognition is strongly dependant on the environment of objects (Lave 1988;
Norman 1989). Karin Knorr-Cetina considers laboratories as sites of both enhanced nature and enhanced
agents (1992). Extending her work on the "manufacture of science" (1981), her studies of the "ontologies of
organisms and machines" in experimental arenas (1993) looks for "symbolic repertoires" through which "the
structure of things is reset in an epistemic practice." In her theory of practice, Knorr refers to the active
element as “tinkering” (Knorr-Cetina 1981). Pickering discusses this element under the term "tuning," which
designates the "delicate material positioning" so important to practice. This idea supports his argument that
"material agency" is temporally emergent in relation to practice (Pickering 1995). Ethnomethodologists
have been particularly attentive to the settings of action and to the methodological devices which produce a
meaningful world (Garfinkel 1967). Cicourel's cognitive sociology illuminated the way the actor perceives
and interprets his environment, recognizing what is 'familiar' or 'acceptable' (1974). Material devices such as
photographs and schemas strongly contribute to the scientist's alleged synthesizing capacity (Lynch 1985). 13
I see a risk in the characterization of the relation between the agent and his environment in terms of symbolic
work, meaning, understanding, interpretation, etc. This risk is increased by researchers seeking a
"comprehensive sociology" which conceptualizes the social as starting from common frames of
understanding rather than pragmatic engagements. It leads to that particular anti-realism of which social
constructionist views are often accused. 14
The social character of the relation between human agency and material environment
My own approach is different and it goes this way. First, I situate each kind of human agency within a
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 11
particular way of engaging with the material environment. I am not only concerned with bodily adjustments.
Since human beings live in social relationships with others, my second step is to examine their ways of
adjusting to the world in light of a particular mode of coordination. My contention is that coordination with
other human beings (and oneself, from one moment to the next) presupposes that the agent makes use of
models of activity to take hold of what happens. What is at stake is not simply a matter of “representation”
or “interpretation”: these models are used to monitor one's own conduct and are put to the test of effective
coordination with other beings (or oneself) and with the material world. Then, I include in the analysis the
agent's modeling which contributes to coordination. 15 The third step is the elucidation of what makes certain
modes of coordination commonly enforced and, as such, "social". Let us consider this last step in more
The familiar gestures of the first scene, with all their singularity, clearly move us away from the idea of
"social" action in the sense of an act oriented towards other people. They also break with the idea of a
"social practice" which derives from customs, beliefs, symbols, or dispositions shared at the core of a
collectivity. Although Bourdieu expressed an initial interest in familiarity, my view on familiar engagement
differs from what he says in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972). The notion of habitus, which Bourdieu
elaborated as the centerpiece of his theory of the reproduction of social order, short-circuits the analysis of
the personalized and localized dynamics of familiarity.16 Bourdieu was too concerned to make a solid
connection between the level of bodily habits and the Mauss-Durkheim level of regular and collective "social
practices".17 All the dynamics and personally inventive adjustments are fundamentally impeded by the
assumed collective alignment and permanence of habitus which are needed to explain the reproduction of
order. Also referring in his own way to the classical notion of habitus, Merleau-Ponty captures more
precisely the personal process of familiar accommodation between the human agent armed with a perceiving
body and the objects in his or her environment. He considers senses as "apparatuses to make concretions
from an inexhaustible material" (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 245), the body being "a system of holds on the world"
Personal and local convenience shows that the social character of the relation between human agency and
material environment cannot result from an idea of a collective of shared practices. This relation is
supported by idiosyncratic and path-dependent gestures. What is shared is not the gesture which might be
hardly understandable, but the mode of engagement from which this gesture gets its propriety (Thévenot
1990b). 18 The three scenes recounted above presented variations of the kinds of propriety which govern the
relation between human agents and their environment. I used terms from the family "convenir" (which
means literally "to go with") to designate these variations: personal and local convenience, conventional
utilization, collective conventions. 19 Obviously, I do not intend the classical conventionalist approach which
is often involved in social constructivism. Propriety does not imply the conformist alignment of practices
but leaves a place for creative dynamics.20 At the heart of propriety is the kind of evaluation which governs
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 12
these dynamics.21 As was stated in the first section and exemplified in the second, a notion of the good
specifies the relevant reality.
This connection between realism and evaluation requires a significant move from the clear-cut classical
fact/value distinction.22 The next section is dedicated to this issue and to the presentation of the main
features through which I identify and differentiate a range of pragmatic regimes.
