A Critical Evaluation of John Dunlop’s Industrial Relations

One of the most influential theories of industrial labor relations was the Industrial Relations Systems Theory posited by John Dunlop in the 1950s. Dunlop’s Industrial Relations Systems Theory suggests that during whatever stage of its development, industrial relations is made up of certain players, situations, ideologies and rules which govern the players within the work environment (Delaneya and Godard 15). Defined another way, Dunlop’s theory views the industrial relations system as one that is made up of three main agents or elements – workers, management organizations and government bodies (Rogowski 12). These players and their organizations are within a context that is defined according to the labor employed, distribution of power, technology, and product markets. Within this context, players interrelate with one another, negotiate, and wield power in to determine the rules that make up the results of the industrial relations system (Kelly 34).

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Dunlop put forth that three players (workers, labor unions and the government) are the most critical actors in an industrial relations system (Rogowski 56). He additionally proposed that none of these institutions in the system is able to act independently of each other. Dunlop was of the view that these institutions are shaped by their political, technological and market contexts. In that regard, Dunlop considered industrial relations to be a social sub system that is at the mercy of three environmental restrictions- the markets, technology and the distribution of power in society. Dunlop’s theory, while very influential, has attracted a lot of criticism due to what critics deem to be its inherent weaknesses. The following discussion will critically analyze the strengths of the theory followed by its limitations for a comprehensive evaluation of one of the most widely held theories within industrial relations.

Strengths of John Dunlop’s Industrial Relations Systems Theory

Dunlop’s theory greatly assisted with the classification of the industrial relations system and the components therein. He developed the systems theory and created very helpful tools of analysis to interpret and help facilitate understanding on the broadest range of industrial relations facts, ideas and practices. He condensed several difficult concepts and practices into classifiable groups and this has helped us to easily conceptualize and quantify these ideas. As such, Dunlop’s theory has assisted in the merging of all the theories and ideas into categories that are easier to study and digest (Boyd 34).

In addition, Dunlop’s theory identified the actors, the rules in the workforce that guide the actors in this system, and the ideologies that are found within the given particular system (Barbash and Barbash 9). In that regard, Dunlop contributed towards industrial relations thought by giving a clear understanding of how the work force operates, who runs it, and with which ideologies. He aptly described the industrial relations system, a description that has helped shed light on this system ever since.

One of the greatest aspects of Dunlop’s theory is the importance it gives to environmental or external factors. Dunlop identified those factors as the government (which is underpinned by a shared ideology that identifies the roles of the different players), management and labor. This emphasis has been proven in the modern work force where these external factors are widely known to influence the performance of organizations (Heery and Frege 601).

Finally, the strength of Dunlop’s theory mainly lies in the undisputedly remarkable effect it has had on education and human resource management practice. The theory has significantly influenced the teaching of industrial relations in institutions of higher learning, and elements such environmental contexts, ideologies, industrial relations actors and even the term ‘systems’ are all integral elements of the industrial relations system of all countries, concepts attributable to Dunlop’s Industrial Relations Systems Theory (Boyd 20).

Limitations of John Dunlop’s Industrial Relations Systems theory

One of the most glaring limitations of Dunlop’s Industrial Relations Systems Theory is the manner in which the term ‘systems’ was used and defined. The theory failed to comprehensively and accurately provide a definition for the systems concept, and Dunlop applied it in several different ways. For example, he applied this one term to different categories in the society such as individuals, organizations, industrial branches. He also interestingly applied it to study and describe real cases, an error in definition and application (Piore and Safford 301).

Dunlop’s theory is furthermore lacking with respect to theoretical deduction. The theory does not define what an element is and it is literally impossible to determine what the unifying feature of those heterogeneous elements is. As such, the theory is characterized by a lack of rigor, which is very necessary for any theoretical discussion (Boyd 24).

Another major limitation of Dunlop’s theory is the absence of any sufficient justification for the selection of only three external factors (technology, markets and power). In the modern world, other external factors such as wars also qualify to be deemed as external factors. His factors were thus limiting and far from exhaustive (Heery and Frege 603). 

Further to that, an additional limitation is found within his definition of the actors of the industrial relations system. It is too narrow and requires further differentiation. For instance, employers should be further divided into categories such as employer associations and single members, while employees need additional classification into categories where they are either considered to be organized or non-organized employees (Barbash and Barbash 77).

Dunlop’s theory also fails to analyze the actual rule-making process. Although he did focus on rule making during the entire course of his analysis whereby he postulated that rule making is at the heart of the industrial relations theory, Dunlop however does not explain how the system creates these rules. Similarly, the theory does not analyze decision-making processes despite it being integral to industrial relations (Boyd 34).


The Industrial Relations Systems Theory put forward by John Dunlop in the 1950s is most certainly one of the most influential theories of industrial labour relations. In this theory, Dunlop describes the industrial relations system, its players and the factors that influence it. Its major strength lies in the fact it helped condense a wide range of ideas and practise of the industrial relations subject into easy-to-digest categories and this has caused it to be widely taught in universities and colleges. A lack of theoretical deduction where definitions of crucial concepts such as ‘elements’ and ‘system’ are lacking is a major limitation of this theory. All in all, hate it or love it, the impact that the theory has had on current industrial relation thought is without question, and any limitations it has can be enhanced through greater theoretical analysis and discourse by modern day economists and scholars. 

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