The idea of a learning portfolio like this is twofold:
It provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate to us the work that you have done on BE410. This means that you have to show us that you have read and understood not only the readings from classes and lectures, but also some of the supplementary readings. The assignments are related to key class activities, so if you neglect the readings and case studies we provide, you are unlikely to pass. For the highest grades you will also be expected to take your research and reading beyond the reading lists.
It provides you with the opportunity to demonstrate a wide range of different academic skills. This includes your knowledge of the subject, but also your ability to: summarise and explain academic theories; describe empirical examples; apply theory to explain examples; synthesise and combine different bodies of knowledge; reflect upon your personal experience using theory; critically evaluate theories, models and examples on the basis of evidence and consistency; develop and defend your position in an academic debate; conduct research in the library in order to find and analyse appropriate academic materials.
Assignment task 2 – suggested length 800 words
(a) Describe and explain the informal work group dynamics that the Hawthorne researchers discovered in the Bank Wiring Observation Room.
(b) Reflecting upon a place where you have worked, or on your work as a student at the University of Essex, compare and contrast your experiences of informal work groups with those discovered in the Bank Wiring Observation Room at Hawthorne.
Start date: 23rd October 2014.
Discuss in class w/c 27th October 2014
Submission: Monday 12th January, 2015.
-Assignment Task 3 – suggested length 600 words
Would you like to work in a post-bureaucracy like Valve or at Morning Star Tomatoes? If so, why? If not, why not?
Your answer should refer to the academic literature on post-bureaucracies and you can refer back to your earlier assignment on bureaucracy to compare and contrast these two forms of organization.
Start date: 30th October 2014
Discuss in class: w/c 3rd November 2014
Submission: Monday 12th January, 2015
-I will upload two articles, because each assignment has an article.
-Quality and quantity of references. Please note that while we do not want to discourage reading around the topics, you should ensure that you understand fully and use appropriately the references and articles we have provided. (On other modules you will be assessed on your ability to search for, retrieve and evaluate relevant literature: on this module we are more focused on your ability to demonstrate understanding of a variety of academic and non-academic texts). If you do cite and reference other materials, ensure it is of high quality, appropriate and academically credible. This is especially the case for internet websites and textbooks. It is the quality rather than quantity of references which will count most. Marks will be lost for poor quality references.
-Remember to focus on the questions being asked. Each task is not very long (500-1000 words), so you do not have space for lengthy introductions or discussions of “interesting” information which is not directly relevant to the question posed.
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Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric research in its
social, political and historical context
John S Hassard
Human Relations 2012 65: 1431 originally published online 1 October 2012
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Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies:
The Western Electric research in
its social, political and historical
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
John S Hassard
Manchester Business School, UK
In primary accounts of the Hawthorne Studies (1924-32), the host organization, Western
Electric, is treated as a largely anonymous actor. Through case-based historical research
we find such treatment masks the distinctive profile of the company in the years preceding
and encompassing the Hawthorne investigations. Besides its significant industrial standing,
when Western’s reputation for welfare capitalism is considered alongside a tragedy that
galvanizes its Hawthorne workforce, the company emerges as an iconic manufacturer
with a singular cultural inheritance. Unlike previous retrospective studies, this research
explains a range of social and political factors that shaped the Hawthorne Works at
this time. In particular, it describes how an ostensibly ‘human relations’ philosophy had
been espoused at Western prior to Elton Mayo’s arrival in 1928, but that this outwardly
‘progressive’ ethos was underpinned by hard-edged paternalism and tough-minded antiunionism. Later, during the 1930s, an increasingly challenging organizational climate
developed at Western as a result of the Great Depression coupled with exigent AT&T
policies. Findings from this research can be contrasted with ‘enlightenment’ or ‘revelatory’
narratives on Hawthorne as expressed in management textbooks. The article offers, at
once, fresh insights into the history of Western Electric and new interpretations of the
Harvard-influenced research conducted therein.
AT&T, Bell System, Elton Mayo, Harvard Group, Human Relations School,
organization and management theory, SS Eastland
John S Hassard, Manchester Business School, Booth Street West, Manchester M15 6PB, UK.
