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  • Series: Elgar Introductions to Management and Organization Theory series x
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Keith Townsend, Aoife M. McDermott, Kenneth Cafferkey and Tony Dundon

It is perhaps easier to explain what theory is not rather than what it is. Theory is not facts or data. Nor is theory a hypothesis, or a case study. It is not a literature review. A theory is a set of general principles or ideas that are meant to explain how something works, and is independent of what it intends to explain. The purpose of a theory (or set of theories) is to help explain what causes something to occur, or to inform us of the likely consequences of a phenomenon. In so doing, theories can be more or less abstract, and be pitched at different levels - explaining society, processes, relations, behaviour and perceptions. For practitioners, theories can enhance understanding and inform decision-making. For researchers, theories shape the framing of their data, and are often presented as an essential part of any well-designed research project. Reflecting this, Hambrick (2007: 1346) argues that theory is essential for a field to flourish and advance. Indeed, many management journals require scholars to make a ‘theoretical contribution’ to get published, prompting something of an obsession with a theory-driven approach in management-related areas. Thus, while recognizing the value and importance of theory, we offer a cautionary note. Specifically, we suggest that it may be fruitful for a field to support initial consideration of phenomena-driven trends or patterns before becoming fixated on having a theoretical explanation. For example, that smoking can cause harm and ill health in humans does not need a theory to prove its validity (Hambrick, 2007). Reflecting this, in disciplines such as sociology, economics and finance there has been less of an ‘essential need’ to publish with some new theoretical development in mind. Instead, ideas, logics, concepts, premises are given due attention and the notion of exploring data is seen as valid and valuable in deciding if certain issues or phenomena are in themselves evident or emergent. Where this is the case, theory can then help to understand and explain such issues. Theory is therefore a crucial lens on the world, one that provides value in addressing both evident and emergent issues. Notwithstanding that empirics and theory both contribute value and vibrancy to a field, our focus here is on the role of theory, and some of the specific theories used in employment relations (ER) and human resource management (HRM) research.

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Roger Seifert

This chapter provides an outline of the main elements of Marxism such as dialectical and historical materialism; exploitation; alienation; class, class struggle, and the role of the state. This is then applied to employment relations issues in terms of both explaining the ideological nature of HRM and providing concrete examples of how Marxists would analyse key issues such as pay, collective bargaining, employee engagement, and discrimination.

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Peter Ackers

Classical pluralism focused on free trade unions and collective bargaining institutions as the liberal-democratic ‘voice’ alternative to both pro-business unitarism and anti-capitalist radicalism. The decline of these institutions under neo-liberalism, the rise of managerial HRM and Employee Involvement and the growing role of women in the economy have all called for a neo-pluralist rethinking of the old theoretical approach. This has embraced recent policy initiatives, such as union-management partnership and family-friendly policies. Pluralism also faces new challenges from identity politics and a growing hostility to open academic debate. This chapter goes back to the roots of political pluralism in social democratic, liberal and social theory, to argue that free dialogue in the workplace and society is a central pluralist contribution to Employment Relations and HRM.

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Niall Cullinane and Jean Cushen

This chapter reviews Scientific Management. It outlines Scientific Management’s origins and principles, conceptualizing it as a response to the problem of labour power conversion. The chapter also considers the limitations to Scientific Management diffusion in the workplace; identifying the politics of production, the complexity and variety of job tasks and alternative employer priorities as significant countervailing forces. Finally, the chapter concludes by considering the relevance of Scientific Management for the future. It is proposed that Scientific Management will likely persist in some sectors and that opportunities for its expansion may be promised by developments in digital technology and algorithmic learning.

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Shiona Chillas and Alina Baluch

This chapter charts the development of labour process theory as a critical perspective on employee relations. It notes the substantial contributions made by this approach, identifying trends in the nature of work, skills and technology, also commenting on managerial regimes such as HRM. Careful husbandry has ensured that core LPT remains robust as the nature of capitalism alters. However, cracks have emerged, filled by importing and integrating explanatory concepts that stray from the core. Ongoing dialogue within the tradition continues to refine the scope of LPT ensuring its continued relevance in contemporary workplace research.

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Sarah Jenkins

This chapter critically assesses the main contribution of the Human Relations School (HRS) and demonstrates how its legacy continues to influence mainstream HRM thinking. An embedded assessment situates the legacy of the HRS within its economic, social and cultural context. In addition, the role of the Harvard Business School in which the HRS developed provides an important context to explain the political influences of this tradition. In charting the lasting legacy of the HRS there are lessons to be learned, although ‘dark’ aspects of this tradition would recommend that HRM scholars would gain more from moving forward rather than looking back.

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Peter Boxall and Meng-Long Huo

What is a ‘high-performance work system’ (HPWS) and how has the notion evolved in the literature? How does theory and research on HPWSs add value to our understanding of employment relations? This chapter reviews the history and discusses the meaning of this ambiguous concept. It then reviews two lines of analysis that are significant for HR strategists and researchers. One concerns which work systems prevail in which contexts and why. The other deals with how the performance of any work system can be improved and for whom. The chapter then discusses ways to improve our research methods in this area

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Brian Harney

This chapter presents an overview of systems theory before tracing its historical antecedents and key domain assumptions. The chapter reviews some valuable applications of systems thinking in employment relations and HRM before evaluating limitations and future prospects. Overall, the chapter surfaces the long-standing tensions between the intuitive appeal of systems logic and difficulty surrounding its application. The chapter concludes that despite these challenges, the changing nature of work and fracturing of work boundaries provide a strong mandate for a systems theory renaissance in HRM and employment relations.

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Andrew R. Timming

This chapter explores the application of evolutionary psychology, also commonly referred to as sociobiology, to the fields of human resource management and employment relations. It is argued that evolutionary theory can shine an innovative and useful light on organizational behavior. A brief overview of natural selection is provided. This Darwinian framework is then used to explain workplace mobbing/bullying and employee selection decision-making. The chapter concludes by recognizing the limitations of evolutionary psychology and making some recommendations for future research.

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Victoria Wass

Personnel economics is the application of economic theories and mathematical approaches to the management of people at work. Like its disciplinary grandparent, it embodies a particular way of understanding and explaining individual and social behaviour, one that is based on modelling how economic agents respond to changes in the external environment where this changes the incentives that agents face. Using the example of performance-related pay, this chapter guides the reader through the distinctive approach of personnel economics, its foundations, its insights and its contribution to HRM. Basic theory and a simple model are used to show what performance-related pay might look like and why and when it might be effective. Performance-related pay has been criticized in the literature as much as it has been promoted. Personnel economics itself offers a sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of where and why performance-related pay might fail to work. However, incentives are central to personnel economics and, if pay is not a motivator of effort, then there is little utility for a theory which assumes that it is.