Labour History

Historical Interpretations of the Labour Process: Retrospect and Future Research Directions

Labour History (2011), 100, (1), 19–32.


Labour process research has had a profound impact on the study of work by highlighting the central role of management in controlling labour cost and application. It is also an approach that is strongly grounded in an historical and empirical methodology. This article reviews the contribution of labour process theory and research over the last forty years to the study of Australian labour and business history. While interest in the labour process from an historical perspective has declined in recent years, this article identifies four areas where recent research may offer conceptual inspiration, specifically: questions of managerial and professional identity; organisational change and management innovation; the nature and control of service work; and globalisation and comparative labour process analysis.

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


1.Harry, Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century,Monthly Review Press,, 1974;Paul Thompson, The Nature of Work: An Introduction to Debates on the Labour Process,Macmillan,, 1983. Google Scholar

2.John, Hassard,John Hogan, andMichael Rowlinson, ‘From labor process theory to critical management studies’, Administrative Theory and Praxis, vol.23, no.3, 2001, pp.339-62;Paul Thompson andChris Smith, ‘Follow the redbrick road: Reflections on pathways in and out of the labor process debate’, International Studies of Management and Organization, vol.30, no.4, 2000, pp.40-67;David Knights andHugh Willmott, (eds), Labor Process Theory,Macmillan,, 1990;Stephen J. Jaros, ‘Labor process theory’, International Studies of Management and Organization, vol.30, no.4, 2000, pp.25-39. Google Scholar

3.Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital;Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century,Basic Books,, 1979. Google Scholar

4.Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital;David Harvey, The Limits to Capital,Basil Blackwell,, 1982, pp.106-10;Craig Littler, The Development of the Labour Process in Capitalist Societies: A Comparative Analysis of Work Organisation in Britain, the USA, and Japan,Heinemann,, 1982, pp.20-27;Thompson, Nature of Work, pp.67-87. Google Scholar

5.John, Kelly, Scientific Management, Job Redesign, and Work Performance,Academic Press,, 1982. Google Scholar

6.Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class,V. Gollancz,, 1964;Elizabeth Fox-Genovese andEugene D. Genovese, ‘The political crisis of social history: A Marxian perspective’, Journal of Social History, vol.10, no.2, 1976, pp.205-20. Google Scholar

7.Reinhard, Bendix, Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization,Harper & Row,, 1963;Allan Fox, Man Mismanagement,Hutchinson,, 1974;Donald Roy, ‘Quota restriction and goldbricking in a machine shop’, American Journal of Sociology, vol.57, no.5, 1952, pp.427-42. Google Scholar

8.Joan, Woodward, Industrial Organisation: Theory and Practice,Oxford University Press,, 1965;Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of the Enterprise,McGraw-Hill,, 1960;Alfred Chandler, Strategy and Structure,MIT Press,, 1962. Google Scholar

9.Littler, Development of the Labour Process, pp.25-6. Google Scholar

10.See, for example,David Stark, ‘Class struggle and the transformation of the labor process’, Theory and Society, vol.9, 1980, pp.89-129. Google Scholar

11.Edwards, Contested Terrain, pp.97-104;Littler, Development of the Labour Process, pp.30, 46-63. Google Scholar

12.Thompson, Nature of Work, p.74. Google Scholar

13.Edwards, Contested Terrain. Google Scholar

14.Michael, Burawoy, ‘Towards a Marxist theory of the labour process: Braverman and beyond’, Politics and Society, vol.8, no.3-4, 1978, pp.247-312;Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labour Process under Monopoly Capitalism,University of Chicago Press,, 1979;Michael Burawoy, The Politics of Production, Factory Regimes under Capitalism and Socialism,Verso,, 1985. Google Scholar

15.Howard, Gospel, Markets, Firms and the Management of Labour in Modern Britain,Cambridge University Press,, 1992. Google Scholar

