Social Scientists in Industry
The Servants of Power.
by Loren Baritz.
Wesleyan University Press. 273 pp. $4.50.

 

It is one sign of the times that a swarm of psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, human relations experts, and similar quasi-academics now occupy high staff positions in most of America’s large industrial corporations. What they do there is obvious to anyone who has ever read an inkblot in order to get a job or filed out for a coffee break at the sound of a company bell. How all these thinkers got into the land of the hardheaded businessman is a revealing bit of 20th-century history that Loren Baritz somewhat portentously examines in his new book, The Servants of Power.

Professor Baritz’s tale is quickly retold. Fifty years ago business was as innocent of social science as the available social scientists were. Occasionally a manufacturer would hire a phrenologist to examine the heads of his foremen, but the average tycoon was skeptical about professors running his business. Yet the independent industrialist soon began to be stymied by the sheer size of his growing enterprise. The ordinary foibles of a worker multiplied by ten thousand—carelessness, laziness, job-quitting, absenteeism—could make a perceptible dent in a company’s profits, but the boss, high above the line, could make little dent in his workers. It became increasingly important, Professor Baritz explains, to hire the right workers. Enter the psychologist, armed with Dr. Hugo Munsterberg’s pioneering Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1912) and Alfred Binet’s intelligence tests, with an offer to pick new factory hands scientifically. Despite the crudities of the tests (it took several years before a psychologist suggested that a man might be too intelligent for his job), many managers began using them.

The major breakthrough came in 1931 when experimenters at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant discovered that workers would be content without a pay raise if only they received some humane attention. Prospects of happy employees, low pay, and no unions rose before the eyes of depression-harried managers. The more advanced paid sociologists to make “attitude studies” of workers, had counselors to hear employee troubles and “drain off grievances,” and, finally, used psychologists to identify only “peaceful” workers—i.e. non-union types.

After World War II, Professor Baritz’s history continues, the “human relations approach” got its grip on the managerial elite; it promised to diagnose and deliver, as the phrase went, a “custom-built” man. With “human relations,” a mixture of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology, comes the full personnel paraphernalia of modern industry: inkblot tests, resounding job titles, canned music on the assembly line, chirping house-publications, the shipping room glee club, worker “participation groups,” and, failing these, the staff psychotherapist to turn workers’ “aggressions into constructive channels.” Like the fluorescent light, the industrial social scientist becomes a permanent fixture of modern business.

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In this partnership, who did what to whom? Professor Baritz asks. On the one hand, he sees cynical businessmen who care only for profits, on the other, servile industrial social scientists, the businessmen’s “animated tool.” According to him, then, it is the old, sad story of mind serving power, in this instance, of the managerial lion eating the scientific lamb.

Professor Baritz is undoubtedly correct about the social scientists. Yet the facts of his history make clear that they were a sorry lot from the start. They thought like management before management knew they existed, and, as scientists, even their wildest theoretical conceits would not ruffle a meeting of the NAM. Some of them believed that the man who joins a union is a maladjusted personality, and their most distinguished and far-ranging theoretician, Elton Mayo, believed implicitly that workers were emotional and that businessmen were logical. The happy cooperative idyll Mayo wished to establish in industrial America meant little else, ultimately, than that workers should do as management said. Even in the days when independent social scientists received mainly rude rebuffs from the business world, they eagerly offered to serve it as mere technicians. In 1921, for example, psychologists whose names still appear in every standard psychology text—men like John Watson, the “father of behaviorism,” Lewis Terman, Edward Titchener, and William McDougall—founded the Psychological Corporation, one of whose main purposes was to “convince management of the utility of psychology.” Why bother, one wonders. A few of these men, I suppose, were simply opportunists, but most of them wanted something more than money from businessmen; they wanted their blessings—as if in those days only the sanction of “practical men of affairs” could bestow worth and dignity on a mere enterprise of the mind.

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Professor Baritz himself holds these practical men in awe, and, as a result, he leaves a few important questions unasked. While he does not like businessmen, he never doubts the absolute rationality of their business motives; all the softheadedness in industrial social science he finds on the social scientists’ side. The modern manager, Professor Baritz believes, has bought up a few job lots of human relations only to turn himself a larger profit. But exactly how profitable is a given amount of human relations? Is it possible that the managers are less businesslike about human relations than Professor Baritz believes? Managers seem to have been so eager to buy psychological tests after World War I that they were being continually gulled by enterprising graphologists, palmreaders, physiognomists, phrenologists. After World War II, as Professor Baritz himself notes, “fewer and fewer industrialists could resist the [human relations] fad. One either authorized human relations or human relations research or was made to feel like an anachronism left over from the Neolithic period.” In 1947 Fortune warned that businessmen were getting “test-happy,” and one management consultant discovered that managers were becoming suckers for all kinds of “research mish-mash.” What businessmen had long called the “weird jargon” of sociology, they began to sport themselves, and for some ten years now they have been absorbed like schoolboys in learning the psychological principles of leadership.

Now there is nothing purely businesslike about this zeal for human relations—not even management can tell exactly how profitable it is—nor did it grow inside a vacuum-sealed executive suite. Human relations, personality, psychological prattle about the emotional side of life, and America’s new sense that working with people is more dignified than working with ledgerbooks, are all part of the postwar ambiance. Over a thirty-year period businessmen have rapidly lost their power to awe America simply by being businessmen, and they are no more immune to the times than the rest of us. Less cynical than Professor Baritz believes, they are now paying their respect—as well as their money—to hired students of the human side of corporations. By insisting that even in business one must confront the full complexity of the human psyche with scholarship, the modern manager is trying to confer some of the newly-recognized “human” dignity onto the mere business of business. He is no more completely his own man today than were the scientists of the Psychological Corporation.

Professor Baritz concludes his history of the industrial use of social science with a warning about the dangers of intellect blindly serving power. But his history, as I have suggested, does not really bear out the warning. The social scientists were never independent thinkers, and the businessman has now yielded some power to intellectual expertise. There is much misplaced admiration and hence a good deal of muddle on both sides of this particular partnership. In fact, the partners may be merging into one new type of man. At Ford a few years ago, the director of planning for market research held his business colleagues in awe simply by wearing academic tweeds, a professorial air, and by living in a university town. After the Edsel died on the market, he got a position teaching the “Dynamics of Social Behavior” at the New School for Social Research and is now using his Edsel market research material for a doctoral dissertation. Now that seems more like the conclusion to fifty years of the industrial use of social science. Employees have coffee breaks and clean toilets, and America has a new type of worldling—a non-intellectual non-industrialist, shapeless enough to fit a growing number of high academic, industrial, and governmental non-jobs.

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