Common knowledge, policies and labour


Vando Borghi

date de sortie




The field of analysis we are going to talk about is a very broad one. The relationship between cognitive dimension and social policies in their broad sense is indeed systematic and pervasive. At the same time, it is a crucial relationship, as it encapsulates (intentionally or not) fundamental evaluations concerning social justice that have effects in many different spheres of social and individual experience. Policies, public action, social measures and programs, in other words what is at stake in the public realm and in the public debate, are based on cognitive bases which remain implicit and obscure. Those decisions and actions (policies, public actions, programs, socioeconomic plans, etc.) are legitimated in a context of common knowledge – that is a socio-historical product – in which specific undiscussed cognitive bases are assumed: quantitative, standardized, abstract, performance referred knowledge, in shape of statistics, indexes, benchmarking and other formalized and quantified devices of governance, is strongly hegemonic. But, and here lies the need of a research program, the conventions – i.e. structures of meaning through which a situation or a condition can be defined, classified, categorized and also calculated – on which (also) these quantitative devices are based remain outside of the public realm.


The issues I am recalling here were already authoritatively thematized. As Amartya Sen defines them, collectively relevant decisions and actions always incorporate and use Informational basis of judgment for justice (IBJJ): “A fundamental concept in this analysis is that of the ‘informational foundation’ of an evaluative system in each evaluative structure, some types of factual matters are taken to be important in themselves, others not so. The former variables, which reflect the basic ends in that specific evaluative system, constitute the ‘informational basis’ of evaluative judgements in that system” (Sen 1991: 16). In this sense, the IBJJ is at the very core of any process of evaluation, being it exercised about issues of social policy, labor policy or other. What does it count as information when specific social policies have to be designed and delivered, a measure of labour policy is planned, labour forces have to be mobilized and their work must be organized, the quality and the safeness of a working environment has to be evaluated, a urban square or street has to be restructured, etc.? And what does not count, that is what the dominant mode of policy making/delivering consider marginal or irrelevant information, what kind of cognitive holes and of ignorance are politically and bureaucratically transformed in legitimated areas of indifference? Recurring again to Sen’s (1999: 56, 57) words, “each evaluative approach can, to a great extent, be characterized by its informational basis: the information that is needed for making judgments using that approach and – no less important – the information that is «excluded» from a direct evaluative role in that approach. Informational exclusions are important constituents of an evaluative approach. The excluded information is not permitted to have any direct influence on evaluative judgments, and while this is usually done in an implicit way, the character of the approach may be strongly influenced by insensitivity to the excluded information (…). In fact, the real «bite» of a theory of justice can, to a great extent, be understood from its informational base: what information is – or is not – taken to be directly relevant”.


Not only a traditional field of research for sociology and social sciences in general is here called for, that is the way some knowledge (and some not) is assumed and processed, resulting in the informational basis which public choices and public actions are built on. The terrain of inquiry Sen’s perspective about IBJJ and, more generally, the “capability approach” opens up for sociology and social sciences is broader: at stake are complex processes – shaped in social but also institutional and organizational environments, based on social, cultural and political dynamics – in which those issues of knowledge (and knowledge management) appear clearly connected with questions of social justice and of its realization in the public realm (public choices, public actions, public sphere, etc.). “The informational basis of a judgement – writes Sen (1990: 111) clearly pointing out this connection – identifies the information on which a judgement is directly dependent and – no less important – asserts that the truth or falsehood of any other type of information cannot directly influence the correctness of the judgement. The informational basis of judgement in justice thus determines the factual territory over which considerations of justice would directly apply”. This determination is incorporated in instruments and tools of governance that are currently undergoing an intense process of quantification.


Our contemporary common knowledge is largely structured and organized by what Espeland and Stevens (2008) and Porter (1995) define “mechanical objectivity”, that is a process of quantification according to standardized rules concerning ways of producing, manipulate and using numbers: benchmarking and performance are the key-terms for grasping the current situation as far as IBJJ and its uses in social and labour (but not only) policies are concerned (Bruno & Didier 2013, Salais  2013, Supiot 2010): devices for measurement and calculable comparison of quantified objectives (benchmarking) on the one hand, and for scoring and evaluating actions (performance) in accordance with those objectives, on the other hand.


Far from being only technical and/or administrative devices, the meaning of these devices for any matter in the many fields of social issues is evident, when we consider that they “embody definitions of problems and targets, categorizations of individuals and social groups, as well as complex systems for assessing actions against objectives” (de Leonardis, Negrelli, 2012: 17). So, the relationships among common knowledge, informational basis and its cognitive categories and social justice are the crucial terrains to be focussed on for understanding the ways actors are socially and institutionally enabled or inhibited to freely pursue the life they have reason to value and the effective quality of freedom actors have for defining and realizing that life project.


Sociology and, more in general, social sciences are directly challenged by these issues, because they are themselves called “to produce the informational basis required by the permanent process of reconstruction of the public sphere” (Zimmerman, 2006: 481). In this dimension – the “informational basis of judgment in justice” – lie the social roots of democracy and social sciences are called to play a crucial role in inquiring the ways that dimension is constructed and changed. “Before political choice – writes Robert Salais (quoted in de Leonardis, Negrelli, 2012: 19, Author’s italics) – the core moment in a living democracy is to establish the relevant IBJJs to be taken as the right and just bases for collective choice. The core moment is the cognitive one”.


