Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Conceptualizing Unemployment in a Period of Atypical Employment: A Critical Realist Perspective

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Conceptualizing Unemployment in a Period of Atypical Employment: A Critical Realist Perspective

Article excerpt

Abstract An adequate conceptualization and measurement of unemployment should express the reality of employment. Designing theoretical concepts that adequately express reality requires appropriate methodological foundations. This paper uses critical realism to demonstrate that the deductive method encourages the construction of theoretical concepts in such a way as to reduce the multidimensional, qualitative reality of employment and unemployment to the quantitative, single dimension of variables, whereupon they cease to be adequate expressions of the reality they are designed to investigate. Part-time employment is used to exemplify atypical employment and to illustrate how the latter differs from typical employment in a number of dimensions, most of which are qualitative in nature.

Keywords: critical realism, methodology, ontology, deductive method, unemployment, atypical employment

INTRODUCTION

The UK economy is generating jobs at an increasingly rapid pace... The headline rate of seasonally adjusted unemployment fell by 36,500 in June to 1.6m, pushing the rate of unemployment down from 5.8 to 5.7 percent ...The government welcomed the figures as evidence of an improving labour market.

(Financial Times, 17 July 1997).

Reports like this, drawing upon official unemployment figures, are hotly debated. Much ink has been spilled on problems associated with understanding what these figures actually mean, especially the issue of ascertaining who should and should not be included in the unemployed count (cf. Wells 1995; Hughes 1995; Convey 1996). Whilst issues such as these are far from trivial, there are two other relatively unexplored issues that pose far greater problems for interpreting the unemployment figures.

The first issue turns on the relationship between unemployment and employment--a relationship that has become even more significant owing to the (re)emergence of atypical employment. If to be unemployed is to be without employment, a job or work, then unemployment becomes the other, or absence, of employment. This distinction makes the reality of unemployment partly dependent upon the nature of the available employment. [1] If, furthermore, the reality of unemployment is to be adequately expressed in economic theory and subsequently measured, then the concepts used to define and measure unemployment must take the reality of employment into account. That is, the conceptualization and measurement of unemployment must adequately grasp the reality of employment.

Designing theoretical concepts that adequately express reality rests (minimally) upon the adoption of appropriate ontological, philosophical and methodological foundations. [2] Adoption of an inappropriate method raises the strong possibility that one's theoretical concepts will fail to express adequately the reality under investigation.

The objective of this paper, then, is to integrate these two relatively unexplored issues in order to demonstrate how the method adopted by mainstream economists encourages the inadequate conceptualization of employment, and, thereby, the inadequate conceptualization and measurement of unemployment.

Part 1 introduces the methodological perspective of critical realism [3] to identify and locate the source of the methodological problems encountered by mainstream economists. Whilst one does not need critical realism merely to show that mainstream economics is preoccupied with quantification and is unable to deal (meaningfully) with the kind of qualitative issues that arise when investigating atypical employment, one does need it to explain this state of affairs. Critical realism explains why the use of a particular (i.e. deductive) method means that theoretical concepts have to be constructed in such a way as to reduce the multi-dimensional, qualitative reality of employment and unemployment to the quantitative, single dimension of variables, whereupon they cease to be adequate expressions of the reality they are designed to investigate. …

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