Social Scientists Explore the World of the Factory
The resources of the social sciences are called upon more and more frequently to deal with everyday problems of our society, particularly those arising from conflict and friction between groups. In “Government by Manipulation,” printed in this department in July, Nathan Glazer reported on recent efforts to use social scientists to adjust human beings to the necessities of government, as in the Japanese relocation-centers. Of like significance are the large-scale endeavors during recent years to apply the techniques of sociology to that basic institution of our industrial society, the factory.
These recent studies represent a significant departure from the earlier approach of the industrial engineer, who evaluated the worker’s output on the basis of some purely mechanical measure, and sought to find ways to greater efficiency through time and motion studies measuring the worker’s physical capacities. Like the earlier studies, however, the new investigations are not focused on “industrial relations” or “labor problems” as these terms are commonly understood, i.e., on large economic issues or on the top-level relations between the trade union and the employers. Primarily, they are studies of actual behavior and actual social relations within the factory: the attitude of the worker toward his supervisor and his employers; the relation between the formal structure of authority as defined by the employer’s organizational chart and the structure that actually develops; motives for restriction of output; worker resistance to technological change; and so on.
Industry and the Professors
Behind these studies is the conviction of many industrial leaders that the way to higher productivity no longer lies so much in improved machinery and techniques as in better labor response. The Ford Motor Company announced a short while ago that it was setting aside $500,000 for research into “human relations.” The company, Henry Ford II said, felt that it could go no further in the direction of technological rationalization of machines, and that the next step in engineering would have to be the raising of the level of “human achievement.” Such companies as Libby, McNeil and Libby the Container Corporation of America, and Sears Roebuck, have for some time been conducting researches in their plants, following the lead of Western Electric, the manufacturing division of AT&T, which spent more than a million dollars over a ten-year period to study workers’ behavior on the job.
Groups at four major universities are participating in this research. The largest and oldest is the one at the Harvard Business School, directed by Elton Mayo, who has provided the impetus to most of the work done in the field. A second group, in existence since 1943, operates at the University of Chicago under the direction of W. Lloyd Warner. Warner and his two major colleagues, Burleigh Gardner and William F. Whyte, were trained at Harvard and utilize the Mayo approach. At Yale, E. Wight Bakke directs a labor-management center less than two years old. This group has concentrated mainly on the conventional problems of industrial relations, but Mr. Bakke is also studying ways to expedite conference-table negotiations, while his associate, Charles Rumford Walker, is directing research on the effects of technology on industrial relations; a study of the internal operations of the International Business Machines Corporation is also planned. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, psychologists Kurt Lewin and Douglas MacGregor are beginning a series of researches that will include controlled experiments in factories.
In addition to these four organized centers, each employing large staffs of researchers and graduate students, sociologists throughout the country are directing individual projects: Eliot D. Chapple at Harvard, Conrad Arensberg at Barnard, Wilbert Moore at Princeton, and some younger men in small colleges. The sociologists in this field have organized a section on industrial sociology within the American Sociological Society, and Messrs. Chapple, Arensberg, and others have founded a magazine, Applied Anthropology, devoted to “practical problems in human engineering.”
The reasons for this extensive cooperation between business and the universities—itself an interesting phenomenon to the self-conscious sociologist—are several. First, the universities have trained research-personnel available. Second, these men form, presumably, a detached and impartial group, and corporations are not averse to utilizing their prestige for its public relations value, and as a means of getting management programs accepted by the unions.
For their part, the professors in general have an ideology geared to the need. Being scientists, they are concerned with “what is” and are not inclined to involve themselves in questions of moral values or larger social issues. They operate as technicians, approaching the problem as it is given to them and keeping within the framework set by those who hire them. Many conceive of themselves as “human engineers,” counterparts to the industrial engineers: where the industrial engineer plans a flow of work in order to assure greater mechanical efficiency, the “human engineer” tries to “adjust” the worker to his job so that the human equation will match the industrial equation. To effect this, the sociologists seek “laws” of human behavior analogous to the laws of the physical world, and by and large they give little thought to the fact that they are not operating in the physical world. And almost none among them seem to be interested in the possibility that one of the functions of social science may be to explore alternative (and better, i.e., more human) modes of human combinations, not merely to make more effective those that already exist.