Human Relations 65(11)
The Hawthorne Studies, 1924-32 (see Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939) are the largest,
best known and most influential investigations in the history of organizational research.
They are associated primarily with the Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo
and the research team he joined at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works,
Cicero, Illinois in 1928. For many decades results from the Studies have formed a bastion of the ‘human relations’ approach in organizational behaviour, through producing
theory and evidence that seemingly first challenged and then later rejected the assumptions and principles of ‘scientific management’ (Taylor, 1911).
Although the Hawthorne Studies are well known, the context in which these ergonomic, psychological and sociological investigations were conducted is less so. Indeed it
has remained an essentially anonymous actor in the main research accounts subsequently
produced. While organizational scholars have focused persistently on the various phases
that comprised the investigations, they have given far less consideration to a range of
social and political factors that shaped the host enterprise and its workforce at this time.
It is argued that to achieve a more grounded and balanced narrative on Hawthorne – one
that takes account of the circumstances of the setting in which the investigations were
conducted – greater attention needs to be paid to contextual issues related to the firm’s
strategy, management and culture.
The principal question the article asks therefore is: What kind of enterprise was
Western Electric around the time of the Hawthorne Studies? It is answered through
research that considers two contextual issues: on the one hand, the nature of the company’s corporate context – through analysis of its industrial reputation and business philosophy; and on the other, the firm’s cultural context – through examination of its social
organization and communal experience. As a result of these inquiries we find that by the
early 1920s, rather than being an unexceptional firm, Western Electric had developed
into one possessing a distinctive corporate profile and singular corporate culture. In particular, prior to the arrival of Elton Mayo, at face value it was a ‘progressive’ company
espousing many ‘human relations’ style philosophies, although not for the reasons
ascribed by mainstream management theory. Detailed knowledge of such factors directs
us to offer not only fresh insights into the history of the Hawthorne Works but also new
interpretations of the Harvard-influenced research conducted therein.
The article is developed in three phases. The first lays the theoretical and methodological foundations through considering the value of contextual research for understanding the Western Electric Company, the Hawthorne Works, and the Harvard Group
investigations. The second addresses the task of developing contextual research on
Hawthorne: here we research two cases relevant to understanding the character and climate of the organization in the early decades of its history. The third phase sees findings
from these accounts discussed as part of a contextually informed approach to realizing
and interpreting qualitative historical research in management and organization studies.
Rethinking Hawthorne contextually
The investigators never undertook a systematic study of the social organization of the company,
and it is therefore impossible to characterize it in detail or entirely accurately. (Roethlisberger
and Dickson, 1939: 538)
Researching beyond the closed system
In organization and management theory a major criticism of research on the Hawthorne
Studies is that it represents ‘closed-system’ analysis. In other words, as the focus is upon
explaining a handful of social science investigations, the research base tells us relatively
little about the culture or climate within which the host organization operated (see Burrell
and Morgan, 1979; Katz and Kahn, 1966; Scott, 2003). Such contextual neglect is an
anomaly given that, rightly or wrongly, the Hawthorne Works is synonymous with stimulating the most notable ‘paradigm-shift’ in the history of organizational research: scientific management to human relations.1 Even where respected scholars suggest they are
studying, more holistically, the ‘origins’ of the Hawthorne Studies (e.g. Wrege, 1976) the
analysis is confined largely to technical issues relating to the investigations themselves.
A corollary of such closed-system investigation is that in the majority of studies on
Hawthorne the host organization is treated as a commonplace location for conducting
research in industry. The Hawthorne Works is portrayed as an unexceptional site from
which results can be generalized; a seemingly representative organization in case-study
terms. The inference is that while the experimental site is ordinary, the empirical results
– regarding group dynamics, informal organization, management style, work satisfaction, etc. – are extraordinary.
