Second Annual RECWOWE Integration WEEK
Oslo, June 10-15 June, 2008
SOCIAL TENSIONS: SOME GENERAL ELEMENTS
Provisory version ; please do not diffuse
University of Nantes, MSH Nantes
Part 1 General characteristics of social tensions
1.1 Toward a definition?
1.2 Dynamic and institutionalisation process
Part 2 Types and domains
2.1 The voice and social movements
2.2 Macrolevel tensions
Part 3 New social tensions in new worlds
3.1 The downsizing of social protection
3.2 Growing inequalities and tensions
3.3 Growing uncertainty and tensions
3.4 The new generational tensions
3.5 A new geography: European countries, Europeanisation, and migrations
Part 4 Empirical methodology and measurement
4.1 Stages in the empirical approach
4.2 Objectives of the empirical measurement
4.3 Methodological aspects of the measurement of tensions
4.4 Some types of indicators
4.5 Example of items in the measurement of tensions
A1 Items of tensions in a factory
A2 Relationship between prison and public revenue
A3 RECWOWE Papers and Deliverables on tensions
A4 Some comments on the social tensions
RECWOWE is a NoE and a programme of activities which has been built upon the theme of
the relations between the labour market, the reforms in the social welfare states and the
difficulties in reconciling between both work and welfare. The structuring of the
workpackages has been based on the notion of tensions: opposition and potential conflicts
between flexicurity and security, the difficulties in reconciling family life and work, the
significance of the quality of work in relation to social fragmentation (work and social rights,
insiders/outsiders) and, the tensions between the social protection systems and their reforms
which have to take into account the evolution of the labour market.
In the Warsaw Conference of RECWOWE in June 2007, the discussion which followed the
presentation and the comments of the Advisory Committee during a plenary session, largely
focused on the tensions and their meanings in the relationship between work and welfare
regimes. This discussion has been summarised and included in a deliverable D06.01 (see
RECWOWE website). Several participants suggested and upheld the idea that the tension is
an intrinsic element in a trade-off. This means that a trade-off cannot exist without a period of
tension. But, may we also say that all the tensions are linked to a trade-off? Does this mean
that the result of a trade-off, even a fair one, brought the said period to a close? A large part of
this paper focuses these issues.
In each RECWOWE workpackage, some reports on the state of the art, have targeted the
tensions between work and welfare and have analysed several types of tensions, especially a
paper presented by Trudie Knijn in the Warsaw Conference (2007) highlighting the tensions
between the family life and the work. In the Appendix 3, some other documents and
deliverables are listed. New documents (papers or deliverables) are in the process of being
This paper, which is planned as part of RECWOWE transversal activities of RECWOWE, is
different from the activities of the horizontal workpackages. This is an investigation, a task of
exploration into the scientific literature that assesses tensions and conflicts. The objective here
is not to construct a theory about tensions which would become a new general explanation of
the recent trends in the labour market and the social welfare states. Neither is it an exercise of
gathering the activities of the horizontal workpackages under a common doctrinal and
theoretical conceptual umbrella. This is not the objective of a NoE. The objective of this
paper is to find instruments, methodologies and new ideas in the general scientific literature
which could help us in our analysis of the relations between work and welfare in Europe. It
tries to provide paths of research and methodological ideas for their analysis and possibly
pave the way for new subjects of future EU projects.
However, the main difficulty is that the domain appears blurred and too vast, it contains no
clear scientific framework, and ‘no well-rounded body of case materials, based on
comparative types, unifying concepts and general hypotheses’ (Mack & Snyder, 1957: 213).
Given the vagueness of the notion and the weak definitions in social sciences, the transversal
task on the tension, will firstly seek to clarify certain elements underpinning this notion.
Consequently, this task is very open because it is not linked to any precise concept, doctrine,
or school, to any specific methodology or narrow empirical study (for instance a specific type
of tension, such as strikes or demonstrations). This openness is also practical through the
creation of a Forum that deals with tensions on the RECWOWE website. Some comments
from members are gathered in the Appendix 4.
Despite (or because of) these pitfalls, the analysis of social tensions could follow the
traditional scheme of a scientific activity, which means:
1- A research field on the general ideas regarding the social tensions which would
identify the nature and the types of tensions, their evolution, their structure, the
dialectic relation between tension and cooperation or reconciliation.
2- A research field on the methodologies of analysis. What are the methodological tools
we can use (historical perspective, socio-economic analysis, etc.)? We immediately
see that the different disciplines will yield different types of approaches.
3- Data collection. According to the type of data that we will collect, we do not obtain
the same insight into of the tensions.
All our daily lives are under some measure of social pressure (personal, professional tensions,
etc.). Tensions are present of course in certain important facts such as the war, but also in the
most simple event in one’s daily life, such as … holidays. Some periods in our personal lives
are full of sizeable pressures while other periods are more peaceful. Tension is not always due
to war or an overt conflict. In fact, tensions are often in the ‘ante chamber’ of more overt
conflicts. ‘Tension’ is a ‘soft word’ which can signify a wide range of situations, from peace
(happiness) which is considered as the zero-tension world, to war (chaos) which is the
extreme opposite in a violent and deadly society.
The relation between work and welfare is a long historical balance between conflict and
compromise. The trade unions have largely won the right to individual worker protection in a
given job. The past resolution of industrial conflicts and commitments to the solutions of past
issues form the background from which new issues are brought to the fore. According to
Dubin (1957:196) the permanent social conflicts have sometimes been solved by
governmental intervention to conciliate or mediate the opposed interests. The history of
strikes demonstrates a gradual standardisation of the modes of conflicts and an increasing
institutionalisation which has avoided the overt violence in disputes by means of routine
relations: norms, standards and procedures which become the new tools of management. This
peaceful process in industrial relations and the development of the welfare systems appears to
have been broken in the early eighties. The threat of a reduction in a part of the well-being of
the most developed European countries has given rise to different types of tensions, i.e., social
and political tensions. These changes have been and still are characterised by social tensions
which have partly shaped the content of the reforms. The specificity of the recent period is
that the social tensions are characterised by:
- a deep change in the values about economic growth as the yardstick of social progress
- the emergence of new concerns on environment,
- the openness of the economies, globalisation and its consequences in the transfers of
The post communist countries have experienced other types of transition with social tensions
which have influenced the nature of the labour market and of the role of the state and public
Simultaneously, the social tensions in all the European countries also form the basis of
compromises between the social partners and underlie the political debate. The pooling of
studies on social tensions will enrich the understanding of the possible compromises,
conciliation and also the consequences of the real political decisions in the reforms. Therefore
our study is not limited to the analysis of tensions, such as conflicts, for instance, but also to
the dialectic between both: what are the sources of tensions? How do they manifest
themselves? What are the different types of tension? What are the elements involved in a
process of reconciliation?
This paper comprises four parts. The first part will provide background information on the
tensions and ‘reconciliation’ processes. The second part looks more closely the types and
domains of social tensions. The third one focuses the new tensions in the relations between
work and welfare. The fourth part proposes a number of ideas on the empirical methods of
analysis and especially its measurement.
Part 1 General characteristics of social tensions
1.1 Toward a definition?
The first activity of research, that is the search for references in the bibliographies on social
tensions and other synonyms, has come as somewhat of a surprise, ie., there only exists a
small number of references in the electronic bibliographical research on tensions. Two main
bibliographical investigations have been carried out, in ‘JSTOR’ and in ‘Science direct’
which has meant looking up the titles of reviews (social sciences), on the abstracts and the
key words, as well as the books in ‘Science direct’. Certain other synonyms have also been
used: social conflict, contradiction, mistrust and dilemma. Many of the references describe a
peculiar social issue which often emphasizes the risk of conflict (social conflicts in the
developing countries for example). Many studies exist but very often they limit themselves to
one type of social conflict in one country and over a certain period. Within this domain, the
key source of research comes from the large set of articles and books on social movements,
which have been written by some leading scientists, such as Charles Tilly, Doug MacDAm or
Donella duella Puerta.
From this first activity, it is obvious that the search for references has to be continued, with
other bibliographical tools, and in other libraries and countries. This bibliographical activity
must be effected within the national bases of European countries.
