Flow of Ideas

Resistance to Restructuring? Post-Fordism in British Primary Schools

Shaun Fielding and Glenn Rikowski, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK, June 1996


Recent economic and social changes in Britain have been mirrored by policy shifts in education where, since the late-1980s, the National Curriculum has provided the frame of reference and the dominant ideology about what can and cannot be taught and learnt in British schools. It was designed to educate people, whilst developing and engendering the qualities, skills knowledge and values required to work within an increasingly technological, technocratic and globalised age. Within this policy framework, the major factors for schools in general, and for primary schools in particular, were: the shifts in the fragmentation and in the restructuring of capital and of social relations by central government; the changing demands made upon education providers; and, the changes in the power relations between, say, local education authorities, parents, trade unions and quangos. According to many writers outside of education (see Aglietta, 1979; Baski et al; and Painter, 1995), any analysis that seeks to contextualise such economic restructuring and social recomposition has to be conducted through such so-called crises in these capitalist and social relations.

Regulation theory (see Aglietta, 1979; Gertler, 1994; and Painter, 1991) has been cited as a possible way of enabling this theorisation. It focuses on the reproduction of capitalist social relations through time and over space – despite the fact that these relations are marked by contradictions which threaten that same reproduction. It charts how the fragmentations and reproductions of capital and social relations have changed since the long boom associated with Fordist ‘production’ and such phenomena as Taylorist principles of management and worker organisation, high wages and a restructured working day (the Fordist labour process). Despite acknowledging its limits, the social compromises involved in wage determination, collective bargaining, and the social and welfare function of Fordism (the mode of regulation) became assimilated into the wider aspects of social and cultural life, spatial organisation and the political system (the mode of socialisation). The resolution of these limits to and disfunctionality of ‘capital’ in the epoch of Fordism through regulation theory has resulted in new forms of economic development and societal organisation. Aglietta (1979) calls this neo-Fordism (hinting at a new development within the broad orbit of Fordism) but most others have preferred to label this as Post-Fordism – hinting at a wholesale transformation (see the essays in Amin, 1994; plus Gertler, 1988) [1].

This new epoch of Post-Fordism is exemplified through the rise of new organisation forms of working, ensuring closer agglomeration and institutional ties, avoiding the separatism of Fordism. These forms of work are more versatile and flexible, increasing technological capabilities and emphasising quality. Versatility and flexibility in the labour process and in resource allocation are required, together with economies of scale, strategic alliances, the use of subcontracting, the vertical disintegration of institutional hierarchies and their democratisation, plus an increased emphasis of research and development, and education and training (Boyer, 1988; Gertler, 1992). Examples that demonstrate these processes are the industries located in Emilia-Romagna (the Third Italy: see Murray, 1987; Lipietz, 1993) and Silicon Valley (Piore and Sabel, 1984; Sabel, 1994), plus the processes in the automobile industry (Garrahan, 1992; Katz, 1985; and Quinn, 1988).

Post-Fordism then, relies on flexible workers and resources to produce differentiated low cost quality commodities to cater for a discerning and increasingly competitive market. Empowerment and teamwork are incorporated to decentralise power, pluralise work control and flatten hierarchies. Endorsed by all of this was the term ‘flexible specialisation’ (see Curry, 1993; Hirst and Zeitlin, 1991), implying closer co-operation in production and an alternative sharing of expertise with the labour force. We call these the foundational ideas of Post-Fordism.

These foundational ideas have, we suggest, become manifest in the British education system – a theorisation attempted by few people (Brown and Lauder, 1992; Edwards, 1993; and Hickox and Moore, 1992). These moves have served to reconstitute, reorganise and restructure the British educational landscape and are reflected in the emergence of new forms of social relations and new types of teachers. In this essay, we will examine both the new social relations and social forms generated within primary schools by the foundational ideas of Post-Fordism but will also explore teacher responses to these. This is based on ethnographies of four primary schools in the West Midlands (using participant observation and semi-structured interviewing) during the 1944-5 school year.

