Studying work in theory and practice: insights from Italy

Stefano Gasparri reflects on Italian research traditions in industrial relations. His full paper on the subject can be read in the  Industrial Relations Journal.

 Theories travel easily in an increasingly globalized academia, but what happens at their destinations remains often unclear: are they accepted, manipulated, or refuted? My article just published in the IRJ investigates the relevance of national context in the theoretical development of Industrial Relations (IR). The aim is to make sense, for the broadest audience possible, of peculiar national IR trajectories such as the one present in Italy.

The link between theory and context is particularly critical for IR for two reasons. First, the destiny of IR is uncertain, given that increasingly neoliberal universities threaten its existence (the clearest example, with IR scholars’ response, is told in the 2009 BUIRA pamphlet). This means that IR theory reproduction is subject to contextual external pressures trying to bend its core principles (for a list of these principles, see Meardi 2014). Second, IR has some ‘ethnocentric’ traits (Hyman 2004), mostly due to its relevance to the policy-making (traditionally national, especially as regards labour law and industrial relations institutions), but these are currently misplaced in a globalised economic context. IR is therefore a field of study highly exposed to the risk of ‘methodological nationalism’, and this constitutes a main concern for IR scholars (see the ‘slow’ manifesto for comparative research on work and employment in this blog).

In the article, I argue that a forward-looking way to tackle these challenges involves a reflexive effort, in the sense that IR needs to further and broader investigate the understanding of its intellectual history and connect it to its present state.  I navigate through different historical phases relying on the theoretical compass provided by the ‘frames of reference’, an established framework which has gained new currency, also thanks to Heery’s 2016 book ‘Framing Work’.

The dialectic between the pluralist, unitarist and radical frames of reference is well known in the Anglo-Saxon IR context, where frames of references have often been used to assess the ‘state of the art’ (Tapia et al. 2015) and recent developments, with scholars such as Budd noting either a unitarist drift or a polarization away from the traditional pluralist fulcrum. Besides, frames of reference have also become a terrain where scholars engage with intellectual and, to some extent, political controversies. This occurred in the UK, with Hyman vs Clegg/Flanders (BJIR 1978), in the US – less explicitly – with Godard vs Kochan (ILRR 2000), and again in the UK with Ackers vs Edwards (IJHRM 2014, IRRU working paper 2015). Terms as ‘pluralism’s pluralism’, ‘pluralist orthodoxy’, ‘radical pluralism’, ‘neo-pluralism’ emerged from these debates.

Few studies have instead explored the intellectual history of IR outside the Anglo-Saxon hotspots, and among these exceptions the works by Kaufman, Frege, and Hyman stand out. This research fills the gap regarding a relevant case, Italy, which has remained under-researched despite three analytical advantages: IR has a quite long presence to detect a trajectory, a relatively modest size to allow a comprehensive assessment, and a set of scholars whose contributions are internationally appreciated. In the historical reconstruction of the field, I identify three main phases.

I) The early years in the 60s and 70s, aspired to a ‘progressive pluralism’. Key-figures are the labour law scholar Giugni, who adapted Dunlop’s ‘system of industrial relations’ to the Italian context, and the sociologist Pizzorno, who popularized seminal concepts as ‘political exchange’ and ‘cycles of protests’. Alternative approaches took off, poles apart and firmly outside IR: the unitarist, in a ‘humanist’ version, following vision of communitarian unionism and philanthropic entrepreneurship; and the radical, thanks to neo-marxist analysis by ‘workerists’ and ‘autonomists’.

II) The age of maturity in the 80s and 90s, described as ‘political pluralism’. Research investigated cooperative and consensual industrial relations at the decentralized level, either via ‘micro-corporatism’ (Regini) or ‘territorial pacts’ (Regalia). In this phase, IR in Italy was still unable to include not only more radical themes as ‘New Social Movements’ (Melucci) and ‘World Systems Theory’ (Arrighi), but also an emerging unitarist perspective such as HRM.

III) The crisis and transformation since 2000, promoting an Italian ‘neo-pluralism’, that is a peculiar blend of pluralism and unitarism. Perspectives on labour revitalization other than social partnership are typically deemed as unfit to the Italian context, despite a creeping liberalization of the labour market and a recurrent anti-union government agenda that have eroded the space for social partners’ involvement. At the same time, new research centres – Adapt, Secondo Welfare – have conditioned the developments of the field, increasingly interested in integrative, often HR-driven employment relations. This has also triggered controversial debates about the links between work/welfare regulation and the Catholic social doctrine or philanthropy. With IR drifting towards unitarism, it is unsurprising, despite some exceptions (for instance, Burroni, Pedersini), key critical IR thinkers like Meardi, Baccaro, and Pulignano, are abroad.


The IR trajectory in Italy: inclusions and exclusions

  Frames of Reference
Radical Pluralist Unitarist
1. Origin




progressive pluralism

(Pizzorno, Giugni)



2. Maturity


post-workerism WST


political pluralism

(Regini, Regalia)

3. Crisis




critical pluralism

(Baccaro, Meardi, Pulignano)

neo-pluralism (2W, Adapt) HRM



Overall, this analysis confirms that an internationalized academia does not prevent its own national trajectories from diverging. The three phases of IR in Italy reveal a trajectory anchored to the pluralist fulcrum, but with influence first from radical perspectives and then from unitarist ones. This means that, although the pluralist frame of reference remains pivotal, the trend is toward an increasingly firm-oriented perspective. ‘Market without pluralism’ (Cella 2013) is becoming the rule, both in practice as well as in theory.

While confirming the relevance of national research styles in IR, this article demonstrates that the ‘frames of references’ provide a universal theoretical compass for IR theory, making its ‘ethnocentric’ traits travel from the Anglo-Saxon base to Italy and, hopefully soon, elsewhere. This conclusion also informs debates on the ontology of IR, currently influenced by the philosophy of critical realism, and suggests the inclusion of social constructionist and post-modern approaches, as suggested some time ago without much success (Godard 1993). Indeed, IR theorising seems to need some reflexivity, if IR scholars plan to travel confidently in a globalising academia.


Stefano Gasparri is a teaching fellow in employment relations and HRM at the University of Warwick, and a member of IRRU.


Cella, G. P. (2013), ‘Mercato senza pluralismo. Relazioni industriali e assetti liberal-democratici’, Sociologia del lavoro, 131, 19–36.

Godard, J. (1993), “Theory and Method in Industrial Relations: Modernist and Postmodernist Alternatives”, in Adams, R. and Meltz, N. (Eds), Industrial Relations Theory. Its nature, Scope, and Pedagogy, IMLR Press, pp. 283-306.

Hyman, T. (2004), “Is Industrial Relations Theory Always Ethnocentric?”, in Kaufman, B. (Eds.), Theoretical Perspectives on Work and the Employment Relationship, Champaign: IRRA series.

Meardi, G. (2014a), The (claimed) growing irrelevance of employment relations, Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(4): 594–605.

Tapia, M., T. Kochan and C. Ibsen (2015), ‘Mapping the Frontier of Theory in Industrial Relations: The Contested Role of Worker Representation’, Socio-Economic Review, 13(1): 157–184.

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