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Opinions-débats : Retours sur le colloque "La théorie de la régulation à l'épreuve des crises"

Reflections of an Australian Regulationist

Lynne Chester

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1The 2015 International Conference ‘The Regulation Theory in Times of Crisis’ marked some 40 years of Regulation Theory. The genesis of this school of economic thought lies in the 1970s economic crisis because “there was a need to understand why things no longer worked, a need which first required an understanding of what had previously worked, and why” (Lipietz, 1988: 14). Bob Jessop (2001b) claims that no other school has been as influential in as many disciplines or across as many topics of study. Geoffrey Hodgson is of the view that the school’s impact has been far greater on sociologists and political scientists than economists (Labrousse and Vercueil, 2008). There is limited discourse about this school within the economics discipline, notwithstanding the inclusion of entries in publications such as The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online (Durlauf and Blume, 2008).

2The Conference’s Call for Papers states that Regulation Theory has not leveraged its “competitive advantage” and its “lack of prominence” after 40 years can be, in part, attributed to semantic, interpretative and conceptual misunderstandings. The Call for Papers also states that Regulation Theory faces a two-fold challenge: “empowering alternatives to mainstream economics… and addressing socio-economic structural changes and political demands for a more sustainable world that question the very conceptual foundations of economics”. Conference papers were encouraged within five broad areas: research priorities; the role of researcher vis-à-vis political decision-makers; the desirability or not of a pluralist heterodox economics research program; the role of qualitative research; and the merit of a research strategy drawing on multiple social science disciplines.

3Did the six plenaries and 24 ‘research workshops’ (over 56 sessions with more than 180 individual papers presented) forming the Conference program—generate a platform from which Regulation Theory’s ‘competitive advantage’ could be better realised? Did the Conference program provide a strategy to overcome the misunderstandings about Regulation Theory and thus elevate its ‘prominence’? Did the Conference Program—through its many workshop streams—address the challenge of ‘empowering alternatives to the mainstream’ and ‘question the conceptual foundations of economics to meet the demands of a more sustainable world’? The Conference Call for Papers created—at least for this participant—an expectation of a Conference Program that would address these questions and, in doing so, would be forward-looking, questioning, reflective, and willing to respectfully consider alternative methodological or policy proposals.

4This paper presents my reflections on the Conference, particularly in terms of answering the questions posed above. The paper is structured as follows. First, I make some general comments about the Conference content and participation. Second, I consider in more detail the perceived misunderstandings of Regulation Theory because these, in my view, must be directly and systematically addressed if Regulation Theory is to effectively meet the challenge posed in the Conference Call for Papers and propel its international recognition as a cogent analytical framework of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Third, I propose three strategies to draw upon the momentum provided by the 2015 Conference to elevate the profile of Regulation Theory and generate a much wider understanding of its analytical strengths and potential policy contributions.

General thoughts

5The diversity of the six Conference plenaries showcased that Regulation Theory is much more than a theory of crisis, has not been made irrelevant by the increasing complexity of contemporary capitalism nor is limited in its application to a particular topic of study. The opening plenary, ‘Economy, Society and Capitalism Dynamics’ presented by Jens Beckert and Robert Boyer, while demonstrating the synergies between Regulation Theory and other social science disciplines such as sociology, provided an excellent context for the Conference’s three days of discussion with both contributors talking about contemporary capitalism’s fictions (or imagined futures) and the relationship with uncertainty, expectations and regimes of historicity. The final plenary, ‘Three Issues for The Theory Of Regulation by Those Who Have Not Founded It’, was a very good ‘book-end’ because it provided a strong illustration of some new frontiers of Regulationist thinking which included: the risk of ‘conceptual entropy’ without grounded theory; the methodological implications of meso-analysis; the transformation of the boundaries of contemporary sectors; three different meanings of the meso concept; and, how the ‘same heuristics can be applied to different spaces’. Overall, the plenaries, in my view, made significant interventions to the five-area ‘scientific orientation’ of the Conference.

6But was there real engagement and debate at the Conference? This is an important question. If the expressed concerns in the Call for Papers are to addressed, real engagement and debate which transcends the borders of one or two papers is needed. In the workshop sessions that I attended – and obviously there is a limit to the number of sessions that one person can attend – real engagement and debate was not strong. First, the papers presented in some sessions were quite disparate which immediately posed barriers to a broader discussion that drew together all the contributions. Second, discussion involving the audience commonly became a ‘one-on-one question and answer’ between an individual presenter and an audience member. Third, session discussants often treated papers individually not collectively. I also discovered little explicit ‘engagement’ with broad areas forming the Conference’s scientific orientation. Real engagement and debate is difficult to achieve without a constant and consistent effort by all those involved. Mechanisms other than conference sessions need to be constructed if real engagement and debate is to take place that will progress the evolution of Regulation Theory.

