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Employment Research and State Traditions: A Comparative History of Britain, Germany and the United States, By Carola M. Frege, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 223 pp., ISBN 978-0-19-920806-7.

  • Carol-Anne Gauthier

…plus d’informations

  • Carol-Anne Gauthier
    Université Laval

Corps de l’article

Frege begins with the statement that the study of epistemology within social science has been supplanted by a commitment to empiricism, and is neglected until a crisis emerges, leading academics to recognize the need to rediscover their intellectual histories. Since the 1980s, structural changes such as the decline of trade unions and collective bargaining have lead employment research scholars, particularly in the U.S., to re-examine their subject matter. Whether this situation represents the death of the field or just a crossroads is unresolved. Frege offers new insights by reflecting on the epistemological and intellectual foundations of employment research which, it is argued, follow patterns embedded in specific national traditions. The author adopts a comparative historical approach to unveil research patterns and their emergence in Britain, Germany and the United States. She concludes that policy-oriented employment research is the key to remaining relevant.

Chapter two outlines the respective histories of employment research in the U.S., Britain, and Germany, comparing their broad, relatively distinct features. A key theme is that different approaches to employment research were taken from the very beginning: for example, whereas U.S. scholars were rather pragmatic and moderate, often adopting a labour market perspective, German scholars took a more political approach to the subject matter, studying the relationship between capital and labour and its link to democracy. Then, three critical debates surrounding employment research in the Anglophone world are discussed: structural changes in employment relations, the conflicting relationship between industrial relations and human resource management, and the lack of a methodological and theoretical framework capable of dealing with the two former challenges.

In chapter three, the author presents a study of the research patterns in the U.S., Britain and Germany by comparing employment journal publications in the three countries. The results confirm that employment research is a predominantly Anglophone enterprise. They also confirm that researchers in different countries have differing disciplinary associations, research topics, methodology, levels of theoretical interest, interpretations of the scientific process, and research paradigms. For example, the dominance of the labour market approach to employment relations in the U.S. is highlighted, contradicting the inter-disciplinary perspective of the field.

The fourth chapter lays the ground work for the three following chapters. After presenting a brief history of the sociology of knowledge, Frege argues that knowledge is the result of the specific social context in which it is produced. The production of this knowledge generally follows persistent intellectual patterns, known as path dependencies, embedded in a nation’s history. The author sheds some insights into the field’s potential transformation by comparing the rudimentary framework of national research patterns, paying particular attention to important state transitions and their impact on the study of work and employment. Three dimensions are used to compare the countries’ research traditions: the subject matter (labour market histories), institutions (social science traditions), and ideas (industrial democracy discourse). A central theme is the relationship between the state and society.

Labour movement histories and their impact on research paradigms and theories is the first path dependency. Different relationships between labour movements and the political and economic spheres are the focus of this chapter. For example, Frege compares how unions developed as a sort of ‘appendix’ to the German socialist parties, whereas in Britain, the unions contributed to the creation of the Labour party and in the U.S., the AFL established a business unionism orientation early on, separating itself from the political sphere. These differences are explained in part by the paternalistic nature of the German state, which encouraged unions to turn to the state for help in improving labour conditions. In contrast, British and American Labour movements focused on collective bargaining. In the U.S., this is but the continuation of the politics/economics split, emphasized by the courts’ conservative views.

Social science traditions represent the second path dependency, explained by three indicators: the general philosophy behind higher education, university structure and social science methodologies. The author then contrasts Germany’s humanistic philosophy towards education to Britain’s elitist and positivist tradition and the U.S.’s ‘consumer orientation’ brought about by the country’s history of market primacy, philanthropic industrialists and interdisciplinary majors. Thus, the varying degrees of state intervention, as well as the different philosophies regarding democracy and education, have influenced the academic traditions such as degrees of openness to inter-disciplinarity to this day.

How the industrial democracy discourse in each country reflects the differing interpretations of political democracy is the final dimension. Frege argues that the foundations for the differing views are rooted in liberal/mechanic versus organic views of the state. The former, for which the U.S. is almost archetypal, is rooted in positivism and the ideal of rational conduct and individual liberty. Germany represents the organic theory of the state, modelled on the Greek model of polis, with its citizens striving to be whole men within a whole (versus fragmented) society.

The author concludes with a brief summary of the findings from the survey of journal publications which was detailed in chapter two. It is already widely accepted that subject matter has an important impact on the study of employment relations, but Frege adds to the discussion by showing how institutional and ideational path dependencies have also contributed to our understanding of the field, and argues that by understanding these better, we may find the solution to the crisis in employment research. The author argues that embeddedness does not necessarily entail historical determinism, but rather, that an understanding of this phenomenon is necessary to foster dialogue between ideologies and methodologies to encourage theoretical innovation.

Overall, the author achieves her primary aim of inducing a reflection that may be fruitful in the revitalization of employment research in the Anglophone world. The arguments made are solid and are accompanied by well-chosen illustrations that highlight the embeddedness of employment research. The foundations for the argument that social science research should remain policy-oriented are well laid out in the book and this normative affirmation is a great example of the intellectual honesty the author insists is necessary in the pursuit of knowledge.