Corps de l’article

This book presents research findings about the state of working life and employment relations in Great Britain. It is the fifth in a series and the culmination of several years of collaboration between UK government agencies. A multifaceted methodology is used to prepare WERs 2004. However, the substance of the approach uses employee and employer surveys, sampling and statistical inference to draw conclusions about British workplaces.

In this critique, I do not give a detailed account of the methods used to produce WERs and resist stating what results are or may mean. Such efforts on my part would not do the book justice. They run the risk of trivializing a detailed and particularly well thought through piece of work. However, in the book’s first chapter there is an excellent discussion of technical considerations about the project’s methods. In subsequent sections, a broad range of findings about work and employment are clearly presented, well analyzed and astutely placed in context. In my opinion, which is consistent with the views of many employment relations experts, WERs 2004 maintains a tradition of being the best reference available about aggregate trends in Great Britain’s labour force and is far superior to alternatives.

In this review, I confine my remarks to consideration of what the WERs project offers the social sciences generally. As this latter comment suggests, I consider that the project’s influence and relevance extend beyond the United Kingdom and the fields of employment relations and work sociology. The initiative embodies perseverance, faithful implementation of a research methodology and, ultimately, excellence in social investigation, the book being a tangible manifestation of these elements. The WERs concept, and the manner of its execution in 2004, gives us more than a comprehensive reference about employment relations. The book fulfils at least two other roles. It is an important example of best-practice for students of social science and early-career researchers. Also, it provides a source of inspiration for those seeking to generate interesting research questions or hypotheses about social phenomena.

The authors of WERS 2004 have accomplished three remarkable things. First, they have improved on earlier versions of the report. The wording of some survey items and the approach taken to analysis and interpretation of data has been enhanced with each successive edition. The original project was ambitious and, as is mostly the case in social research, its methods and reporting format required some fine-tuning. However the current, 2004, expose is superb. It combines well-worded survey items, excellent data analysis, insightful interpretation and, in the final presentation, straightforward written expression. Second, the authors have been able to present an updated picture of working life in Britain. In this respect, many of the 2004 results can be compared with those obtained in previous surveys. Third, the scope of the project has been broadened to include consideration of emerging workplace trends; the impact of globalization and the new economy; and issues which were originally overlooked. Part of this expansion process has included increased emphasis on small workplaces and on gathering data about non-standard forms of employment. These augmentations are sophisticated and accompanied by thoughtful and well articulated rationale.

For those doing social research WERs (2004) is an example of best practice for several reasons. First, survey items are short and unambiguous. They illustrate the difference between a good result and an outstanding one. Their elegance emerges from extensive pre-testing and piloting; reminding us that, in matters of social enquiry, the last 20 percent of the benefit is the hardest won. The approach taken to sample selection and weighting of data is thoughtful and, frequently, minimalist. Where appropriate, results are left to speak for themselves and are presented accessibly and in context. Typically, analysis of data is kept under control. In this respect, it is inconspicuous, not overwhelming the reader or distracting from point(s) being made or a main conclusion. The interpretation of findings is insightful but conservative. Throughout the document, there is a sharp distinction between observation and inference. Readers are mostly presented with a prima-facie meaning and then invited to consider possible explanations and/or matters that may enhance understanding. Sentences are short and concise. Typically a main point about a finding is presented up-front and efficiently unpackaged in a coherent and direct manner. Throughout the book, there are many examples of findings being considered in light of other contemporary phenomena such as globalization or the impact of European Union legislation.

An important feature of WERs (2004) is that it entices readers to form hypotheses and/or formulate research questions. Upon first perusal, I found myself considering ways that variables may be correlated or how a relationship could change if certain elements were held constant. The book provides a framework for thinking about classes of connection between issues and gives readers scope to use results to pursue their own enquiries. One reason for its capacity to inspire creative thought about future research questions is the clarity of survey elements. The data which they elicit can effortlessly be borne in mind and considered as later findings are presented.

Overall, the book’s structure is logical and written to be interesting and thought provoking. It can be read from cover to cover or, because of its status as a reference, in a piecemeal manner. As was the case with earlier editions, WERs (2004) raises the standards bar for research in the social sciences. However, perhaps paradoxically, it can be understood without extensive training in statistics or research methods. In the last six months I have shown WERs (2004) to PhD students who have been grappling with survey design, data analysis or writing up of results chapters. They have informed me that they found examining the book helpful and, in some cases, the basis for a wholesale rethink of their research direction. Our challenge as readers of WERs (2004) is to continue to find ways of applying its wisdom. We should do this irrespective of where we live or how varied our research agendas may be.