Category Archives: The Work Process

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The Spatial and Gendered Organization of the Work Process in the Early 20th Century

Hawthorne Works 1932

The Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. 1932.


An office using punched-card technology. Early 20th century.



Old and new filing systems at the Fox River Butter Company, c.1920 (Yates, 1989)


Crunching numbers. Compare this with the spatial (and gendered!) organization of work in a shirtwaist factory below.

shirtwaste factory


The intellectual content of research can and should be considered “institutional” in the same way we think about other conventional arrangements and practices as institutional. Hence, we may also speak of the modernization or rationalization of research problems, theories, methods, concepts, and evaluation criteria. The fine- grained twists and turns of technical debates among scientists turn out, upon close examination, to track the other institutional commitments that the scientists have made.

— Elihu Gerson (1998)

Harry Braverman on the Hawthorne Studies

The prolonged and exhaustive experiments conducted at the Western Electric plant on the west side of Chicago— the so-called Hawthorne experiments— during the years of the 1920’s crystallized the dissatisfaction with industrial psychology. In those experiments, a Harvard Business School team under the leadership of Elton Mayo arrived at chiefly negative conclusions— conclusions, moreover, which were remarkably similar to those with which Taylor had begun his investigations almost a half-century ealier. They learned that the performance of workers had little relation to “ability”— and in fact often bore an inverse relation to test scores, with those scoring best producing at lower levels and vice-versa— and that workers acted collectively to resist management work-pace standards and demands. “The belief”, said Mayo, “that the behavior of an individual within the factory can be predicted before employment upon the basis of a laborious and minute examination by tests of his mechanical and other capacities is mainly, if not wholly mistaken.”

The chief conclusion of the Mayo school was that the workers’ motivations could not be understood on a purely individual basis, and that the key to their behavior lay in the social groups of the factory. With this, the study of the habituation of workers to their work moved from the plane of psychology to that of sociology. The “human relations” approach, first of a series of behavioral sociological schools, focussed on personnel counseling and on ingratiating or nonirritating styles of “face to face” supervision. But these schools have yielded little to management in the way of solid and tangible results. Moreover, the birth of the “human relations” idea coincided with the Depression of the 1930s and the massive wave of working-class revolt that cumulated in the unionization of the basic industries of the United States. In the illumination cast by these events, the workplace suddenly appeared not as a system of bureaucratic formal organization on the Weberian model, nor as a system of informal group relations as in the interpretation of Mayo and his followers, but rather as a system of power, of class antagonisms. Industrial psychology and sociology have never recovered from this blow. From their confident beginnings as “sciences” devoted to discovering the springs of human behavior the better to manipulate them in the interests of management, they have broken up into a welter of confused an confusing approaches pursuing psychological, sociological, economic, mathematical, or “systems” interpretations of the realities of the workplace, with little real impact upon the management of worker or work.

Harry Braverman. Labor and Monopoly Capital. 1974. Pp 144-145.

C. Wright Mills on the coordination of bureaucratic work

“The rise of thousands of big and little bureaucracies and the elaborate specialization of the system as a whole create the need for many men and women to plan, co-ordinate, and administer new routines for others. In moving from smaller to larger and more elaborate units of economic activity, increased proportions of employees are drawn into co-ordinating and managing. Managerial and professional employees and office workers of varied sorts–floorwalkers, foremen, office managers–are needed; people to whom subordinates report, and who in turn report to superiors, are links in chains of power and obedience, co-ordinating and supervising other occupational experiences, functions and skills”

White Collar: The American Middle Classes, 1951, p. 69.