Misunderstandings about Regulation Theory

7As the Conference Call for Papers states, there are a number of misunderstandings about Regulation Theory. These misunderstandings are evidenced by little consistency across the literature when referring to Regulation Theory, multiple meanings ascribed to the term ‘regulation’, and the willingness of Regulationists (to borrow a phrase from Grahl and Teague, 2000) to ‘auto-critique’ and refine concepts. If Regulation Theory is to more fully realise its ‘competitive advantage’ strategies are required to ameliorate these misunderstandings.

8Regulation Theory is referred to as a theory, approach, school, program or framework. This range of labels possibly arose because of Jessop’s (1990: 154) criticism about the absence of a “monolithic theoretical system”, the theory’s gradual creation by a range of people with theoretical differences, the habit of Regulationists to refer to their own work as “general notions and a method of work… [to be turned by future research] into a more complete theory” (Boyer, 1991: 46) and the expressed willingness of Regulationists to search for improvement in objectives, methods and concepts.

9In his seminal work, Aglietta (1979) was intent to present an alternative theory to that of general equilibrium. By the late 1990s, Aglietta (1998: 41) refers to his work as an “approach to the analysis of economic phenomena” and suggests that it is not a theory because there is no widespread acceptance of “a body of fully refined concepts but [only] a research program”. Throughout the remainder of his 1998 article no such distinction is drawn and the two terms, ‘approach’ and ‘theory’, are used synonymously.

10Another example of the interchangeable use of theory and approach is by Albritton (2001: 201) who refers to Regulation Theory as “probably the largest and most influential school of Marxian political economy” which is a “highly flexible research program… [with] variations… sufficiently different and numerous to support viewing Regulation Theory not as a single approach but as a cluster of approaches unified by ‘family resemblances’ but no core”. Subsequently, however, Albritton states that Regulation Theory should be viewed as a “mid-range theory”. Mavroudeas (2012: 308) also suggests that it is a middle-range theory being “based on intermediate concepts with a more immediate identification with concrete phenomena”.

11A more common reference is exemplified by Brenner and Glick (1991) who use both ‘theory’ and ‘school’ although the title of their critique explicitly includes the term ‘approach’ and no clarification of any term is provided. Broomhill (2001: 117) provides one rare, explicit distinction when he wrote “the ‘regulation approach’ is a research agenda and a methodology rather than a unified theory”. But, within a few sentences, this distinction is abandoned with the exclusive adoption of ‘theory’ and ‘regulation theorists’.

12In 1990, Bob Jessop (1990: 154-55), wrote:

I have interpreted regulation theory as a continuing research programme rather than an already established monolithic theoretical system. Even the dominant Parisian theorists hardly constitute a single school with a fixed, coherent, and complete set of concepts. But they are certainly contributing, along with others, to a broad, continuing, and hopefully progressive research programme.

13Jessop subsequently edited five volumes entitle Regulation Theory and the Crisis of Capitalism but by this time, he makes no mention of theory per se other than in the title. Throughout the series preface and the introduction to each volume, Jessop assiduously refers to work of the Regulationists as an ‘approach’ which “comprises several schools and tendencies as well as contributions from a wide range of individual scholars” (Jessop, 2001a: x).

14In 1991, Boyer (1991: 46) wrote that “rather than irrefutable results and a perfected theory, the regulation approach sets out general notions and a method of work. It is up to future research to turn these premises into a more complete theory”. Similar comments had been previously expressed by other Regulationists (for example: de Bernis, 1988; Lipietz, 1987; Mazier, 1982; Noël, 1987) as did Boyer in the introduction to the 1990 English translation of La Théorie de la Régulation: Une Analyse Critique, when he wrote of the “regulation approach… [being] a method of analysis, not a complete theory which represents an alternative to more ambitious constructs… This explains why the approach is open to a new generation of research” (Boyer, 1990: xviii).

15The above passages from Boyer’s early 1990s publications indicate some interchangeability of the terms ‘theory’ and ‘approach’. More importantly, Boyer sees Regulation Theory as having a solid theoretical construct as well as one which is capable of further development and refinement. However, it seems that sufficient refinement had taken place when he wrote that “régulation theory has grown from adolescence to maturity” (Boyer, 2002: 8).

