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CfP JIR: ‘Old Frames and New Lenses: Frames of Reference and the Field of Industrial Relations’

Journal of Industrial Relations (JIR)


‘Old Frames and New Lenses:

Frames of Reference and the Field of Industrial Relations’

Special Issue: Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol.63(2), April 2021


Special Issue Guest-Editors:

Professor Michael Barry, Griffith University, Australia

Professor Adrian Wilkinson, Griffith University, Australia



The ‘frames of reference’ has been a guiding and enduring concept since the celebrated work of Fox (1966) (see Heery, 2016). Countless courses that introduce students to industrial/employment relations feature a discussion of the distinctions between the traditional unitarist and pluralist frames as outlined by Fox, and the Marxist/critical frame as articulated for an industrial relations audience by authors such as Hyman (1975). Through dissemination, the frames of reference has been impactful on generations of students who have gone on to become academics and practitioners. Though much used as an instructional tool, and given its wide acceptance appearing as it does in most textbooks on the subject of industrial relations (IR), it is perhaps surprising that there has been limited scholarly research seeking to apply the frames (For an exception see Ramsay, 1974).

Despite the apparent influence of the concept of frames there are issues around the application. Industrial relations academics have been prone to assert that managers’ views of the employment relationship are guided by the unitarist frame, but it is not entirely clear what this means. As Fox noted, unitarism can vary from a soft form of paternalism at one end to an absolute assertion of a right to unilaterally manage the employment relationship at the other end. Unitarism in its soft form may be manifest through welfare provisions, such as high pay and fringe benefits, or though human resource management policies that provide satisfying work and career development (Purcell and Ahlstrand, 1994; Provis, 1996). The soft variant of unitarism simply asserts that conflict can be avoided and that where effective HR policies and procedures apply, unions have no role to play. In this sense unions are not so much excluded as they are rendered unnecessary. Critical here is the role of management to avoid the conditions that would give rise to conflict, such as by providing clear and effective communication.

As similar critique of the traditional frames has been made by Purcell (1987). Purcell argued that the unitarist and pluralist frames, on their own, did not adequately explain variation in the way employers treated workers, which he labelled management styles. Purcell preferred the terms individualism and collectivism, where individualism denoted the extent to which management sought to develop individual workers (and this could range from low to high, with labour control at the low end and extensive employee development at the high end). Similarly, collectivism, scaled, related to the extent to which management supported workers having a collective voice and influence in decision making.

Cullinane and Dundon (2014) argue that while unitarism has been often cited as the guiding ideology of management, there is little evidence on which to base this assertion. They note that ‘Few studies have had empirical access to union-resistant employers, with analysis of unitarism, as a consequence, based on conjecture and inference of a presumed intent.’ Therefore, IR has suffered from an ‘excess of deduction’ and a ‘paucity’ of investigation into the actual views and intentions of management.

As might be expected there has been more research into the pluralist frame of reference given its long standing, mainstream position. Contemporary research on the pluralist frame has focused principally on examining how it has adapted (or indeed failed to do so) to the significant changes affecting work; namely the breakdown of the traditional breadwinner model of male, full time employment occurring in large manufacturing workplaces governed as they were by a prevailing structure of unionised collective bargaining. Ackers (2014) argues that pluralism has failed to move beyond its core assumption of the primacy of unions and collective bargaining, that reflected the system of the 1970s much more than contemporary employment relations, whereas at least through the efforts of authors such as Kelly (1988), Marxist analysis has engaged in some critical self-reflection and revision to reflect modern workplace realities.

The Ackers’ (2002) critique of pluralism centres on how it has failed to account for relations that occur outside the auspices of unionised collective bargaining. His account argues for a need for a new (neo) pluralism that captures the important interactions between work, family and community which have produced a growing disparity in opportunity and outcome. Ackers’ call is for pluralism to re-find its moral and ethical compass, which for him became lost in the preoccupation with rule-making processes and outcomes.

Heery (2002; 2016) has also examined how those in the pluralist academic tradition have responded to changes that cut deep into pluralisms’ core assumptions. Unlike Ackers, Heery’s (2016) overall focus remains more squarely on evolving market and workplace relations, and how pluralism has come under attack from an ascendant unitarism and neo-liberalism. More specifically, Heery (2002), examine the frames of reference through academic research on worker participation and employee voice. Heery notes that worker participation is a heavily contested area of academic analysis, and that the frames of reference offers a way to understand the divergent scholarly views, which offer both analysis and prescription of different forms of participation. In HR (and OB research) there is a strong unitarist prescription for direct participation, with employee participation seen as a means to assist business performance. Other writers have noted this trend as well, with Godard (2014) arguing that this research agenda reflects the influence of psychology on current employment relations scholarship.

John Budd has added to the work of Fox by introducing the ‘egoist’ frame of reference. The egoist frame is itself aligned to neo-liberalism and is used as a term to summarise a world view in which markets are perfectly competitive and are governed purely by supply and demand transactions. Actors are assumed to be self-interested and rational. In such markets, exit is costless and voice unnecessary because labour is a treated as a commodity. Budd and Bhava (2008) argue the need for the egoist frame as an addition to the other frames, and in particular because the unitarist frame does not properly capture the deregulatory and commodifying features of neo-liberal employment relations.

A key aim of this proposed special issue is to explore the relevance of frames in the contemporary world of work. Articles for inclusion in the special issue will include research that makes a significant contribution to the literature. Such research includes re-conceptualisation of frames, testing frames, and integrating theories with frames to open new avenues for research. While we invite prospective authors to focus on the questions they consider most relevant to our theme, the following are offered as illustrative questions that are consistent with the spirit of this special issue.


Papers should add value both to theory-building and to practice. We welcome empirical and conceptual papers that increase our understanding of frames while developing theory.

The topics listed above are examples of possible research questions and should not be considered an exhaustive list. However, contributions to the special issue must be consistent with the theme outlined in this call for papers.


Abstracts of between 500-1,000 words should be submitted to the Guest Editors (see contact details below) by 1 October 2019. The abstracts should clearly indicate which theme the paper fits within and outline the aims, method and significance of the proposed paper to be submitted for consideration. The organisers aim to advise the authors if their abstract has been accepted by 10 October 2019. Those who are successful will be expected to submit their full paper online to the JIR for peer review by 3 February 2020.

All submitted abstracts will be examined by the Guest Editors for suitability for the special issue. All submitted papers must be based on original material and not under consideration by any other journal or outlet. All manuscripts are reviewed initially by the Guest Editors and only those papers that fit within the aims and scope of the special issue and meet the academic and editorial standards of the journal, are sent out for external review. All papers will undergo a full double-blind review process and will be evaluated by the Guest Editors of the special issue and at least two independent reviewers.





Griffith University, Australia


− Professor Adrian Wilkinson


Griffith University, Australia


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16th September 2019