Regulation, normativity and organisation of corporate social policy. An interregional study of the German metal industry 1871–1932

PhD Project

The company as a form of organisation is a potentially fruitful area of research for both legal and social history, as its development opened a space for intensive socio-political negotiations in which labour and social legislation encountered entrepreneurial interests and demands. This applies in particular to corporate social policy, which, though naturally subject to changes in social legislation, frequently also generated normative rules independently of state law. Employers’ voluntary social benefits, though long seen as evidence of corporate paternalism by scholars, were first and foremost elements of recruitment, incentivisation and retention strategies, and therefore part of a cost-benefit calculation. The project investigates the structure, rules and standards of corporate welfare institutions, and to what extent these depended on the general economic conditions and labour market but also on regional factors, company size and corporate structure.

Work on the PhD thesis started in May 2021. As part of the research project Non-state law of the economy, it builds on the latter’s digital database of primary source materials relating to work regulations. The thesis seeks to explore the range and diversity of norms involved in the development of corporate social policies and to understand internal processes and regulations. In contrast to existing studies, which often focus on individual companies, mostly market leaders, the project takes a broader approach, comparing a number of ‘second-tier’ companies – mainly medium-sized enterprises, but also some lesser-known larger ones – from different German industrial regions (analogous to the regional structure of the main project). It is expected that the companies in this previously understudied part of the metal industry were nevertheless big enough for a certain amount of social expenditure for the workforce to be undertaken.

What actors participated in the processes of developing the social policies of enterprises? What conditions, requirements and needs shaped the social regulations in the mid-market sector, and to what extent were they based on state specifications or on the companies’ own specific interests and characteristics? What similarities and differences can be identified when comparing the social policies of mid-market enterprises with those of larger, top-level companies? Did the social policies of the market leaders influence those of smaller enterprises? Also part of the dissertation project is the exploration of possible differences between the corporate social policies of companies in different regions or with different business models, and the influence of a company’s location in an urban or rural context or in a particularly industrialised region. The great number of digitised sources in the above-mentioned database should help answer these questions. The period of investigation – from the German Empire to the Weimar Republic – makes it possible to identify both normative continuities and ruptures in the corporate social policies of the metal industry.

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