16This brief discussion signals a number of reasons for a ‘conceptual misunderstanding’ of Regulation Theory which is exacerbated by frequent misunderstanding of the term régulation and a limited number of English translations of Regulationist works.

17First, the Regulation literature abounds with Anglo critics and commentators. The literature upon which they draw is limited given the paucity of English translations from the original French, a fact recognised by Regulationists and one that they believe has led to “misunderstandings and ill-founded critiques” (Boyer, 2002: 1). The problem of few translations is, I contend, compounded by a fundamental linguistic issue. English speakers, naturally, comprehend the words of a translation in the same way as the common usage in their own language which may not have been the original intent. Words translated do not necessarily hold the same meaning as their original use. Hence, in this case, English readers apply an English usage to words that were written with a French usage in mind which must create fertile ground for a range of terms to be applied deriving more from cultural linguistic differences than anything else.

18This linguistic issue is further compounded by the multiple, and very different, meanings of the term ‘regulation’—as a concept in systems theory, biology and thermodynamics regarding the theory of organisation; as conceived by Regulationists as the conjunction of a range of economic and social mechanisms which sustain and maintain capitalism; or, as a conscious, active intervention by the state for the purpose of economic stabilisation or rule making. This latter more narrow meaning is more closely akin to the French word réglementation, the antithesis of the Regulationist approach that provides:

an analysis of capitalism and its transformations, which is entirely the opposite of the purely microeconomic approach of regulation (in the English sense), concerned with the optimum type of control for natural monopolies and collective services by public authorities (Boyer, 2002: 1)

19A second contributor to the inconsistency of terms applied to the work of the Regulationists has been the limited number of writings forming the focus of comment for critics and commentators. In most cases, one or a few writings have been the subject of comment (for example: Albritton, 2001; Barbrook, 2001; Brenner and Glick, 1991; Cataife, 1989; Clarke, 1988; Davis, 2001; Kotz, 1990). This may have been the direct result of few English translations of a considerable number of French publications. Notwithstanding, such a limited focus precludes the drawing of substantiated generalised observations and conclusions about a wider body of work and must lead to references which do not carry the status or prestige of terms like ‘theory’ which connote a more substantial body of work, development and widespread acceptance over a considerable period of time.

20Third, and perhaps the most significant reason for the plethora of terms, there are different views as to what constitutes a theory and hence, the point when development of a theory has been reached. Boyer views the development of theory as evolutionary, as being improved over time through research because a theory provides an ‘approach’ to explain phenomena. Consequently, for Boyer, Regulation Theory is not static nor can the zenith of its development be pinpointed to a particular time but rather it continually grows and develops through the benefit of more and more research. Hence, Boyer’s interchangeable use of the terms ‘theory’ and ‘approach’. On the other hand, Jessop’s position is far less flexible contending that a theory is not formed until there is a ‘fixed, coherent and complete set of concepts’, a position also held by Aglietta in the late 1990s. Jessop no longer uses ‘theory’ when referring to the work of the Regulationists implying that the necessary requisites have not been developed for their oeuvre to be called a theory. This is not to suggest that Jessop considers concepts per se have not been developed. It does signal, however, his view that these concepts are not sufficiently ‘fixed, coherent or complete’ to warrant being labelled a theory.

21Boyer and Saillard (2002b: 45) posit:

a theory that is content simply to reiterate its basic concepts and founding insights would soon be condemned to a loss of impetus and relevance. The value of a theory is measured by the quality of the research programme that it produces.

22They also present three powerful reasons for the revision of objectives, methods and concepts—unresolved theoretical issues, empirical invalidation of forecasts and hypotheses, and the very different roles of the state increasingly found as the application of Regulation Theory has been extended. This argument encapsulates the willingness of Regulationists to search for improvement in their approach to ensure that the conceptual basis and analytical methods of their “interpretative keys’’ (Boyer, 2002: 10) can unlock the increasing complexity of contemporary capitalism rather than become redundant in its ability to explain change. However, the ongoing refinement of concepts in conjunction with the increasing ‘spread’ across a wide range of research and the heterogeneity or ‘variants’ found within the Regulationist tradition all add fuel to the argument that the approach lacks consistency and homogeneity, the very purported strengths of mainstream economics.

  • 1 Jessop (2001b, 1997) suggests that ‘an accumulation regime’ is a macroeconomic concept while ‘a mod (...)

