‘Slow’ comparativism – a contextual note

We recently published “A manifesto for ‘slow’ comparative research on work and employment” in the European Journal of Industrial Relations. In this note, we outline some of the context in which this paper was developed, in order that readers can understand more fully both the reasons for the development of the initial argument, and what we are arguing for (and against).

Phil Almond and Heather Connolly

We recently published “A manifesto for ‘slow’ comparative research on work and employment” in the European Journal of Industrial Relations. In this note, we outline some of the context in which this paper was developed, in order that readers can understand more fully both the reasons for the development of the initial argument, and what we are arguing for (and against).

The genesis of our paper came from two main sources. The first of these was from an attempt to explain/sell the methodology behind a funding bid which intended to follow a broadly ethnographic approach to comparative IR research (this eventually became Heather’s British Academy Fellowship Trade Union Futures: Representing Precarious Workers in Europe). In seeking to explain this, we found a distinct lack of resources explaining or justifying the merits of a comparative research project which engaged substantially with the societies under study. Second, it crystallised a view, developed over substantial experience on both our parts, in very different sub-fields of employment relations research, that what we came to describe as “slow” elements of research projects were undervalued. While it was clear to us that, whatever our formal methodology, comparative research had greater claims to truth when conducted by people with substantial investment in researching specific places, this tended to be written out of methodological statements intended for publication both by ourselves and others.

Our position was (and is) not that “slow” is the only way to do comparative research, or even that all international research needs to be explicitly comparative. Both of us have conducted research that we would not claim to be “slow”. What we were trying to do was to defend and hopefully advance the position of slow approaches within the ecosystem of internationally comparative research on work and employment, both in the domain of publishing, and in the provision of resources (and patience) from external funders and, to an even greater extent, universities (one of our concerns was the ways in which the administratively imposed project management of doctoral theses acts against “slow” forms of research).

The paper was originally intended to be a position statement for a research centre on comparative employment research that we were launching at our former university. As it turned out, our former employer proved to be an entirely unsuitable place for arguing the case for patience from university managers, even in the case of successful, externally funded researchers. The speed with which our former employer went from establishing a new research centre in the area of employment relations, to “strategically aligning its research with areas of future teaching growth” and therefore decapitating the department in which we both worked, was exceptional even in the world of British universities. This was very hard for both of us to come to terms with, and the removal of what was until fairly recently an environment capable of fostering critically-oriented HR and employment relations research with relative patience remains bitterly regrettable.

While both of us have social/political motivations behind our research efforts, neither of us has hitherto been particularly interested in making public commentary on the nature of work in academia. However, our recent experiences as researchers and as workers have made it very clear that our particular arguments about the conduct of comparative employment relations research have to be seen in the context of a much more general argument that researchers, from graduate students to professors, need to be given the time, patience and freedom to perform meaningful research. As professional social scientists, attempting to deepen understanding and knowledge of the social world should be seen as doing our job. However, it is clear that, in a context where universities are allowed to claim the work of staff that have been made ‘redundant’ for the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, creating and preserving the space for research aimed at in-depth understanding of society is very much a case of swimming against the tide, both for early career academics trying to access and survive within the system, and for those senior academics who attempt to defend such research. As such, our manifesto needs to be read not only as a statement on comparative methods in our field, but also as a statement of resistance against those who seek to destroy the space within which such work can be performed.

 

Phil Almond is Professor of International Management, and Heather Connolly Associate Professor of Employment Relations, both at the University of Leicester. Correspondence should be addressed to Phil (pa195@le.ac.uk) or by messaging CERCnet via Twitter.

 

 

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