Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Nordic Working Life Research - Continuity and Renewal 1

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Nordic Working Life Research - Continuity and Renewal 1

Article excerpt

Working life research - what are we talking about?

There is no exact demarcation line delimiting working life research. Working life research is knitted together with many other research areas and disciplines. However, working life research has a specific focus; namely changes in work for working people in all sectors of the economy and their effect on qualifications, health, occupation, innovation, the economy, identity, social orientation and culture. Working life plays a central role in human life and not merely as a means of putting bread on the table. Work is also a source of meaning, identity and creativity, and working life is a basic feature of the economic structure and the social relations of society. However, there is also another side of the coin, namely social exclusion, poor health, and work-life imbalance. Working conditions and the search for possible improvements in the quality of working life are the main objectives of working life research. The quality of working life involves all levels of society, and therefore working life research targets micro and macro levels of society: the work places, labor market organizations, institutions of the welfare state, trades or professions, branches of the economy or political and economic structures of society.

Two characteristics of working life research

The collaborative creation of knowledge

Most Nordic working life research is more or less closely related to sources of knowledge and practices outside academia. Action research has a stronghold in the field of working life research. Intervention studies are also quite common, aiming to guide or inspire practitioners in the field. Studies of general trends in working life are often carried out in dialogue with the labor market parties and governmental institutions in the field. This collaborative creation of knowledge can be seen as both the strength and a weakness of working life research.


The quality of working life is multifaceted and cannot be understood within the boundaries of one discipline. Consequently working life research is often interdisciplinary, drawing on sociology, psychology, philosophy, economics, history, technical science, political science, occupational medicine and other disciplines.

Topics of working life research

We now turn to a presentation of the main topics dealt with in working life research. We will place them in a historical landscape, and reflect on how Nordic working life research has been influenced by the development of Nordic welfare societies, and what impact the research has had on those societies. It should be said that this is not the whole story about Nordic working life research. However, the story told in the following pages is not totally arbitrary either, because it is told by 11 Nordic working life researchers who have been actively involved in the research for several decades.

Replacing autocracy with democracy in working life

Taylorism had its big breakthrough in the Nordic countries in the first decades after the Second World War. Attempts were made to replace skill-based autonomy with an autocratic factory system where every single job function was designed in detail. Repetitive jobs were created, and the pace of work increased. The socio-technical movement in the Nordic countries searched for alternatives. In Norway in 1960s, Thorsrud and Emery (1976) made an amazing breakthrough for socio-technical action research. The aim was to create an alternative way of organizing work compared to the Tayloristic organization in which workers jointly managed the work organization instead of being managed by the work organization. The socio-technique quickly spread to the other Nordic countries, and played an important role during the 1970s. At that time Volvo became an icon of the Nordic version of the socio-technique.

In the 1980s alternatives to Taylorism were launched internationally through production concepts developed in Japan and the USA. …

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