2. Positioning Post-Fordism in the Primary School

Our intention is to ‘map’ the progress some (space considerations precluding an exhaustive analysis) of the foundational ideas of Post-Fordism into the hearts and minds of the teachers and managers in the four primary schools. On the other hand, we hope to demonstrate how these ideas are represented, identified and also contested by teachers. This analysis utilises just three of the foundational ideas noted above: flexible workers; commodities; and, teamwork. Let us turn to the first of these; the flexible worker.

2.1 Positioning Post-Fordism in the Primary School

Flexibility and the will to be flexible are key characteristics for teaching within a restructuring primary school. For example, teachers realised the importance of flexibility by changing classes after a few years, keeping themselves ‘on their toes’ and to avoid being labelled as a specific year group leader:

“I don’t want to be known as just a year one teacher, that would be horrible, I would be stuck in a real rut … I mean one of the reception teachers [at my old school] was in the same class for fifteen years. I would go mad if that was me” (interview, year one teacher, Glenaire).

Teachers pointed out that the work that they did in the school was much more flexible because they were expected to do many other tasks and different forms of work other than what they were paid to do [3]:

“I have my curriculum area and then I am expected to balance the books on that and when the children come in, in the mornings, the parents want to talk to me about their problems and I am expected to give them advice or tell them the children what their mummy or daddy wants them to do. I am not just a teacher, I am an accountant, a social worker and a lawyer all rolled into one” (interview, reception teacher, Woodend).

Decisions taken about the extent to which this flexibility is incorporated lay with the school management. In three of the four schools, deliberate decisions were taken to encourage flexibility amongst the teachers, particularly through the employment of so-called ‘floating teachers’. Glenaire employed three floating teachers to provide class teachers and year group co-ordinators with non-contact time – time that could be used to co-ordinate resources, research and students or, to prepare reports or, to bid for outside capitation. These ‘floaters’ were also given the responsibility for a specific area of the National Curriculum, so that they were able to monitor work in that subject area across their age range:

“[Y]ou can see what’s going on in all the classes, and with Art particularly, I have a lot of input into what goes on, I end up doing a lot of the teaching … so I know what is going on and I plan the lessons” (interview, ‘floating teacher’, Glenaire).

Still in Glenaire, other types of teachers acted as floaters, such as special needs and second language teachers. They came in to classes to teach specific groups of children at specific times and they and the class teachers had to ensure that their lesson plans were flexible enough to incorporate them, and that they did not clash with the use of specific resources, or classroom space. This was particularly the case in infant classes which were more open plan and where there was a lot of free play activities with children from other classes in the same year group:

Floating teachers also provided the first line of classroom cover when other members of staff were sick, being flexible enough to take over the teaching of that person’s class:

“I understand that if someone is not well, then I will take that class. I have to be flexible enough to cope with this and as I am familiar with the structure of the school and its ethos I can become a classroom teacher with little difficulty” (interview, ‘floating’ teacher, Glenaire).

Two of the other schools also used this same approach, but here, the cover was provided by members of the senior management. This required class teachers to be even more flexible as this cover and support had a tendency to be more sporadic, with managers juggling cover here, with their managerial commitments elsewhere:

“I really have to be flexible in my approach but often, I cannot get to the classroom to give one of the staff, especially my NQTs valuable non-contact time, because I am chasing bloody kids around the school” (interview, senior manager, Woodend).

“As a senior member of staff I have to ensure that I am flexible in my teaching and administration because I need to pass on the right message to the younger staff so that they can work towards this” (interview, senior manager, Woodend).

Having examined the notion of flexible worker, let us turn our attention to the notion of commodities and the process of commodification.

2.2 Commodities and Commodification

Many teachers and managers accepted that outside of education there was an increasing disposition to view children as commodities. In addition, teachers were encouraged (some said forced because they were suspicious of central government) to see parents as ‘customers’ who brought a resource (the child) to the school, and also, to look on external agencies and local government as clients:

“There is an awful lot of pressures on us to do as we are told by management and the government” (interview, year five teacher, Fenchurch).