3. WAYS OF ENGAGING THE WORLD
3.1. The notion of pragmatic regime and its main features
Each pragmatic régime that I analyzed is adopted as a common stance to capture events and agents for the
purpose of active intervention. In that sense, it is "social". A full account of this adoption would require
more space than the present essay permits. Thus, I shall provide just a sketch of the line of argument here.
Pragmatic regimes are social devices which govern our way of engaging with our environment inasmuch as
they articulate two notions: a) an orientation towards some kind of good; b) a mode of access to reality. Let
me now summarize the main characteristics of regimes (cf. table).
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 13
Pragmatic Regimes of Engagement
Regime of familiarity Regime of regular
Regime of justification
Which good is
engaged? With what
Personal and local
convenience, within a
of the common good
Which reality is
engaged? With what
Usual and used
a distributed capacity
Functional instrument 'Qualified' object
What is the format of
Local and idiosyncratic
Ordinary semantics of
Which kind of agency
A personality attached
to his or her entourage
Planner 'Qualified' person
Every regime is built on a delineation of the good. This notion is used to evaluate the state of people and
things and judge whether they are appropriately engaged. The extension of the good varies according to the
regime. When the evaluation has to meet the requirement of public justification, the good has to be a
legitimate common good. The good might be significantly more limited and mundane when it appears in the
achievement of some regular planned action. It might be even more personal and localized when it involves
some kind of usual attunement with well-known and near-by surroundings. The three scenes sketched in
section 2.1 above illustrated such variations of the scope of the good.
The relevant reality which puts the engagement to a test is connected to the outline of some good. Two
consequences result from this view on the agents' realism. In accord with the pragmatist tradition, I deal
with a reality which cannot be detached from some sort of activity or intervention (Cartwright 1983, Hacking
1983). By contrast to many pragmatists, however, I do not hold to a uniform notion of action when figuring
out human interventions which encounter the resistance of reality. A familiar manipulation will not give
access to the same kind of reality as a regular planned action which involves a functional environment, or an
act which is open to public critique and takes into account qualified evidence. Which type of reality offers
resistance to activity depends on the good, and the dependence is actualized by the pragmatic engagement.
A central feature of the dynamics of engagement consists in the clues, or marks, or qualities, that the agent
uses to take hold of or capture the environment and to evaluate the success of his or her engagement through
revision and creation. The analysis of different regimes demands that social researchers pay as much
attention to the distinct formats through which actors take hold of their material environment (through
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 14
functions, properties, clues, etc: Thévenot 1993) as to the ways actors deal with their human environment.
The standard notion of "information usually obscures this variety of formats because it presupposes a
standardized coded form.
It is only after having made clear the ways the good and reality are jointly engaged and articulated through a
specific form of evaluation that we can turn to the kind of capacity of the principal agent which is involved
in each pragmatic regime. 23 Beginning with the mode of engagement, it is possible to infer from it the
capacities and agencies that are consistent with this mode.
3.2. The conjunction of three main pragmatic regimes
In this final section I shall sketch the conjunction of three principal regimes, suggesting their
interconnections and the reasons why human beings have to shift from one to the other.
The regime of familiarity
The liberal notion of "privacy" does not capture the kind of good involved in the regime of familiarity.
Privacy assumes the individuality and autonomy which goes with free will and planning, i.e. with the kind of
human agency involved in the next regime. By contrast, the regime of familiarity rests on an accustomed
dependency with a neighborhood of things and people. The notion of "use" grasps this intimate relation to
the world but ordinarily lacks the dimension of care which reveals the kind of good engaged in a careful
tuning with a nearby environment. Reality is not sliced into clear-cut objects which are ready-made for a
regular utilization in accordance to their functional design. Things are worn out and fashioned by personal
use. Fragmentary and deeply anchored clues of "information" are laid down in a web of uses. The resulting
integrated capacity is particularly visible in the case of human-machine interaction because it contrasts with
the normal way of attributing functional properties to the machine, assuming that it is completely
independent from the worker who uses it.24 Human and non-human capacities are entangled : one could
either say that the things are personalized or that the personality is consolidated by surrounding things. This
regime displays the pragmatic requirements that sustain the format of personality which is among the ones
most commonly used to treat other human beings. Such human agency depends on the binding web of
familiarity ties illustrated in the first scene of the scenario which takes place at home ("chez moi"; in French,
literally: at my self). The web of customized attachments constitutes an extension of an "attached"
personality. It strongly contrasts with the agency of the autonomous individual which is involved in the
regime of planned action (and actually depends on the functional capacity of objects). The entities of the
regime of familiarity are not detached from the personality which appropriated them; rather, they enlarge his
or her surface and secure his or her maintenance. When the things we appropriate are customized, tamed, or
domesticated they maintain our intimate being.
