The theory of social exchange, a new explanatory paradigm of perceptions relating to the closure of automotive factories : a historical analysis of Renault Billancourt and (1989) and PSA Aulnay (2012)

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2019)




The automotive revolution of tomorrow, it will perhaps be the vehicle of the future, but it will be especially its impact on the modes of production, resulting in its wake a partial overhaul of the number of assembly plants, in Europe in particular (210 sites operational assembly at the end of 2018, of various sizes). The reasons for closures are - and will still be - a combination of rational reasons : crisis in the sector or insufficient volumes to produce ; factory production model overtaken by other factories offering capacity and diversity at a lower cost; consequence of previous strategic choices which indirectly penalized certain geographical factories; penalizing age pyramid ... and sometimes even a combination of the four factors at once. If the next technological breakthrough resulted in a drop of only 10% in the number of current sites over the next decade, we are beginning to become aware of the future social issues of the European automotive industry. The rate of decline is a total unknown, but the trend does not seem to be on the other hand : this means that plant closures / redeployments will become an increasingly recurring event in the automotive industry landscape, which was accustomed to the restructuring of its suppliers, in a logic of displacement of its factories, faithfully accompanying that of its master, the assembly sites of the customer. Time has passed, and already for more than a decade, the same low-cost factories are exporting more and more parts to more and more distant countries, if the logistic constraint allows it (eg air conditioning and air conditioning systems heating made in low-cost countries for the vast majority for all of Europe).
The social grid of classical analysis of plant closures is centered on the sociology of industrial relations, implicitly highlighting the « one best way » of social negotiation, with its dimensions of management of powers and the introduction of rules allowing to theoretically find a way out of the social conflict. While these dimensions remain relevant, they do not explain how a plant closure can crystallize into a massive conflict in one case, and go smoothly in another case. For us, this is a paradigm that is partly "dated", and does not take into account all the social perceptions of the actors at the key moments of the closure process, especially as it is frequently before its official announcement. It is urgent to return to « History », but with a new explanatory paradigm regarding the management of the social perception of restructuring, to learn from this new theoretical analysis a lesson, which can be used for future closures to come.   A historical and social comparative analysis, from the point of view of the social exchange theory, allows us to grasp unprecedented dimensions in the sector, to explain in what way the actors perceived in time the unfolding of the closing process. The availability of quantitative and qualitative information on two mythical closures in France (Billancourt in 1989 and Aulnay in 2012) allows us to consider a comparative reading on the basis of the enriched theory of the gift of Mauss, M.
Our problem is the following :
How to explain that the announcement of closure of an assembly plant has opposite effects on the social implication of their employees (implication / revolt) ?

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