Dong-One Kim

Korea University Business School

Strategies for labour and employment relations as an academic field

Dong-One Kim, Korea University Business School

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-182-Kim.pdf


The academic field of labour and employment relations (LER) is currently in turmoil. Because of decreasing union density and collective bargaining coverage in most developed countries, there are growing doubts that LER is relevant to the changing employment environment. This paper examines how LER researchers have responded to and discussed strategies and the future implications for the field.

There exist two competing views on the evolution of LER. On the one hand, pessimists holding the “change or perish” view argue that the field has not evolved sufficiently with the increasingly dynamic world of work, and consequently it is in a serious crisis. Conversely, optimists arguing for “maintaining status quo” assert that LER is slowly yet steadily adapting to changing world of work, and no radical redirection from the present is warranted. Thus, currently there is much contention as to the future direction of the study of LER.

What We have Done: Trend Analyses of LER Research, 1947–2014

To resolve this debate and shed light on the future direction of LER research, one should first examine what we did in the past to obtain some implications for what we should pursue in the future. A study conducted by Ki-Jung Kim and I (2018) examined the degree to which LER research has reflected the ever-changing reality. We analyzed the abstracts in major LER journals in the post-World War II era (1947-2014). The data of this study include all the abstracts available in five representative journals in the field of LER representing four Western countries. Analyzing the frequency of keyword appearances and co-occurrence matrix, we found surprisingly that the number of studies researching trade unions has grown more or less steadily since the 1940s. Likewise, traditional topics in LER such as collective bargaining, strikes, mediation and arbitration show little signs of declining. Although research in LER seemed to increasingly embrace new phenomena and new realities such as nonunion, temporary and contingent workers, family, gender, women and immigrants, their share remained to be only minimal. Overall, most scholars in this field tacitly follow the view of optimists arguing for maintaining status quo.

Strategies for Labor and Employment Relations

To revitalize academic disciplines in crises, three basic strategies can be identified in previous literature: (1) strengthening the discipline itself, (2) collaborating with other robust disciplines, and (3) reshaping and expanding the scope of the discipline. I believe these strategies are based upon distinguishable assumptions.

The first strategy is to revitalize and reinforce the traditional boundaries separating this discipline from the other related disciplines. This strategy’s effectiveness is predicated upon the assumption that the perceived changing environment is actually temporary and not only can be reversed but will be in due course. The second assumption is that adherents of the disciplines in crisis are resistant to any radical change in the discipline’s core components. Revitalization requires reemphasizes its traditional essence in terms of both theory and practice. This strategy enables the discipline refocus its effort on more academically promising research without straying into the territory of other academic disciplines. The example of this strategy was philosophy at the end of 19th century.

The second strategy is to create strategic alliances with stronger disciplines. To prevent obsolescence and inevitable decline into obscurity, it must collaborate with more promising (e.g., newer) or more robust disciplines. This involves removing boundaries around itself to venture forth into more academically rewarding territory by emulating and adopting relevant theories, frameworks, and approaches prevailing in other disciplines. The example is the case where the soft discipline of sociology merged with the hard discipline, biology, to form a synergistic field of ‘sociobiology.’ This strategy is premised upon three assumptions. First, it presumes that this changing landscape is not temporary, but a permanent paradigm shift. Second, the field has little new to offer by itself. Third, adherents of the discipline have a feeling of crisis consciousness and willing to adapt to necessary changes to preserve the discipline.

The final strategy is readjusting, repackaging and expanding the field to incorporate emerging trends while preserving its core. This strategy may not applicable to all fields but only to those undergoing dynamic developments, such as new trends and paradigm shifts, that are forcing the field to expand. Newly emerging related fields provide unclaimed academic territory, creating new blue ocean strategic opportunities. This strategy is not the negation or displacement of the old; rather, increasing complexity compels the emergence of new approaches to theory, modality and methodology. For example, the discipline of Agriculture rebranded itself in the course of last two decades as life science, thereby providing a much larger context in which to grow in multiple directions. This strategy is based upon three assumptions. First, as the changing environment is irreversible, maintaining the status quo offers no prospect of bringing its old glory back. Second, because of the rapidly changing environments and ever-growing complexity, there are likely to be new areas emerging that other disciplines are not likely to stake a claim over, therefore opportunities. Third, its adherents are prepared to accept adaption in response to rapidly changing environmental factors to maintain the discipline.

Regarding the field of LER, the present study argued for the final strategy of readjusting, repackaging and expanding this field. I propose that we must expand the field of LER for it to remain relevant and survive in the future. That is, it should be able to embrace and explain the new realities of the world of work. However, I do not claim immediate disposition of research on unions and collective bargaining. Rather, I believe that we must not abandon our traditional core, as unions and collective bargaining may rebound in developed countries and either are emerging or remaining important in the public sector and developing countries.

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