This distributed capacity hinders the moral and legal process of attributing responsibility, since such
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 15
attribution requires an individualized and autonomous agency. The web of customized attachments does not
allow the detachment of capable (and eventually culpable) individualized entities, either human or objectal,
which is required for imputation. A type of management which fosters local and personal attunement to
flexibilize the workplace faces the difficulties of imputation in a "messy" place. An exemplary contrast is
offered by the spatial set-up of a workplace which fosters detachment. The physical separation of work-
stations and the standardization of machines and instructions facilitate imputation of responsibility against a
familiar type of collective (Thévenot 1997).
The regime of regular action
The regime of regular planned action mirrors a conception of action which is embedded in everyday
language and which has been widely explored in the philosophy of action. What difference does it make to
refer to this as a specific regime of engagement?
First, I am looking for a figure which agents use to handle what they do and what others do, in an effective
mode of coordination of their activity. It departs from a theoretical debate on "intentional action" as a
general model for all human behavior. 25 I am not considering one theory of action competing with others, but
one of the ways people grasp and monitor their engagement with their environment for an effective
coordination. In this respect, the idea of regimes of engagement converges partly with the view proposed by
Dennett (1987) when he suggests that we treat intentionality as a kind of "interpretative stance" which the
human actor adopts efficiently to deal with certain events and behaviors. Through empirical exploration of
the commerce with things, I have found many examples of people who reasonably attribute an intentional
planning agency to certain computerized artifacts which are endowed with refined cognitive abilities
(Thévenot 1994b).26 Second, I aim at a more balanced account of the different entities which are engaged,
i.e. a principal human agent and his/her environment. The classical view of intentional action concentrates
all the attention on the planning capacity of the human agent.27 In the regime which I identify, the
environment is seized in a format of functional capacity and the perspective I adopt brings to light the joint
elaboration of both intentional-planning agency and instrumental-functional capacity. Third, I want to relate
this regime to a kind of good to which agents are committed. Individual interest is often viewed, in social
and political sciences, as the universal cause of human action. By contrast, the analysis in terms of regimes
helps to see the pragmatic requirements which sustain an individual agency interested in the success of
his/her elementary action. The specific delimitation of the good which governs this engagement is both
related to the human individual willing agency, and to the functional preparation of the world. It is the good
of a fulfilled planned action.
From the above specification, we can view the limits of this regime. The absence of conventional markers,
or qualifications, is an obstacle to generalized evaluations which are needed in public disputes involving
critique and justification.
Pragmatic regimes (Thévenot) 16
The public regime of justification
The dynamics of the regime of critique and justification are discernible in disputes that display the kind of
arguments and proofs which demand the highest degree of legitimacy, as illustrated by the third scene above.
Boltanski and I identified the different orders of worth which constitute common forms of public evaluation
and which are grounded in the same grammar of the common good (Boltanski and Thévenot 1991).
Publicity puts a strain on the judgment which guides action. The critical test to which arrangements are put
requires that people and things qualify for this reality test. Qualifying is not only a categorization or the
creation of a typology; nor is it merely a convergence of beliefs. It depends heavily on capacities that can be
tested in relation to the different orders of worth. The third scene above showed how objects might qualify
as efficient tools, or commodities appropriate for marketing, or regulatory devices enforcing civic equality in
terms of health or safety in particular, or patrimonial assets that relate to the past and anchor trust. Other
qualifications relating to different orders of worth are signs supporting fame or creative innovations which
testify to inspiration. 28
Persons qualify jointly as: professionals or experts; dealers and customers; equal citizens; trustworthy and
authoritative people; celebrities, creators. The format of relevant information is always conventional.
Reports are much more formalist than the ordinary language used to narrate regular actions.