16.Sanford, Jacoby, Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945,Colombia University Press,, 1985;James N. Baron,Frank R. Dobbin, andP. Devereaux Jennings, ‘War and peace: The evolution of modern personnel administration in U.S. industry’, The American Journal of Sociology, vol.92, no.2, 1986, pp.350-83. Google Scholar

17.Howard, Gospel, ‘New managerial approaches to industrial relations: Major paradigms and historical perspective’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.25, no.2, 1983, pp.162-76;Gospel, Markets, Firms and the Management of Labour;Littler, Development of the Labour Process Google Scholar

18.Littler, Development of the Labour Process;Howard Gospel andCraig Littler, (eds), Managerial Strategies and Industrial Relations: An Historical and Comparative Study,Heinemann,, 1983;Steven Tolliday andJonathan Zeitlin, (eds), The Power to Manage? Employers and Industrial Relations in Comparative-Historical Perspective,Routledge,, 1991. Google Scholar

19.Ron Callus andRussell Lansbury, ‘Workplace industrial relations’, Labour and Industry, vol.1, no.2, 1988, pp.364-72;Christopher Wright, The Management of Labour: A History of Australian Employers,Oxford University Press,, 1995. Google Scholar

20.Robert Connell andTerry Irving, Class Structure in Australian History: Documents, Narrative and Argument,Longman Cheshire,, 1980;A. Game andR. Pringle, Gender at Work,George Allen & Unwin,, 1983;Peter Cochrane, ‘Company time: Management ideology and the labour process, 1940-1960’, Labour History, vol.48, 1985, pp.54-68. Google Scholar

21.Chris, Nyland, ‘Higgins, scientific management and the 44-hour week’, inK. Hince andA. Williams(eds), Industrial Relations: Research Themes,Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand and Industrial Relations Centre,, 1987, pp.187-230;John Shields, ‘Capital, craft unions and metal trades apprenticeship in NSW prior to World War II’, inDrew Cottle(ed.), Capital Essays,UNSW,, 1984, pp.6-18. Google Scholar

22.Raelene, Frances, ‘No more Amazons: Gender and work process in the Victorian clothing trades, 1890-1939’, Labour History, no.50, 1986, pp.95-112;Evan Willis, ‘Trade union reaction to technological change: The introduction of the chain system in the meat export industry’, Prometheus, vol.3, no.1, 1985, pp.51-70;Gail Reekie, ‘“Humanising industry”: Paternalism, welfarism and labour control in Sydney’s big stores 1890-1930’, Labour History, no.53, 1987, pp.1-19;Greg Patmore, ‘Systematic management and bureaucracy: The NSW railways prior to 1932’, Labour and Industry, vol.1, no.2, 1988, pp.306-21;Christopher Wright, ‘The formative years of management control at the Newcastle Steelworks, 1913-1924’, Labour History, vol.55, 1988, pp.55-70;Michael Quinlan, ‘Managerial strategy and industrial relations in the Australian steel industry 1945-1975: A case study’, inManaging Labour?,Mark Bray andVic Taylor(eds),McGraw-Hill,, 1986, pp.20-47. Google Scholar

23.Richard, Dunford, ‘Scientific management in Australia: A discussion paper’, Labour and Industry, vol.1, no.3, 1988, pp.505-15. Google Scholar

24.Littler, Development of the Labour Process;Miriam Glucksmann, ‘In a class of their own? Women workers in the new industries in inter-war Britain’, Feminist Review, no.24, 1986, pp.7-37;Jacoby, Employing Bureaucracy; Baronet al.,‘War and peace’;Daniel Nelson, ‘Scientific management and the workplace, 1920-1935’, inSanford Jacoby(ed.), Masters to Managers: Historical and Comparative Perspectives on American Employers,, 1991, pp.74-89. Google Scholar