23The literature also shows a diverse treatment of the mode of regulation which further leads to misunderstanding. Some present the concept as synonymous with regime of accumulation (for example: de Vroey, 1984; Moulaert and Swyngedouw, 1989) which conveniently overlooks the different levels of abstraction embodied in each concept (Boyer and Saillard, 2002a; Jessop, 1990).1 Others have proffered an alternative name, the mode of social regulation endeavouring to emphasise that the mode is far more than economic in nature (for example: Peck and Ticknell, 1992). Much of the Regulationist literature focuses on either the abstract concepts of the accumulation regime and the mode of regulation, or the expression of a specific institutional form of the mode.

  • 2 One exception is Boyer (1988, 1990) although his descriptions do contain a reasonably high level of (...)

24This ‘literature preoccupation’ has led to another contributor, I contend, to Regulation Theory’s status and this concerns empirical application. We know that each institutional form may embody laws, regulations, norms, habits, compromises and common value systems. However, in most cases, references to the five institutional forms are cursory with little description or details of the nature and concrete expression of each.2This poses an issue for empirical analyses. The researcher requires detailed definitions and descriptions of the tangible manifestation of each institutional form to enable the research to be operationalised (from the abstract to the measurable) and provide defined parameters for the research task. The difficulty of moving from the abstract to the empirical, given this gap in the literature, does impose a barrier to a wider understanding (and application) of Regulation Theory.

25I make these comments about ‘misunderstandings’ because whilst the Call for Papers directly drew attention to them the ensuing Conference Program of workshops and papers did not, in my view, directly address nor create the sense of a strategy that would do so. I contend that a concerted effort is needed to ‘confront’ these misunderstandings if there is to be a wider understanding of Regulation Theory and if it is to be considered a serious challenger to mainstream economics. In this respect, I propose three possible strategies.

Strategies to promote Regulation Theory

  • 3 As co-editor of the Review of Political Economy I would welcome the opportunity to discuss a possib (...)

26First, I recommend that proposals for special issues (or alternatively symposia of papers) be developed for a targeted group of English peer-reviewed journals such as Economy & Society, Competition & Change, Socio-Economic Review, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Geofourm and Cambridge Journal of Economics.3 A special issue (or symposium) is an effective way to generate a better understanding of the nature and scope of a topic. Special issues (or symposia) could be carefully crafted to meet the a journal’s objectives and to address some of the misunderstandings that have muted the recognition of the significant analytical and policy strengths of Regulation Theory, and demonstrate the capacity of this theoretical framework to explain contemporary political economy issues.

27Second, an ‘international conference presence’ should be established to reinforce the relevance and breadth of Regulationist analysis. Conference panels could be organised every year at, for example, the annual conferences for the Association of Heterodox Economics, the European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy, and the International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy, the Association for Evolutionary Economics, and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. These conference panels also could provide the basis of a collection of papers to be published as a special journal issue (or symposium) as proposed above.

28Third, I suggest that a series of projects be designed to achieve the following:

  • the development of robust interventions in selected debates (for example, the renewed debate about industrial policy; global responses to the ecological challenge; the multi-level modes of regulation; the relationship of territory-sector-value chain-profession-firm);

  • the regular reporting of project progress and findings through a seminar program; and,

  • the inclusion of at least one researcher from outside France.

29These projects could generate journal papers and international conference panels as well as act as a mechanism to disseminate widely information about the activities and contemporary theoretical and policy relevance of the work of Regulationists.

30The 2015 Conference established a momentum that should be used, in my view, to promote a much wider international understanding and recognition of Regulation Theory’s analytical strengths and potential policy contributions. These strategies are proffered as possibilities that may help realise the opportunity provided by the 2015 Conference.

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— (1998), “Capitalism at the turn of the century: regulation theory and the challenge of social change”, New Left Review, vol. 232, November-December, p. 41-90.

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1 Jessop (2001b, 1997) suggests that ‘an accumulation regime’ is a macroeconomic concept while ‘a mode of regulation’ is more a ‘meso-level’ concept. Boyer refers to ‘levels of analysis’ distinguished by a decreasing degree of abstraction with the mode of production at the most abstract level, the accumulation regime at the second level and the mode of regulation at the third level of analysis.

2 One exception is Boyer (1988, 1990) although his descriptions do contain a reasonably high level of abstraction.

3 As co-editor of the Review of Political Economy I would welcome the opportunity to discuss a possible symposium on ‘Regulation Theory’.

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Lynne Chester, « Reflections of an Australian Regulationist », Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 19 | 1er semestre/ Spring 2016, mis en ligne le 29 juillet 2016, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Lynne Chester

Department of Political Economy, university of Sydney,

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