In JSTOR, we have found only one theoretical article on the exact subject of social tension. In
1939, a sociologist, S.C. Dodd published an article entitled Tension Theory of Societal Action
in the American Sociological Review. This theory is based on the individual behaviour of
desire: the ’desideratum’ designates an object of value. Using this theory which looks close to
the theory of utility (the cardinal one), S.C. Dodd constructs a list of equations which are
supposed to reflect the tensions in society, and use numerical illustrations. However, this
exercise did not lead to any empirical evaluation and unfortunately, does not seem to help us
for the analysis of social tensions. The main idea in this paper is that competition is a
substantial cause and a manifesto of tensions. His concept of desire is synonymous of
wishing, wanting, appetites, etc. which, ‘combined with the stimulus situations, result in
behaviour tending to increase or decrease the desideratum in that person’s experience…. If
the desire greatly exceeds the quantity of desideratum, societal tension is high’ (p.57). One
noteworthy result of this analysis points to the simultaneous increase in the social tensions
which are caused by the competing situations.
As previously stated, we note tensions in the family, at work, in the street, etc., on a daily
basis, but this does not refer to any precise category of scientific knowledge, except, perhaps
in psychology or psychoanalysis. We generally define the word ‘tensions’ in its every day
context, in its daily life meaning, even in scientific studies, as the word is not directly linked
to any social theory in social sciences; The notion appears excessively vague and its
measurement quite impossible. The word is not connected to any form of theorisation in
social sciences, mainly because it is over-covered by other concepts such as conflict, war,
fighting, etc. Furthermore, the analysis of social tensions is difficult as such because of their
multidimensional aspects which mix both elements of potential or overt conflicts with actions
of cooperation and peaceful objectives. Therefore, the first striking feature is that in other
scientific domains, the notion of tension is clearly defined and measured: notions of tensions
in physics, mechanics, in biology, etc. However, there is a common feature which
characterises every notion of tension. Whatever the disciplines the tension is defined by the
notions of force and movement which are also key elements in the social tensions.
The simplest representation of the tensions is based on the unsolicited distinction between
several elements and several situations, ranging from the individual level to the macro level.
This is often conceived as a distance which can be an objective or subjective one. This
distance can be coupled to an intensive or non-intensive force of conflict. The more intensive
tension, the more likely the conflict and the ensuing separation.
This distance and force depends on the degree of violence, explicit violence in a war for
instance, or implicit violence when it is latent, just like a potentiality. Implicit violence means
that the probability of a conflict is increasingly real and that any extra event can trigger a
conflict. This means that the notion of tension is wider than that of a conflict. Of course, there
are tensions in overt conflicts (strikes, rebellion and collective violence; ethnic, racial and
communal conflicts) but apart from or prior to the overt conflict, there is a zone of tensions in
a latent form such as the structures of domination based on social class, gender, race,
ethnicity, language, and age differences.
From a methodological point of view, the relationship between a tension and conflict is
similar to precariousness and poverty. Precariousness is often described as a pre-period before
poverty and defined by a high risk of future poverty. Social tensions are in a similar
methodological position to precariousness. This includes not only the explicit antagonism
when the conflict is clearly a public event, but it is also a period of pre-conflict. A conflict is
always a period of social tension and very often it is ‘announced’ by previous tensions.
However, tensions can remain in a period of social stability without any violent action, but
with a permanent high likelihood of conflict.
1.2 Dynamic and institutionalisation process
The tensions are described as a movement (or a set of movements) in society, which supposes
that individuals or social, professional or political groups act with a force and the ability to
impose their objectives. One direct methodological consequence is that we cannot analyse
social tensions from a simple static comparative analysis. We do not compare stable models
but the movements and changes which affect persons, families or social groups. These will
depend on the history of each country, the social power of groups or classes in society, the
strong belief in collective values or compliance to norms.
This temporal analysis of social tensions will also have to take into account two main insights
into the tension-compromise relation: he first one considers social tensions as negative events
in society, the second one as a positive element of social, economic and political changes.
1.2.1 Reconciliation as an objective
The history of social protection in the industrialised countries shows that its creation and
development has been linked to the idea of a yearning for social peace and a reduction in the
social violence. Generally speaking, a social conflict is viewed as undesirable because it may
jeopardise social stability (Vahabi, 2004). In this case, social tensions are conceived as
transitory phenomena which will be expected to disappear in a future society at peace. Many
Declarations illustrate this finality. For instance, the Copenhagen Declaration on Social
Development (March 1995): ‘We heads of State and Government are committed to a political,
economic, ethical and spiritual vision for social development that is based on human dignity,
human rights, equality, respect, peace, democracy, mutual responsibility and cooperation,
and full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of
people’. The reports on the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), the different
consensus groups and reports, the Amsterdam Declarations, etc., more or less promote this
kind of a ‘Good Society’ principle.
Non-conflictual society is described as a peaceful world of friendship, void of tensions, with a
non-coercive and congenial environment, with social norms of interpersonal respect, a
sustainable and pollution-free physical environment, and a collectively resourced provision of
education for children (Philips David, 2006). The social tensions linked to the traditional
habits of the institutionalised conflicts will provide a non-violent situation and the stability
balance will be the result of the success or failure of the normative order in regulating
conflicts of interest (Mack & Snyder, 1957: 227).
In accordance with this line of thought, social tensions are characterised by several features:
limited duration, variable intensity and the process of extension and reduction.
Because of the belief or the expectation of a non-conflictual world, social tensions are
conceived as transitory phenomena between more stables situations. This duration can be
analysed as the force of consensus or not in society such as the preparation of a white paper,
or the time of debate about a bill, the success (Act) or the failure of the debate, etc.
However there are several types of durations. Certain tensions come to the fore and then fizzle
out in the short term: negotiation, trade-off, many strikes, etc. But there are other social
tensions which characterise longer periods (decades). For instance, the period of transition in
the post communist countries in the nineteenth nineties, from a planned economic system to a
market one and from the communist system to a democratic one. In the same period, the
reforms of the rules of the labour market and the social protection systems of the
industrialised natios were and still are under sizeable socio-political pressure.
Implicitly or explicitly, the authors who write on social tensions suppose that violence is at
the root of social tensions. In short, violence is very often depicted by its role in the
competition for power and /or the possession of goods. The economic explanation for
violence is often described as a ‘war’ to appropriate rare goods and services, even if some
authors (Sahlins) contest the link between violence and the scarcity of goods. René Girard
(1976) also denies this explanation about the origin of violence. He supposes a violent world
in which peace is the consequence of social exclusion. This thesis claims that generalised
violence is not linked to the scarcity of goods but is sparked by the imitation of a model by
people in society. Violence takes place due to the fact that the model becomes a rival. In order
to avoid generalised violence in society, the cultural process tends to target violence, rather
than to forbid it by making one person the ‘scapegoat’.
Whatever the explanation and the role of violence as a fundamental element in the social
tensions, the main idea is that the greater the violence, the more serious the ensuing social
tensions and conflicts.
Therefore, we have also to look at the process for reducing violence. According to Oberschall
(1957: 299), (Gurr’s hypothesis), three instruments work against the escalation of violence:
- the coercive potential of the regime (punishment, etc.) can inhibit individual
aggressiveness and increase the social control of agents
- -the institutionalisation: strong associations and solidarities curb deprivation, or else
provide non-violent means for voicing discontent.
- The legitimacy of the regime is assumed to have an inhibiting effect on civil strife.
Tilly shows how the growing legality of electoral assemblies and associations in the modern
era have fostered public demonstrations as a form of collective action because the protection
enjoyed by electoral assemblies has spilled over into other collective actions that were
marginally related to elections. The creation and the development of the social welfare states
have been a paramount in the reduction of the general social tension in society.
When parties to industrial conflict are accorded roughly equal status, privileges and
opportunities, there is a tendency to avoid violent conflict. This secular trend is confirmed by
data on the decline of violence in the development process of industrial societies (Chesnais,
1981, Elias, Spinker). Another statistical analysis of the public expenditure (Appendix 2) also
demonstrates a cross negative correlation between them. The higher the social expenditure,
the less the violence. This relationship clearly shows that the development of the social
welfare states in the twentieth Century has diminished the social tensions in many countries.
However, this thesis of decline is contested by other researchers, and namely by Gurr (1989).
The controversy depends on the types of violence which are studied and the historical period
that is being analysed.
A priori, heightened social tensions will probably turn into overt conflict. For instance we can
suppose that the intensity of the tensions becomes increasingly severe whenever there is a
fiscal austerity, international competitiveness and low economic growth in many developed
countries. However, Kühner (2007) notes that the established relationship between regime
types and the degree of welfare state change across mature welfare states is not borne out by
these findings. According to the author, the relevant indicators are not powerful enough to
account for the nuanced reality of contemporary welfare state change. One factor is the
individualisation of the labour management which reduces but also masks the violence of the
industrial relations and weakens the social power of labour institutions.