Nearly all the teachers abhorred such a move:

“No! The kids are not commodities, we are not in the process of selling children to a market, or of pitching one against the other” (interview, year six teacher, Woodend).

The commodification of work in primary schools is becoming increasingly visible with an emphasis placed on testing, league tables, truancy rates, and devolved budgeting to make schools publicly accountable. Moreover, children’s and teacher’s work in the school is beginning to be used to demonstrate the positive educational manoeuvres that a school is investing in. These manoeuvres become a marketing tool which the school can then use to sell itself. In other words, the work of the pupils and teachers becomes the commodity to obtain more pupils, money, students, outside contracts and capitation; money which will then be used to improve the teaching and learning in that school:

“The [project] that we have run in year X is improving the teaching and learning and that will help us to secure more money so that we go on improving until these kids get to the same level as more privileged ones” (notes taken from a conversation with head teacher, Glenaire).

The commodification of school work has then, become a self-perpetuating philosophy. Following this argument let us move to the final foundational idea in this essay, that of teamwork.

2.3 Teamwork

Teamwork was a key trait amongst the teaching staff and was perhaps the dominant discourse, particularly in larger schools. Lessons, meetings, trips and agendas were all planned in teams. Some infant classes developed integrated systems of learning with teachers in the year group setting tasks and children moving through these over the course of the day with the remainder of the time given to free play co-ordinated by a team of classroom assistants. The proliferation of meetings was symptomatic of this teamwork (both during lunch time and after school) so much so that schools were managed through these meetings [4]. The idea here was to give teachers a sense of ‘belonging’ (see Cohen, 1982) to emphasise the importance of communication:

“It is very reassuring because you know exactly what you have got to do because the planning is done with all of us, it gives people the confidence, particularly new teachers” (interview, reception teacher, Woodend).

“I am very clear as to what my responsibilities are and even in a school this size I am very clear as to what my colleagues’ responsibilities are and where they cross, where they overlap … Now that’s done through excellent communication within the school and valuing what people say” (interview, head of reception, Glenaire).

Schools also felt the need to become increasingly more collaborative with neighbouring sites, such as in co-ordination of bids for outside capitation and research, thus working more closely in consortia and with education-business partnerships.

In conclusion, the empirical evidence provided by these three foundational ideas of Post-Fordism signifies that Post-Fordism is being identified and represented in British primary schools. An important political question is whether these identifications with and representations of Post-Fordism by primary school teachers are objectively produced or subjectively experienced phenomena. We would like to turn to this question after we have examined some of the criticisms of these foundational ideas – specifically those concerning flexibility – outside education, to see whether these tensions are present in primary schools.

3. Criticising Flexibility

Although ‘Post-Fordism’ was not mentioned explicitly in the schools, some its constituent ideas were. ‘Flexibility’, for example, was an important element of teacher discourse. Furthermore, academic criticisms of flexibility (Harvey, 1991; Pollert, 1988; Tomaney, 1990) mirrored those of many teachers in the participating schools. For example, flexibility has been criticised for intensifying and totalising work, and for increasing stress levels. Witness:

“The main problem is the lack of time and I am always in a dilemma, do I, as you say, become more flexible and do all ten subjects [in the curriculum] in one week, sort of rush through them and think I have not done them too well, or do I concentrate on what kids really need which is English and Maths skills … I am made to feel under pressure, that I have to be doing certain things and I am never achieving those and it is frustrating as things are beginning to slip and I am becoming much more tense” (interview, year one teacher, Woodend).

Furthermore, teachers took on a greater amount of the same tasks, thus reducing lost time. For example:

“I am sure that we could organise time better, the boss is supposed to be flexible, but we end up doing all the stupid little things that take up people’s time and not leaving any time to teach, which is what I am paid to do” (interview, year three teacher, Woodend).

“We are meant to be looking at progression but we end up doing the same thing, that’s not being flexible, it wastes time and I do not develop any skills” (interview, year six teacher, Fenchurch).

