Sociology and Employment Relationship

Sociology and Employment Relationship

The academic field known in the English-speaking world as ‘industrial relations’ (IR) has little institutional presence in the universities of continental Europe and those other parts of the world where Anglo-Saxon modes of analysis are not dominant. Rather than focusing on wider questions of social relations, it has historically concentrated on worker and employer organization and collective behavior, workplace conflict over work-related matters, and (in particular) the regulation of the formal employment relationship, whether via the law or collective bargaining.

Thus, for example, urine the asses, IR research in the UK was dominated by analyses of the effect of the Thatcher administration’s labor law reforms on collective bargaining and industrial action and on the responses Of unions to ‘attacks’ on their established institutional position and prerogatives. One of the most important theoretical developments in this Anglophone research tradition was the publication in 1966 of a paper written for a UK government commission of inquiry into workplace relations. The author, Alan Fox, used this paper to introduce what he called the ‘frames of reference? approach to IR.

His book Beyond Contract, in which he added a third frame of reference to the two he had previously identified, followed in 1974. Since then, IR as an academic discipline has seen few if any truly significant theoretical developments. This paper argues that the essence of Fox’s theory – the idea that subjective conceptual structures condition attitudes and behavior in economic and organizational contexts -? remains valid, but that there is a need both to broaden and to deepen Forms work. First of all there is a need to add to the categorization byways of seeing’ economic and organizational phenomena.

Second, there is a need to better understand how social learning processes lead to the adoption or rejection of different frames of reference. These learning processes include both analyses of the functional efficacy of conceptual models and the evaluation of the outcomes of social action against normative standards. The principal aim of this paper is to address the first of these needs, although it will also make some proposals with respect to the second. The theoretical resources required for these tasks are drawn from the work of J;urge Habeas.

Kaufman traces this absence to a divergence in discursive convention in the 19th century (2004, p. 32-35). Whereas in France and Germany, industrial unrest and the relationship between workers and employers was typically thought to be inseparable from the broader context f class, social relations and the political and legal structures of society, in Britain the tendency was to refer not to ‘the social question’ but to ‘the labor problem’, thus focusing much more narrowly on the conflict between capital and labor.

In constructing social conflict as ‘the labor problem’, the cleavage between the owners Of capital (and their agents in management) and the organized working class was identified as the most fundamental fracture in the social fabric, and, as such, as the appropriate locus of efforts at social engineering designed to mend that fabric.

The field of industrial elation emerged specifically as a response to ‘the labor problem’ and as such has historically concentrated on worker and employer organization and collective behavior, workplace conflict over work-related matters, and (in particular) the regulation of the formal employment relationship, whether via the law or collective bargaining.

Thus, for example, during the 1 9805, IR research in the UK was dominated by analyses of the effect of the Thatcher administration’s labor law reforms on collective bargaining and industrial action and on the responses of unions to ‘attacks’ on their established institutional position and prerogatives. While IR is defined by its object of study rather than by a disciplinary orientation -? the methods Of economics, political science, sociology and law are all freely used – it has arguably managed to maintain a kind of theoretical coherence around the crucial importance of the social context of work and workplace relations.

For example, John Commons, the founder of academic industrial relations in the ASSAI, was heavily influenced by the German historical school of economics, which privileged the analysis of the empirical and historical context of economic decision-making over the abstract logical or mathematical doodling of behavior. In the ELK, at least up until the asses, the explanation of outcomes was typically based on detailed, almost anthropological observation of workplace interactions.

It was rarely if ever assumed that higher-level social and economic processes could cut through the specificities of each interaction situation and the participants’ interpretations of those situations. It was Alan Fox, a lecturer at Oxford University active from around 1950 until the mid-asses, who best captured this theoretical tendency, arguing that attitudes and behavior in economic and organizational contexts re conditioned by contingent, interconnection conceptual structures arising both from general processes of solicitation and from direct experience in the workplace.

Fox first set out his theory in his famous paper Industrial Sociology and Industrial Relations (Fox 1966), which was written as a background paper for a UK public enquiry into labor-management relations prompted by concerns about increased levels of industrial conflict and decentralized union action. In this paper, Fox introduced the ‘frames of reference’ approach to industrial relations (IR) in which he argued that it is always possible to conceive the employment relationship in either one of two incompatible ways.