Another characteristic of the tensions is its possible extension and reduction. There are two
types of extension. One type is characterised by the capacity to diffuse divergences towards a
large audience, either towards new strikers for instance but also in the direction of the wide
audience and public in order to obtain the support of the media. The second type of extension
is linked to the multidimensional aspect of the tensions. This means that there is a possible
interconnection between the sources of tension, or the risk of a spillover effect towards other
categories or domains (see part 3).
The dynamics of social tensions can be described by several temporal features ranging from
the individual disagreement to the political divergences:
- a personal disagreement with the dominant norms we are compelled to obey;
- an increased sharing of the same concern in certain social groups or classes;
- a social or professional movement which gradually becomes organised;
- a political expression of the movement;
- a political debate and the state decision.
This enlargement and consequences of social tensions will depend on several temporal factors
(Mack & Snyder , 1957: 213):
- the passage towards overt conflicts;
- or in the opposite sense, i.e., the reduction of social tension in a conciliation process
- the duration of the tensions and their changes throughout the periods, and the cycles;
- the effect of the size groups in the social tensions, extension and reduction;
- the influence of the beliefs in the root and the evolution of social tensions;
- the socio-economic conditions of the permanence or the change in the social tensions
Finally, the periods of tensions are expected to be as short, low and as narrow as possible, and
their reduction to be a basic factor of well-being.
1.2.2 Tensions as a force of well-being
Personal, social or institutional tensions are created by the confrontation between the need for
stability to ensure that rules are accepted by people and the inevitable innovation from
reforms and from a system which requires adapting to the new demand for services. In such a
case, the tensions are intrinsically connected to the collective desire for living in a growing
well-being (Schumpeter, Simmel). The general development in society is a permanent
destruction of ‘old’ things and the creation of ‘new’ things. Innovative activity works as a
destructive creation. This simultaneous process lies at the root of and is the instrument for
economic development. In this world, social tensions will be accepted by people who expect
an advantage and increased well-being from change while these are refused by other groups
who fear a loss. Let us cite D. Bannink and M. Hoogenboom (2007), ‘Welfare states are made
up of various approaches to managing social risks which may themselves consist of different
arrangements, each with their own allocation mechanism and coordination. These
approaches create a residue of inadequate provision that may evoke social tension which in
turn may lead to innovative change’.
Here we consider the problem of social tension ‘in a more positive light as a symptom of the
dynamics of social change and as an inevitable aspect of social progress and development’
(Kenneth, 1948: 19).
Whatever the theoretical explanation, the most dynamic and peaceful society will endeavor to
minimise the negative consequences of social tensions. The conflicts will be limited by
certain existing institutions of collective compromise, or by law. According to Tindall (2007)
who follows the model of Granevotter (1973), he has noted that ‘during droughts in the cycle
of protest, strong ties are relatively more important because they tend to exist aside from the
overlapping movement membership (e.g., they tend to be more multiplex), while weak ties
become latent during low points in the cycle of protest and are relatively less important.
Another possibility is that some weak ties at early stages in the cycle of protest become strong
ties later. In sum, weak ties are sometimes more important under conditions of low-risk/cost
activism, and sometimes strong ties are more important. It is plausible that both may be
important for different reasons, and it is possible that the relative importance of weak versus
strong ties depends upon the cycle of protest.’
Social tensions induce a constant pressure upon the normative order from factual situations.
However, the reciprocal effect also exists. The current reforms in the labour market and the
social welfare systems hatch new social tensions which appear as a resistance against the loss
of well-being. When social tensions oppose two parties (trade unions and employer unions for
instance), a third party such as a public authority can expect stability in society. However, the
reconciliation on one point of disagreement either will become a new source of conflict or
will undergo transition, and experience new incompatibilities and antagonistic interests.
However, the difference between tensions linked to wars (countries) and the social tensions
from the industrial relations is that labour, management and welfare interact in the same area.
Each decision in one domain brings consequences in the other two domains. The final way is
based on a compromise between the parties (industrial relations or political parties and
processes). In this case, the destruction of one party will destroy the other one, which means
that the tensions are located in a world which is not violent to the extreme. In addition, social
tensions, when they turn into a social conflict are a ‘costly social problem and sources for
reforms and changes which will supposedly reduce or eliminate conflict’ (Mack & Snyder,
This perpetual movement has been analysed in the development of the games theory, club
theories and the network theories. The games theory is a play between actors who can win or
loose. The less the ideology and belief will be, the higher the tension in the coming game.
The theories of clubs highlight the role of social tensions in the process of friendship and
integration within groups of people (clubs). The club is a milieu of persons who share more or
less the same values or interests and the same public goods or services thus avoiding
conflictual relationship among themselves. The notion of network also refers explicitly or
implicitly to the notion of friendship, mutuality in a social network, the reference to trust,
cohesive group/segregative, cliques, social balance.
The social history of the developed countries is marked by a general process of
institutionalisation. This process comprises the creation and the development of the trade
unions and a partnership dialogue, as well as legislative, executive and judicial devices that
provide orderly methods for distributing the control of decision making on social policy. The
social history of the developed countries features a considerable development of
organisations, rules laws, customs of resolution of social conflicts, from the negotiations
within the enterprises towards the creation of social laws (labour and welfare). ‘Out of
institutionalised conflict come new social policies. As conflict is partially resolved at various
stages through time, certain issues disappear, and a common law governing formerly
disputed matters is built up. Institutionalisation requires the combination of conflict co-
operation but co-operation does not imply an absence of conflict or vice versa. The higher the
degree of institutionalisation, the greater the consistency and balance strength of the parties
to the conflict’, (Mack & Snyder, 1957: 243). In the industrial period, the trade unions appear
as the social instrument for the collective resolution of disputes. A union contract contains the
affirmative social policies about which union and management have reached an agreement.
Any new social policies or any increase in social benefits are deemed as a victory for unions.
Gradually, the social policies have been taken for granted and extended to the members of the
family and to the citizens. Many social benefits have been built on such a process (industrial
injuries, health at work, female employment, replacement incomes, etc.) in social history.
This institutionalisation has prompted the groups to better provide the expression of their ends
and, even if they are totally divergent. The gradual institutionalisation of the social tensions of
industrial work has produced explicit rules (social and labour rights) and also a type of social
tension focused on the increase in wages, a permanent job, health at work, working conditions
and better social rights and their extension to the members of the family and towards all
national citizens. Besides this trend of empowerment of the trade unions and the development
of social rights for the workers and their family, the states have built a system of regulations
and management of these social rights (Labour law and the social security systems) which
have been extended to national citizenship, in the name of the universalistic values of dignity
This trend is characterised by a number of traits. The first one is the idea of the universalism
of social rights for everybody, i.e., the gradual passage of social rights based on poverty
(public assistance) or employment status (social security system) to the citizenship. The
second feature is the process of centralisation. As the organisations became increasingly
bureaucratic, spontaneous conflicts have decreased. In this case, the social tensions depend on
the effect on the internal cohesion of the groups, but also on the degree of centralisation of the
dominant opinion and also the degree of commitment to group or organisational values.
Dubin (1957) suggests the need for a typology of organisations and groups in terms of the
centrality of conflict and their activities. The third trait is the management of the expression of
the tensions, in an urbanised environment. Urbanisation, industrialisation and centralisation of
government fuel political conflicts. As traditional groups have been weakened and new
solidarities and trade unions have come into being, collective action has shifted from the
defence of existing rights and resources to a claim for more rights and a greater share of
societal resources. The demonstrations, the strikes and the deliberate assemblies in an urban
setting have become the typical form of collective action (Oberschall, 1978: 303). Finally,
social conflicts tend towards a bipolarisation of power relations and to centralise the base for
effective power. This tendency towards increasing power has also entailed a better
institutionalisation of the resolution of tensions. The social and political mechanisms of the
negotiation and the regulation of the government or the law passed by the Parliament have
become an efficient instrument of compromise in diplomatic conflicts, mediated conflicts in
which there are at least representatives who speak for official organised communities.
However, another movement is also at work, which means the emergence of new tensions
which are more or less incompatible with the existing institutions of negotiation or of
regulation. What we observe in the new world is the higher separation between the
understating of social tensions by the representatives of trade unions and the employees
themselves. This distance explains why certain occasional strikes decided by the employees
of firms are difficult to manage not only by the factory leaders but also by the representatives
of the trade unions. A number of these disputes arise from the incompatibility of the values or
finalities (Mack & Snyder 1957: 230; Dubin 1957: 198). Social tensions do not represent a
closed system because they are the consequences and they are also the sources of social
change. Industrial relations are affected by changing features of a cultural nature which are
not directly a part of the collective relations between unions and management.
