i3, une unité mixte de recherche CNRS (UMR 9217)

Institut Interdisciplinaire de l'Innovation

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Workshop “Labelling and the politics of markets”
Posted on 27 September 2016

October 6 - 7, organized by Alexandre Mallard and Brice Laurent (CSI-i3), Eva Boxenbaum (CGS-i3), Véronique Beillan and Aurélie Tricoire (CSTB)

Labelling products and services has become a customary practice over the past decades. A label may signify that the good is endorsed by specific actors, compatible with various technical requirements, compliant with particular regulations, or deemed better than comparable products. Labelling belongs to the market practices that introduce in transactions other actors than buyers and sellers, other concerns than prices and preferences. It enacts specific orderings of the market, jointly drawing on the dynamics of mimicry (it puts similar goods in a single category) and differentiation (it shows the goods that deserve to be distinguished). Yet the interest of social scientists for labelling goes much beyond its economic characteristics as such. Doesn’t labelling speak for the fact that “there is something beyond the economic in the market”? Isn’t it a way to infuse politics in the economy?

The plural political dimensions of labelling

Social science research has investigated the plural political dimensions of labelling. Labelling a product in reference to its origin may also indicate that it is rooted in a given socio-political territory. Labelling a product in relationship with a production method introduces in the consumption process concerns that go beyond consumption itself: conforming to social and ethical considerations in the product chain (for instance in fair trade), supporting a local economy (“made in France”), fighting for the right of specific populations or animals (“free range farming”), caring for the future of the planet (for instance in the eco-labels), etc.

The political dimensions of labelling extend beyond consumption practices to the processes that shape markets exchanges and the devices supporting them. In a number of situations, labelling appears as a public policy instrument mobilized for the sake of general political objectives (health care, sustainable development, education…).

The political intervention of private actors and  NGOs through labelling

However, when labelling is supported by private actors and plays roles traditionally allocated to public regulation, it would signify the withdrawal of the state in the organization of the economy. In other situations, labels can be seen as platforms enabling cooperation between public and private actors (for instance in the construction sector, where labels support innovation), or the coordination of different levels of public action (for instance in urban policies, labelling is used by the State as a tool to promote best practices implemented by local authorities). Apart from the State properly speaking, labels appear as a central tool in the strategies implemented by “roundtables” assembling coalitions of various actors (NGOs, lobbies of manufacturers, representatives of consumers, independent experts, etc).

A number of  issues to investigate

How to apprehend the diversity of labelling practices and their political inscription in the market? How do labels emerge in connection with political processes and economic dynamics? How do public authorities try to shape the constitution of labels and control their trajectory? How does labelling compare – and combine – with other modalities of political intervention in the economy? How to characterize the type of governmentality associated with labels? How do activists use, design, contest labels in order to promote their particular political objectives? How do consumers decipher the meanings of labels and the political or economic strategies associated with their development? How do labels support the development of multiple – political, moral, social…– modalities of valuation in the market? As a whole, the workshop invites to reflect on the role of labelling in the democratic processes, against the background of the contemporary transformations of the economy, sustainable development and the uncertainties of globalization.

A workshop to prepare a publication

It is this diversity of configurations that the workshop “Labelling and the politics of markets” addresses. The workshop is organized within the LaPIn Project, a French ANR project exploring the role of labels in the promotion of innovation for sustainable construction. The workshop aims to share and discuss recent research on labelling conducted in a diversity of domains and mobilizing various analytic tools, in the perspective of preparing a common publication project (edited collection or special issue of a journal).

Participants are invited to propose contributions questioning the role of labels at the crossroads of the socio-political inscription of markets and the implications of technical democracy. The contributions may come from various disciplinary perspective (sociology, organization studies, political science, STS, market studies…) and they should explore the role of labelling in the politics of markets in specific fields and through specific modalities of investigation.