Either it is a relationship of social membership which exists to satisfy common interests (the Unitarian frame of reference), or it is a negotiated, contractual relationship which exists to satisfy the interests of separate but interdependent groups (the pluralist frame of reference). In his book Beyond Contract (1974) he added a third 4 conceptual possibility, the radical frame of reference, from the perspective of which the employment relationship is an entirely illegitimate relationship which exists solely to satisfy the interests of the dominant party.

Fox’s frames of reference approach still structures much IR teaching and research. The years since it was first mooted have seen few if any similarly significant theoretical developments. In this paper we argue that this approach remains valid, but that there is a need both to broaden and to deepen Fox’s work. First of all there is a need to add to the categorization of ‘ways of seeing’ economic and organizational phenomena.

Second, there is a need to better understand how social learning processes, whether those focusing on the functional heartsickness Of social systems or those focusing on the normative outcomes of social action, lead to the adoption or rejection of different frames of reference. The principal aim of this paper is to address the first of these needs, although it will also make some proposals with respect to the second. The theoretical resources required for these tasks are drawn largely from the work of sociologist and philosopher J;urge Habeas (1984, 1987, 1996).

According to Habeas, the fundamental building block of any theorization of social action, regardless of the context, should be the means of action coordination. He argues that there are three basic modes of social action coordination. Two of these modes of coordination are ‘formal’, which is to say they are based on legal or quasi-legal rules. These are markets/ contracts and bureaucratic regulation. In action contexts governed principally by these formal modes of coordination we can talk about the existence of social systems.

By contrast, the third mode of coordination – coordination on the basis of social norms, values and conventions -? is entirely ‘informal’ in that it remains unconfined and is subject to unintended change and variation across time and social contexts. What remains unresolved within Haberdasher’s work is the relationship be;en these different modes of coordination. Whereas his main argument is that a market or bureaucratic/organizational action context effectively insulates actors from the influence Of more general norms and values, leaving only the empirical motivation of sanction and reward to guide action (Habeas 1 987, p. 08), he also suggests that the degree to which formal and informal modes of coordination influence any particular action situation is an empirical rather than a theoretical question (Habeas 1987, p. 31 2). The Anglo-Saxon IR tradition is surprisingly coherent tit this analytic scheme-I On the one hand, IR in the English-speaking world has tended to privilege functionalist theoretical approaches that focus on the formally coordinated aspects of the employment relationship.

Within this intellectual current, the Unitarian-pluralist dichotomy also reflects certain aspects of Haberdasher’s distinction between coordination via bureaucratic regulation (the rules Of organizational membership) and coordination via markets (contracts). On the other hand, we also find within the Anglophone approach to IR a strong current of research and teaching that insists that oracle behavior is significantly influenced by informal norms, values and conventions, whether those arising in the workplace itself or those imported from the social world beyond the factory gates.

As with the debate surrounding Haberdasher’s work, no truly satisfactory conclusions have ever been drawn about the relationship between conceptualizations of employing organizations, the norms and values 1 This coherence is perhaps less surprising if one considers that the principal intellectual influences on Anglo- American IR – Marx, Weber, Druthers and Parsons – are those whose work Habeas synthesis within his Theory of Communicative Action. Of the communities within which workplaces are embedded and social behavior at work – whether that Of employees or that Of managers.

Given this ambiguity, it seems wise to start from the assumption that there is good reason for the different currents and sub-currents of IR research to co-exist. I want to propose that employment is susceptible to either pluralist or Unitarian interpretation quite simply because it is simultaneously an exchange relationship within a labor market system and a relationship of membership n an organizational community defined and delimited by a system of bureaucratic rules.

Similarly, I would argue that research focusing on informal social norms in the workplace has given rise to valuable insights because these non-economic values and conventions are much more than simply ‘noise’ in relationships governed principally by external forces. If we want to maintain that these approaches can all be valid at once, however, there are two significant problems that need to be resolved. The first is that the simple distinction between Unitarian and pluralist frames of reference does not adequately cover the variations in perspective that exist in practice.