One type of tensions is the discrepancy between a system of values and the reality and another
one stems from the contradictory values which co-exist in society. There is a permanent
tension between the development and the extension of social rights as universal rights, on the
one hand, and the moral value of help being the preserve of deserving people. The trend of
universalism in the extended process of social welfare has created a new concern in relation to
the social rights of new social groups.
The new social risks have little bearing on the operation of the existing institutions, especially
when they are motivated by fundamental contradictions in society. In a period of slow
economic growth, social tensions become more sensitive and reconciliation is increasingly
difficult to attain. The evolution of the democratic societies is largely based on the notion of
universalism, even in the domain of the social rights but, today, we observe a reduction in the
feeling of universalism in this domain. This change simultaneously and seemingly entails the
reactive behaviour of re-associating social rights with work duty and re-forging a stronger tie
between both. This emergence of social conflicts is also fuelled by a new incompatibility
between equality and the individual enrichment: the idea of equality, or at least the reduction
in inequality and the struggle against poverty which is more or less contradictory to the other
message of individual well-being and competition between people. There is a kind of double
bind, which is not new but less and less attenuated by the institutionalised way of resolution
of social tensions. Many of the social tensions are also linked to the weak position of
minorities for instance, especially the non skilled (exclusion from the society of knowledge)
and the immigrants (exclusion of the national citizenship). In this case, the notion of equity
which is the political tool of compromise between divergent interests, becomes inefficient
because the incompatibility between values means that the basic value of some parties
requires the absolute denial of a basic value of another party. Therefore, the notion of
negotiated compromise is impossible.
Part 2 Types and domains
2.1 The voice and social movements
The polysemy of the word ‘tensions’ can be illustrated by the wide range of its synonyms.
Within the large number of synonyms, two groups of words can be distinguished. A first list
of synonyms cover a very wide range of situations, including overt conflicts. A second one is
directly linked to the expression of overt conflicts.
Some synonyms are as follows: the misunderstandings, aggressiveness, hostile sentiments,
intention to oppose, social cleavages, irreconcilability of goals, disagreement, collective
disagreement, mistrust, antagonism, contradictions, dilemma.
Whenever no compromise is found, these tensions may turn into a conflict which is a form of
destructive power. Vahabi (2004) has established two lists of forms of destructive power. In
the workers camp: Luddism, sabotage, legal or wild-cat strikes, work-to-rule, picketing,
demonstrations, embargoes, boycott, revolts, terrorist activities against individual capitalists,
hold-ups and insurrections. In the firms’ camp: firing or non-hiring of workers activists,
hiring competing workers, economic sanctions, delay in promotion, silencing militant
workers, blotting their reputation through rumours, police and military intervention to break-
up strikes (Vahabi, 2004: 30).
The synonyms of reconciliation are also numerous: arbitration, mediation, negotiation,
consensus, integration, compensation, inquiry, legislation, judicial settlement, the market,
authoritative commendation, and the varieties of voting procedures.
Two types of conflicts have mainly been studied by historians and sociologists, i.e., social
movements and strikes, both considered within the wider framework of social history
(McAdam, Tilly Della Puerta). Social movements are made up of groups of individuals
gathered with the common purpose of expressing subjectively felt discontent in a public way
and changing the perceived social and political basis of this discontent. From many books on
social movements in different countries and different centuries, Tilly has proposed certain
general explanations as to the role of social movements in history. He considers that these
have performed a key role in the transformation of the states and the public authorities.
Several authors also consider that their extension from the 19th century is connected to the
democratisation process of societies. According to Tilly (2006), social movements consist of
standard means which interested or aggrieved make collective claims on other people,
including political authorities. Certain social movements have gradually become
institutionalised by the conjunction of worthiness, the unity of the social movement, the
number of participants or members, the mutual commitment (resistance to repression, etc.).
Social movements are larger than the activities and the objectives of the trade unions. In the
XIXe Century, the significant social movements were against the slave trade and contested
elections. They regularly combined associations, meetings, demonstrations, petitions,
electoral participation, lobbying, strikes, and related means of coordinated action. The
analysis of the social movements shows that there are waves of protest events which are
connected to periodic and new collective concerns (nuclear power and the arms race in the
seventies, for instance).
Changes, in relation to industrial strikes depend on the process of institutionalisation and on
new changes within society. Industrial disputes have become much more stabilised as unions
have grown stronger. According to Mack & Snyder (1957: 236), as unions gain power, the
duration of strikes decreases. To the extent that workers and unions become assimilated into
society as a whole, and the propensity to strike thus dwindles. Econometric studies on strikes
show that the probability of a strike would be procyclic (effect of recession on the probability
of a srike) but that the duration would be rather contracyclic (an effect of expansion on the
duration of a strike). The extension of the strike (an increase in the number of strikers and the
number of involved firms) also tends to increase the duration. However, these results are
mainly based on North American data and the econometric analysis on the French data does
not exactly lead to the same conclusions.
We also note that strikes and social movements include the role of the social welfare system,
the relation between both and also larger concerns which are partly linked to the labour
market and the social policies i.e., movements and NGOs activities against discrimination.
This means that social tensions can shape the contents of a reform. Therefore, he question is
what is the role of the social tensions in the change in principles, politics, etc.? And what is
the link between social tensions and political decisions?
2.2 Macrolevel tensions
Not all the tensions are expressed through social movements, strikes or demonstrations. At the
national level, certain expressions of the social tensions are made through macro-economic
variables. For instance, the relationship of macro-economic variables has often been
summarised in the Magic Square (Kaldor, 1971) which is a relationship between four
variables: economic growth, unemployment, inflation and the external balance (current
account surplus over GDP). The Magic Square means that the simultaneity of the four
economic objectives is quite impossible and that the macroeconomic tensions have to be
solved by economic policy choices. Here, the notion of tension is linked to disequilibrium but
also to the notion of substitution or trade-off. Another example: the incompatibility triangle
(sometimes called the ‘impossible Trinity’) of Mundell, in international economics which
explains the impossibility of three economic objectives and policies: a fixed exchange rate
regime, an independent monetary policy and a fully liberalised capital account.
The Maastricht criteria are inspired from the same idea of macroeconomic relationships
between the variables and the prior objective of a non-inflationist world and a permanent
balanced budget. These criteria impose two consequences on labour and social policies. On
labour, the idea is that we do not need any employment or unemployment criterion. The
notion of full employment is totally missing from the convergence criteria,. The second
consequence is that social expenditure is considered as excessive with two possible ways:
inflation through labour costs, and through the deficit of the budget. Both have helped to
shrink the share of the social expenditure in GDP. There exists a kind of ‘glass ceiling’ to the
proportion of social expenditure in GDP which justifies social welfare stabilising,
recalibration or downsizing.
Within the tensions at the macro-level and the obedience to the macroeconomic relationships,
two specific types of tension have to be quoted, the significance of the labour income and the
‘trilemma’ of Vrenn and Iversen.
2.2.1 Labour income share
In the nineteenth century, the labour theory of value was a cornerstone of analysis in terms of
class conflict: workers received a wage of subsistence and the capitalist class received the
profit from capital. Using this theory as a starting point, the evolution of the share of labour
income in GDP has often been analysed as the evolution of inequality or as the exploitation
intensity of the workers in marxist analysis. The social history of industrial countries has been
dominated by the ‘rapport de force’ between labour and capital. The ensuing tensions have
taken the form of the protest movements and events (strike demonstrations, petitions,
blocades, fire, etc.). For this reason, the share of labour income has often been analysed as a
barometer of tension between the classes and between the unions, even if certain studies
contradict this point of view (Iversen and Stephens, 2007).
Many measurements of this trend has been made but they continue to be contested because of
methodological problems. The main criticism is that, today’s types of income for labour have
been diversified and are not solely limited to wage. Another very important problem is the
definition and the measurement of the share of the self-employed income between wage and
Whatever the methodological discussions about the measurement, one striking trend has
appeared in the recent period: the process of precariousness focused on non-skilled persons.
