Comparative employment relations research, the “slow” way

Phil Almond

A large volume of research in employment relations and human resource management makes claims to contribute to knowledge through cross-national comparisons. In a paper published in 2013 with Maria Gonzalez, we found 179 papers published in top IR/HR journals which had some claim to be making explicit cross-national comparisons in labour management.

However, it is not always the case that comparative research is based on an in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of the societies under investigation. Indeed, much comparative research is rather ‘thin’ in its approach to local social context, cross-sectional in nature, and very standardised in its approach from one country to another. This contrasts with a much more ‘deep’ tradition of comparative research, which has always had much more interest in developing a contextual understanding of national society, history and culture.

In work with CERCnet colleague Heather Connolly, we have argued the case for ‘slow’  strategies in cross-national comparisons. ‘Slow’ comparison is based on a long-term, in-depth engagement with the social contexts under study, in order to gain deeper and more reliable insights into the nature of, and reasons for, cross-national differences and similarities. This requires a kind of ‘implicit ethnography’, even (or perhaps especially) for researchers such as myself whose formal research methods are non-ethnographic.

We decided to present this argument as a ‘manifesto’ as this type of research faces difficulties in the rather ‘fast’ world of the neo-liberal Academy – funders want fast answers, universities want defined projects and rapid publication and rarely understand more iterative processes of knowledge production, and even doctoral students frequently face constraints on their ability to spend long periods of time researching abroad. Our argument is not that ‘thin’ or ‘fast’ methods of comparison lack value; our argument is that the ecology of comparative research in IR/HR would benefit from a better balance better faster and slower means of comparison.

The basic differences between thin and deep approaches, and fast and slow research strategies, are presented below. For further details, please consult the full paper.

Thin approach
Variable/contingency-driven approach

 

More interest in transversal knowledge of subject area than of deep understanding of national societies.

 

 

Deep approach

 

Problematises “thin” ideas of comparability of standardised variables

 

Argues for need to understand ‘interlockages’ between complexes of variables across national societies

 

More interest in contextual understanding of national society/history/culture

 

Fast strategy Slow strategy
Standardised questions (both in quantitative and qualitative research), relatively little deviation from methodological approaches used in non-comparative research. 

High tolerance of typologies

 

Maximise ‘superficial’ comparability of respondents

 

Perceives little need to acquire in-depth, on the ground understanding of national social dynamics. Low “societal reflexivity”

 

High degree of closure of projects

 

Much more iterative process, tolerant of variation in methodology in different societal contexts. 

Suspicious of typologies, seeks to access and evaluate counter-narratives.

 

Much less concerned with formal comparability of respondents; opportunist approach to data

 

Sees geographical context as very important, seeks to develop (implicit) ethnography of societies. High “societal reflexivity”

 

Low degree of closure of projects

Precepts of slow comparitivism

In an attempt to provide a starting point for a fuller discussion on the methods used by slow comparativists, we developed a number of basic precepts of slow comparativism as a practical methodological approach. These are:

i) speaking the “language” – This fairly obvious precept applies both literally and metaphorically. Even if research subjects are able and willing to communicate in a lingua franca, the social context does not follow suit. For the great comparative historian Benedict Anderson“When you start to live in a country whose language you understand barely or not at all, you are obviously not in a good position to think comparatively, because you have little access to the local culture…You cannot avoid making comparisons, but these are likely to be superficial and naïve”. To this, we would add that assuming comparability of meaning of terminology is a mistake to be avoided even in the same language, and this particularly applies if research subjects are likely to depart substantially from standard formal language.

ii) immersion – This refers to the ‘slow’ process of accessing the ‘common sense’ of relevant actors. A slow research strategy places value on time spent in the societies under study to acquire local meanings, and requires fieldwork to be seen as a much more encompassing process than just what happens in formal research settings such as interviews. Leads are often indirect, and valuable evidence can be acquired by informal conversations with relevant (or semi-relevant) people, and simply by developing, on an informal basis, a somewhat ethnographic approach to one’s interactions with the wider society. Relevant voices may not necessarily be exactly the same categories of people in different societies, and that a degree of idiosyncrasy has to be tolerated – and indeed encouraged – in slow comparative research. In other words, a slow comparativist needs to develop an ‘always on’ mentality, alert to the possibility that valuable background can by acquired in somewhat idiosyncratic ways.

iii) part-alienation and reflexiveness – the researcher must develop the capacity to distance him/herself sufficiently from the socialised rationalities of their own (or, for that matter, any other) country, ideally before finalising formal research instruments. This process is indispensable if research is to seek to avoid ethnocentrism. A good slow comparativist needs to develop an understanding of the various social logics relevant to the research questions that s/he is trying to resolve, but needs to inoculate against over-identification in order to try to avoid ethnocentrism.

iv) the ‘federal’ nature of comparative projects – a real problem, as argued in somewhat different terms by Richard Hyman, is that attempts at ‘deep’, ‘slow’ comparison often face difficulties in presenting structures and actor strategies in different societies as ‘comparable enough’ for comparison to work. To try to resolve this, it is often useful to think about fieldwork in different countries as constituting linked, but to some extent separable, projects. This argument is based on a position that non-comparability has in itself to be an object of a comparative research programme. It is important to discover what is absent, as well as what is present, in specific societies; for Anderson “what you will start to notice, if your ears and eyes are open, are the things you can’t see or hear. You will begin to notice what is not there as well as what is there, just as you will become aware of what is unwritten as well as what is written”.

Mitigating against the problem of non-comparability requires the slow comparativist to find a means of dancing between the requirement for some degree of ‘meta-comparability’ (i.e. a thematic unity across countries) and societal specifics at a more granular level. A degree of messiness in relation to the demands of positive science for precise comparison has to be tolerated, and indeed encouraged, in these efforts.

These precepts are a starting point for further debate, rather than a complete answer. However it is hoped that they provide a defence for obtaining deep contextual understanding in the first place, and some basic indications as to how ‘slow’ comparativism might achieve this.

 

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