In contrast, the historical analysis developed here is concerned not so much with
revisiting the various phases of the Hawthorne investigations (see Bramel and Friend,
1981; Carey, 1967; Franke and Kaul, 1978; Greenwood et al., 1983; Landsberger, 1958;
Pitcher, 1981; Wrege, 1976; Wren and Bedeian, 2008; York and Whitsett, 1985) as defining the character of Western Electric as a corporate actor and employer (see Adams and
Butler, 1999; Fagen, 1975, 1978; Gillespie, 1991; Wachholz, 2005). It is argued that
when the company’s reputation for scientific and technological innovation is considered
alongside, its paternalism, anti-unionism and singular cultural legacy, for example, the
Hawthorne Works emerges as a very particular location for conducting management and
Deconstructing habitual narratives
This article therefore wishes to define the setting within which a famous episode in management history took place – the Hawthorne Studies. In so doing it relates to a body of
literature that has sought to identify wider contextual factors influencing the Studies and
in particular Elton Mayo’s Harvard-based research group at this time (e.g. Bruce and
Nyland, 2011; Gillespie, 1991; Nyland and Bruce, 2012; O’Connor, 1999; Smith, 1998;
Wrege, 1976; Wren, 1985; Wren and Bedeian, 2008; Wren and Greenwood, 1998).
Amongst other things, such research has served to deconstruct and critique an habitual
revelatory narrative in textbooks on organization and management theory – one where
Western Electric (an authoritarian, bureaucratic corporation, ignorant of human factors)
is enlightened following the arrival of behavioural scientists from Harvard and their
‘discovery’ of human relations at work. This body of anti-revelatory analysis offers a
richer and wider canvas on which to portray the host corporation and the famous series
of organizational investigations conducted therein.
Human Relations 65(11)
Among research that has developed such an anti-revelatory approach, that by Gillespie
(1991) has been seminal. Gillespie questions just how revelatory the findings from the
various Hawthorne investigations were. He focuses not so much on the technical specifics of the experimental phases as on broader issues related to them, such as methodological insights revealed in the personal communications of the Hawthorne researchers.
Gillespie argues, for example, that when the initial (pre-Harvard) Illumination
Experiments commenced at Hawthorne, in November 1924, both superintendents (e.g.
George Pennock, Clarence Stoll) and researchers (e.g. Homer Hibarger, Charles E Snow)
alike were already aware that ‘human factors could influence production and thereby
interfere with the experimental results‘. As a result they ‘did all they could to minimize
this effect’ (p. 42). In contrast to the standard narrative of contemporary textbooks in
organizational behaviour, Gillespie argues that the researchers were aware of a range of
wider social-psychological influences on the experiments – such as the ‘Hawthorne
Effect’ (French, 1950: 82) – from the day the Studies began. Thus, such forces did not
have to be ‘discovered’. Recent research has noted, similarly, that when Mayo and the
Harvard Group initially published their findings, industrial commentators such as Mary
B Gilson suggested that they had not actually ‘discovered’ anything that was not already
widely known in American industry (see Gilson, 1940; Nyland and Bruce, 2012; Wrege
and Greenwood, 1982).
With regard to the Harvard-influenced research, Gillespie also assesses the context in
which the scientific discourse of the Mayo Group was produced. In the process, he questions the degree of intellectual integrity that the Hawthorne Studies narrative possessed.
Gillespie suggests that the seemingly ‘logical and unambiguous’ narrative of ‘scientific
discovery’ in Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) was actually ‘constructed’ in the face of
‘disagreements between the researchers over interpretation and meaning’ (p. 175). He
describes how ‘the factory site’ for this evidential ‘production process’ was not so much
‘the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric’ but rather ‘Elton Mayo’s Industrial Research
Department at Harvard Business School’ (p. 175). In other words, as presented in
Management and the Worker (Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939), the narrative developed by Mayo’s research group emerged as much from internal politics at Harvard as
scientific evidence from Hawthorne.
A kindred line of analysis, but focusing on a wider set of contextual influences, is
found in network-based research by O’Connor (1999) and Bruce and Nyland (2011).
