Logics of Justification and Logics of Action

By Dequech, David | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Logics of Justification and Logics of Action


Dequech, David, Journal of Economic Issues


There has been a growing debate among social scientists, including some economists, about different institutional logics, logics of action, identities, and the like (Dequech 2007). From the perspective of institutionalists, this should be seen as an important part of the larger debate about both the concept of institutions and the theory of how institutions influence our thought and behavior. If we treat institutions as socially shared patterns of behavior and thought, logics of action are a type or component of institutions. The purpose of the present paper is to contribute to this discussion by proposing a distinction between logics of justification and logics of action or institutional logics. (1) The first two sections deal with logics of justification and logics of action, respectively, while the third section compares and contrasts them.

Logics of Justification

An important reference in this debate is the book by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot ([1991] 2006). In France, their approach has had a considerable influence in the economie des conventions and in organizational sociology. In the English-speaking world, it gradually gained greater recognition and has been cited in various contexts. This includes the literature on institutional logics and logics of action, with which it has some links, but the proximity should not be exaggerated. (2)

As the title of their book (On Justification) indicates, Boltanski and Thevenot were concerned with how people justify their actions. In the French economics of conventions, of which Thevenot is one of the main exponents, Olivier Favereau characterized Boltanski and Thevenot's approach in terms of "logics of justification" (2001, 7). This terminology is adopted here because it is useful for the argument, developed below, that they did not describe what I call logics of action.

Admittedly, some aspects of their work may be (and, in my case, have been) used to refine the concept of logics of action. In addition, Boltanski and Thevenot do have a theory of action or, more accurately, a theory of justifiable action--see Thevenot 2002, 183. People may orient their actions--and not only their justifications--along some principle of justification, in order to coordinate with other people. (3) If so, their logic of action and their logic of justification may be the same thing (depending on how one conceptualizes these logics). However, this is not always the case. We need to distinguish logics of action from logics of justification. It is suggested here that, for this conceptual and theoretical purpose, Boltanski and Thevenot's book should be primarily treated as an approach to logics of justification rather than to logics of action, even if this turns out not to be the most faithful interpretation. At least from this perspective, their main arguments may be summarized as follows. (4)

Sometimes in social life there are "critical moments," when people "who are doing things together ... and who have to coordinate their actions ... realize that something is going wrong" (Boltanski and Thevenot 1999, 359). In the authors' view, people rarely remain silent in such situations; they express their discontentment. This may disrupt into violence, but this possibility was not the focus of Boltanski and Thevenot's attention. More often, they argued, a "dispute" takes place, with the exchange of criticisms, grievances, and blaming. This dispute involves not only people, but also objects. In particular, people may disagree about objects (e.g., a house to be inherited).

In situations of dispute, both the person who criticizes and the one who is criticized need to justify their actions. People can resort to different modes or regimes of justification, which Boltanski and Thevenot also called regimes of justice (1999, 361), possibly because these can be modes of arguing that something is just or unjust. (5) The typical dispute that Boltanski and Thevenot seemed to have in mind is one in which someone feels that the situation is unjust. …

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