Flexibility, through new technologies of production has been criticised for being patriarchal (Cockburn, 1983; Game and Pringle, 1984). The skills involved are not recognised as socially constructed concepts; they are created as masculine and feminine and are criticised for being re-drawn continually to assert the inferiority of women and their supposedly natural attributes – what Jensen (1989) calls the talents of women and the skills of men (see also McDowell, 1991; Massey, 1995) [5]. In primary schools, these processes have considerable bearing on the images portrayed to the children of the world beyond the school:

“I am not surprised that these kids come out with sexist ideas when you’ve got a management structure where virtually all the men are in post holder positions … the kids can see who are the real models with power” (interview, special needs teacher, Glenaire).

This empirical evidence adds further weight to our argument, and as a result we believe that Post-Fordism – as a restructuring discourse – does have a firm footing in British primary schools. However, the reader must question whether this Post-Fordisation is objectively produced, or subjectively experienced. We contend that Post-Fordism does appear to be subjectively experienced by primary teachers. However, it is not objectively produced because doing so would require teachers to associate themselves with processes of production, processes that are anathematic to the logic of teaching:

“Teaching is not like a business, we do not produce kids … we give them a sound base which they can expand on in later life, it is laying the foundations almost” (interview, year five teacher, Fenchurch).

Here, primary school teachers have invested in the attitude of Post-Fordism, but are very reluctant to invest in the object of Post-Fordism. In the next section, we will expand this idea of Post-Fordism as object and attitude and then use this to exemplify teacher resistance to recent educational restructuring in Britain.

4. Post-Fordism as Object and Attitude

This idea of object and attitude is borrowed from Philo’s (1991) contexualisation of the theoretical debates surrounding postmodernity and postmodernism. He saw postmodernity as an object:

“[The] complex interactions of economic, social, political and cultural processes in the late twentieth century world … a condition of the contemporary world that involves a distinctive shift in the temporal (and more pertinently) spatial organisation of economic, social, political and cultural processes” (Cloke, Philo and Sadler, 1991, p.170).

Postmodernism though, was very much an attitude:

“[The] knowledge that we can acquire about the world, the methods that we might employ in the process and the ways in which we represent our efforts in words, sounds and pictures” (Ibid.).

By positioning Post-Fordism within such an argument, the attitude of Post-Fordism represents how teachers construct their interpretations and knowledges about their work, the school and education in general – a cluster of ideas, assumptions, interpretations, hopes and fears about providing a more integrated, democratic and ‘flexible’ learning experience for pupils (and also for themselves). Post-Fordism as object, on the other hand, can be viewed as the actual changing socio-economic practices, forms of organisation and systems of management that are being introduced in British primary schools, changes which many teachers feel are irrelevant to their job (or more accurately, their vocation). We follow up these claims in the next section by mapping out the discontinuities this analysis creates for teachers and by unpacking the dynamics of their resistance to restructuring in this form.

Resisting Restructuring? Some Concluding Comments

It would appear that teachers and managers in British primary schools have invested in the attitude of Post-Fordism, as evidenced by their discursive account previously mentioned. However, investment in Post-Fordism as an object is much more contested. Teachers have a tendency to reject this because they cannot see schools as sites of production, whilst the changing internal practices represented by the object of Post-Fordism are viewed as a managerialist interpretation of a central government policy they have been reluctant to accept [6].

Teachers seem comfortable with a discourse that they believe empowers them, pluralises their workplace, and forwards the educational attainment of their children. However, when confronted by the object produced by the Post-Fordist school – an object that challenges the long established assumptions about what teaching means to them in the ‘order of things’ (Foucault, 1970) the metaphorical barriers are raised. Teachers have become increasingly suspicious of the actual changes demanded of them (in terms of the styles of their pedagogic and managerial practice) by central government. It is these suspicions and distrust of central government ideology and the power it has to control local education authorities and subsequently, specific school sites (a form of centralisation by the back door) that are at the heart of teacher resistance in British primary schools and not the individual processes that each school puts in place to manage this restructuring.