As already stressed above, even if those cognitive devices, crucial for any social and public policy decision, incorporate precise and oriented values and interpretations about the ‘social’, they are instead assumed as an objective and neutral description of the social reality. This hides relevant ambiguities and contradictions intrinsic to that common knowledge: there is a huge difference between being an employee according to the European statistical convention – someone who was working and paid for at least one hour in the previous week – and the qualitative idea of work as an activity enabling individuals to fully exercise citizenship, to plan family projects, to develop their own competences, etc. (Salais, 2013a). Assuming the first or the second convention as part of the common knowledge frames and legitimizes profoundly different policies. The gradual but intense shift toward the first one – as it occurred in the European labour and social policies – was never matter of public deliberation. Experts, codified knowledge, bureaucratic devices and formats, epistemic communities have been mobilized in order that cognitive bases, via technical and de-politicized practices, became hegemonic.


Our research in Italy, dedicated to safety in the working life (Borghi, 2013), clearly showed the effects of this intense quantitative turn in the informational basis assumed for defining and treating that aspect. This is an area in which workers achieved, in the past, a significant capability for voice, that means ‘the capacity to express one’s opinions and thoughts and to make them count in the course of public discussion’ (Bonvin and Thelen, 2003; Hirschman, 1970). The National Public Health System itself came from those struggles and experiences. Struggles and experiences in which there was full awareness of the political importance of the cognitive dimension and that went far beyond the boundaries of the workplaces. As put it by the important trade union leader Bruno Trentin (1977) in a workers’ congress of the seventies, “knowledge of the facts and of their consequences, the political debate on the scope and implications of certain harmful factors in a given department, in a given factory create consciousness of the need to struggle not for economic allowance, but for changing work’s conditions and, if necessary, factory. Boards of enquiry that we obtained in many factories can become the instrument for this collective knowledge; but also beyond the boards of enquiry, the collective of workers and students of medicine, sociology, may develop (…) mass researches, compare the results within the assemblies of the workers, in the factory, bring out these results from the factory (…). This is a different thing from the compliant we usually do, even when we use general statistical data, certainly impressive but still abstract, far from the consciousness of the masses and so incapable of directly calling into question the responsibility and choices of action of everyone”.


Currently, in the context of the international standard of organization of work of the world class manufacturing, safety at work is fully invested by the process that Beatrice Hibou (2012) defines the “bureaucratization of the world”: safety and wellbeing at work undergo a process of privatization (in the twofold sense of the individualization of responsibility and of the growing hegemony of private forms of regulation and coordination), of radical abstraction (safety is redefined in terms of numerical targets and bureaucratic procedures; “real abstractions” determine more and more human concrete conducts), and, in general, of quantification, transforming safety in a technical matter, a field of experts (usually doctors, engineers, psychologists) and a de-politicized issue.


Public sociology (Burawoy 2005), together with other social sciences, can plays a significant role in constructing the terrain in which the real core of any democratic society, that is the cognitive one, is explicitly pointed out and debated. A promising way of structuring that terrain of mutual education (between sociologists and their publics) in which a public sociology should consist, it comes from the perspective we adopt for interpreting these socio-historical changes, based on Sen’s concept of “informational basis of judgement in justice”. A sociological approach to that perspective of research can be very fruitful in order to inquiry what kind of knowledge (informational basis) counts in the decision-making process of policies, in which way that knowledge is produced and treated, which actors are assumed to be relevant in the knowledge production process, how that informational basis frames the scope of possibilities and so on and so force.


Of course, many issues still remain open in this perspective. How the ‘informational basis’ can be transformed through a public deliberative treatment, through a processes of elaboration, discussion, conflict and compromise, with the participation of a plurality of (not only expert) voices? What are the strategies, the practices and the experiences which empower the capability for voice of the policies’ recipients and enable these latter get “cognitive justice” (Menese, Nunes & Santos 2007)? Sen’s perspective on informational basis of judgment represents an effctive way to bring together and explore possible exchanges among different scientific strategies for emphasizing the role of citizens’ qualitative experiences and knowledge. Its concrete pursuing is not only a matter of academic interest. It has to do with what Arjun Appadurai (2013: 381-403) calls “the right to research”, that is “the right to the tools through which any citizen can systematically increase that stock of knowledge which they consider most vital to their survival as human beings and to their claims as citizens”.



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Il enseigne la sociologie du développement et les politiques du travail à l’université de Bologne (Italie). Ses principaux domaines de recherche portent sur les transformations du travail, avec une attention particulière portée à la question de la qualité du travail, et les relations entre transformations du travail, vulnérabilité et institutions ; les politiques actives et les changements qui affectent la relation entre le travail et la protection sociale ; ses recherches concernent particulièrement le concept d’activation, et la relation entre le processus d’individualisation et politiques ; l’évolution des relations entre sphère publique et privée dans le capitalisme social contemporain, avec une attention particulière sur la signifi cation changeante de ce qui est du domaine public dans les pratiques actuelles de gouvernance. Ces domaines de recherche sont intimement liés à des intérêts sociaux théoriques plus larges, concernant l’évolution du processus d’individualisation, la perspective ouverte par le concept de capacité (et de « capacité à aspirer »), la notion connexe de « base informationnelle de jugement » (sa pertinence dans le domaine des questions liées au travail, mais pas seulement) et la relation entre la sociologie et la critique dans le contexte du nouvel esprit du capitalisme.


01/01/2014 - 30/03/2014