Research Plan and Methodology

In exploring the discourses and practices of workplace democracy, this project will utilise the methodological arsenal of conceptual history that was championed by Reinhart Koselleck and has since become an established method in European intellectual history (Steinmetz, Freeden and Fernández-Sebastián 2017). Exploring ‘workplace democracy’ as a concept in four different European countries is the focal point of our project that aims to identify similarities and differences in discourses and practices on workplace democracy. We will trace conceptual modifications within specific social and cultural contexts of trade unionism. We will pay particular attention to conceptual contexts within those fields and analyse the layered meanings contained in the actual usages of workplace democracy. At the same time our attention to the actual practice of workplace democracy will allow us to test the performativity of workplace democracy as a concept. This will allow us to unite our theoretical exploration of discourses with our interests regarding practices of workplace democracy.

The second methodological standpoint is transnationality: Even though we will focus above all on only two models of workplace democracy – self-management and co-determination – we are aware that different national contexts in Western Europe have significantly impacted our understandings of workplace democracy through a contextualized and diversified reception of these two models also through their relation to other ideas of workplace democracy (Wood 2017). The history of the transnational flows, exchanges, circulations and adaptations is, therefore, crucial, to understand the evolution of the theory and practice of workplace democracy across West European states. The adoption of this transnational perspective has major methodological implications, since it involves switching between languages, and the project will have to consider the importance of functional and situational multilingualism and translations. (Kjaer and Adamo, 2011; Unger, Krzyzanowski and Wodak, 2014) Linguistic contacts have often been an important trigger for semantic changes, and the semantic of workplace democracy is indeed extremely rich, varied, and often equivocal: the same terms assume different meanings, different terms are used as synonymous, etc. A foreign word coming into a new language acts as an irritant that needs to be dealt with. Reception strategies include denial of its meaningfulness, playful adaptation or wholesale endorsement or anything that lies on a wide-ranging spectrum between those reactions. (Burke and Richter 2012) Concepts are, by their very nature, indeterminate and ambiguous which also means that they are essentially contested. (Freeden 2013) They are also always related to other concepts so that they can only be discussed in a conceptual field which the project aims to establish. But transnationality adds also methodological challenges to the research, since empirical evidence of ideas will have to be searched for in sources that are written in different languages (five, in our project). This will require not only a careful search for expert collaborators, but also a methodology of team-work capable of integrating together the different lines of research.

Apart from relying on the rich methodological arsenal of conceptual history, the third methodological standpoint is provided by the extensive use of oral history. We intend to gain knowledge both about conceptual development and about their impact on practice through sets of actors (trade unionists, state officials, leading academics in the field and employers’ representatives) whose narratives of workplace democracy shall be examined with a view to establishing how they narrativize the development and the impact of different concepts of workplace democracy for the period between the end of the Second World War and the mid- 1990s. Like conceptual history, oral history has become an established field of historical enquiry over the last three decades. (Abrams 2010) Drawing on the insights from oral history will help us to identify different memorial cultures surrounding the histories of workplace democracy in the five countries that are at the heart of our examination here. Whilst shedding some light on actual developments, the project will have to reflect on the fact that all statements made in the present about the past are statements influenced by present-day beliefs and norms of those interviewed. Hence we will have to be cautious in applying contemporary subjectivities to the past. Statement of actors will help integrate and enrich evidence brought about through substantive archival research in the relevant archives of the five countries studied.

Work program
To achieve the stated objectives, we divide our activities into four research lines. Given the nature of the project and the reliance on a combined exploitation of a rich variety of multi- lingual resources according to linguistic competences (trade union archives in four different languages, interviews, journal data-bases), each participant to the project will be actively involved in all four research lines.