Project Details

How are European workplaces being transformed?

What kinds of new social bargains are emerging across the European Union? How are they being institutionalised?

How are new workplace bargains shaped by the broader politics of sectors, regions and national economies?

These questions are crucial to the future of the European ‘social model’. They also raise crucial theoretical issues. The research reformulates the core elements of the ‘Varieties of Capitalism’ framework that has dominated comparative political economy for the past decade (Hall and Soskice, 2001). It improves our understanding of the diverse organisation of capitalism in Europe, of how that diversity is rooted in politically constructed ‘pathways to the future’, and of how capitalism is constructed out of social and institutional capabilities across Europe.  These empirical and theoretical concerns are linked in the four elements of the proposed research.

First, moving beyond the binary distinction between ‘liberal market’ and ‘coordinated’ economies, the research uses EU-wide survey data to identify the range of workplace bargains that are emerging, both around effort and reward in the workplace and around the sustainability of working lives and careers. This research uses the European Union Survey of Working Conditions (EUSWC; 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010) to analyse trends in the organisation of pay, the work process, careers and working time across EU countries over a crucial 15 year period.

Second, the research builds on this analysis of workplace bargains to identify where they have emerged and spread, and how they have been shaped by social and institutional contexts. Sectoral, regional and national data is linked to the EUSWC data to enable a multi-level analysis of the interaction of regional, national and sectoral factors shaping the prevalence of different working regimes across the EU, and their changing structure over time.

Third, detailed case studies will analyse the processes which connect the workplace bargains and broader contexts identified in the first stages of the research. We will analyse the politics of workplace bargains in two sectors (advanced manufacturing and knowledge intensive services) in three small open European economies, each from a different ‘variety of capitalism’ (most likely Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands). These studies will push beyond the rational actor model that has dominated the Varieties of Capitalism approach to examine how notions of likely economic futures are collectively constructed and enacted in institutional politics.

Fourth, these case studies will serve as the basis for an expanded analysis of the institutions of industrial policy, human capital formation and industrial relations that constitute capital and labour and govern the relations between them. The research will analyse how different societies generate different collective capabilities that shape the kinds of capitalism they end up with. In keeping with recent calls (Streeck, 2009), this will place capitalism firmly at the heart of political economy once more – but without giving up the analysis of the variety of ways that capitalism is itself constructed across Europe.

Key Contributions

This research will provide, for the first time, a systematic analysis over time of the multiple dimensions of the organisation of work across the European Union. It will enable us to see how different aspects of the workplace are organised, how these different elements are connected to each other to form ‘pathways to the future’, and how different social and institutional contexts across Europe reinforce some pathways and weaken others. It will also provide insight into the institutional and political processes that underpin these patterns, and how these bargaining processes are linked to the broader capabilities and institutions of the society. In addition to valuable comparative analysis, it will provide an understanding of the European-wide distribution and dynamics of emerging workplace bargains. At a time of financial and fiscal crisis, it becomes all the more important to understand the patterns and possibilities in the ‘real economy’.

In addition to these important ‘empirical’ concerns, the research will advance some of the major theoretical issues in contemporary political economy:

  • Our understanding of the workings of liberal, social democratic and Christian democratic political economies will be greatly enhanced – moving beyond the binary distinctions between liberal and coordinated economies.

  • Studies of work and political economy will be more closely integrated than in existing research, providing for a richer understanding of the possibilities for reconstructing both – and of the obstacles to that reconstruction.

  • The research will push beyond even recent extensions of the rational actor model (Hall, 2010) to provide a model of a sociologically rational actor, whose rationality is based not simply on interaction with others but on intrinsically collective capabilities – such as shared understandings of the future, collective resources, institutional capacities for different forms of action, and more

  • Understanding ‘capitalism’ will be placed firmly at the heart of the project of political economy – with capitalism not as the context within which institutions operate, nor as a semi-autonomous force that overwhelms institutions, but as a social order that is itself constituted and constructed out of the different social and institutional capabilities available across European societies.

While the ‘Varieties of Capitalism’ perspective has dominated comparative political economy for a decade, it now faces severe challenges. However, it is not clear what perspectives might replace it as the dominant orienting framework in the field. This research is designed to address the major weaknesses of the Varieties of Capitalism paradigm and to reconstruct comparative political economy through an engagement between that literature and research that seeks to reveal the sociological foundations of economic organisation.


Find out more about ongoing project work

Read current project working papers

Download the ‘New Deals’ ERC proposal (long version)