25.See, for example,Tom Bramble, ‘Political economy and management strategy in the metal and engineering industry’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.31, no.1, 1989, pp.22-45;Christopher Wright andJohn Lund, ‘Best practice Taylorism: “Yankee speed-up” in Australian grocery distribution’, The Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.38, no.2, 1996, pp.196-212. Google Scholar

26.Raelene, Frances, The Politics of Work: Gender and Labour in Victoria, 1880-1930,Cambridge University Press,, 1993;Greg Patmore, Australian Labour History,Longman Cheshire,, 1991;Wright, Management of Labour. Google Scholar

27.Frances, Politics of Work;Gospel, Markets, Firms and the Management of Labour;Wright, Management of Labour. Google Scholar

28.Lucy, Taksa, ‘Scientific management: Technique or cultural ideology?’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.34, no.3, 1992, pp.365-95;Sandra Cockfield, ‘Arbitration, mass production and workplace relations: “Metal industry” developments in the 1920s’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.35, no.1, 1993, pp.19-38;Tom Bramble, ‘Strategy in context: The impact of changing regulatory regimes on industrial relations management in the Australian vehicle industry’, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, vol.34, no.3, 1996, pp.48-62. Google Scholar

29.On, Taylorism, see Taksa,‘Scientific management’;Christopher Wright, ‘Taylorism reconsidered: The impact of scientific management within the Australian workplace’, Labour History, vol.64, 1993, pp.34-53. For examples of other studies seeEric Eckland, ‘Managers, workers, and industrial welfarism: Management strategies at ER&S and the Sulphide Corporation, 1895-1929’, Australian Economic History Review, vol.37, no.2, 1997, pp.137-57;Christopher Wright, ‘Employment, selection and training procedures in Australian manufacturing, 1940-1960’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.33, no.2, 1991, pp.178-95. Google Scholar

30.Quinlan, ‘Managerial strategy’;Wright, Management of Labour. Google Scholar

31.Constance Lever-Tracy andMichael Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, Ethnic Segmentation and Industrial Conflict in Australia,Routledge & Kegan Paul,, 1988;Robert Tierney, ‘Racial conflicts in the Australian automotive industry in the 1950s: Production line workers, the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation and shop floor organisation’, Labour History, no.76, 1999, pp.20-40. Google Scholar

32.Nikola, Balnave,Industrial Welfarism in Australia, 1890-1965, PhD Thesis,University of Sydney, 2002;Brad Pragnell, ‘Selling Consent’:A History of Paternalism and Welfarism at David Jones Limited, 1838-1958, PhD Thesis,University of New South Wales, 2001;David Merrett andAndrew Seltzer, ‘Work in the financial services industry and worker monitoring: A study of the Union Bank of Australia in the 1920s’, Business History, vol.42, no.3, 2000, pp.133-52;Melissa Kerr, ‘Labour management practices in non-union firms: Australian abrasive industry 1945-70’, Labour History, no.92, 2007, pp.75-88. Google Scholar

33.See for exampleCraig R. Littler,Retha Wiesner, andRichard Dunford, ‘The dynamics of delayering: Changing management structures in three countries’, Journal of Management Studies, vol.40, no.2, 2003, pp.225-56. Google Scholar

34.For example BHP and David Jones are two examples of early innovation in what is now termed‘management development’, seeWright, Management of Labour, p.21. For some insights into changes in organisational structure and corporate governance in Australian companies seeGrant Fleming,David Merrett, andSimon Ville, The Big End of Town: Big Business and Corporate Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia,Cambridge University Press,, 2004. Google Scholar

35.Peter, Armstrong, ‘Management control strategies and inter-professional competition: The cases of accountancy and personnel management’, inDavid Knights andHugh Willmott Gower(eds), Managing the Labour Process,, 1986, pp.19-43;Peter Armstrong, ‘Engineers, management and trust’, Work Employment and Society, vol.1, no.4, 1987, pp.421-40;Y.A. Shenhav, Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution,Oxford University Press,, 1999;Christopher Wright, ‘Reinventing human resource management: Business partners, internal consultants and the limits to professionalisation’, Human Relations, vol.61, no.8, 2008, pp.1063-86. Google Scholar

