Coping with Instability in Market SocietiesMax Planck Sciences Po Conference | December 15–16, 2011, Paris
Topic and Goal of the ConferenceIn 2012 the Max Planck Society and Sciences Po Paris will jointly establish the Max Planck Sciences Po Centre on Coping with Instability in Market Societies, a German-French center in the social sciences. To launch this project and gain insight into the topic the center addresses, the two partners are organizing a conference in Paris on “Coping with Instability in Market Societies.”
The Conference SubjectThe last thirty years have seen profound shifts in the social organization of Western societies. Today individuals are increasingly exposed to market forces in a growing number of life spheres. Cultural shifts that accompanied this “marketization” have led to a more individualized culture and the destabilization of traditional social structures, for instance in the family. Creating a growing sense of uncertainty, these developments have led to pressures on individuals, organizations, and politics to cope with increasingly instable economic, social, and political environments.
In the economy amplified instability can be observed for instance in labor markets, where unstable labor relations have increased, or in public services such as health care and education, which are increasingly organized as quasi-markets today. In society, detraditionalization is reflected in the family in rising divorce rates and a greater variety of family types, and in contemporary society at large in a growing ethnic and religious heterogeneity due to increased immigration. The political system of Western democracies has witnessed the erosion of stable party systems, the decline of formal participation, and the multiplication of governance structures and levels of authority. From the changes in the economy and social life, new political instabilities arise and lead to conflicts and protest.
While these transformation processes are already well studied in the social sciences, the consequences of these multiple forms of instability have yet to be examined systematically. What strategies do individuals, organizations, and the political system employ to cope with uncertainty and instability? How do the economy, social life, and politics adapt in response to the uncertainty actors and institutions are facing? The effects of these developments are clearly multifaceted. The literature argues, for instance, that although market forces may destroy traditional social structures (Polanyi), markets may also create new relations and social groups (Hirschman). On the societal level the detraditionalization of family relations and greater flexibility in life-course choices have opened tremendous opportunities for individuals; at the same time these developments have often caused insecurity and new needs to adapt rapidly to changing life situations. The coping strategies through which the individuals adjust to less stable life-worlds can themselves trigger new unforeseen risks and uncertainties in other societal spheres. For example: (1) If increasing demands for flexibility on the labor market, the economic need for employment of both partners, and the attraction of women to the labor market lead to decreasing fertility rates in middle-class families, the state needs to react by introducing expensive policies to provide institutional support to middle-class families – with uncertain success. (2) In Great Britain and the United States reductions in welfare state provisions went along with an increase in the availability of consumer credit and the expansion of home mortgages, exposing not only individuals to the risks of not being able to pay back these loans but also contributing to the real estate bubble that triggered the financial crisis in 2007.
Coping with instability does not necessarily have to be limited to the adaptation of individual decisions but can also be manifested in collective action, which is an attempt to reduce uncertainty for specific social groups and shift risks to others. Political conflicts about access for underprivileged social groups to (elite) institutions of higher education, migration policies, or estate taxation are political controversies about the distribution of uncertainty within society.
Patrick Le Galès
Local organizersVincent Morandi