The EU report on ‘Employment in Europe 2007’ contains a chapter on ‘The labour income
share in the European Union’ which evaluates and explains the changes in the trend of the
labour income share among European countries. The study has also evaluated the share for
the non-skilled workers and its evolution from the early eighties in some countries (US, EU,
Japan). The trends reveal as widespread process of deprivation of the non-skilled (EU,
2007: 246). This trend is very important in the analysis of the non-skillness in the ‘society of
knowledge which is supposed to provide a cohesive society. The data show the contradictory
result of a new type of dualisation insiders / outsiders, not only on the labour market but also
2.2.2 The trilemma of budget balance, equality and employment
Iversen and Wren (1998) have created an explanation scheme comprising the new tradeoffs
and new policies by building the macro relations upon three pillars. The trilemma links three
socio-economic goals of equality (redistribution), employment (full employment) and fiscal
restraint (balance + financial ceiling). As in many economic policies, the idea is that it is
difficult to pursue all the three objectives simultaneously, as long as there is a trade-off
between wage equality and employment. Governments therefore tend to compromise the goal
that is most suitable for them in order to maximise the others (Iversen, 2005: 247). More or
less referring to the classification of Esping Andersen, they propose three society models:
- the first model focuses on the budgetary balance and employment growth and is the
- the second model focuses on budgetary restraint and on an equality of incomes and is
the conservative model;
- the third modem focuses on an equality of income and the employment growth and is
the socio-democrat model.
According to Kolinsky A. and al. (2001), econometric analysis confirms the idea of a triangle
of incompatibility between budgetary restraint, employment growth and decreasing
inequality. In fact, public sector employment becomes the adjustment variable. However, not
all the countries are under the same socio-economic pressures. The social democratic
countries have more degrees of freedom than the conservative ones because the increase in
public employment partly wards off an increase in inequality (Kolinsky A. and al., 2001: 63).
In fact, there is a macro economic constraint of the budgetary balance or small deficit which
creates a new limit to the development of welfare state within the Maastricht criteria.
Nevertheless, the tensions are also the result of sharing within this upper limit of the budget.
The historical growth of social expenditure is hampered by the idea that the budget does not
increase faster than the GDP, keeping the share of social expenditure in GDP constant over
time and can support only cycles linked to the economic business cycle. On the other hand, as
stated by Kühner (2007), the tensions are a mixture of the potential broad-scale retrenchment
and mere changes in the composition of welfare spending which will depend on the reforms
in the social policies.
Part 3 New social tensions in new worlds
The relation between work and welfare is one of the mounting social tensions that are
occurring in many European countries. Some of these have been described in the RECWOWE
project and we will not be repeating them here. The downsizing of social protection has been
closely studied in many books and articles and certain RECWOWE deliverables have
analysed the relationship between work and welfare and the new tensions that this causes. In
fact, new types of uncertainty and new inequalities create new social tensions and a specific
relationship focuses on the redistribution between generations. Finally we must equally
consider the new socio-political geography of Europe.
3.1 The downsizing of social protection
For many years, societies believed in the social progress which was a combination of several
dimensions, but mainly that of the extension and intensity of well-being. During the Trente
Glorieuses, characterised by a constant economic growth and their extension in the welfare
states, social tensions were linked to this societal finality. In the sixties and seventies, social
tensions emerged within the ideological context of a belief of a growing well-being often seen
as a condition of happiness. The objectives of universal social protection for all were applied
through national laws (labour and social security) and certain European directives (Directives
against the discrimination, in 2000). Since the early 80s, lower GDP growth (an increase in
unemployment), budget constraints (blocked social expenditure), globalisation (the pressure
on labour costs) and demographical changes (family changes) have all reversed the nature of
social tensions. Today, social tensions emerge from the growing feeling of an unsustainable
development in society, which can be noted, for example, in the increasing gap between the
growth of GDP and the stability of the other indicators which measure the well-being in the
developed countries. We experience today a reversal situation which is characterised by
contradictory values and a high risk of social tensions. Furthermore, several new trends are
appearing in many countries:
- The targeting of social rights on personal work efforts as a criterion for receiving
- - reducing social citizenship to the idea of minimum resources for the needest instead
of social rights for all;
- the social citizenship which hampers the principle of universalism to nationals and
creates an insider/outsider process between nationals and immigrants with new
increases in xenophobia.
In fact, there are two types of tensions in both work and welfare. One type of tensions is
linked to the new social risks and follows the same pattern as that of the previous risks which
have gradually been integrated into social protection and labour protection. Another type of
tension is linked to the loss of protection in the most industrialised countries, either in the
labour market or in their social protection. Finally, the labour market appears as the threat to
the development of the welfare regimes. All the relations between work and social welfare are
- the relation between the income tax and the disincentive to work,
- the relation between unemployment benefits and the time to return to work,
- the disability benefits and the withdrawal from the labour force,
- the effects of child benefits on the labour force,
- the generational problem of pensions.
One traditional tension in the relationship between work and welfare is the compatibility
between social benefits and work incentives. The high level of certain social benefits as well
as their structure was at the core of an economic and political debate throughout the eighties
and the nineties, which largely dominated the individual rational choice model and, in the
empirical domain, by the experience and the history of the US. However, in the words of
Atkinson (1993: 1): ‘these views about the disincentive effects of benefits and taxes are too
often based on a superficial analysis of economic behaviour’. On the other hand, we note that
the diversity of the European countries requires more detailed analyses in order to avoid an
over-generalised and excessive explanation of the recent evolution of the welfare states
(see 3.4). Furthermore, we note a change in the concept of social welfare systems and their
relation with work. Until now, the financing of the systems have been mainly analysed as a
cost for providing an increase in well-being. Today, we note a change in the meaning of the
financing which is being gradually conceived as an economic investment which would prevail
over new types of reconciliation created on an economic basis.
This means that the defence of the social welfare systems are more often than previously,
based on economic arguments which do not always contest them.
3.2 Growing inequalities and tensions
Inequality is often quoted as the main source of social tensions, and its reduction as an
objective for social policies and redistributive instruments (taxation). Many riots and conflicts
are explained excessive inequality, poverty, discrimination and exploitation in society. We
illustrate the problem by the citation of a Ukrainian minister in 2001 (Kyryan, Ukrainian
Ministry of Labour and Social Policy):
"Today poverty is turning into one of the most important factors of the social tension and
unrest in the society, the rapid decline in birth rates, the growing rates of emigration,
including illegal emigrants, the high morbidity and mortality rates and the accelerated
depopulation processes. Ukraine is experiencing the creation of chronic “inherited” poverty,
when children from poor families are predetermined to remain poor in adult ages….
Therefore, poverty today may turn into the problem of the future." This situation is often seen
as the source of different types of violence (murders, etc.).
Here we will not list all the sources of inequalities (economic deprivation, rising
unemployment, underemployment, illiteracy, globalisation, isolation, migrations, polarization,
etc.) or describe the inequalities which are analysed in the different RECWOWE
workpackages. We only provide certain elements of the relationship between the inequality
and the social tensions. Generally speaking, differences between persons or social groups
become inequalities when this difference is not socially accepted. This means that the tensions
linked to inequality have to be taken into account:
- the characteristics of the groups which are involved in the unequal situations:
inhabitants of an area, workers, women, ethnic groups, insiders / outsiders, etc.
- the object of the inequalities: economic resources, working conditions, gender, age,
race, skillness, isolation, etc.
- the multidimensional characteristic of inequality and its spillover and multiplicative
effects. For instance, communities with high unemployment suffer from a low income
but also from increased rates of crime, domestic violence, ethnic and local disparities,
etc. Do we consider that each type of inequality is a source of tension? How do the
inequalities work together in the presence of social tensions? A multiplicative effect? A
compensation effect? A sporadic effect? A number of questions may be asked.
- the feeling of inequality.
This third trait of inequality characterises the link between inequality and the social tensions.
Social tensions are not an automatic result of the social distance between rich and poor
people, or between social groups or classes. They also depend on the feeling of inequality and
its intensity, which means that inequality is refused in a certain section of the population or by
specific groups in society. The relative deprivation is the discrepancy between what people
think they are entitled to, and what they actually get. In other words, it is the basic
precondition of civil strife and the greater the deprivation, and the greater the magnitude of
civil strife (Oberschall, 1957: 299).
The public expression of these tensions requires mobilisation (organisation and extension of
the groups) and solidarity (stability of the groups). Even when poor people are unable to play
according to any stakeholder mobilisation, or when the power of trade unions is too weak to
swell the demand for a better life, some other social or political movements along with the
mass media can create a resource power in order to exert political influence.
Do these movements make up for the political disaffection of poor people? How do they
influence the political debates and decisions?
