Civila samhället

Vetenskapsrådets ramprogram för forskning om det civila samhället

Moments of danger, moments of opportunity: the role of individuals as change agents in organisations

A qualitative and quantitative study of trade union officials in national and international unions

Nora Räthzel, professor, Sociologiska instutitionen, Umeå universitet, projektledare.

Diana Mulinari, professor, Sociologiska instutitionen, Lunds universitet.

Annette Schnabel, docent, Sociologiska instutitionen, Umeå universitet.

David Uzzell, professor, department of psychology, University of Surrey.


Project Description

Research questions

Our overarching aim is to provide an analysis of how TUs address the changing societal conditions in which they are operating, focusing on the roles of individuals as agents of change. The study will assess how processes commonly defined as reasons for the demise of TUs also constitute affordances: socio-political conditions which not only require unions to act in new ways, but also present them with possibilities to do so. Our overarching question is how transformative practices of unions also shape the character of civil societies in the countries under investigation. The following steps will lead us to answer this question:

1.    How is the role of individuals in the unions influenced by global economic, political and cultural transformations? What narratives exist about the role of individuals in developing new union policies? How are union officials recruited and have these processes of recruitment been changing and how?

2.    What are the social, gender, and ethnic backgrounds of influential individuals, what are their life and career trajectories and do they differ from trajectories of former officials?

3.    What is the extent of their formal/informal scope of responsibility and influence and does this differ from previous forms?

4.    What kind of networks do they create within and outside the organisation and do these differ from previous ones?

5.    What are the organisational affordances needed to enable individuals to act as change agents and what are the barriers to the creation of these affordances?

Theoretical points of departure

Since our analysis is situated at the crossroads of the macro level of structural and the micro level of analyses of the individual we need to employ a variety of theoretical concepts from these different areas. “Grand theory” frames aiming at understanding the present socio-economic regimes of Western societies need to be taken into account and critically evaluated against our empirical findings. The concept of civil society is central and we want to redefine it with the help of Gramsci and others as a “political battle field”, where different social groups aim to create consensus for their political perspectives. Concepts attempting to understand the role of individuals as “change agents” within organisations like “transformative leadership, will be important. Ultimately though, we will need to construct “transdisciplinary” concepts with which we will be able to connect structural oriented and individual oriented. Initially, we can draw on some existing transdisciplinary concepts, namely Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectuals”, the concept of “societal capability to act” as developed within Critical Psychology in Germany, and the concept of “affordances” developed in Environmental Psychology. Critical Psychology transcends the common dichotomy of the individual and society. It conceptualises human existence as mediated: human needs are not directly related to its objects but are transformed by the capacity “to participate in the societal arrangements by which the consumable objects are reproduced and distributed”. For our research this allows us to overcome the dualism between organisational analysis and biographical analysis. The concept of affordances defines the intrinsic properties of the social or physical environment which provide resources for action.

Empirical basis – selection of sample

Since one of the most important characteristics of today’s’ societal developments is their globally integrated character, it is necessary to compare developments cross-nationally. 3. As a way to identify potentially “transformative leaders” we will focus on those union officials engaged in developing new union policies such as those relating to climate change and North-South cooperation.
The selected unions
The metal workers’ unions are arguably the best organised and largest world-wide and are also those facing the greatest challenges from climate change policies, relocation of production from the North to the South, and redundancies due to technological innovation. Their international (IMF), regional (EMF), and national branches in the selected countries will constituted one of the two major case studies of our study. The metal sector in most countries of the European Union has a comparatively high percentage of migrant workers, which will make it possible to investigate whether these workers are having an important role in shaping new union policies.
About one third of the world’s workers are employed in the agricultural sector. Agriculture is integrated into the issues of climate change and the North-South divide: On the one hand it is the sector most hardly hit by the effect of climate change, while at the same time, it produces significant effects on climate change. The IUF and other unions of food workers are forming alliances with non-union associations like “Via Campesina” to address these conflicts. As opposed to the metal sector where the majority of workers are men, about 70% of the agricultural workers are women. Thus a combined study of these two sectors will allow us to better compare the influence of gender relations on new union policies.

The selected countries

The core of our investigation will be in Europe looking at the national and local unions in the metal and agricultural sector. Sweden and Spain represent opposing regimes of union histories. The UK unions are in the middle of both approaches. In order to gain a broader insight into different regimes of countries of the South we have chosen Brazil, South Africa and India. All three countries are integrated into the global economy, while having different trade union histories.