The three scenes recounted above also suggested the fact that this regime of justification is built on the
limitations met in the collective extension of the regime of regular planned action. When large-scale
coordination is needed, and this need is combined with the necessity of distant adjustments with anonymous
actors, the limited strategic interaction which rests on the mutual attribution of individual plans is no longer
appropriate. The dynamics of coordination require a reflexive and judgmental stance which can be viewed in
terms of the horizon of a third party.29
The concept of "practice" frequently points to repetitive and collective types of conduct. Bourdieu's social
theory offers a systematic picture of society based on a unique model of behavior guided, from one situation
to another, by the collective and stable force of the habitus. With Luc Boltanski, I explored an orthogonal
avenue of research. We wanted to address an important issue which could not be dealt with by Bourdieu's
framework: the capacity demanded by contemporary societies to shift from one pragmatic orientation to
another, depending on arrangements specific to the situation. We initially focused on the pragmatic
orientations which are required by public critique and justification. My subsequent work has examined less
public pragmatic requirements in order to investigate other types of agencies and how they are sustained.
Emerging from the point of contact between the outline of the good and the format of reality engaged, the
pragmatic regimes of engagement supply some analytical tools for a pragmatic sociology that is concerned
about the conditions for realizing political and moral goals in a "furnished" human world.
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1 I am grateful to Karin Knorr-Cetina and Theodore Schatzki for their useful critiques on previous versions
of this text. I am indebted to Peter Meyers for linguistic correction or translation of part of the text and for
helpful advice on its organization. I also benefited from his fruitful comments resulting from his ongoing
work on power, will and dependence (Meyers 1989, 1998). He is clearly not responsible for the remaining
errors of form and content. I owe him also the indication of this Emily Dickinson poem which relates
qualifying, deeming, shapes, tactics and practice.
2 See Turner (1994) for a quite comprehensive criticism of the notion of social practice.
3 The Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (EHESS-CNRS, Paris) has been directed by Luc Boltanski
and myself, and I developed the framework which is presented here in the continuation of our former work,
with Luc Boltanski, on critique and justification (Boltanski et Thévenot 1991; on translation). For a short
presentation in English of this framework, see: Thévenot 1995a, Boltanski and Thévenot 1999. For
discussions, see: Bénatouïl 1999, Dodier 1993b, Wagner 1994b, 1999; Wilkinson 1997. For an up-to-date
survey of recent moves in French social sciences and humanities, see Dosse (1998). For a US-French
comparative study of environmental conflicts built on this framework, see: Thévenot, Moody and Lafaye
2000. On Boltanski's developments about "régimes d'action" and particularly "régime d'agapè", see in
French: Boltanski 1990. For a comprehensive presentation in French of the framework which is introduced
in this essay, see: Thévenot 1990a, 1993, 1994b, 1997, 1998, 2000b.
4 Modernity and Self-Identity is interestingly dedicated to the interconnection between globalising influences
on the one hand and personal disposition on the other, which Giddens rightly views as a distinctive feature of
modernity (Giddens 1991). His developments on "disembedding mechanism" which separate interaction
from the particularities of locales is convergent with my analysis of "investments in forms". Gidden's
analyses of "self-actualisation" are illuminating but still rest, through his elaboration of "lifestyles", on a
classical notion of social practice.
5 Winch already noticed the adaptation and local change of custom (Winch 1958).
6 These operations can be designated in terms of "handling", "grasp", "seizure" or "capture". In French, I
have used the generic term "saisir" because it covers manual grip as well as data capture. For a discussion of
the vocabulary of "capture" in relation to the formalization of action in AI, see Agre (1994).
7 Gibbard recently elaborated his moral philosophy on the normative meaning of "making sense
of" (Gibbard 1990).
8 On these issues and an research project of "empirical political philosophy", see Wagner 1994a, 1998, 1999.
9 The term "engagement" might work even better in French where it covers quite concrete material
adjustments (a key entering lock, a man moving in a corridor, or a car in a street) as well as a wide range of
moral or political commitments.
10 I chose "environment" as a generic term because of its flexibility. It offers a larger opportunity than
"situation", "milieu" or "setting", "surroundings" to permit variations of the scope and format of what might
be taken in consideration for the adjustment. These differences are highly significant in the characterization
of the engagement. The phenomenological tradition, in particular Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, contains
the most acute insight of the intimate relationship with proximate surroundings. On the relation with the
"milieu", see Berque's stimulating elaboration in terms of "mediology" : 1986. For a recent and remarkable
comprehensive analysis of the engagements involved in "inhabiting" and "using", going back to the classical
notion of khresis, see: Breviglieri 1998.