The Mule-Spinning Room
In a sense, all this activity in factory research is a tribute to one man—Elton Mayo. Born in Australia in 1880, Dr. Mayo came to the United States in 1923 as a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania. He conducted his first investigations in a textile mill in Philadelphia (reported in The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Macmillan, 1933, republished by Harvard University Press, 1946). His problem was to determine why labor turnover among the workers in a particular operation—“mule-spinning”—was fifty times higher than in other parts of the plant. Efficiency engineers had been consulted, and several wage-incentive plans introduced, yet the turnover rate continued high. In other parts of the plant, conditions seemed fine. Morale was high; the factory head was a former Army colonel under whom many of the workers had served in the war, and ties of personal loyalty were strong.
Mayo noticed that the machines in the mule-spinning room were so arranged that the men who tended them rarely came into contact with each other. The men were subject to spells of obsessive revery and daydreaming and displayed melancholic traits. A nurse was called in as one of the investigating team, and the workers were encouraged to bring their problems to her. To the efficiency engineers, the men’s complaints had seemed so improbable that their stories had been dismissed. Now finding a sympathetic ear, the workers began to pour out their troubles. In addition, Mayo prescribed two rest periods during the day. The results were startling. Turnover diminished, and for the first time, the men in the mule-spinning room were able to meet the production standards set by the time-study men.
At that time, in 1925, Mayo did not yet fully understand what had produced this change. The role of the nurse and the effect of the rest period were only the first clues, and these were followed up and utilized in the famous Hawthorne experiments.
Pioneering at Hawthorne
The Hawthorne studies have had a sharp impact on sociological and psychological investigation. Subsequent work has taken its point of departure from the Hawthorne findings or adapted their conceptual scheme, and most writings in the field fully accept their conclusions. (One zealot has exclaimed that the Hawthorne experiments are to social science what Galileo’s demonstration of falling weights was to the physical sciences.)
The Hawthorne Works in Chicago is one of the manufacturing plants of the Western Electric Company. Western Electric engineers had tried to determine the effect of different lighting conditions on output. They had naturally expected that better illumination would bring better work, and poorer illumination poorer work, but the experiment permitted no such conclusion. Every canon of scientific procedure was followed; there was an experimental group and a matched control group; changes were introduced in one group and not in the other. With improved lighting in the experimental room, production went up—but output rose in the control room, too, where lighting had not been improved. When lighting in the experimental room was reduced again, production continued to rise. And in the control room, where lighting was still held constant, production still continued to rise!
Mayo and the Harvard Department of Industrial Research were then brought in and initiated a series of experiments that was to last more than nine years. (T. North Whitehead, The Industrial Worker, Harvard, 1938; F. L. Roethlisberger and W. L. Dickson, Management and the Worker, Harvard, 1938. The latter volume describes the entire experiment, and draws its theoretical implications.)
The basic experiments, which took five years, were conducted in the “relay test-room,” where six girls worked at assembling pieces of telephone equipment. The tests were designed to verify the fundamental hypothesis that output varies with the fatigue of workers, as measured by certain physiological tests. The following factors were isolated to see if they affected efficiency (as measured by output): (1) illumination; (2) amount of rest the previous night; amount of rest the two previous nights; (3) menstrual cycles; (4) humidity and temperature; (5) changes in the type of work; (6) holidays; (7) rest periods within a day’s work, of different durations, and in different arrangements; (8) fatigue accumulation during the day, measured by blood pressure tests and vascular skin tests; (9) intelligence; (10) dexterity; (11) wage incentives of different kinds.
No positive correlation was found between any of these factors and the increase in output that was a steady feature of the entire period.
Following the indications of Mayo’s earlier study, it was finally assumed that the social or personal relations of the group as a whole were the unmeasured and decisive factor. When the girls were allowed to talk, and when, in addition, they felt that supervisors took an interest in them, production increased. (In the illumination experiments, it had been the fact that workers knew they were being singled out for special attention—even though only as subjects in an experiment—that had led to the rise in output.)
