Working Papers

Changing Traditions in Industrial Relations Research

In Researching the World of Work: Strategies and Methods in Industrial Relations Research (Whitfield and Strauss, 1998), we made a number of points about the way in which IR research is undertaken, and how it might respond to the challenges currently facing it. In particular, we stated that the ‘…tide engulfing industrial relations is strong…but we feel that allied to changes in conceptual tools, a broadening of scope, and possibly a modification of the field’s title, the development of a distinctive and powerful approach to research design can contribute to a renaissance in the field….’ (Whitfield and Strauss, 1998, 294).

Since then, we have undertaken a content analysis of the field’s main academic journals covering almost half a century (Whitfield and Strauss, 2000). It was but oriented around the themes developed in the book. The analysis was quite narrowly-focused, but allowed us to check whether our perceptions were mirrored in the main journals, albeit only those that are more empirically tractable. It was followed by a not dissimilar paper by Carola Frege (2005) which examined similar themes and addressed some new issues. We also listened closely to the views of those who reviewed the book, to see if there were any profound disagreements with our views. Most readers seemed to accept our caricature of the past, present and future of the field. Less encouragingly, however, few of those reacting to our rather pessimistic views of the future offered suggestions as to how it might be made brighter.

This chapter has three main objectives. The first is to outline the arguments we made in our 1998 book. Our treatment is deliberately concise; those wanting more depth can consult the original. The second objective is to examine our assertions in the light of the two journal content analyses, ours and Frege’s. Thirdly, we address the question of where IR goes from here.