3.3 Growing uncertainty and tensions
The traditional welfare state objective has been the reduction of uncertainty in life: to
guarantee an income during the periods of non-work (sickness, unemployment, inactivity and
retirement), to protect oneself from the destructive consequences of technological progress
and also to provide a protection from exogenous economic shocks in the open and small
economies. This means that the social policies and the social rights have been created to
narrow the consequences of the failures of the economic mechanisms in this industrial world.
Furthermore, the systems have grown up in states which were applying Keynesian economic
policies, i.e., which tried to achieve a full employment objective.
Today, a new uncertain world is emerging largely from the pressure of globalisation.
Industries are relocating to new countries where the salaries are dramatically lower than in
Europe, and globalisation exerts a competitive pressure on the developed countries. This
economic globalisation has weakened the power of the states which have created the systems
of social protection. Some of the new risks are linked to the economic realm: unemployment,
working conditions, etc. Other new risks are linked to the demographic changes (retirement)
and other are linked to the family-related changes (generation, fertility, isolation).
3.4 The new generational tensions
The analysis of tension cast light upon a new domain in the relations between generations. For
a long time, generational conflict was considered as explained by the conflict between the
youth and the adults and as a modernisation process in society. ‘Greying’ societies have
highlighted another potential conflict between old people and adults in relation to retirement
and pensions. In the following paragraph we will only highlight the difficulty involved in
analysing this relation. The title of the book ‘Workers versus Pensioners; Intergenerational
Justice in an Ageing World’ summarises the shift from one type of conflict to another. This
idea of tension between the generations has been analysed and justified from an economic
point of view, mainly after the publication of the articles and a book of Kotlikoff (1992), on
the Generational Accounting. According to these analyses, one generation of people has
seized a certain amount of wealth to the detriment of the younger generation. The generations
born during of just after War II have received all the advantages of modern society: economic
growth which has hiked the income of many people who have a permanent job, the
improvement in housing, better education, the development of a welfare system which has
jointly increased several collective dimensions in society: health services, family policies, the
fight against poverty and unemployment and, of course, pensions. According to these theses,
the generational equity would have to be based on the notion of actuarial neutrality: each
generation would have to finance its own future pension. In a PAYG system, this neutrality
would imply a demographic stability without any demographic ageing process. However, the
most developed societies have experienced an increase of their life expectancy, a decrease in
child mortality and, in some countries, a dramatic decline in their fertility rates. These trends
have demolished the neutrality principle and supposedly create a new type of high tension and
conflict between retirees and adults. However, these tensions appear as silent ones and
somewhat over amplify the reality. The economic studies on generational redistribution
mainly focus on financial transfers and underestimate the generational bonds inside the
families which cannot be restricted to two or three age groups (young, adult, the aged). Many
political discourses fail to take into account the private redistribution of resources between
generations (help, bequest, etc.) which is facilitated by civil law. Pensions are also an income
which alleviates the risk of poverty for old people. In fact, these also reduce the legal or moral
private generational help between generations and without a pension system, as adults would
be forced to find other instruments of solidarity between generations. In short, a number of
the tensions lead to a political solution through compromises.
Finally, from a methodological point of view, the questions focus on the meaning of the
generational tensions and their consequences on the labour market and the social welfare
3.5 A new geography: European countries, Europeanisation, and migrations
The relations between work and welfare are also influenced by the changes in the social and
political geography of Europe, at least, in three different areas: the wide differences between
the European member states and the problem of comparison between them, the consequences
of the Europeanisation process on the relations between work and welfare, and the new
problems of migrations into European countries.
3.5.1 European countries and the enlargement
The Esping Andersen classification of social welfare regimes is largely representative of the
Western societies in the sixties and seventies. From this classification and its criticism, the
striking feature is the diversity of the countries. Today there are two very different camps: the
countries which developed a social welfare system in the wake of WWII and the countries
which experienced the transition (mainly in the nineties) from a communist system to a
democratic and marketable one. On the other hand, the adoption of the Western and liberal
models in the Eastern countries is not homogeneous. This means that we need to improve our
understanding of the employment and social policies, both the social rules which are applied
and the role of social tensions in the relation between work and social welfare as well as the
tension/compromise process. Do these have specific characteristics? What is exactly the
meaning of social tensions and their expression at the national level. Finally, what are the
differences between countries?
RECWOWE has defined this European dimension as a transversal activity because all the
WPs are concerned by the Europeanisation process. A deliverable has been provided and
another one is in progress.
Despite a permanent reference in the European Social Model, there are two crossed tensions
between economical law which exists at transnational level and a labour law or social security
law that exist at the nation state level. This situation of imbalance is due to the historical and
political impossibility of defining rules that harmonise of European social rights. Such a
situation equally stems from the enforcement of the principle of subsidiarity and also from the
success of the implementation of the social security systems by the first member states of
Europe. This contradiction was not resolved by the European Treaties and has widened so that
we are now in a position where the principles of free movement and competition are
undermining national sovereignty in labour and social security laws law within the EU.
According to Bertola G. et al. (2001), despite obvious interactions between economic
integration and social-welfare provision, little has been done at the central European Union
level to bring social policies together and address country-specific crises and integration
challenges. Following the removal of economic borders across the Union, the failure to
provide guidance to the challenges facing social provision on a national level, exposes
European policies to the double-edged risk of inertia on the one hand, and uncoordinated and
unsustainable reforms on the other. For instance, each welfare state faces its own challenges
and country-specific features of welfare provision imply different reactions to similar
Several EU instruments have been engineered to stimulate integration in Europe, mainly by
the social dialogue and more recently with the Open Method of Coordination. Therefore, it
would be useful to assess the results of their application.
Another type of tension originates from the doctrine of the European Court of Justice which
has also to be questioned. The most recent cases illustrate the contradictory objectives of the
European Union which could irreconcilably damage the national and historical instruments of
social dialogue (social partners) and social protection.
3.5.3 Immigrants and ethnic minorities
Discussions in the RECWOWE Warsaw Conference (2007) pointed to the need to include the
problem of immigrants in the analysis of the relations between work and welfare. Two tasks
are currently being carried out in RECWOWE on this subject.
The problem of the migrations goes beyond the scope of RECWOWE but, the situation of the
immigrants in the European countries today remains a matter of major concern. Here again
the differences from one country to the next are immense and often historically anchored in
society (e.g. the social conditions and the status of the gypsies) but, whatever these
differences in policies (universalism versus communitarism), all European countries have to
face the problem of the discrimination / integration process of foreigners.
The compromise is more complex because it must encompass several sensitive aspects: the
respect of the communities and their culture, social equity and social cohesion and
citizenship. In Europe, a section of its inhabitants are excluded from the political game. This
means that these communities cannot elaborate their opinions in political parties but they
create an indirect opposition through the voice of NGOs protesting against racism and
discrimination. In the nineties, Jordan (1996) referred to the contradictory issues of the social
welfare systems in Europe: the community as the source of welfare and well-being for
defending the social welfare states. This trend is reinforced by the racialisation of social
relations (Schierup et al. 2006). European countries have to manage the growth of poverty and
of inequality, and the crisis of liberal democracy and citizenship, causing a moral-political
dilemma of exclusion from civil, political, and social rights. The authors define this as the
dual crisis of Europe i.e. the declining capacity of the established welfare states to maintain
equity and the nation state's inability to accommodate growing ethnic diversity. In fact, we
seemingly experience a renewal of the “insider-outsider” model in which natives prevent
immigrants from entering the labour market in order to protect rents.
At first glance, the socio-political and nationalist opposition to immigration is largely based
on perceptions of the effects of public policies and the fear of a wastage of social expenditure,
the threat to jobs and wages of native workers, extra social costs through claims on the
welfare system, etc. This discourse reduces the role of immigration to an extra collective cost
and a loss of national identity which cannot be compensate by other more positive dimensions
The immigration has also become a new type of tension between the EU countries and the EU
institutions: EU Treaties and the European Court of Justice
Some elements on the research activity
Several FP6 projects (IP, NoE, STREP, CA) focus on migrations but they often concentrate
on cultural differences, societal integration, life style and political and social discrimination.
The relation between work and welfare is assimilated into a wider analysis of discrimination.
Some projects which deal with work or social protection, have also launched some research
activity into the consequences of the migrations on work or social welfare.
A research project in Scandinavia is currently examining how the various dilemmas brought
to the fore by these policies are perceived and handled at the national and local levels in
Sweden, Denmark and Norway’ (Bo Bengtsson et al.).