Once the social factor was assumed to be decisive, new experiments were devised. For example, seating was rearranged to pair friendly operators, and later, to pair unfriendly ones. With these changes, production results varied.
Following another lead derived from Mayo’s Philadelphia experiment, a counseling service was introduced throughout the Hawthorne plant, with trained interviewers assigned to listen to workers’ complaints. This was a forerunner of the “non-directive” counseling method elaborated by Carl Rogers, now at the University of Chicago, sometimes irreverently called the “umhum” method (Carl R. Rogers, Counseling and Psychotherapy, Houghton Mifflin, 1942). No leading questions are asked, no direct advice is given; the person is encouraged to unburden himself of his complaints and to reach a solution through verbal catharsis. The counselor merely eases the “conversation” along with a steady accompaniment of sympathetic grunts.
As a check upon the conclusions of the relay test-room experiments, the investigators began a study of the bank-wiring room, where output had long remained on a steady low level. In the relay test-room, the existence of an informal group with high solidarity had been judged to be the cause of increasing output. Yet in the bank-wiring room, there was an even stronger informal group or clique, but here it apparently served to restrict output. Despite wage incentive plans, the fixed level continued.
The investigators explained the situation as follows: In the bank-wiring room, social relations among the workers were imposed by the rhythms and nature of the flow of work, and output depended on cooperation, since the operations interlocked. Wage rates were calculated on the basis of a complicated combination of group and individual piece-work. The group had set up a “bogey,” a mark that was not to be exceeded by any group member lest the record of any single man be endangered, and technological innovations were resisted as threatening the security of the group. This was in contrast to the relay test-room, where each operator did her own work in comparative independence, with the pace of work set by the individual.
But in determining the factor accounting for the relative difference in output between the two departments, while all the environmental factors in the situation were taken into account, the investigators seem to have overlooked certain broader social considerations. Might not the slowdown in the bank-wiring room have resulted from a settled “class” attitude on the part of the men? If the men felt that they were permanently “stuck” in these jobs, then their first thought would be to protect themselves. Women do not regard factory work as a lifetime job; their orientation is towards home and marriage, and it is therefore more likely that “happy” job surroundings should induce them to work harder in order to earn more.
The Need for Solidarity
Though there have not been any studies comparable in scope, painstaking detail, and sheer word output to the Hawthorne studies, the Mayo group has sponsored a dozen other studies along the same lines. (They are listed in Dr. Mayo’s latest book, The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization, Harvard, 1946.)
A good example of the application of the Hawthorne concepts to a practical problem faced during wartime is Elton Mayo and George F. F. Lombard’s Teamwork and Labor Turnover in the Aircraft Industry of Southern California (Harvard, 1944).
Despite good working conditions, high wage rates, and the stimulus of patriotism, there was a crippling rate of absenteeism and turnover in the aircraft plant studied. The men in those departments where absenteeism was lowest were found to have backgrounds and skills similar to those in the departments where it was highest. In the low-turnover departments, however, the men had organized themselves spontaneously into well-knit teams held together by “natural team-leaders.” While the foreman dealt with the technical details of laying out the work, the team leader helped individual workers solve work “bugs” and acted as a buffer between the men and the “outside world” of inspectors, time-study men, and department foremen. He took an interest in new workers, smoothing their relations with the older men and initiating them into the work and its problems. And it was where such teams had arisen that high turnover and absenteeism had been overcome.
Mayo’s conclusion was that the executive had to think of his work force in terms of teams and not as isolated individuals. He writes: “The belief that the behavior of an individual within the factory can be predicted before employment on the basis of a laborious and minute examination of tests of his technical and other capacities is mainly, if not wholly, mistaken.”1
As a result of the Hawthorne studies and later studies along the same lines, the Mayo group discarded the older hypotheses of industrial psychology that output varies largely with fatigue and was able to elaborate certain “theoretical frames” to guide future research:
- A factory has to be conceived as a social system, with the relations of its parts defined not only by the formal logical structure, but also by the informal structure and by the ceremonials, rituals, and non-logical sentiments that motivate behavior. The worker cannot be abstracted from his social situation.
