‘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.



Informal Economy/ Informal Work: Challenges for Industrial Relations

Anita Hammer

Industrial relations has predominantly focussed on the formal workplace and formal institutions of representation and neglected the informal economy/work. Informal work, instead of being a transitory phenomenon, has been a predominant form of work in the Global South and is increasingly prevalent in the Global North (Chang 2013; Kalleberg 2009). As work continues to reach beyond the formal workplace and into the informal economy – into the community, household and the realm of social reproduction – institutional forms of industrial relations face a challenge. While Organising and Social Movement literatures address this challenge, conceptual and methodological issues remain underexplored in industrial relations.


Initially conceptualised as the ‘informal sector’ (Hart 1973), since the 1990s the term ‘informal economy’ has focussed attention on a broad and heterogeneous type of employment and enterprises that are unregulated and unprotected (Portesand Castells 1989; Hussmans 2005; Agarwala 2009). The expanded definition of the informal economy sees it as segmented into a range of informal firms and employment relationships i.e. self-employed with assets and employees, survival self-employed (own account operators and unpaid family labour), wage labour, casual wage labour, domestic labour and industrial outworkers/homeworkers. As Breman (2013) puts it ‘there is not one but a variety of regimes of informal labour, not all vicious to the same extent. These also differ in coping behaviour and resilience, some segments being more successful than others’. In sum, informality has multiple levels of exploitation as well as of forms and avenues of resistance.


Accompanying this recognition of the permanence of the informal economy is also one that recognises its significance to capitalist development. The relationship between the formal and informal economy is seen as a continuum of economic relations of production, distribution and employment where firms and workers move along the continuum or can operate simultaneously in both (Chen 2007; Lerche 2010; Harriss-White 2010).There is a recognition of diverse socio-economic relations that can result from the interaction of the formal and informal economy.  Agarwala(2008) captures this in her relational understanding of the informal economy where informal workers are intertwined with the formal economy, society and the state through structures, networks and political institutions. Informality is now fused within formerly formal parts of the economy, through outsourcing and supply chains.


My research in a new industrialising region in North India shows how manufacturing firms, domestic as well as multinational, tap into and structure the informal economy. Over a span of ten years they have reduced their permanent workforce while employing three times the number of informal workers. These are segmented into contract, casual, company casual and apprentice workers and often fulfil the jobs of a full-time production worker inside the firm. In addition, firms draw upon informal workers through outsourcing and long supply chains both in the textile and the automotive sector. As in earlier industrial sociology, neighbourhood comes into the firm and the firm reaches into the neighbourhood. This blurs the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction when analysing control and contest. Trade unions are unable to respond to the needs of informal workers or formulate a strategy to counter the state-capital restructuring of work.


For industrial relations, the challenge is how to conceptualise these interlinkages between the formal-informal work/economy and how to organise disparate, dispersed and often mobile informal workplaces and workers. This requires a rethink of definitions and conceptualisation of labour, framing options, organisational forms and strategies, and types of struggles for labour in spheres of production as well as reproduction. ‘New’ questions, with long history, have arisen. Is labour a mere production input or ‘social’ labour? Is work only in the sphere of production or is it all the work that helps in capitalist accumulation? Do we need to conceptualise labour as an actor, or only as collective actor? Can, or indeed should, the informal be ‘formalised’? Why is informal economy/work so difficult to regulate? What role do inter-firm relations play in informality? Do we need to go beyond institutional forms of industrial relations? What are the methodological challenges in researching the informal economy/work?


One of the many ways forward is Bernstein’s (2007) ‘classes of labour’. The approach provides an analytical framework that is flexible enough to capture the diversity of employment in formal-informal economy. Another possibility is the integrated framework of social reproduction (Luxton 2006; Ferguson and McNally 2015) that captures social relations of capitalism more comprehensively. Such approaches are sensitive to varied economic survival strategies of different groups of informal workers and the diverse means of resistance.


A more differentiated understanding of work and labour, and links between oppression and exploitation and production and consumption may help in framing strategies to address the challenges informal economy/work poses to industrial relations and to the labour movement.