Swedish Working Life Research Formation and conceptual development of a research field in transition

Detta är en avhandling från Luleå tekniska universitet

Sammanfattning: The purpose of this thesis is to contribute to the understanding of working life research in Sweden by focusing on the conceptual and institutional evolution of the field. The analyses include the roles of the researchers and other actors as well as theories and processes that form and have formed working life research. This thesis poses several research questions, including: How have different actors and processes contributed to the formation of Swedish work environment research? How and why has the definition of working life research changed over time? What explains the indications of change in research questions as well as the changes in disciplinary and institutional background of the researchers? What lessons can be drawn from the effects of introducing “Mode 2” in Swedish science policy on the development of working life research? The empirical material is mainly from three sources. One source consists of 45 in-depth interviews with researchers, users, and other stakeholders relevant to the development of working life research. The second source consists of government documents, e.g. bills, reports, and investigations that outline Swedish science policy and instructions to public organisations. The third source consists of monographs, articles, and biographies of relevance to the development of working life research in Sweden and other countries. Data were collected using semi-structured interviews that were recorded and transcribed and a desk review of government documents and other written sources. For the study of current working life research, data were retrieved from the annual reports and the project database of the Swedish Research Council of Health, Working Life and Welfare (Forte).The four articles analyse four different aspects of the research question. This pluralistic approach establishes a rich and nuanced picture of the subject. In the various analyses, empirical data have been placed in conceptual frameworks based on theories that explain how political ideas affectpolicy making and power relations among stakeholders. Several of the findings presented in the thesis indicate that working life research has lost some of its status as a field worthy of support. For example, the level of public funding for working life researchhas gradually declined; a change that culminated with the closure of the National Institute of Working Life in 2007. In addition, the concepts “working life research” and “work science” are decreasingly used at universities and in government documents. However, the study of project applications submitted to Forte suggest a more nuanced picture. Since 2004, the number of applications in the field of working life research has increased, but this increase is smaller compared to the increase in other areas of research funded by Forte. However, another finding suggests renewed interest in the field. Since the millennium shift, applications submitted to Forte display an increasing variety of disciplines and institutional backgrounds, although this trend could also be a sign of weakening of the identity and collective belonging of the research area. In the 1970s and 1980s, working life research in Sweden peaked in terms of funding and number of active researchers. This “golden age” was partly the result of the Swedish Model, which had laid the ground for joint initiatives by the social partners related to funding and implementation of working life research. In addition, public research policy during this period prioritized applied research and the influence of stakeholders. The social partners were given important roles in the formulation and implementation of working life research financed by government. The decline in working life research after 1990 is partly explained by the eroding spirit of consensus between the social partners and their loss of influence in public administration, including public organisations related to working life research. This decline can also be traced to the influence of neoliberalism on Swedish policy, a school of thought that affected public science policy as well as labour market relations. This shift in Swedish science policy – from a sector driven to a science driven approach – was used by employers as an argument against the segments of working life research they perceived harmed their interests. Referencing the new preference of scientific excellence over utility and the academic ideal of political neutrality, the employers and centre-right political parties accused research produced at the National Institute of Working Life as being biased, politicised, and of poor quality. The example of Swedish working life research illustrates the importance of how new ideas that enter policy-making arenas are implemented. When the theory of “Mode 2 knowledge production” was introduced in Sweden, it focused on science-industry collaboration and not on other sectors of society. The shift from a sector driven to a science driven policy changed the previous assumption that involvement of the social partners guaranteed scientific quality and opened the door for accusations of bias and politicisation. This complex response demonstrates the difficulty in allocating public research funding – especially to research areas that have significant influence on policy. This thesis brings together two fields of research: working life research and science and technology studies. By including the theory and perspectives from these two fields, this study includes factors affecting two policy fields of importance to the development of working life research: labour market policy and science policy. On a practical level, this thesis tells the story of the evolution of working life research, which is useful not only to researchers active in the field but also for policymakers, users, and other stakeholders

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