Both studies adopt an anti-revelatory or deconstructive stance through suggesting that
Mayo’s social networks and right-wing politics influenced the kinds of evidence claimed
for by the Harvard Group. O’Connor’s work, for example, documents the influence of
Mayo’s political ideology on the early development of the Human Relations School
(HRS) at Harvard Business School (HBS). Identifying relationships between key members of the HBS-HRS social network – notably Wallace Donham, Dean of HBS,
1919-1942; Beardsley Ruml, Director of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial
fund (which funded Mayo’s research); John D Rockefeller Jr (who backed Mayo’s
research amidst concerns over labour relations in his industrial empire: see Bottom,
2006); and Mayo himself – O’Connor (1999: 117) describes how the HRS and HBS
achieved success by ‘positioning themselves as solutions to pressing social, economic,
and political issues of the period between World War I and the New Deal’. She argues
ultimately that this network facilitated ‘the powerful alignment of the HRS and the HBS
agendas in relationship to national, corporate and research agendas of the day’ (p. 117).
Mayo’s political ideology was successful in that it ‘convinced business leaders that his
agenda would solve their worries’ (p. 129) with this network of influence extending to
the executives of the Western Electric Company. O’Connor’s contribution can be summarized in the argument that: ‘Scholars often note that Mayo entered the Hawthorne
studies when they were already in progress. They note less that Mayo entered them at a
time when his own ideas about politics and psychology were fully formed’ (p. 125) (see
also Bourke, 1982).
Similarly Bruce and Nyland (2011) develop a network-based explanation of contextual forces influencing the work of Mayo and the Harvard Group, one underpinned by
actor-network theory (see Latour, 2005). Their research complements O’Connor’s (1999)
through challenging the orthodox view that the HRS emerged in the interwar years ‘as a
response to the alleged inhumanity and simplistic innovation the Scientific Management
tradition was striving to develop within the workplace’. In contrast, Bruce and Nyland
argue that the HRS was in fact a ‘right-wing and decidedly undemocratic innovation that
was developed in response to the demand from organized labour that workers be ceded
an active and significant part in management decision-making’. They describe how
Mayo and the HRS were able to ‘translate the prevailing context and in so doing create a
forum in which powerful actors came to agree that the Human Relations school was an
innovation worth building and defending’. Whereas O’Connor’s analysis of the politics
of achieving legitimacy focuses primarily on the relationship between the HRS and the
HBS, for Bruce and Nyland it is the link between Mayo’s work and the interests of key
industrialists, notably John D Rockefeller Jr, that is critical.2
Theory and method
This article is directed similarly at promoting contextually informed research on
Hawthorne. In so doing, however, the analytical trajectory is different from that of
Gillespie (1991), O’Connor (1999) and Bruce and Nyland (2011). Rather than focusing
on Elton Mayo and the social networks connected to him, the investigation concerns,
instead, the reputation and culture of the host corporation in the period prior to and
encompassing the Hawthorne Studies.
The emphasis is placed, primarily, on developing a concept of ‘prior context’, or considering the ‘parts that immediately precede’ an event or era and which serve to ‘clarify
its meaning’ (Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 1996: 212). It is important to note
here that the intention is not to specify direct causal links between contextual factors and
events in a firm’s history, but rather to describe, qualitatively, the culture, atmosphere
and environment in which certain organizational factors emerged and were developed.
Put simply, the objective is to provide a broader sociological perspective on the company
than is characteristically offered in the normative closed-system treatment of Hawthorne
in management and organization studies.
As much as the Harvard-based offerings that first disseminated the Hawthorne findings (e.g. Mayo, 1933; Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939; Whitehead, 1938), this charge
of contextual omission can be levelled at a major reanalysis of the Studies – Landsberger
Human Relations 65(11)
(1958) – as well as the principal biographical work linked to them: Trahair’s (1984)
study of Mayo. Even in Gillespie’s (1991) analytically more rounded study of Hawthorne,
contextual analysis is frequently restricted to details of factory organization, industrial
relations systems and personnel policies: the broader industrial reputation and cultural
character of the Works are factors that have hitherto not been explored extensively. The
present research, therefore, aims to resolve this problem by redirecting organization
studies away from the well-documented logic of research at Hawthorne towards the less
Developing contextual accounts
To address the central research question (‘what kind of enterprise was Western Electric?’)
we develop historical accounts relevant to understanding, respectively, the corporate and
cultural character of the enterprise.
