Hawthorne, the Myth of the Docile Worker

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Hawthorne, the Myth of the
Docile Worker,
and Class Bias in Psychology
DANA BRAMEL
RONALD FRIEND

ABSTRACT: The famous studies done at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric were fundamental for the development of human relations in industry. They
have also been cited frequently in social psychology and
research methodology. Despite the appearance over the
years of a number of well-argued critiques, many psychologists continue to show an undeserved respect for the conclusions associated with this classic research. The
errors of interpretation seem to reflect an uncritical
acceptance of the views propagated by Mayo and Roethlisberger to the effect that workers are irrational, confused, and easily manipulated by intelligent managers, and that the capitalist firm is natural, nonexploitative,

and potentially conflict free. Evidence from the studies
themselves contradicts these views, calling into question
stereotypes still .current in textbooks.

One of the creation myths of social and industrial
psychologists, and of industrial sociologists as well
(Miller & Form, 1951), revolves around the famous
Hawthorne experiments at the Chicago Western
Electric plant (1924-1933), out of which were born
the "Hawthorne effect" and the "human relations
movement" in industry. The importance of this
work for the fields of psychology and sociology in
the ensuing 50 years scarcely requires documentation (Dunnette, 1976; Haire, 1954; Sills, 1968; Vroom, 1969).
Two HarVard University psychologists associated with the research, Elton Mayo (e.g., 1933, 1945) and Fritz Roethlisberger (e.g., 1941), were
important in calling attention at an early date to
what they saw as the major implications of this
research for changing the relationship between
management and workers. We intend to show that
the distortions introduced in large part by these
two pioneers were probably important in preserving a view of workers as irrational and unintelliVol. 36, No. 8, 867-878 Copyright 1981 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-066X/81/3608-0867$00.75

State University of New fork
at Stony Brook
State University of New York
at Stony Brook

gent and of the capitalist factory as nonexploitative
and free of class conflict. This view, which is
clearly identified with defense of the capitalist
mode of production, persists to the present time
in discussions of the psychology of industry and
particularly in reference to the Hawthorne research.
Mayo had excellent credentials for assuming the
role of humanizer of American business. And business in the Depression era of the 1930s certainly needed an improved image (Carey, 1977; Mills,
1948). He was an integrator of social science fields
(psychiatry, social psychology, social anthropology,
political science), had research experience in industry (but was not compromised by being an owner or manager), knew how to socialize with
working people, had a faith in the basic health and
rationality of the capitalist system, yet knew that
the industrial elite would have to find new techniques of human control (other than assembly lines, Pinkertons, the National Guard, beating up
labor organizers, etc.)1 if it was to maintain its
position of dominance (Baritz, 1960; Mulherin,
1980; Smith, 1975). As a close associate of John D.
Rockefeller, Jr., and much respected by important
people at the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (later merged with the Rockefeller Foundation), Mayo became the choice in 1926 to play a We wish to thank Bill Domhoff, James Mulherin, Mftchel
Cohen, Patricia Neve, and Richard H. Franke for their helpful comments and criticism of earlier drafts of this article.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Dana Bramel, Department of Psychology, State University of New York, Stony Brook, Long Island, New York 11794.
1
As late as 1936, however, Western Electric was still hiring
the union-busting Corporations Auxiliary Company, according
to Gilson...
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