RECWOWE has launched a first transversal task on ‘Immigrants and ethnic minorities
between labour and welfare’ which is presented in a workshop in the Week in Oslo.
Part 4 Empirical methodology and measurement
All the previous parts provide general information on permanent questions which were at the
origin of the RECWOWE project: do we consider that the social tensions are powerful
enough to orient the political decisions in the reforms? How do they influence them? In the
opposite sense, what are the consequences of the reforms of social protection and what is the
significance of social tensions as regards these this changes?
The question is here whether it is useful to find and possibly to construct empirical
instruments to measure the social tensions in Europe. The difficulty is well summarised by
Mack & Snyder (1957: 227): ‘An observer is often embarrassed to discover that conflict does
not arise despite the apparent indication of important source factors effectively at work in the
social situation’. There exists a kind of contradiction between our daily opinions on the
relationship between deprivation or inequalities, tensions and reforms, and the real conflictual
events which differ from our personal expectation. The historical dimension of social tensions
gives one the inkling that any attempt at a measurement of social tensions is not significant
because each one is unique and cannot be really compared to any other. The extreme
consequence is that the comparative analysis of the reforms would become quite impossible.
Despite this difficulty, we will provide a number of answers and empirical proposals. Firstly,
we have seen that even in the historical analysis of the social movements, certain events (e.g.
strikes) become social indicators of social tensions. Secondly, the social domain is not the
only domain for the empirical analysis of tensions. Articles have been written on the
measurement of tensions at the international level. Two specific reviews have developed these
analyses: Journal of the resolution of conflicts and Journal of peace. Naturally, there is every
need to continue this type of research in the reviews and journals which are specialised in this
After a brief presentation of the stages involved in and the objectives of the measurement, we
will again refer to certain properties of the possible empirical instruments and will provide an
4.1 Stages in the empirical approach
From the literature summarised in the previous parts, we note that the analysis of social
tensions is often based on a common methodological guideline (Oberschall, 1978: 272):
- The analysis of the structural sources of social conflicts and of the structures of
domination, stratification and social change,
- The nature and number of parties involved in a potential or overt conflict and the
conflict group formation: recruitment, participation,
- The form and instrumentalities of tensions, the modes of settlement: collective actions,
- The dynamics of conflict: interaction, intensity, duration,
- The reduction and the resolution of the potential or overt conflict.
In the analysis of tensions in the relations between work and welfare, certain tensions are
internal to the labour market, others are internal to the social welfare system and some of
them are originated in the relations between both. Furthermore, we can distinguish:
- The objectives of employment and social policies as sources of tension,
- The instruments of employment and social policies as sources of tensions,
- The decision-making as a source of tension.
4.2 Objectives of the empirical measurement
The measurement of social tensions and reconciliation meets a twofold objective. The first
one is based on the idea that the risk of social tensions grows with inequality, discrimination,
polarisation, but also that it depends on the political system. As an example, a democratic
system authorises the public expression of its social tensions but an authoritarian system
which forbids any protest and also increases the social tensions. The measurement of these
tensions points to the impact of these destructive/creative factors in society.
The second objective is the analysis of the consequences of the tensions on the reforms and
the changes in social areas. How the tensions influence the dialogue between the partners or
the political debate and the decision process?
Naturally, both objectives are interconnected because the recent reforms in employment
policies and in social policies give rise to tensions in their adaptation to the economic
commandments, and the feedback effect of tensions can modify the initial direction of the
4.3 Methodological aspects of the measurement of tensions
For some decades the methodologies on social indicators have been developed to analyse the
poverty, social exclusion or social inclusion and, today, they are more efficiently evaluating
environmental changes. The following points are inspired from these methodological
4.3.1 Social tensions as a latent variable
When social tensions are expressed in an overt conflict, the characteristics of the conflict can
be identified by several traits. However, as state previously, some of the social tensions are
silent ones, which means non explicit social tensions and the absence of a public voice
(media), which can have serious consequences on the individual and collective well-being. In
such a case, are we able to find proxy variables which may provide an acceptable
measurement of the phenomenon?
4.3.2 Social tensions as temporal variables
We have seen that the objective of the measurement is not to assess the level of social
tensions but more to measure the evolution throughout several periods. We have also to
distinguish the long runnning sources of tension from the study of the brief crisis situation.
When a tension is identified, there are some simple data which can be collected: the frequency
of each type of tension, the intensity of the tension and the duration. These three dimensions
define the shape of the cycles of escalation and de-escalation of tensions.
4.3.3 Multidimensionality of the tensions
There is a large set of expressions of social tensions which means that they cannot be
measured by a simple and single index. A sizeable methodological literature has been
gradually built on the types of variables, their qualities, their interrelations, their structuring
and the classical procedures of aggregation.
4.3.4 Distinction between the objective and subjective measurement
There exists two significant means of assessing these tensions. The first is by objective
measurement, which collects and analyses events and facts from the real working life and the
access to social benefits (e.g., the indicators on strikes, demonstration, petitions, etc.) The
second type of assessment of tensions is based on perceptual data (Holsti: 1963: 79). This
approach is based on the idea that the social policies are based on perceptions of reality
(images, values, etc.) rather than the prevailing objective conditions of the relations between
work and welfare. According to Holsti, there is a strong link between the objective and
subjective criteria, when measuring tension levels in that the key decision-makers in
governments perceive certain facts in approximately the same fashion. In addition, these facts
are generally well-known and that they are not subject to any wide variation in interpretation.
4.3.5 Comparative methodology
One methodological problem is the relevance of the comparison between the European
member states. Not all the current member states have experienced the same events and the
same history. Throughout the nineties, the period of transition, the post communist countries
experienced changes in their political regimes, in their economies and in the family. Most of
the industrial countries also experienced changes in their economies but these took a different
direction. As seen supra, the type of tension is largely linked to the system of value in each
country. However, today’s research is extending the analysis of values to the international
level. Furthermore, social movements are gradually becoming global, just like other aspects
of society (economy, language, consumption, etc.).
4.3.6 Indexes, cluster or factor analysis, econometrics
The most common statistical instrument consists to producing one or several indexes of social
tensions. For example, we can look at the indexes of trust in the different member states and
look at their evolution. Another example relates to strikes: an index describing their number,
the duration, etc. This traditional procedure leads us to building a synthetic index, which
summarises the set of indexes we have collected. Such an index is often the weighted sum of
specific indicators. The best example is the HDI. Their general properties has been developed
in many methodological books (Atkinson et al., 2002). The main drawback with this approach
is the difficult interpretation of the results because the index often contains opposite trends
which compensate each other.
Another type of analysis is the cluster or factor analysis which tries to gather tensions which
are characterised by similar traits. In such a case we obtain groups of indicators which differ
each other and each group contains correlated variables.
A third type of analysis is the use of econometrics in order to highlight the tensions through
several relationships. One illustration of this method is the econometric estimation and tests of
the Trilemma (Iversen and Wren). Several authors have emphasise the empirical difficulty in
measuring changes in the social welfare systems. O’Connor & Bryn (1988) stressed at this
problem when they compared the results of Wilenski and Stephens, arguing that the empirical
contradictions were explained by the differences in the conceptualisation of changes and the
chosen indicators. The non-robustness of results in relation to the thesis of diminishing
welfare can be due to an ignorance of the power of tensions in the compromises within and
around social welfare expenditure. Kühner (2007: 16-17) also states that ‘in many ways, such
a handling of the date (econometrics) is much simpler and much more transparent than the
calculation of ‘sophisticated’ indicators which more often than not seem to stand on shaky
In the wide literature on social indicators, one difficulty is to find any research which is
directly linked to the notion of social tensions.
4.4 Some types of indicators
The types of indicators on the tensions between work and welfare are partly linked to the
contradictory trends on the labour market, employment and the social welfare states.
4.4.1 Reduction and changes in social protection
Reduction in labour rights
The transformation of work
Consequences on the other social rights
The description of the downsizing social protection
Move of social rights from one group to another one
The targeted social policies and a targeting on both work and welfare.
The trend of unemployment and its link with the social welfare systems.
The main analysis focuses the evolution of the dual labour market insiders / outsiders and the
link with the welfare state.
4.4.2 Trends of inequalities and poverty
The nineties is characterised throughout by an increase in income inequality in many
European countries. Many newspaper articles on social tensions and growing inequality,
maintain that the connexion is due to labour market mechanisms. Therefore, the increase in
different types of inequalities is seemingly an indicator of social tensions. As regards the
history of France, certain authors (Davis, H. T., 1941, 1954) have explained the French
Revolution in terms of the increase in inequality during the 18th century.
