Four ways that archival research can help you understand the past, present and future of work

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Chris Forde is Professor of Employment Studies in the Work and Employment Relations Department and Co-Director of the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change. He is also Deputy Director of the ESRC Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, where he is the co-lead of the Digit Data Observatory. Professor Forde is the co-ordinator of the Q-Step Programme at the University of Leeds, and is a founding member of the Leeds Migration Research Network. His research focuses on the changing nature of work, and the implications of these changes for workers, employers and society.

Professor Chris Forde

There is widespread debate about the future of work. From management consultancy reports,  to think tanks and academic journals, there is intense interest about how work is changing, and the consequences for businesses, workers, and society. For example, will technological advances and the digitalisation of work result in millions of workers losing their jobs? How is the quality of jobs changing? What does ‘good work’ in the 21st century look like? 

Any examination of how work is changing requires some reference point in the past against which the present situation and future scenarios can be compared, and elements of continuity and change identified. Yet, as some have pointed out, much of the debate around the evolution of work remains highly speculative, with very little consideration of evidence from the past to inform predictions about the future.

In my recently published article in Labour and Industry, I argue for the greater use of archival methods (research that involves extracting, analysing and interpreting data from existing primary sources) to research work and employment.

In some disciplinary fields - such as business and organisational history - archival research is already used widely. But in other areas of business and management studies, historical methods remain very much hidden in the margins. Indeed, in many of the most popular methods textbooks in business and management, there is little or no coverage of archival methods or techniques.  

Analysing the use of archival research in work-related journals

In my article on the potential of archival methods, I analyse over 5000 articles published between 1990 and 2020 in eight leading journals in human resource management (HRM), industrial relations, sociology of work, and management studies.

My research confirmed that the use of archival research in these journals is relatively rare;  a small proportion -  6%  - used archival data. A much higher figure – nearly 90% - involved the generation of new  qualitative or quantitative data, or the analysis of secondary datasets.

The smallest amount of archival research was to be found in two of the leading US management and HRM journals (3-5%), with slightly higher, but still small, proportions found in the sociology of work and industrial relations journals examined (7-10%).   

Archival data on work and employment can be found in a wide set of places, and can include a rich range of sources. Physical or online repositories include libraries, business archives like the Marks and Spencer Company Archive, trades union and worker archives, or repositories of government records such as the National Archives. Sources include company records, correspondence of meetings, briefing and policy papers, speeches, and historical statistical data.

Here I highlight four ways that archival research can illuminate the past, as well as help us to understand the present and future of work.

1. Archival data can shed light on the actions of businesses, government, unions and other actors in the employment relationship, and the consequences for workers.

Archival data can provide access to material and voices that are hidden or missing from glossy corporate websites, authorised company histories or summary records of the business of government.

For example, a detailed analysis of archival documents has shown how the adoption of a digitalised accounting software (the Horizon IT system, developed by Fujitsu) across the entire Post Office network in the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s had profound effects on the nature of work, and lives, of branch managers (sub-postmasters).

Bugs in the Horizon system erroneously identified financial discrepancies at hundreds of post offices over many years. This resulted in the wrongful suspension, dismissal, prosecution and conviction of over 700 sub-postmasters, and is now the subject of an independent enquiry.

Analysis by Eleanor Shaikh of government documents (minutes of meetings, briefings, memos)  has shown how government ministers and the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, played key roles in continuing to support investment in, and the adoption of, the Horizon IT technology, despite being briefed on numerous occasions that that the system was flawed and likely to fail.            

2. Archival data can provide access to respondents and stakeholders that cannot be accessed using ‘primary’ methods.

For events that took place a long time ago, those directly involved may no longer be alive to provide evidence through surveys or interviews. Alternatively, respondents may be unwilling to provide primary evidence on topics that are deemed controversial or commercially sensitive.

For example, analysis of documents in the Legacy Tobacco archives reveals how managers within one of the largest global cigarette companies, British American Tobacco, used company meetings, speeches and presentations in the 1990s and 2000s to develop a Corporate Social Responsibility strategy which aimed to dilute worker and public support for tighter regulation of the tobacco industry.  The authors of the study argue that primary interviews with managers would have been unlikely to unearth these findings noting:

‘Comments contained in emails, presentation notes and strategy papers…may not represent the views of all senior managers and can be coloured by personal ambition and office politics. Despite this, they are likely to provide a more reliable guide to corporate decision makers’ thinking and motivations than interviews which can produce self-serving responses where corporate or professional reputations are at stake’.[1]

3. Archival research may be used to complement and enrich both quantitative survey research and qualitative interviews or organisational ethnographies.

My research with Dr Gary Slater into the employment agency industry in the UK used archival analysis to provide some historical context on the regulation of temporary agency work over the 20th century. We triangulated this with interviews in 2012 – when the Agency Working Regulations were being implemented - with employers and managers working in employment agencies to explore the emerging impact of the new legislation.     

4. Archival data can show how ideas have evolved on an issue relating to work and employment.

In my Labour and Industry article, I analyse over 1,000 individual documents in the UK National Archives to explore how perceptions and attitudes of government towards temporary employment agencies evolved over the 1980s.

The position of the government softened over the decade, from one of hostility towards private-sector profit-making agencies, to a stance that was more open to collaboration and partnerships. This shift was shaped by a number of factors, including lobbying from the agency industry, the changing role of the state-run job centres, and a challenging economic climate.  

Partnerships between the state and private employment agencies to deliver welfare-to-work activities are now commonplace; archival research can show how and why such public-private partnerships first emerged.   

Providing historical context to contemporary issues

Archival research may not be suitable for answering all research questions. However, it should be considered as a potential methodology for examining work and employment issues much more than it currently is within business and management studies. It can provide valuable historical context to contemporary issues and can generate new and important insights about the past that can inform our understanding of the present and future of work.   


[1] Fooks, G., Gilmore, A., Collin, J., Holden, C. and Lee, K., 2013. The limits of corporate social responsibility: techniques of neutralization, stakeholder management and political CSR. Journal of business ethics, 112, pp.283-299.

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