- The function of the executive is not only to make policy, but to ensure its acceptance “down the line” by subordinates. Since human beings usually resist change, acceptance of change involves translating orders into terms that circumvent this resistance. Programs have to be “sold” to the personnel as a product is “sold” to the public.
- A factory system, like any stable social system, must be conceived as tending towards an equilibrium in which its different parts are functionally adjusted to each other. When change upsets equilibrium, the function of the executive is to observe which parts need adjustment in order to redress the balance. (This concept of equilibrium comes from the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, who has greatly influenced the Mayo group.)
Recognition of the Person
Where as the Mayo studies concentrated largely on the nature of the informal group in factories and the emergence of “natural leaders,” the studies directed by Lloyd Warner for the Committee on Human Relations at the University of Chicago have focused on problems of status within the factory, and the relationship of work life to community life. This is the organizing theme of a volume of general papers that the Committee will publish shortly. (William F. Whyte, editor, Industry and Society, McGraw-Hill2).
Lloyd Warner, an anthropologist who received his graduate training at Harvard and later taught there, is the author of the Yankee City Series, an attempt to examine with anthropological detachment the social life, class system, ethnic groupings, and factory organization, of a New England town. (See “The Jews of Yankee City,” by Harold Orlansky, in the January 1946 Commentary.) Three of his projected six volumes have already appeared; the fourth, on the factory system, will appear shortly.
In his paper on factory life in Industry and Society, summarizing the forthcoming Yankee City volume, Dr. Warner seeks to explain why the factory workers of Yankee City, who had previously resisted unionization, at last went out on strike. (Incidentally to his purpose, Dr. Warner seeks to prove that economic determinism cannot explain the actions of the workers. However, like other American sociologists, he is really flogging a dead horse. His notion of economic determinism is that of a Benthamite world in which each person acts on the basis of materialist self-interest; the Marxist horse is one of a different color.)
Ownership and management of Yankee City’s factory had long been rooted in the town. Workers had some control over the practice of their craft, and some pride in it, and relations between management and workers were direct. Then the factory was sold to a New York financial group. The technological rationalization introduced by the new owners made the skills of the workers useless, so that they “forgot their pride in their separate jobs,” while the introduction of an absentee management destroyed the personal loyalties that had united the factory. Loss of solidarity and loss of status are seen as the keys to the strikes that “inevitably followed.”
“Pride” and Status
In another Chicago study, “The Man in the Middle: Position and Problems of the Foreman” (B. Gardner and W. E. Whyte, Applied Anthropology, Spring 1945), we see how the concept of status has helped supply answers to practical industrial problems. Here the problem was growing dissatisfaction among foremen, expressed through strikes and unionization. What was behind this defection of a group that had always been considered a trusty arm of management?
In large-scale corporations, policy decisions, made by a small group at the top, are enforced and applied by a host of persons organized hierarchically, each with his own area of responsibility. The key man is the foreman. He has to transmit the orders of management to the workers, find mechanisms for making adjustments, and transmit upwards the complaints of the men in the ranks. And whereas his responsibilities for production have increased, his authority has become less. With the multiplication of supervision over him, his lessened chances for advancement because of increased educational requirements, the transfer of control over hiring and firing to separate personnel offices, and the rapid pace of technological change, all threatening to make his own abilities obsolete, the foreman not only finds it more difficult to adjust his men to their job, but has developed anxieties and insecurities of his own. Hence the new phenomenon of the unionization of foremen.
The authors propose two steps to restore the role and prestige of the foreman. First, they suggest that his function should now be to build a “work team.” Here he has to exercise certain social skills: he must not be arbitrary or inconsiderate; he must take the initiative but not be overbearing; he must encourage social activity, since workers want a chance to respond and gain recognition; and he must become something of a counselor and friend. In a sense, the authors want the foreman to assume the Freudian role of “surrogate”—an interesting Sidelight on the role of father-dependence in our time.
