Objective but Not Detached: Partisanship in Industrial Relations Research

Article excerpt


Eric Hobsbawm (1998: 164) observed that although there has been a great deal of discussion about the nature, or even the possibility, of objectivity in the social sciences, there has been far less discussion about the problem of 'partisanship'. Certainly this has been true of the academic field of industrial relations (IR). On the one hand, based on the predominant 'pluralist' IR paradigm that there are fundamental differences of interest between employees and employers, many IR researchers and theorists have long been concerned with the problem of balancing competing objectives of different stakeholders--to use Budd's (2004) phrase, 'balancing equity, efficiency and voice'--and the advocacy of a normative view of the requirements for improving labour-market institutions, policies and practices (Kochan, 1998: 37). On the other hand, IR academics have generally also tended to posit a strong belief in the value of critical social science research premised on the notion of academic impartiality and objectivity that is not aligned to the economic or political priorities of either employers or unions (Bain and Clegg 1974; Winchester 1983; Berrill, 1983; Sisson 1991; BUIRA 2008). Although it is in Britain now largely taught in business schools, it could be argued that this differentiates IR from other 'management' subjects such as mainstream human resource management (HRM) and professional courses leading to membership of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), as well as from shop steward and trade union studies courses. Instead, academic IR is about generating understanding through scholarship that investigates the employment relationship from an impartial vantage point and in a critically questioning fashion towards all actors and parties. Such objectivity suggests the exclusion of partisanship (of 'taking sides'). In the process it also raises the related (albeit not synonymous) issue of whether social research science research generally can, or should, be value-free, or at least value-neutral.

The question of whether partisanship is an unavoidable feature of social science research is especially pertinent for a field of study as potentially value-laden as industrial relations. This article re-examines some classic philosophy of science dilemmas to demonstrate that much industrial relations research, far from being completely impartial or value-free, is often effectively partisan, albeit this is usually not explicitly acknowledged. Focusing on the 'radical/critical' contribution to IR scholarship, it goes on to argue that IR can at one and the same time be both partisan and objective, and provides a defence of partisanship that is underpinned by rigorous scholarly research methodology.

Objectivity, value neutrality, partisanship and bias

One of the key assumptions during the first half of the 20th century was that social science could mirror the natural sciences and produce 'objective' knowledge, which uncovered the true nature of the social world in exactly the same way as scientists had discovered the 'laws' of physics, chemistry and biology. The task of the social scientist was to hold up a mirror to society, producing a 'warts-and-all' image that may not be acceptable to the viewer (Rothschild 1982). It was widely believed that this necessitated a commitment on the part of social scientists to the ideal of 'value neutrality' (Hammersley 2000: I). For some, 'value-neutrality' means that research should be wholly independent of all values, and concerned with the pursuit of theoretical or factual knowledge for its own sake; while for others, value-neutrality is treated as a principle (or ideal) that guides the behaviour of researchers, so that whilst not renouncing their values, they must set them aside and not seek to promote them through their research. Defenders of value-neutrality often draw a distinction between the objective factual evidence of their research and any subjective evaluation of its implications and consequences, drawing no relationship whatsoever between the two. …


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