36.See for exampleDexter Dunphy andDoug Stace, ‘Transformational and coercive strategies for planned organizational change: Beyond the O.D. model’, Organization Studies, vol.9, no.3, 1988, pp.317-34;Sandy Piderit, ‘Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: A multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change’, Academy of Management Review, vol.25, no.4, 2000, pp.783-94. Google Scholar

37.Andrew, Pettigrew, The Awakening Giant: Continuity and Change in Imperial Chemical Industries,Blackwell,, 1985. For some recent examples of Australian historical cases of organisational change and labour management seeMonica Keneley, ‘In the service of the society: The labour management practices of an Australian life insurer to 1940’, Business History, vol.48, no.4, 2006, pp.529-50;Mark Westcott, ‘Markets and managerial discretion: Tooth & Co., 1970-1981’, Business History, vol.50, no.5, 2008, pp.602-18. Google Scholar

38.See for exampleMerrett andSeltzer, ‘Work in the financial services industry’;Reekie, ‘Humanising industry’. Google Scholar

39.Sanford, Jacoby, Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal,Princeton University Press,, 1997;Pragnell, ‘Selling Consent’. Google Scholar

40.Joanne, Yates, Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management,Johns Hopkins University Press,, 1993;Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950,Routledge,, 2002. Google Scholar

41.A. Hochschild, The Managed Heart,University of California Press,, 1983;Chris Warhurst andDennis Nickson, ‘A new labour aristocracy? Aesthetic labour and routine interactive service’, Work Employment Society, vol.21, no.4, 2007, pp.785-98;Steve Taylor andMelissa Tyler, ‘Emotional labour and sexual difference in the airline industry’, Work, Employment and Society, vol.14, no.1, 2000, pp.77-95. Google Scholar

42.Jos, Gamble,Jonathan Morris, andBarry Wilkinson, ‘Mass production is alive and well: The future of work and organization in East Asia’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol.15, no.2, 2004, pp.397-409;Chris Smith andNgai Pun, ‘The dormitory labour regime in China as a site for control and resistance’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol.17, no.8, 2006, pp.1456-70;William Tsutsui, Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth Century Japan,Princeton University Press,, 1998. Google Scholar

43.Littler, Development of the Labour Process;Tolliday andZeitlin(eds), The Power to Manage?;Mauro Guillén, Models of Management: Work, Authority, and Organization in a Comparative Perspective,University of Chicago Press,, 1994. Google Scholar

44.Jacques Ferland andChristopher Wright, ‘Rural and urban labour processes: A comparative analysis of Australian and Canadian development’, Labour/Le Travail, vol.38, 1996, pp.142-69;Arthur McIvor andChristopher Wright, ‘Managing labour: UK and Australian employers in comparative perspective, 1900-1950’, Labour History, vol.88, 2005, pp.45-62. Google Scholar

45.Chris Smith andPeter Meiksins, ‘System, society and dominance effects in cross-national organisational analysis’, Work, Employment and Society, vol.9, no.2, 1995, pp.241-67;Chris Smith, ‘Work organisation within a dynamic globalising context: A critique of national institutional analysis of the international firm and an alternative perspective’, inChris Smith,Brendan McSweeney, andRobert Fitzgerald(eds), Remaking Management: Between Global and Local,Cambridge University Press,, 2008, pp.25-60;Eric Abrahamson, ‘Management fashion’, Academy of Management Review, vol.21, no.1, 1996, pp.254-85. Google Scholar

46.See for exampleStephen R. Barley andGideon Kunda, Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies,Princeton University Press,, 2004;Paul Thompson andChris Smith, (eds), Working Life: Renewing Labour Process Analysis,Palgrave Macmillan,, 2010. Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


Author details

Wright, Christopher