Secondly, they suggest that more effective lines of communication be opened up between the top and the bottom, giving workers means of transmitting grievances to competent authorities, and enabling foremen to transmit directives more intelligently. Just as the foreman must gain the confidence of his workers, higher management must gain his confidence. In both cases, effective communication does not mean giving orders, but mutual discussion. Students of the factory’s social structure have discovered that people will work more willingly and effectively when they have themselves taken on a task—or at least had a chance to talk about it—than when they have simply been ordered to carry it out. (Anyone acquainted with the theory of progressive education will find little new in this notion. But it takes the academies a long time to catch up with the facts of life, and the factories even longer.)
Status Conflict or Class Conflict?
The studies described so far have for the most part rested on the assumption that better face-to-face relations between management and union, and management and worker, would lead to peace. Few attempts have been made to study how differences in social role in the factory give rise to differences of ideology, and create conflicts between worker and management that are more basic than any question of defective or unintelligent management. One of the first such attempts, and because of this an important achievement in the field despite a certain looseness of formulation, is a study made by three researchers at Chicago, “Restriction of Output and Social Cleavage in Industry” (Orvis Collins, Melville Dalton, and Donald Roy, Applied Anthropology, Summer 1946.)
“Restriction of output” is an ambiguous term that makes it appear that certain output levels are “natural,” and that labor is committing a crime by restrictive practices. Actually, the level of output fixed as normal is determined by industry and based on a mechanical and physiological concept of efficiency. From the workers’ point of view, the “norm” may not constitute an “honest day’s work” at all.
In the past, restrictive practices were considered a “make-work” means of safeguarding the job by spreading the work around. Yet during the war years, with enough work for all, and premiums for extra work, restrictive practices still continued. Are these merely ossified folkways?
The authors approach the problem in terms of a social cleavage between two distinct groups, with managers and engineers on one side, and workers on the other. And behind the two groups lie two distinct frames of values. The managerial group criticizes restriction in accents of middle-class morality: the function of man is to work hard. Spontaneity is a danger, for it destroys the careful calculations of efficiency: the worker must follow the rhythm of the machine.
The workers have a different morality, and they band together to protect themselves. The authors do not pursue the motivation for this, but it is fairly obvious: having no control over the planning and tempo of his own work, the worker can no longer think of himself as a man with a “calling,” but is forced to recognize himself as a man who works for wages; it then becomes entirely reasonable and “moral” that his primary loyalty should be to his group, and that he should cooperate in making the best of the group’s unequal bargain with management. Significantly, the authors of this study point out that the workers’ attitude toward restriction of output is rooted in the feeling that chances for rising upward are now more limited, and that they are permanently “stuck” as workers.
The authors list the main conclusions of their study as follows:
- Restriction of output reflects a conflict of status between office and shop. The engineers who come into the shop to fix norms are outsiders, “symbolic of a social group which in the factory has as its chief function the manipulation of the worker.”
- Restriction of output is an expression of resentment toward management. Factory management seeks to allocate workers’ time completely in terms of its own plans, in line with its own concept of efficiency.
- Restriction of output is an expression of cleavage in social ethics. The engineers tend to believe that the individual must look after his own economic interests and pursue his career at the expense of his fellows. The workers, sensing that social mobility upward has halted, and that they belong more or less permanently to their work groups, identify their interests with those of the group.
Does this mean that cooperation between workers and management to increase production is doomed? A study of the “X” Manufacturing Company by Whyte and Gardner may provide a partial answer. (This study is still in manuscript at the University of Chicago.)
“X” Company had been bitterly anti-union until 1941, when it reversed its policy, having become convinced that the union was interested in increasing production. Management guaranteed the stability of the union, and the union in return took over the foreman’s job of maintaining discipline, leaving the foreman to concentrate on the technical problem of laying out the flow of work. “I learned,” remarked the company president, “that a worker is more influenced by what his fellows think about him than he is by threats that he’ll get fired if he doesn’t do what management says.”3
An attempt to introduce piecework and individual incentives failed and was abandoned because of the competition and acrimony it produced. Solidarity among the workers, and the union’s role in maintaining high morale, were more effective in increasing output.