The radical frame of reference, for example, shares pluralism’s central analytic focus on the balance of interests between those who work and those who own the means of production, but is distinguished by a pre-commitment to the impossibility of achieving a genuinely and durably fair balance in this respect. Similarly, the very different prescriptions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ human resources management arise from conceptual positions that are both recognizably Unitarian.

The second problem is that the relationship between he different modes of social action coordination is not at all clear. We need to be able to suggest how the different modes of formal coordination interact, and what role is played by informal coordination mechanisms in contexts of action that are or appear to be primarily formally coordinated. What follows falls into two parts. The first of these builds on Fox’s approach, arguing that frames of reference should be understood as conceptual constructs that permit actors to grasp the functional characteristics of social systems.

The second part builds on the proposition that the enduring appeal f the Anita iris-pluralist dichotomy is a consequence of its reflecting the genuine ambiguity or duality of the employment relationship. It argues that employment is simultaneously an exchange relationship and a relationship of social membership, and that for this reason we can conceptualize different varieties of IR system by looking at the interaction between perspectives on market economic systems and perspectives on employment systems.

Three possible categories of overall normative evaluation of formal social systems are identified, which in the context of the interaction between two different yester -? the market economy and the employment system – give rise to a potential 9 different frames of reference. Forms dualism Since the mid-19605 the distinction between Unitarianism and pluralism, proposed as two incompatible basic conceptualizations of the organization and the employment relationship, has been the single most important element in industrial relations theory.

Although similar dualism had been suggested before – in particular Clark Seer’s distinction between the economic and the sociological perspective on the analysis of industry (Kerr 1964) -? Fox clarified and contrasted the two approaches in his paper for the Donovan Commission (Fox 1966), locating them within a simple and compelling theoretical framework drawn from social psychology. Unitarianism and pluralism were two frames of reference’; two conflicting and incommensurable ways of seeing the world which had very different implications for 56 practice. The essential difference between them is straightforward.

The Unitarian sees employment as a relationship between members of a single social group, a group with a common purpose or, to use Rousseau term, a general will. The natural state of the relationship is co-operation, without preconditions, in pursuit of the group’s aims and values. Crucially, these aims and values exist prior to any plans for action. Membership of the group is premised on the acceptance of these fundamental ‘action orientations’ (to use Haberdasher’s term) and not solely on the particular component of the plans and strategies derived from them that it falls to any one individual to execute.

The pluralist, on the other hand, conceives employment as a strategic relationship between strangers. Employee and employer have different and competing aims and values and hence cannot be said to form a single social group. They have no common purpose, and no general will can be attributed o them. Employment, then, is a relationship characterized by conflict and the resolution of conflict. Any co-operation that arises can only be based on the recognition of the participants’ mutual need for the help of the other to attain their separate goals.

Membership of the group is premised not on a prior commitment to any particular set of aims, but on a strategic recognition of mutual dependence and a willingness to seek to define plans and strategies which when carried out will satisfy the individual or sectional interests of all involved. We want to consider Fox’s work not merely as a theory of industrial elation, but as a social theory, albeit a rudimentary one, which attempts to explain the behavior of actors in the context of the capitalist employment relationship.

Fox recognized that both frames of reference were in a certain sense defensible, or at least that it was possible to understand why their advocates saw the world in the way that they did. He attempted to explain the factors that might lead actors to adopt one perspective or the other and what the consequences of this might be in terms of organizational structure. What we propose to do in the next two sections of the paper is to propose a eating of Fox’s work that we will then use as the starting point for the development of a more complete picture of the frames of reference.

For the moment we want to focus on his earlier position, before the introduction Of what has become known as the ‘radical’ frame of reference. The idea of ‘frames of reference’ as social theory Fox’s 1966 paper attempts to step away from the political arguments of the day in order to explain why the Unitarian route to improved co-operation between workers and management in industry was to be objected to on strictly scientific rather than normative grounds. Implied in Fox’s approach is distinction between the structural determinants of behavior and what we can call action-level determinants.

