Historical Social Research

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Robert Salais, Labour-Related Conventions and Configurations of Meaning: France, Germany and Great Britain prior to the Second World War [Abstract]

Using the economics of convention, this contribution aims at develop an approach capable of explaining the long-term national idiosyncrasies and describing them as stable configurations of meaning. One takes the example of labour in three European countries, France, Germany and Great-Britain, by focussing on the Interwar. Three interconnected objectives are pursued: theoretical (defining labour as activity of realisation); methodological (finding a historical narrative based on conventions and not on institutions); illustrative (shedding light on the deep specificities of the meanings of labour among the three countries). A red line runs along the paper, that of offering a coherent variety of arguments in favour of conventions-based history. It is stressed that in economic and social coordination conventions are prior to institutions. Social objects (in particular institutions) have to be analysed as sedimentations and rearrangements of conventions along history. In such a perspective, historical research would aim at bringing to light the buried traces of the configurations of meaning and of the systems of conventions which have durably installed these configurations in daily life and work. And, in periods of crises, it should focus on the processes of change which bring about re-interpretation of the established configurations, their reorganisation – often, at the end, more incremental than it appears at first glance – through the incorporation of new social objects and conventions.