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Critical Realism (CR) has attracted considerable attention in management studies in general (Ackroyd and Fleetwood, 2000; Reed, 2005) and in specific fields such as operations research and systems (Mingers, 2000). It has enjoyed only the most passing attention in industrial relations (Godard, 1993; Fleetwood, 1999). This paper builds on an earlier paper (Edwards, 2005b) which did three things. It demonstrated that explicit reference to CR in IR was indeed very rare; it identified examples of IR research which were consistent with the claims of CR; and it suggested that more attention to the connections between the two were mutually beneficial. The present paper sets out to recover the theoretical contribution of IR and hence to suggest how it can contribute to a CR project. This leads in the conclusion to ideas for a new research programme.

The paper takes IR as a key case of the argument of Reed (2005: 1637) who cites such classic authors as Bendix, Braverman, Fox, and Dalton, and goes on as follows. The overriding research task for a critical-realist inspired study of organization and management is to retrieve and renew this classical explanatory focus on changing organizational forms and discursive technologies – within the material conditions and social structures taking shape in contemporary capitalist economies. IR nearly exemplifies this research strategy.

CR has tended to operate at a high level of theoretical abstraction. Though there have been clear illustrations of empirical implications, as in the work of Sayer (2000), these illustrations have been rather rare. The empirically minded economist or sociologist turning to CR texts might ask how her concrete research programme might be informed by CR. This paper attempts to deal with this issue.

In doing so, it addresses that stream of IR research labelled in the earlier paper contextualized comparison, a term borrowed from Locke and Thelen (1995) and explained below. This stream tries to understand social processes in context, and has much in common with sociology and political science. One could also identify a stream that is more driven by deductive methods and has more parallels with labour economics. Nothing is said directly about the latter, though some remarks on its relative importance are made in the conclusion.

The paper begins with a brief sketch of the core elements of CR, together with an indication of why the approach has value in IR. The second section outlines the main features of IR’s theory and methods. These features include important shared origins, in the work of John R. Commons, with a major strand of social science analysis, institutionalist theory. That theory is pertinent because it also has close connections with CR. It acts as a bridge between CR’s abstract ontological analysis and concrete research programmes, and IR should be seen as part of this bridge. Third, some strands of research are used to illustrate a research programme that is consistent with CR. Fourth, the work of the leading CR theorist, Tony Lawson, is addressed, to argue that some aspects of an empirical CR programme are insufficiently developed in his work, and that an IR perspective suggests ways in which a stronger programme can be pursued. The conclusion takes up the theme of a research programme and the ways in which it can be developed through comparative analysis.


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