The first case (the ‘neglected corporate context’) assesses the industrial reputation
and corporate philosophy of the early Western Electric Company. In so doing it draws
information mainly from secondary sources, in the form of company histories and studies of American capitalism. The case is also informed by evidence from primary sources
– for example, advertisements, catalogues, manuals and photographs; these were consulted during two visits to the Hawthorne Works Museum (Morton College, Cicero) in
2010. During these visits assistance in locating materials was provided by the Docent of
the Museum, a former Hawthorne Works manager. In addition, sources from the Western
Electric and Hawthorne Studies collections at Baker Library, Harvard Business School,
were consulted during a visit in 2011.
The second case (the ‘neglected cultural context’) focuses on the communal experience of Hawthorne employees and specifically the symbolic impact of a tragic event on
the workforce and local community. The case is informed by a range of primary and
secondary sources. Those of most significance were again made available by the
Hawthorne Works Museum, and included internal company documents (letters, memos,
notices, etc.), volumes of Western Electric News (1912-33), and other in-company publications (e.g. Hawthorne Microphone and Western Electric Magazine). Assistance in
their collection was again provided by the Docent. Other materials consulted in developing this case include academic studies in maritime economics, research by Chicago local
history societies, internet sites, and documents from the Baker Library collections.
Methodologically these case accounts adopt respectively two approaches to historical
research: ‘historical deconstruction’ and ‘ethnographic history’ (see Hassard and
Rowlinson, 2010). They also reflect, principally, two sociological registers – macro
The first case focuses predominantly on the macro-level context of the firm, and notably issues of socio-economic and political environment. The analysis reflects ‘historical
deconstruction’ in the emphasis placed on ‘puncturing popular historical myths rather
than in sustaining them’ (Hassard and Rowlinson, 2010: 9). In the first case this underpins explanation of the distinctive character and profile of the Western Electric Company.
As a research strategy, historical deconstruction ranges from straightforward debunking
through to subtle appreciation of how histories are constructed (Evans, 1997). In management history, Charles Wrege is generally regarded as its foremost proponent (see
Wrege and Greenwood, 1991; Wrege and Perroni, 1974).
The second case adopts a predominantly micro-level perspective and focuses on communal and symbolic factors influencing Western Electric at this time, notably the impact
of a major tragedy on its management and workforce. This research reflects ‘ethnographic history’ through its concern with cultural events and their meaning/interpretation. Examples of ethnographic history in management and organization studies can be
found in Childs’ (2002) account of the management of slavery in the St John d’el Rey
Mining Company, Brazil, and McKinlay’s (2002) analysis of banking careers in Scotland
before the First World War. Ethnographic history is informed primarily by formal sources
– such as board minutes, ledgers, annual reports, etc. – but can also draw upon informal
materials, such as cartoons and doodles in McKinlay’s work.3
Case A: The neglected corporate context
As the Company grows it must be more human – not less so. (Extract from: Policy # 10,
Employee Relations Policies, Hawthorne Works, Western Electric Company, May 1924)
The Bell System, welfare capitalism and the progressive era
One of the reasons why the failure to consider contextual forces relating to the Hawthorne
Works represents an oversight is that the Western Electric Company was a significant
corporation in American industrial expansion. When management students first encounter the Hawthorne Studies, given they have probably never heard of Western Electric and
receive little feeling for the company in available resources, it is understandable for them
to assume that this is an enterprise of marginal significance. Nothing could be further
from the truth: Western Electric is important because it is woven deeply into the fabric of
American industrial history.4
But just how prominent was the Western Electric Company? Before we examine a
specific event that brought the firm to the world’s attention, we assess its general corporate profile in the early decades of its history. To establish this, we trace landmark events
and developments from the time the company joins the Bell System in 1881 up to the
start of the Hawthorne investigations in 1924.