Our conclusion here then, is that these processes have engendered a bifurcated ‘logic’ of teacher resistance, where tacit support for the attitudes which construct the Post-Fordist school are counter-balanced by resistance to education as a form of production and its associated managerial practices and processes. This bifurcation also results in a duality regarding teacher attitudes to management. Empowerment, democratisation and discourse surrounding meeting learning needs through flexibility can be embraced and affirmed, whilst discourse which seek to inject a business orientation, a market-oriented and competitive ethos in inter-teacher and inter-school relations and a commodification (schooling as production) of school aims and purposes can cause concern and consternation amongst rank and file teachers. The challenge for educational theorists and social scientists is to examine how this bifurcation can be addressed. One approach might be to attempt to deconstruct the production metaphors in Post-Fordist discourse – to make them less opaque – perhaps by increasing primary schools’ integration with business and industry through external development projects.

As a result, we feel that teacher resistance to educational restructuring bound up in the attitude and object of Post-Fordism has become much more diluted, because when played out in the spaces of the primary school, the Post-Fordisation of education is, in many respects ‘a good thing’. It does seem to increase children’s educational attainment, builds in core skills, which in turn increases the awareness of the school to the local community and allows it to become ‘a player’. However, the resistance and the tensions surrounding the restructuring of British primary schools become much more concentrated when, for example, the criticisms of flexibility as a restructuring discourse (criticisms which travel from industrial spaces to educational spaces) become very real indeed – with increased stress levels, intensification of work, the virus-like growth of alien market and production-oriented discourses and their associated consequences for the commodification of education – and naturally we do empathise with these feelings.

This observation brings us to our final point. With respect to educational restructuring, our concerns should be, not in the possibilities opened up by the ideals of a Post-Fordist education system per se, but in the ideological excesses of the present British administration, with continual demands for ‘productive’ (i.e. ‘value for money’) educational practices. We mentioned that in order to reduce the bifurcation of teacher resistance and to secure a positive educational future for primary school children we should also become more sensitised to production metaphors and make them more transparent. However, if we are to secure a political future for primary school children and their teachers – a future in which their work will not be intensified and totalised, where they will not feel increasingly under stress, where every second of their working day will not be spent working and where gender role will not become increasingly polarised – perhaps the need is to obliterate these metaphors altogether.

[1] The development of the arguments surrounding regulation theory is becoming extremely complex, particularly for non-economists like us. For example, recent research has questioned the notion of transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism; that it is not a transition to Post-Fordism, but a transition after Fordism (see Peck and Tickell, 1995). One theme that has been incorporated here is the notion of local regulatory capacity, but the complexities in this argument are set aside for the purposes of this paper.
[2] This is not to suggest that other foundational ides have less potential in this area. Indeed, we believe that they all have some ability to ‘travel’ from the industrial spaces of, say, Emilia Romagna, into the educational spaces of a West Midland’s primary school.
[3] This situation is not just experienced by teachers. There are a whole variety of other forms of flexible work undertaken in a primary school. For example, the school secretary has acquired a whole new set of flexible skills, such a financial management and record keeping. In North Park, the smallest and most ‘middle class’ of the schools, the increase in parental power endemic in educational restructuring has meant that parental helpers have also become flexible workers and contribute the most to flexibility. Many parents were classroom assistants, dinner supervisors, music teachers and governors all rolled into one. For a more detailed account of these other forms of schoolwork and Post-Fordism, see Fielding (1996).
[4] During these meetings minutes were taken, then passed on to senior management and then circulated through the schools.
[5] At a recent conference presentation, McDowell (1996) using evidence from the banking industry demonstrates how female workers feel that they have to become increasingly masculine and how male workers feel that they have to become increasingly feminine (see also Gerrard, 1996). This is also the case in primary schools, where female teachers have to show that they are tough on discipline if they want to get promotion (notice how few primary school heads are infant trained) and equally how male teachers have to show that they are caring (and so feminine) individuals.
[6] There is a paradoxical argument here because if teachers want to be successful teachers and get promotion, they will have to become managers.


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