|Organising the market? Reflections on the relationship between labour exchanges and labour markets|
|From the late 19th century onwards, European states began to establish systems of public labour exchanges. These institutions of intermediation have been perceived as important tools of labour market intervention that – in countries like Germany – were soon granted a monopoly over job exchange.
Historical research has examined public labour exchanges mainly from two perspectives: first, as institutions of social policy that were of particular importance for unemployment administration and control, and, second, as institutions that strengthened the state’s capacity to regulate labour relations by placing job placement as means of labour market control outside the reach of both employers and unions.
Although research has thus discussed problems related to labour markets, remarkably little attention has been paid to the question of what labour exchanges actually do with respect to labour markets. It is usually assumed that labour exchanges are an attempt to organise and thereby influence the market by improving processes matching supply and demand. However, the actual practices of labour exchanges and their impact on what has been perceived as the labour market have attracted less attention than the political and administrative contexts of these institutions.
This paper asks how the relationship between labour exchanges and labour markets can be described. It will be argued that the interpretation of labour exchanges as institutions influencing the labour market is based on assumptions that neglect a basic finding of economic sociology: markets have to be understood as phenomena permanently (re-)produced by social practices. As a result, my paper will outline an approach that perceives labour exchanges as sites where labour markets are constructed rather than organised. This includes shifting the focus of research to the practices of labour exchanges. The arguments here will be illustrated by examples from Germany from the late 19th century to the end of the Weimar Republic.