Western Electric and the Bell System In accounting for the formative history of Western
Electric, the year 1881 stands out, for this is when the inventor and patentee of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, purchased a controlling interest in the Western Electric
Company of Chicago (Fagen, 1975). At this point, Western Electric officially joined the
The economic motivation was that since winning a legal battle over patent with
Western Union, Bell had experienced problems in meeting market demand. In particular he had trouble in coordinating the activities of his three existing licensee manufacturers in Baltimore, Chicago and Cincinnati (Brookes, 1976). Bell sought a single
manufacturer with the capability for handling mass demand and found it in Western
Human Relations 65(11)
Electric, which at the time was America’s largest manufacturer of electrical products
(Reich, 1985). Western Electric thus became the exclusive manufacturer of telephones
in the USA for the American Bell Telephone Company, which in 1899 would become
AT&T (Fagen, 1975).
As his original telephone patent was due to expire in 1894, Bell proposed to source
inventions and patents increasingly from outside concerns in order to bolster the company’s innovative capacities (Reich, 1985). This strategic decision would see Western
Electric’s engineering departments initially forced to concentrate on ‘adaptation and
improvement’ rather than ‘invention and creation’ (Adams and Butler, 1999). In 1907,
however, a significant change of policy saw proposals to develop a ‘research branch’ of
Western Electric, a move that would usher in a period of major technological breakthroughs for the firm (Israel, 1992). Notable among them was development of the high
vacuum tube in 1913, which basically brought with it the ‘electronic age’, with Western
Electric emphasizing the fact in advertisements depicting, for example, ‘My Electrical
Home’ (Hawthorne Works Museum, 2010). Another signal development during this
period saw the expanding research operation at Hawthorne create technology that would
make transcontinental telephony a reality, from 1914 (Brookes, 1976).
The Hawthorne Works, welfare capitalism and AT&T In terms of the evolution of the Hawthorne Works itself, on 14 September 1902 Western Electric purchased 113 acres of
prairie land west of Chicago (Whyte, 1977). Three years later, founder and still president,
Enos Barton, advocated relocating the company’s main manufacturing facility from
downtown Chicago to this rural setting near the small town of Hawthorne, later incorporated into Cicero (see Kay, 2000).
The Hawthorne plant, which officially opened in 1907, soon developed a reputation
within American industry as a champion of ‘welfare capitalism’, or the practice of businesses providing welfare-like services to employees (Jacoby, 1997). Under welfare capitalism companies would typically offer workers higher pay and superior non-monetary
compensation (such as health care, housing and pensions, plus possibly social clubs,
sports facilities and in-house training) than available from other firms in the industry
(Brandes, 1976). However, there was a price to be paid, for much of the strategic thinking behind it was that higher levels of compensation and welfare would act as a bulwark
against the rise of organized labour. In the case of Hawthorne the provision of such welfare policies and practices was writ large. The Works became virtually a city in its own
right – containing a hospital, power plant, fire brigade and evening school (the ‘Hawthorne
University’), as well as a gymnasium, running track, baseball team, greenhouse, brass
band, magazine and an annual pageant, which ran until 1980. Many events were run by
the Hawthorne Club, which organized dances, concerts, sports, parties and the annual
picnic (Hawthorne Works Museum, 2010).
By 1914 the Hawthorne Works had expanded to become Western Electric’s sole manufacturing site; having absorbed the company’s other facilities in New York and Chicago
(Fagen, 1975). Despite later opening smaller plants in other locations, from this point on,
as Whyte (1977: 23) suggests, ‘the story of Hawthorne is practically the story of Western
Electric’. A year later the Western Electric Manufacturing Company was incorporated in
New York as a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, under the name Western Electric
Company, Inc. At this time in locations where AT&T subsidiaries provided the local
service – which was the vast majority (Fagen, 1975) – all components and connected
devices of the ‘public switched telephone network’ were manufactured by Western
Electric (Brookes, 1976).
Complement, community and culture In terms of the size and composition of workforce,
by 1917, 25,000 people were employed at the expanding Hawthorne Works, with a large
percentage being local residents of Czech, Hungarian or Polish origin (mostly first or
second generation immigrants). As aerial photographs of the period suggest, the plant
dwarfed Cicero itself, whose population in 1910 was 15,000 (Kay, 2000). The firm held
a virtual monopoly in its industry, which some commentators suggest served to buttress
its sense of social unity (Adams and Butler, 1999).
