Theorizing the Employment Relationship: Materialists and Institutionalists

Published date01 September 2005
Date01 September 2005
British Journal of Industrial Relations
43:3 September 2005 0007– 1080 pp. 537– 560
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2005. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.Oxford, UKBJIRBritish Journal of Industrial Relations0007-1080Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2005September 2005433537560Book
Book ReviewsBritish Journal of Industrial Relations
Theorizing the Employment Relationship: Materialists and Institutionalists
The Dynamics of Employee Relations
, 3rd edn. by Paul Blyton and Peter Turnbull.
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2004, xviii
430 pp., ISBN 0 333 94836
X, £24.99, paper.
Theoretical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship
edited by Bruce E.
Kaufman. Cornell University Press, an IRRA 2004 Research Volume, ILR Press,
Ithaca, 2004, x
370 pp., ISBN 0 913447 88 9, $29.95, £17.50, paper.
A decade ago, British Industrial Relations (IR), as a field or discipline, seemed
rudderless and struggling to navigate the storm of human resource management
(HRM) and dramatic changes in employment. It had settled for short-term weather
forecasts, courtesy of the Workplace Industrial Relations Surveys, rather than any
more ambitious attempt to chart the waters ahead. The main textbooks lacked the
authority of Hugh Clegg’s famous work or the verve of Richard Hyman’s response,
and looked backwards to a fast-disappearing shore of trade unions and collective
bargaining. Intellectual debate seemed to have been frozen into a dull pragmatic
compromise, as if all hands were needed on deck to bale out the Thatcherite deluge
(see Ackers and Wilkinson 2003). Yet, with hindsight, perhaps the tide had already
begun to turn. Paul Blyton and Peter Turnbull in 1994 and Paul Edwards, a year later,
produced authoritative, research-based texts from core IR departments at Cardiff and
Warwick, respectively. Shortly thereafter, the Economic and Social Research Council’s
‘Future of Work’ would take IR research to the forefront of this key debate. These
two books maintain the forward momentum.
It has become a cliché to sigh: ‘but IR lacks theory’. As Blyton and Turnbull point
out, in this new edition of
The Dynamics of Employee Relations
, ‘from being a
subject formerly criticized for its apparent (or at least explicit) absence of theory,
there is now an entire literature on different theoretical approaches to the subject’
(p. 7). They devote 50 pages to developing ‘an integrated theory of the employment
relationship which provides the foundation for the entire text’ (p. 11), and then
another 40 to discuss the ‘dynamic context’ of contemporary IR. This is some dis-
tance from the few pages on theory Clegg put at
the back
of his 1979 text! The
American scholar, Bruce Kaufman, in his edited international collection of
ical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship
, adds further to IR’s
intellectual resources. He, too, is after ‘the holy grail of industrial relations: an
British Journal of Industrial Relations
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2005.
integrative theory that binds the field together and gives it intellectual coherence’ (p.
41). And it is an encouraging feature of both these fine books, as well as the new
Edwards (see Ackers 2004), that there is such a strong consensus on the core princi-
ples: that the
employment relationship
should be at the centre of this theory; that
too are central; that the IR system needs to be opened up to a broader
political economy
; that IR needs to be understood as embedded in the wider society
and different
varieties of capitalism
and, finally, that a
normative critique
of free
market capitalism and managerial ideology, in theory and practice, underpins the
necessarily robust empirical analysis.
Why does IR need an integrative theory and what does this mean? A glance across
the Atlantic answers the question. We see a dying discipline, its journals dominated
by a miscellany of narrow specialist articles, often with no common intellectual thread.
Kaufman is sharply aware that without a common theoretical language, shared by
radical and pluralist, HRM researcher and labour historian, economist and sociolo-
gist, IR will cease to exist as we know it. If academic IR is not to be hollowed out
into an entirely open field for a hotchpotch of theories devised elsewhere, it needs
some sort of integrative principle. But, as Hyman’s chapter answers back, while the
open field is one danger, the closed discipline, equipped with a single, hard, unified
theory is another. For nor do we want an insular management discipline, sealed off
from the wider social sciences, like the more dogmatic parts of psychology or neoclas-
sical economics. Much as people with weak religious or political beliefs stand in some
awe of those with strong faith, and early social scientists admired the natural sciences,
a certain ‘economics envy’ pervades the American contributions to Kaufman’s collec-
tion. Yet hard, closed theoretical systems trade internal rigour for external influence
in an interdisciplinary social science world. To know this, one only has to witness the
difficulties orthodox economists experience operating on large European Union (EU)
projects alongside academics from social policy, IR, politics, sociology and elsewhere.
IR is enriched by an ‘eclectic, interdisciplinary approach’, where ideas and concepts
can be freely exchanged and recombined; quite unlike the ‘intellectual autarky of
economics’ (Jacoby 1990: 330–1, quoting Nelson and Winter). Moreover, IR needs a
theoretical inner life — like the long-standing creative tension between Marxism and
pluralism in the UK — with lively debate, to clarify differences and refine theory in
relation to constantly changing external reality. Kaufman seeks an IR theory with
‘greater reliability, explanatory insight and predictive power’ (p. viii). The problem is
that IR deals with a constantly shifting
subject, notwithstanding Blyton and
Turnbull’s distinction between ‘event’ and ‘structure’ types of history. So when we
observe the strike by Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen train
drivers, prior knowledge of the French postal strike will provide only limited insight.
IR can no more wield the Jeda sword of hard theory than any other branch of
sociological and historical analyses.
This excellent third edition of Blyton and Turnbull’s established teaching text takes
the bull by the horns and openly engages the student in a normative and theoretical
debate on the way work and society are going and why it matters. The two authors
are well balanced in their expertise on the economic, sociological and historical
dimensions of IR and able to speak with the authority of leading researchers. They
have one advantage over Edwards (2003), the other flagship IR text, in that authors
can change the direction of the ship much more quickly and decisively than the editor
of a collection of other authoritative and strong-willed writers. We already know that
surveys exaggerate continuity while case studies overstate change; perhaps the same
can be said of edited and authored texts, respectively. So if Edwards is low in the water

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