In the Hawthorne bank-wiring room and in the social-cleavage study just presented, group solidarity led to restriction of output. Here, the result of solidarity was just the reverse. Various factors may account for this. At the “X” Company, a strong union provided protection and security, while in the bank-wiring room there was no union, and in the social-cleavage situation the union maintained no close relations with the company. Perhaps most important is the fact that the “X” Company is relatively small, permitting the worker to identify himself with it, especially since the union protected the worker’s status and was itself so close to management. Finally, there was no backlog of huge profits to arouse resentment.4
Smoothing Technological Change
Another difficulty for the employer—and the sociologist—is the problem of introducing technological changes. Research in this field has been motivated and guided almost entirely by the desire to smooth the way for the change. Rarely is the necessity for the change itself questioned by the sociologist, or its effects judged; it is sufficient that its need has already been fixed by company policy. Research is principally concerned therefore with devising techniques to gain acceptance for the contemplated changes. (R. C. Nyman and E. D. Smith, Union-Management Cooperation in the Stretch-Out, Yale, 1938—an analysis of the famous Pequot Mills strike; Elliott Dunlap Smith, Technology and Labor, Yale, 1939; Elliott Dunlap Smith, “Managing Technological Change,” Personnel, May 1946.)
In these studies, the basic assumption is that workers fear technological change because it upsets their old patterns of work. One can therefore win their “understanding” by discussing changes with them beforehand. Human-relations consultants prescribe round tables, conferences, “chalk-talks,” and some more elaborate techniques to interest the workers. Lengthy checklists have been devised to save management from making blunders. Yet in all this, the workers’ point of view is hardly ever taken seriously.
It is commonly believed that technological changes effect savings by displacing workers. Actually, the real economies are made by reducing the proportion of higher-paid skilled workers, while the total number of employees remains the same or even increases. With the introduction of the multiple-loom system in the textile industry, for example, the proportion of unskilled workers increased in most plants from 20 to 52 per cent. And at the same time, the composition of the labor force shifted, for adolescents could perform the semi-skilled jobs, which required dexterity merely, more easily than the middle-aged workers; where older workers are kept, they now find themselves in work they once thought beneath them. The simplified, routinized requirements of the new job also mean a change in the personality types needed. An observer describes the situation in textiles:
“The weaver had to be more patient, and able to sustain concentration, since the routine work of filling his loom batteries with bobbins no longer gave him respite from the exacting work of watching his warps to prevent loom stops and tying in broken warp ends. The nervous type of workers seemed to find the new system especially trying.”
Obviously, the nervous type had to be weeded out.
Problems such as these raise larger questions about the assumptions and value of human-relations research in factories.
Manager vs. Worker
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of these studies, and others that we have not been able to discuss, is that in their course more researchers have talked to more workers and explored more factory situations than in any other investigations in the past fifty years. The mass of material which has already accumulated is tremendous. Yet one is struck by the paucity of conclusions. The reason for this, one feels, is that no one has approached this material armed with basic hypotheses about the nature of our industrial system. Without general hypotheses, the researchers merely “psychologize,” asserting that the workers “feel” this, or that management “feels” that. There is no view of the larger institutional framework of our economic system within which these relationships arise and have their meaning.
Over the past twenty years, America has been going through a profound social revolution, and a new class structure is developing whose contours are only now beginning to appear.5 As a product of the increasing complexity of industry, the broadening role of research, new avenues in public service, and the general job shift away from manufacturing and toward service and commerce, there has emerged a new social stratum: the class of technical and managerial employees. Within the working class, on the other hand, technological advances have tended at once to degrade the skilled worker and to replace the raw muscle-power of the purely manual worker, creating instead a general class of semi-skilled machine tenders.
Thus a class of interchangeable factory “hands” is at last becoming a reality, and the “promise” of the factory system, as described by Marx, is only now being fulfilled. At the same time, the industrial working class in the United States is declining in relation to the total work force.
This creates a peculiar problem in social mobility: the chances of striking out for oneself or rising to the top have diminished steadily, and yet there are more status-carrying skilled jobs available than ever before. But this, precisely, is the nub of the problem: these new technical-managerial jobs require a degree of skill that is attainable only by long education; unless one gets on the social escalator early, one may never get on it.