Although many Hawthorne employees commuted to work from Chicago or suburbs
such as Berwyn, LaGrange, Morton Park, Oak Park and Riverside, a large percentage of
the workforce resided within a mile or so of the Works (Whyte, 1977). Local historical
societies suggest that as Hawthorne employees were frequently ‘neighbours at home as
well as co-workers’ this fostered a ‘family culture’ in which ethnicity, in particular, was ‘a
common denominator that helped galvanize relationships among employees’ (Wachholz,
2005: 24-26). Indeed, most Hawthorne employees experienced a common work-life pattern, living within a 15-minute walk of the plant and residing in rows of workers’ ‘cottages’
at a rent of $15-20 per month (Wachholz, 2005). Even when employees resided further
afield, ‘life experiences were common’ (Lindberg, 1997: 17), with the working day
bounded by the cheap commute on the streetcar – the ‘5 cent “El” ride’ (Whyte, 1977: 22).
Another distinguishing feature of this communal profile was that Western Electric
employed a relatively large percentage of women workers (even before women’s suffrage). Although having no significant role in managerial or supervisory work, there
were women operatives in most manufacturing areas of the plant, and notably those
sections where ‘delicacy of touch’ and ‘carefulness’ were valued for performing intricate tasks, such as coil winding (Wachholz, 2005: 26). A feature of early company picnics was of a large group of Hawthorne women workers (known colloquially as the
‘window smashers’) marching and wearing ‘Votes for Women’ sashes (Adams and
Butler, 1999: 94).
Under the company philosophy of welfare capitalism, a Women’s Club was opened in
late 1912, one year after the Men’s. Wachholz (2005: 26) suggests that the Women’s
Club allowed women to participate in Hawthorne’s wider welfare activities – such as
education programmes, entertainment and sports – this including roles in the organization of employee picnics (see later). The Hawthorne plant was indeed the ‘social center’
(Whyte, 1977: 22) for the surrounding community, and its clubs were ‘enormously popular’ among ‘the large number of young men and women and those who lived in the
working-class suburbs adjacent to the works’ (Gillespie, 1991: 19).
The ‘Progressive’ Era In terms of the political and ideological context this was the time of
the Progressive Era presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson – an era characterized by
social activism and the movement’s desire to moderate the excesses of corporate capitalism (Glad, 1966). Noted for its antitrust sentiments, stress on efficiency and faith in
experts, the Progressive Movement emphasized above all the ‘welfare of the individual’
(Buenker et al., 1986).
Human Relations 65(11)
Reflecting such ideology, during August 1912 Magnus Alexander (President of
General Electric) sent the text of a speech he had given to the American Academy of
Political and Social Science to Theodore Vail (President of AT&T) in which he drew
‘particular attention’ to the potential for creating a ‘Department of Applied Economics,
which might be more properly be called a Department of Applied Psychology’ (Adams
and Butler, 1999: 89). In Alexander’s words the goal of such a department would be to
‘apply the same scientific, calculated and sagacious study to the human needs in industry
that are now applied everywhere to the engineering, selling, financial and purchasing
requirements’ (Adams and Butler 1999: 89; emphasis added). In September 1912 Vail’s
associate, Walter Allen, suggested (with perhaps an element of cynicism) that establishing such departments within the Bell System would, ‘benefit the companies in their
general public relations by convincing the public that the management has really at heart
the human side of the business and is striving to better conditions in industry’ (Adams
and Butler 1999: 89-90; emphasis added).
In any event, the following year AT&T announced the creation of the Bell System
‘Benefit and Insurance Plan’. Although implementation of employee welfare plans had
commenced in 1906 – with a modest pension scheme aimed at ‘help(ing) the company
attract and retain workers and discourage them from striking’ – the introduction of a
welfare plan throughout the Bell System was useful in that it assisted the corporation in
convincing its political masters that Bell (a virtual monopoly) was ‘socially responsible’
(Gillespie, 1991: 8). Whether or not the motives of corporations practising such welfare
capitalism were genuinely ‘progressive’ remains moot (see Ebbinghhaus and Manow,
2001; Hicks, 1999; Tone, 1997). What is certain, however, is that by the early 1920s
Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works was an archetypal ‘modern manor’ (Jacoby, 1997).