11 Ethnomethodologists opened the path with the idea of a "breaching experiment" which might expose the
"taken-for-granted" in a kind of experimental epoche. With the development of a pragmatic sociology of
regimes, we have been able to differentiate the kind of "breach" which is involved: a critical tension between
orders of justification which ground a sentiment of injustice (Boltanski et Thévenot, 1991), a critical tension
between a regime of justification and regimes of more local arrangements when shift to publicity is required
12 But some managers foster this last kind of convenience (Thévenot 1997).
13 For a critique of the consequences in the way to treat objects, see: Conein 1997.
14 Among other researchers seeking to overcome this risk, Law and Mol explore three "theory-metaphors for
sociality-materiality" with the idea that materials are relational effects (1995). Rouse's own reflection upon
the philosophy of practices is largely dedicated to this issue (1996).
15 Schatzki recommends that we do not confuse causal mechanism which produces action with practical
intelligibility which makes sense of it (1987). But once we pay full attention to the way models of activity
are effectively used in modes of coordination, and put to the test, the picture gets more complicated.
16 For rich connections with Durkheim's, Weber's and other authors' uses of the term habitus, see Héran
17 Schatzki criticizes Bourdieu for conflating corporeal dispositions and a theory of intelligibility (1987).
This theory conceived in terms of fundamental oppositions is actually Bourdieu's anthropological
complement to Durkheim's view on social representations which rule practices. For a criticism of the way
Bourdieu deals with the "individualist dilemma" (Alexander 1988, 1995).
18 I found deep convergence with Rouse's intervention to the seminar which led to this volume. Rouse also
refer to "propriety" to oppose an idea of practice which is grounded in regularity (see his contribution to this
volume). I diverge from him by my main interest in acknowledging different kinds of propriety which
delineate different pragmatic regimes.
19 Terms from the family "conven-" do not offer exactly the same possibilities in English and French. Both
"convenience" and "convenance" are able to capture the level of personal and local propriety. The English
term "conventional" suggests rather broadly a normal, common or customary conduct. Although
insufficiently specified for my need, it can be used to designate the type of normal plan of action and objectal
function involved in the second level of propriety. By contrast, the French "conventionnel" implies a more
formal and general agreement and is more adapted to the level of most legitimate forms of coordination.
Finally, the French "déconvenue" designates the rupture of a "convenance" and points to our methodological
approach to investigate these different modes of propriety.
20 This orientation is surely in accord with the pragmatists', particularly Mead's, view concerning ongoing
action and the creative part of the process which Joas has been pointing to (Joas 1993).
21 For a pragmatic analysis of different forms of judgment, see Dodier 1993a.
22 On this point, I depart from Powell and DiMaggio (1991) when they build their convergence with
ethnomethodology, Giddens, and Bourdieu, on the "practicality" as an "affectively and evaluatively neutral"
approach to activity. By contrast, I shift to a notion of pragmatic engagement which highlights the
connection between practical material engagement and evaluation.
23 Inversely, Law brings together the concrete conditions necessary for citizen competence in a liberal
democracy, showing that such competence excludes “disabled persons" (Law 1998).
24 For this process of familiarization with things, see Thévenot 1990a, 1994b and, at the workplace, 1997.
Karin Knorr-Cetina reports convergent observations: because of the "familiarity with the thing (through a
joint biography with the detector), [its responses] may be 'understood'" (Knorr-Cetina 1993, chap.5).
25 On this issue, see: Meyers (1989). His ongoing work on the notion of will provides an unusual and
illuminating view of the historical construction of this notion, of the various roles it plays, and of an
alternative constructions of action. See also: Meyers 1995 & 1998.
26 For stimulating proposals about "material agency" and a comprehensive discussion of this issue
(including the "Epistemological Chicken" debate initiated by Collins and Yearly (1992)), see Pickering
27 For a discussion on the place of plan in action, situated action and situated cognition: Conein et Jacopin
28 Things might have multiple conventional qualifications and not only multiple purposes; in that case they
sustain compromises between these qualifications (for an empirical analysis on the workplace presenting the
methodology, see Thévenot 1989). In the interactionnist paradigm, the literature on "boundary-objects"
highlights the benefits which can result from connections to different social worlds and the translations they
foster: Star and Griesemer 1989, Fujimura 1992.
29 This third party reference traces back to Adam Smith's impartial spectator and informs theories of social
interaction and public space through Mead's "generalized other" (1934) and Habermas (1984). On the
impartial spectator, see also: Boltanski and Thévenot 1991, Boltanski 1999, Meyers 1991.