How to Understand Industrial Relations & Theories

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The theories of industrial relations primarily arise from efforts to explain or explain away the existence of conflict. In fact, an excellent way to learn these theories and approaches is to organize them based on how much conflict they see in the system. Conflict is at the root of these theories because they concern themselves with the relations of industry and capitalism to modern society and its actors -- both elite and popular.

The unitary and systemic approaches posit the least amount of conflict. The unitary approach sees no conflict except as a pathological condition. Systems theory views the industrial firm as a part of a society that has largely accepted the basic norms of industrialization. These two approaches do not accept that there is any intrinsic conflict involving industry, labor and society. Both see industrial relations as a harmonious means of organizing society under normal circumstances.

The moderate conflict approaches include social action and some conflict theories. Social action does not see conflict as inherent in industrial relations, but admits that negotiations between capital and labor, and capital and society, are mediated by the subjective dispositions of the various actors. The more moderate conflict theories posit regular conflict, but not as an intrinsic part of industrial relations. Hence, in these approaches, conflict might be a regular occurrence, but is not necessarily inherent in the capitalist system.

The Marxist and other socialist approaches hold that dominant classes devise the moral codes of society, and that inherently conflict is a major part of industrial relations. In these approaches, a dominate capitalist class imposes norms upon a helpless labor class. The result is predictable, where capital must use all the power at its disposal to keep a lid on labor violence and rebellion. Thus, conflict is endemic and inherent to the system.


  • Remember this is a thumbnail approach. There are as many theories as there are writers. but the above outline will give you a strategy to group them for easy recall.

    I don't think anyone holds to the unitary theory anymore.