This is the situation that the worker faces today. As a result of the depression and the increasing specialization of work, a wide gulf is being opened between skilled groups with professional status and the mass of semi-skilled machine tenders (machine tenders not only among industrial workers, but among white-collar workers as well, since new business machines threaten the role of the office worker too.) The insecurity of the skill-less in a world that increasingly uses skill as the basis of reward is now the chief fact in the life of the masses, and the worker tends more and more to base his attitudes on the assumption that he—and his son—will remain in the working class.
From such an analysis of the institutional situation—an analysis that the factory researchers do not make—certain new questions and propositions emerge. One might look for the development of certain types of militancy among workers—a militancy not necessarily political in its tone or motivation, but one just as likely to be anti-Semitic or anti-Negro or nihilistic. Again, one might look for the beginnings of an elite psychology in the technical-managerial groups, perhaps of a kind that has played such a significant role in statist movements and societies. The concepts of “group solidarity” and “status” that have emerged as such basic factors, could, under this approach, be clarified, and their specific effects on understanding and action more exactly defined. (And, incidentally, such an approach might well prove more illuminating to those concerned with the social future of our democracy, and not merely with increasing the productivity of its industrial machine.)
Behind the refusal to adopt such an approach, one senses a disdain for what is called “armchair sociology”—or for anything that is not strictly empirical research involving a formidable statistical apparatus. Yet while researchers in this field often display a parvenu arrogance toward theory, a great deal of pretentious, senseless, and extravagant writing fills their own work, much of it inspired by the theoretical system they have taken over from Pareto. Under his influence, all action is defined in terms of equilibrium. A Newtonian model is set up in which force and counterforce, action and reaction, are modulated in pendulum fashion to create “laws of behavior.” In a stable system with fixed points, this may be useful; but it is doubtful whether such a mechanical analogy is truly enlightening for the analysis of dynamic structures.
Are Workers Tools?
Despite their claims to scientific objectivity, these researches rest on the unstated assumption that mechanical efficiency and high output are the sole tests of achievement—of “good” results. There are under way no studies to see what kinds of jobs can best stimulate the spontaneity and freedom of the worker, and how we can alter our industrial methods to assure such jobs. The present organization of industrial production, inhuman as it may be, is accepted as an inalterable “given.” Sociologists tend to work on the behaviorist assumption that the human being is a bundle of conditioned reflexes—equally malleable, psychologically, to any situation. But it is possible that the increasing “rationalization” of living (its organization for greater efficiency), pervading all areas and narrowing all choices, is itself the root cause of the stresses and breakdown in social living that everybody decries.
One of the most striking omissions in all these researches is the failure to relate the problems of work and leisure. If one asks a worker what he thinks of his job, the reply may be: “It’s all right.” But if one probes below this surface, the question arises of whether work contributes anything to leisure-time occupation, or leisure-time occupation to work. And, probably, little relationship would be found. Yet real job satisfaction comes only when work and leisure shade off into each other. The sense of wholeness that one associates with the old artisan class, and with the creative person of today, arises when no sharp distinction can be drawn between work and leisure. Today, in the increasing fragmentation of life, the world of the factory is one life, the world outside another, and we find a corresponding standardization of the job in one area and standardization of leisure in the other.
Another unstated assumption underlies the persistent tendency to pose the problem of industrial harmony in terms of the difficulties of communication. It is assumed that people don’t understand each other because of emotional blocks or antiquated verbal habits, or because issues of feelings and status are involved. (This has its counterpart in the theory that permanent peace can be established if nations can be made to “understand” each other.) But industrial relations—like international relations—happen to be much less a problem of setting up a smoothly functioning organization than a problem of accommodating diverse and conflicting interests, And these interests are real. The question of how to distribute increased income resulting from higher productivity, for example, cannot be flimflammed away as a problem of verbal misinterpretation.