Methods, time table and implementation

Desktop research: Two elements of desktop research will inform the research project: a) an integrative review that critically analyses and brings together disparate theoretical and empirical literatures on the transformations of social-economic regimes, labour studies refering to the functioning and changes of trade unions in Europe and the Southern countries under investigation, leadership theories in management studies and organisational psychology, feminist, other social movement theories, oral history, critical psychology analysing biographies in social-historical concepts . This element will develop a preliminary conceptual framework capable to address the relationship between societal, organisational transformations and the role of individuals within them. The framework will be preliminary since it will be further devloped and adjusted in the course of the empirical investigation; b) a study of the social-political histories of the unions under investigation in the different countries, using existing literature and archived documents. This element will allow us to situate the qualitative and quantitative data in their contexts.

2. Qualitative investigation: We plan to conduct a minimum of 66 (10 in each country and 6 on international, regional, and national level) in-depth oral history and life-history interviews with key union officials responsible for the areas of climate change and North-South relationships. As experiences teach, this number might rise due to the “snowball- effect” once fieldwork is under way. The oral history dimension will focus on the informants’ account of the organisations’ history and its potential for renewal. The life-history dimension will focus on the informant’s life trajectories.

3. Quantitative investigation: A survey among one hundred union officials will be conducted, examining whether specific characteristics of individuals in influential positions can be found on a broader level. An emphasis will be put on the expected importance of intersecting relations of gender, class, and ethnicity and on atypical forms of career trajectories. Following and expanding on a comparable study of career paths of women in science (Heintz, Mueller, Schnabel 2000) the proposed questionnaire will cover among others: socio-demographic data, qualifications, occupational fractures, experiences of migration, networks within and beyond the union, perceived influence on the organisation.



Nora Räthzel, David Uzzell (2013) (eds.) Trade Unions in the Green Economy. Working for the Environment. London: Earthscan/Routledge

Chapters in books

David Uzzell, Nora Räthzel (2013) Mending the breach between Labour and Nature. A case for environmental labour studies. In: Räthzel/Uzzell (eds.) Trade Unions in the Green Economy. Working for the Environment. London:
Earthscan/Routledge. pp.: 1-12.

David Uzzell, Nora Räthzel: (2013) Local Place and Global Space: Solidarity across borders and the question of the environment. In: Räthzel/Uzzell (eds.) Trade Unions in the Green Economy. Working for the Environment. London: Earthscan/Routledge, pp.: 241-256.

2011: Räthzel, Nora: Privatiseringen av Producentens stolthet. Paula Mulinari and Rebecca Selberg (eds): Arbete: intersektionella perspektiv. P. 171-187.

2010: Uzzell, D. and Räthzel, N. (2010) La Contextualisation de la psychologie environmentale: une nécessaire évolution. In : Weiss, K., Girandola, F. (eds.) Psychologie et Développement Durable. Paris: Edition in Press. Pp.247-

Peer reviewed journals

Ragnar Lundström, Nora Räthzel, David Uzzell (2015) Disconnected spaces: introducing environmental perspectives into the trade union agenda top-down and bottom-up. In: Environmental Sociology.

Räthzel, Nora, Uzzell, David (2011): Natur oder Arbeit? Dilemmata und Perspektiven Gewerkschaftlicher Umweltpolitik. In: Das Argument 294. Pp. 734-744

Räthzel, N., Uzzell, D. (2011): Trade Unions and climate Change: The jobs versus environment dilemma. Global Environmental Change, 21 (4), 1215-1223. (won a second price of the British Sociological Association, Climate Change Study Group)

Mulinari, Diana, Räthzel, Nora, Tollefsen, Aina (2011): Everyday working lives in a transnational corporation in Mexico: the contradictory co-optation of trade unionists. In: Economic and Industrial Democracy, 32 (3) 379-399.

2010: Räthzel, N., Uzzell, D., Elliott, D. (2010) The Lucas Aerospace experience: Can Unions become environmental Innovators? In: Soundings, Vol. 46, 76-87.

Räthzel, N. , Uzzell, D. (2012) Mending the bridge between nature and labour: environmental engagements of unions and the North-South divide. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, 4(2): 81-100

Räthzel, N. (2010) Eine hoffnungsvolle Beziehung zwischen Frauen-, Umwelt- und Arbeiterbewegung. In. Das Argument 287 pp. 347-358.

Räthzel, Nora (2012) Lack of Rain in the Rainforest. Global Labour University, Weekly Column:

» List of publications, papers and presentations (pdf)