The former set of factors is external to the individual actor, constraining his or her choices of action in a rather concrete, material way. The latter set is internal, affecting behavior via attitudes, culture, solicitation, perceptions, definitions and other subjective and interconnection means of making sense of the social world. In the absence of structural constraints, behavior is determined by action-level factors. At first glance, the 1 966 paper would probably lead one to believe that Fox considers he structural determinants of behavior to be the only important factors in the organizational context.

These determinants exert their effects irrespective of normal variations of personality and personal relationships. A brief statement of this approach might be that the industrial behavior of individuals and relationships between them are shaped, not only by 7 their being the sort of people they are, but also by the technology with which they work, the structure of authority, communications and status within which they are located, the system of punishments, rewards and other management controls to which they are subjected and various other aspects of the structures of the situation’. Fox 1966, Para 60) Fox introduces the concepts of the ‘role’ and of ‘role behavior as mediating between structure and choices about action. Roles, he argues, are largely structurally determined, each a ‘pattern of required behavior which ‘In some measure… Exists independently of the person filling it at any one time'(Fox 1966. , Para 62). Roles constrain and determine the behavior of their occupants to such an extent that, regardless of who is filling them, the relationship between oleos will always be more or less the same. Thus to change behavior you need to change roles, and to change roles you need to change structure.

In essence Fox’s contention is that if the structures of the enterprise remain the same, then other attempts to change behavior -? whether through exhortation, incentives or threats -? are futile. However, while employees have little or no influence over the basic pattern of behavior dictated by their place within the organization, the questions of how they experience and interpret this requirement for conformity, the attitude with which they approach it, and whether and to what extent they may challenge it remain open. This is where action-level factors enter into the picture.

Although Fox spends very little time defining or discussing the basic concept of a frame of reference, it seems clear that that frames of reference fall into the category Of action-level factors. What distinguishes them from other factors of this type is that they arise only insofar as there is a need to grasp or understand what Habeas calls ‘formally-organized’ contexts of action. Frames of reference give meaning to participation in the type of coordinated social action which rises not from shared aims and values but from ‘the structures of the situation’.

By applying a frame of reference, participants are able to understand their structurally-determined behavior as something other than bare constraint or compulsion. Frames of reference are interpretations of structural role behavior that explain, rationalism and provide normative support for – or normatively-motivated rejection of – a particular type and range of role requirements and constraints. From the Unitarian perspective, for example, the employment relationship can be understood as a kind of social membership; as the cooperative pursuit of common aims and values on the basis of a technically effective division of labor.

From the pluralist perspective, employment is typically understood as participation in an exchange of a certain amount and type of labor for a certain amount of money. The different participants get what they need without having to accept the validity of the aims and values of the others. Thus frames of reference permit actors to understand social situations and relationships that would otherwise be meaningless. Frames of reference also inform the work f those who design the organizational systems that give rise to structural roles. Crucially, the different frames imply very different workplace structures and relationships.

Fox’s ‘diagnosis of the times’ is that while the vast majority of organizations in the 1 9605 were structured from a Unitarian perspective, the majority of employees had a pluralist perspective. He believed that the general lack of cooperation and high levels of overt conflict that characterized British industry were the direct result of a dissonance between structurally- constrained or required role behavior and the action-level factors that would otherwise motivate social action, as mediated by the pluralist frame of reference. 8 There are two possibilities for the resolution of this dissonance.

The first is to somehow to get workers to accept the Unitarian frame of reference. Fox does not set out systematically why one frame of reference might be adopted as opposed to another, but the overall picture is clear enough. Frames of reference arise and are adopted on the basis of lived experience in the workplace; assessments of the state of power relations in industry and the balance of interests in the economy; general socio-cultural attitudes; and the arms, conventions and values held to be valid in actors’ immediate social environments, whether within the workplace or beyond.

Fox allows that in certain circumstances it may be possible to persuade or cajole employees to accept the Unitarian perspective: History and current observation show that management may succeed, with a judicious blend Of authoritarianism and propagation of the unitary ideology, in molding subordinates’ perceptions very differently, particularly if it can draw support from the cultural values of the local community or wider society (Fox 1974, puppy -2; emphasis added).