One sociologist has asserted that industry can function best when there is a balance of down-the-line and up-the-line pressures—that is, when the authority of management is balanced against the needs and suggestions of workers. But industry is no abstract rational system where only organizational problems prevail. Industry operates within a framework of cost factors, and every step it takes—including the employment of research sociologists—is reckoned in these terms. When a firm fires an aging worker because he cannot meet production norms, it is the cost factor that operates. Few of the researches we have discussed, concentrating as they do on greasing the skids as ordered, actually show any understanding of the chain of irresponsibility that constitutes an industry’s line of command, with each man along the line responsible for carrying out a policy he has had no voice in shaping, and which he is yet required to “sell” to those below him or lose his job.
The real policy decisions are made by a few, and they are not made with concern for the men at work, but with an eye to the logic of cost, efficiency, and competition. The effect of technological change, for instance, is to downgrade workers, change the age composition of the labor force, pull more women into the factory; but changes are introduced without any consideration of their ultimate and far-reaching effects. The only factors that count are market decisions.
We must consider also the two polar concepts in this research—status motivations and solidarity motivations. They have not been defined, nor their implications fully considered. We are told that money-incentive schemes do not spur a worker so much as prestige considerations: the invidious comparisons between the rank of one job and the next, the trappings of office that one individual is allowed and not the other, etc. Yet we are also told that group solidarity is the factor which makes possible increased output, or controls the rate of work.
The two concepts have been used carelessly. It is likely that in the white collar ranks, in the higher supervisory positions, and among management, the status motivation is predominant, while among workers, the solidarity motif is most useful in explaining actions. But more direct studies are needed to clarify these motivations and define the conditions which produce each.
The gravest charge that can be leveled against these researches is that they uncritically adopt industry’s own conception of workers as means to be manipulated or adjusted to impersonal ends. The belief in man as an end in himself has been ground under by the machine, and the social science of the factory researchers is not a science of man, but a cow-sociology. Burleigh Gardner has written: “The more satisfied [the worker] is, the greater will be his self-esteem, the more content will he be, and therefore, the more efficient in what he is doing.” Surely this is a fitting inscription to go under the Model T symbol of Huxley’s Brave New World.
One striking fact about a field that has turned up so much material in these past few years is how rarely in its literature one comes upon the name of Thorstein Veblen. Perhaps this is not accidental, for that lonely protestant struck off from the hard flint of his iconoclasm the most brilliant flashes we have had into the caverns of our industrial world. Perhaps these researches are themselves an illustration of Veblen’s observation about the development of occupational ruts and the “trained incapacity” they foster.
1 The importance of teams in aerial combat was recognized quite forcefully in German psychiatric treatment—in contrast to somewhat inept American methods. In American squadrons, when the flight surgeon or field psychiatrist thought a man was likely to crack, he was pulled out of his group and sent to a back area for a rest. The man taken out of the group often began to feel himself shamed in the eyes of the others, while the others themselves felt fearful that each might crack next. In German psychiatric treatment, when a man was suspected of slipping, the entire team was taken out, sent back for a rest, allowed to play until they became bored with inaction, and then sent back as a team. (See War Neuroses in North Africa, R. R. Grinker and J. P. Spiegel, New York, Army Air Forces, 1943.)
2 I am indebted to Professor William F. Whyte for the galley proofs of this volume and permission to cite from it before publication.
3 With due respect to the progressive intentions of the union, one may cite a parallel situation from George Orwell's Animal Farm. Once the pigs had taken over the job of running the farm, the surrounding human fanners became quite envious of their success. The animals discipline one another better than we can, remarks a farmer.
4 We can see a significant contrast at the Ford Motor Company. The union paper constantly carries recriminatory statements by workers regarding the company's attempt to “speed up.” Some samples' indicate the mood: “Our greedy employer is determined to break our backs. . Something must be done to halt this war profits bloated corporation from demoralizing and breaking our backs. . We in their eyes are nothing more man a bucket of sand, a shotblast machine, or a pile of V-8 castings and our worth is only measured in terms of how much of an abnormal profit they can make on us” (September 1946 Ford Facts).
5 See my article “The Changing Class Structure of the United States,” New Leader, June 15, 1946; also Lewis Corey, “The Middle Class.” Antioch Review, Spring 1945.