Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Employees as Individually and Collectively Acting Subjects-Key Contributions from Nordic Working Life Research

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Employees as Individually and Collectively Acting Subjects-Key Contributions from Nordic Working Life Research

Article excerpt


The Nordic countries-Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden-are societies that share many features among themselves that also distinguish them from other industrialized countries. Important features are related to the welfare society (Esping-Andersen, 1990), welfare research, income distribution and gender equality (Erikson et al., 1987), social policy (Kangas & Palme, 2009), and to the labor market (Gallie, 2003; Kettunen, 2012; Schiller et al., 1993). The communality among these societies is often termed the Nordic model and although the similarities in the content and demarcation of this model are debated, for example, discussions about the Danish flexicurity model (Madsen, 2004), it is generally recognized that specific similarities observed among the Nordic countries do warrant the usage of the term "Nordic model" (Gallie, 2009; Gustavsen, 2011). The two most frequently mentioned features of the Nordic model, particularly in Scandinavia-Denmark, Norway, and Sweden-are these features: the system of collective bargaining in the labor market and the solidarity-based welfare system with relatively high social security (Kasvio et al., 2012).

One question that arises in this context is whether the distinct character of the Nordic societies has generated working life research that is clearly distinguishable from similar research in other countries in terms of distinctness in topics, methods, empirical findings, or theoretical concepts. This paper argues that Nordic working life research has generated contributions that can be differentiated from working life research in other countries. This does not mean that Nordic research has lived in a closed system without any contact with international research. On the contrary, Nordic research has in many respects received important inspirations from international research. An important example of this phenomenon is the initial work by Trist and Bamforth (1951) on socio-technical systems which gave inspiration for the Norwegian projects in the 1960s (Emery & Thorsrud, 1969; Thorsrud & Emery, 1964).

The aim of this paper is to identify, analyze, and discuss selected key contributions from Nordic working life research to understand how they research and construe the conditions of humans at work with a special focus on the psychosocial well-being of industrial workers. The distinctive character of this research has been made possible in the context of the Nordic countries where it has been carried out, and this context is therefore the point of departure for this paper. We follow up by explaining how we selected the particular working life research to include in the analysis in the paper. Priority has been given to classic research such as the workers' collective (Lysgaard, 1961), the socio-technical systems (Thorsrud & Emery, 1970), and the work on workplace democracy and employee control in Sweden (Gardell & Svensson, 1981; Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Karasek et al., 1987). The results from these classic works of research are presented and analyzed in order to identify particular Nordic contributions. Subsequently, we use this analysis to compare Nordic research with other major working life research contributions such as labor process, occupational medicine, and human resource management. The paper concludes with an outlook on future research perspectives.

The main contribution of this paper is to stress the point that Nordic working life research has a distinctive emphasis on the voice of employees-who are not only seen as workers resisting exploitations from management or as workers pursuing individual careers, but also as members of collectives who share ideas and aspirations while influencing the management using cooperation and pressure.

The Nordic context

Historians discussing the origins of the Nordic research model have pointed out some of its important elements. These elements include the influence that certain common historical events have had in the Nordic context. …

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