Background of the International Labour Process Conference

The following is taken from "The short overview of the labour process perspective and history of the International Labour Process Conference"by Chris Smith School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Over the past 25 years, the International Labour Process Conference has earned its reputation as a cornerstone of insightful empirical research and cutting edge theoretical debate within the labour process and work organization tradition. Indeed it is hard to imagine contemporary radical research which is not influenced by labour process insights.

Every year, the conference brings together academics and policy makers from the sociology of work and employment, business and management studies, human resource management, industrial relations, organizational analysis and a range of other disciplines to discuss and critically assess developments in work organizations; present their research; and stimulate debate, collaboration and publication.

With so many new faces joining us this year, we thought it would be appropriate to give a bit of background to the conference.

The conference started in the UK, and the first conference was at UMIST (now part of the University of Manchester) in 1983, when 129 participants heard 16 papers, in 2 streams and 2 plenary sessions. At that point, all participants were from UK universities, making the content of the conference a very British affair. However by the 7th conference held again in Manchester in 1989, nearly 50% of the papers were by non-British presenters. Over the years  around 30-40% of papers given at the conference were by presenters outside of the UK, with participants coming from the US (13 papers in 1990 being the highest number); the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Italy, France, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, India and many other countries. It is possible to say that papers have been presented from all continents and many countries, with the greatest and most consistent representation from Europe, Australia, North America and recently Asia; only papers from South America remain quite rare.

The 16 papers presented in 1983 grew to 52 in 1988, peaking at 71 the following year, before declining to 51 in 1992, and then growing again in the mid 1990s – 80 in 1994 and 1995; 88 in 1997 and 2000, before falling back again to 70 in 2001 and then growing again to 100 plus in 2004. The Dublin Conference in 2008 had the greatest number of papers at 160, indicative of the continued vitality of the conference for critical social science and management research.

Initially the conference moved between the universities of Aston (in Birmingham) and UMIST (in Manchester), and for the first 10 years had the snappy title of “Organisation and Control of the Labour Process Annual UMIST/Aston (or Aston/UMIST) Conference”. From 1992 this was shortened to the Labour Process Conference and in 1993 to the International Labour Process Conference when the venue moved away from Manchester and Birmingham, to other cities in the UK -, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Bristol, London and Glasgow – reflecting mobility of the principal organisers – Hugh Willmott, David Knights, Paul Thompson and Chris Smith. Despite the ‘international’ in the title of the conference, venues remained within the UK. It was not until 2004 at the 22nd conference that the venue finally moved outside the UK to Amsterdam. The city was the venue again to celebrate 25 years of the conference in 2007.  2008’s location in Dublin marks the firmly international base of ILPC, as hosting the conference away from the UK is will happen on a regular basis going forward.

The conference started 9 years after Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (LMC) appeared, and was organised in Business and Management Schools, which would have been a surprise to Braverman, given the trenchant critique of American management science in the book. The ILPC adopted a more sociological and industrial relations focus, as opposed to early responses to LMC which had been dominated by economists. The business school context reflected peculiarities of the social science labour market in the UK, as sociologists moved into management and business schools as this area expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  In fact much critical research on work and employment relations, building on labour process theory, has taken place in management schools in the UK.

To-day there is a growing audience for these debates, adding to the strong collective of researchers who have been associated with the organisation of the conference or developing Labour Process Theory for many years.

It is clear that ILPC has moved a long way from its initial focus on Braverman with some key turns and twists along the way