However, he comments that the capacity of employers to produce this kind of ‘legitimizing sentiment’ in employees is diminishing in the face of general cultural change and the shifting balance of power in industry. For Fox there is no question that the second possibility for resolving the dissonance that gives rise to industrial conflict, restructuring industry along pluralist lines, is the only effective solution in practice. In short, then, Fox’s advocacy of pluralist industrial relations is based on the empirically-grounded belief that cooperation can best be achieved by structural change in industry.

The organizational structures of the 1 sass, which had been inherited from Britain’s industrial past, were based on the assumption of a unity of interest at the level of a stratified class society in which the majority of individuals knew and accepted their place. However the deference, poverty of aspiration and powerlessness that characterized the working classes in that society had disappeared. The roles that employees were required to take on as a consequence of the existing modes of work organization, work rules and work practices Were therefore in conflict with empirical social reality.

Work as a denial rather than an affirmation of workers’ true social identity -? the same, of course, could be said of managers -? and hence the organization of industry was preventing co-operation rather than making it possible. In order to improve co-operation and therefore economic performance, industrial structures had to be redesigned. This obviously had to begin with a sober and objective assessment of the nature of contemporary society. Such an assessment clearly suggested that society was experiencing a major clash of values.

The dominance of the capital owning classes (and their agents and elaborators in management), as well as their right to claim the fruits of collective labor for themselves was being openly and consciously challenged by organized workers. Fox saw little or no possibility that managers could simply persuade employees to accept their authority without demur. Indeed, as he measured it, the gap between the emergent social reality and the Unitarian outlook was so wide that the Unitarian perspective represented a kind of cognitive dysfunction.

He talks about the high ’emotional yield’ that managers got from their ideology, and the ‘guilt’ they may have experienced if hey surrendered what they saw to be their proper decision-making prerogative. Managers could also demonstrate a ‘genuine incapacity to understand’ the conflict generated by pluralistic forces (Fox 1966. , Para 48-9). Perhaps most damningly, he comments that Unitarianism is “not an analytic tool for social diagnosis and prescription, but an instrument by which managers seek to reassure themselves and public opinion that the cause of failure lies elsewhere” (Fox 1966. Para 51 For Fox, the pluralist perspective was by far the more accurate reflection Of social reality, and it as pluralism that should provide the conceptual basis for the reform of the structures of the enterprise and of industrial relations. The radical frame of reference: values and the institutional dimension In its earlier incarnation, the frames of reference approach remains firmly rooted in social psychology, the influence of the Atavistic Institute being particularly clear (see for example Fox 1 966, Para 16).

As set out in the 1966 paper, the mechanism that drives conflict is not to be found at the level of interests or political consciousness, but, as we have just seen, at the cognitive level. Conflict is the result of a dissonance between workplace roles and the frames of reference that arise from the perceptions, definitions, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that underpin wider social life.

Aligning the structural and action-level determinants of behavior would resolve the dissonance and remove the source of conflict, opening the way to improved cooperation with all the resultant economic benefits. While Beyond Contract (1974) does not contradict this analysis, it adds two rather more sociological elements to the picture. First of all it recognizes that the adoption of a frame of reference involves making significant normative judgments. Actors’ choice of perspective is not made solely on the basis of a disinterested or technical analysis of society.

Second, it suggests that the institutional dimension of the employment relationship – in the broad sense of internal enterprise procedures, employment law and the other institutions of IR beyond the workplace level -? needs to be considered separately from the market dimension. As is well known, Fox came to see the pluralist approach not as a potential solution to industrial conflict but as part of the problem. He became unconcerned about the values that were built into pluralist industrial relations and about the political purposes that it might thereby serve.

As he himself argues, the pluralist perspective makes no sense unless it is accepted that freedom of (collective) contract is not a fiction – that the power of organized workers is such as to balance the inherent advantage of the employer in the employment relationship – and that the agreements struck between unionized workers and their employers are thereby morally binding (Fox 1974, IPPP). This assumption is implicit in the 1 966 paper, but by 1974 Fox as ready to argue that a mere on-paper balance of power is not the whole story: the “negotiation of order within the enterprise takes place only at the margins.

Management and the employee interests do not jointly build up their collaborative structure from the ground floor up. Power and social conditioning cause the employee interests to accept management’s shaping of the main structure long before they reach the negotiating table” (1974, p. 286; emphasis added).

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