There are a lot of inequality indexes but their interpretation in terms of tensions is not obvious
and is rarely carried out, … except in the media.
4.4.3 Health indexes
The Dublin Foundation annually publishes a report on the health at work. The reports show a
recent degradation in the working conditions of an increasing number of firms.
In today’s, public health evaluation, cardiovascular morbidity is an index which reacts rapidly
to social-economic changes: data on myocardial infarction and angina prevalence. According
to certain local studies, a rise in the myocardial infarction is suggested as an indicator of
social-economic stability and instability in society.
The increasing concern about the environment and professional diseases, are turning a
specific medical concern into a new social and health concern and this is being quantified
within the welfare dimension of a nation.
4.4.4 Family life
In RECWOWE, the Workpackage 2 focuses on this theme and has provided several
documents explicitly on this theme. A transversal task on ‘Engendering’ provides also
information which could be used for the measurement of specific tensions.
As previously stated, in the large number of data bases, we need to find the variables in the
large number of data bases (EDACwowe) which could help us in the analysis of the social
4.5 An example of items in the measurement of tensions
In 1987, sociologists (Diani & Bagnara, 1984) proposed an index of conflicting social
tensions within the firm, based on an analysis of the contents of the trade union tracts and
associations inside an Italian factory.
According to the authors, the production and dissemination of tracts provides information on
the foreseeable behaviour of conflict in the short term. The result of the study does not fit our
work but, the analysis of the contents has yielded a long list of items of disagreement which
could provide sources of conflict in surveys on tensions (Diani & Bagnara 1984: 391) (list of
items in Appendix 1).
This document is different from the papers and deliverables which have been written in the
horizontal WPs. The objective of this paper is to gather a number of elements from the
general literature on tensions, on conflicts, dilemma, etc., in order to provide some
methodological information for the other activities of RECWOWE, the horizontal
workpackages, EDACwowe and, also, for the workpackages focused on dissemination.
Items of tensions in a factory
Within the factory: Themes within the enterprise
- an excessive workload, tiredness, too heavy Changes in the schedules
rates/rhythms of work Control of the investments
- lack personnel in the company Diversification of production
- requests for new recruited workers Demand for an extra recruitment of
- Against mobility employees
- against the harmful effects and the Demand for innovation
- a request for reduction of schedules, for Environment
new pauses, of use of the public holidays,
Against the unemployment
Improvement of the health at work and social
- claim against the compulsory
Demand for better housing
- request for wage increase
Demand for better education for the children
Against the apprentice methods
- request for a upper category change
- Skillness request
Demand for Employment increase
Against the behaviour of the chiefs
Demand for reforms
Against the redundancy
Against the economic policy of the
Against the technical unemployment
Against the bad restauration
Request for a change in the work
Demand for a better collective bargaining
Request for a technical change
Request for innovation
Denial of innovation
Against the terrorism episodes in the firm
Against the authoritarian management
Against the anti-trade-union management
Relationship between prison and public revenue
Le Clézio Philippe (rapporteur), 2005, Prélèvements obligatoires : compréhension, efficacité
économique et justice sociale, Paris, Conseil Économique et Social, Avis et rapports, n°22.
Horizontal axis: public revenue as a percentage of GDP
Vertical axis: percentage of people in jail.
RECWOWE Papers and Deliverables on tensions
Several deliverables on the tensions between work and welfare are in progress. During the
first year of RECWOWE, some of them have been done.
They are available on: http://recwowe.vitamib.com/papers-deliverables
WP01: D01.03 Flexicurity and Welfare Reform: a state of the art review (70 p.)
WP02: Paper from Trudie Knijn (Warsaw Conference, 2007) The Relationship between
Family and Work: Tensions, Paradigms and Directives (37p.)
WP03: Paper from SvennAage Dahl & al. Quality of work – Concept and measurement
WP04: D04.02 Report reviewing the literature on the institutional and political conditions
of compromise. (28p.).
Some comments on the Social tensions
A first and short draft has been put in a Forum on the Website in the early April. Some
comments either on the WEB or by email have been done. Here you will find some of them.
Comments from Jane Lewis (message 4/04/08)
You have suggested that people look at the notion of a 'tension' within a social science
framework and also propose some empirical analysis - indicators etc.
I would just wish to reiterate that I think that the concept of tensions is perhaps most useful to
us in thinking about policy, and probably in thinking about policymaking - so I guess I would
be inclined to add this in - quite possibly it is a part of your point 2.
RECWOWE has identified four sources of tension in WP01-04. There is, in fact, a 'hierarchy'
of tensions born of the way in which the WPs relate to one another and to our main theme
(labour market flexibility and security). And there are tensions specific to each WP and to
each policy dimension within each WP. These can be related to policy goals and interests.
They also vary in intensity and importance between countries, depending in large part on the
context in terms of attitudes and the behavioural reality.
So, just as a 'tensions and policy' example, taking work and family balance policies: first re-
goals, these are thought to promote flexibility (being able to reduce working hours, vary start
and finish times etc) and security (enabling women in particular to participate in work, plus
they are thought to promote a whole variety of other policy goals (address population ageing
by increasing labour market participation, children's early learning in the wake of PISA,
etc.). Second re-interests, there are tensions between the interests of children for one-to-one
care in the first year and mothers' needs for labour force attachment as pensions etc become
more individualised, and tensions between men and women....
The interesting question then becomes why do governments adopt the kind of policy package
in the work-family field that they do, and why the specific instruments they do. How are the
tensions 'negotiated', is it in the end just good old path dependence or something rather more
and different? The intriguing thing about this work-family example is that this policy field has
come onto the policy agenda strongly in all Member States; the overarching core policy goal
is similar (employment related, but subsidiary goals vary; and policy packages and
instruments end up looking very different.
Comments from Rodolfo Gutierrez (message 21/04/08,and WEBsite)
My main comment is the following one: your note is mainly focused on the most important
"route" for reflection on tensions: theoretical and empirical research on social conflict. I
would suggest that other complementary route could be theories of social differentiation on
contemporary societies; I say theories because I guess that most of the work on that topic is
theoretical. I think we need some kind of understanding of how social theory defines the main
components of contemporary societies (institutional, systemic, structural, others,..) and its
typical form of integration. It can be assumed that the current four WP tensions
(flexibility/security, work/family, quality/quantity, labour market/welfare) are "dual goals or
focuses" of public interest or policies more than structural tensions, in the sense that all of
those pairs of tensions could be rooted on structural tensions between social subsystems or
institutional domains of, i. e, economy, politics and family. Some structural tensions between
those domains may be sources of "tensions of integration" without turning out into a social
conflict, in the sense that there are no social groups perceiving and acting in a conflictive
Comments from Wim van Oorschot
(WEBsite, Forum; http://recwowe.vitamib.com/fora/forum-on-social-tensions-1)
Triggered by Denis' definition of tensions as a non-accepted difference I was reminded of my
secondary school days and the classes of physics. In physics a tension is a reflection of (two
or more) opposing, or contradictory forces. Forces that try to pull an object, a physical state
or system, into different directions. E.g. there may be tension in a liquid surface (gravitation
vs cohesion of molecules). A tension in social life could also be seen as resulting from
opposing forces. There can be tensions within individuals (one desire/goal wants me to do
this, another to do that); between individuals (one wants to go that direction, another the
other direction); between groups (one wants e.g. freedom, the other wants e.g. equality);
between institutions/policies (the one wants woman to stay at home, the other wants them to
Studying tensions in Recwowe projects would then be to study the various (social, economic,
cultural, political) forces that act upon individuals, groups, institutions, and have a special
eye for those forces which create tensions, that is, forces that pull in different directions. Once
having specified the forces of interest one could think about the question in what kind of
measurable ways the tensions manifest themselves: such indicators would be found in close
relation to the type and character of the forces involved.
Important is to realize that in physics, but also in the social world, tensions are not
necessarily something bad, something unacceptable. On the contrary, tensions may be
functional, e.g. where they stimulate creativity, reflection, a sense of mutual responsibility, a
willingness to adapt etc. This would mean that in the Recwowe projects one should not only
try and define and measure tensions, but one should also try and get an idea of their positive
and negative functions (for individuals involved, for groups, for society).
So: main questions for empirical research within the strands could be:
who or what is subjected to what kind of opposing forces, and to what degree and for whom
or what is that a problem? - if it is a problem, what could be done about it?
Note that opposing forces acting upon individuals, groups, societal systems, can come from
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