Expansion, innovation and profile In the period preceding the Hawthorne Studies, Western
Electric was also one of the major distributors of electrical equipment in America (Fagen,
1975). In line with the huge expansion of demand for such goods, the company even
supplied a wide range of items manufactured by other firms. This saw distribution not
only of standard equipment for the home – such as refrigerators, sewing machines, electric fans, vacuum cleaners, etc. – but also of less standard items, such as electric toys
(Hawthorne Works Museum, 2010).
Around the start of the Hawthorne investigations (late 1924), Western Electric had a
catalogue approaching 1300 pages and rivalled General Electric and Westinghouse as a
manufacturer and distributor (Fagen, 1975). With a workforce of over 30,000 employees
(Kay, 2000), the company had expanded its initial welfare capitalist practices and was
recognized (according to local history and in-company sources) as a provider of above
average wages, good working conditions and valued fringe benefits (Hawthorne Works
Museum, 2010; Wachholz, 2005; Whyte, 1977). It promoted, paternalistically, ‘an informal cradle to grave covenant between employer and employee’ (Adams and Butler,
1999: 98). Arguably the major plank of the Bell System by the mid-1920s, Western
Electric was a corporation of ‘high public profile’ – one that had applied ‘the new personnel policies to an extent unsurpassed by any other company’ (Gillespie, 1991: 17).
Finally, shortly after the Hawthorne investigations commenced, a restructuring exercise by AT&T, in 1925, saw the founding of Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc. This body
absorbed much of the research and development work previously carried out by Western
Electric’s engineering department (Reich, 1985). ‘Bell Labs’, as it became known, would
be owned 50:50 by Western Electric and AT&T, with this reorganization establishing
institutional responsibilities that lasted until the 1980s. At this time, the Bell System
largely functioned thus: Bell Labs designed the network; Western Electric manufactured
the telephones, cables, transmission equipment and switching equipment, and installed
the phones; the Operating Companies billed the customers; and AT&T ran the longdistance network (Fagen, 1978; Page, 1941). Ultimately Western Electric and Bell Labs
would invent the loudspeaker, bring sound to motion pictures, win a Nobel Prize for the
invention of the transistor, and introduce systems of mobile communications that would
culminate in the cellular telephone (Fagen, 1975, 1978; Hawthorne Works Museum,
2010; Israel, 1992).
During its formative history, therefore, and notably the period immediately preceding
and encompassing the start of the Hawthorne Studies, the Western Electric Company had
achieved significant corporate profile, developing a reputation for technological innovation and mass manufacturing capability. In addition, it was a signally paternalistic enterprise and major sponsor of welfare capitalism, with such policies and practices facilitating
an image that it was a ‘progressive’ employer.
Case B: The neglected cultural context
We are the victims of a disaster so awful that the world has stood aghast at its horrors, even in
this year of horrors (Thayer HB, President, Western Electric Company, Western Electric News,
The Eastland disaster, communal experience and organizational
The second case account of neglected context concerns social organization and communal experience. Specifically, we develop an ethnographic perspective to document the
impact of a tragic event on the Hawthorne plant, its workforce and the local community.
More than any other, this incident serves to define the character and constitution of the
Works in the period preceding the Hawthorne investigations.
This case revolves around a tragedy – the SS Eastland disaster – on the Chicago
River during the Hawthorne Works Employees’ Annual Picnic of July 1915 – an event
not discussed or referenced in any of the primary research accounts of the Hawthorne
Studies (e.g. Mayo, 1933; Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939; Whitehead, 1938). This
was, however, the most notable event in the formative history of the Works – one that
brought Western Electric to the world’s attention. While the incident had a profound
effect on ‘Chicago’s developing social fabric’ (Bonansinga, 2004: 240) and served to
‘scar the collective memory of the metropolitan area’ (Hilton, 1995: 234), it was a
largely ‘neighborhood affair’, with the main impact being on the ‘communities near the
Hawthorne plant, Berwyn and Cicero’ (Adams and Butler, 1999: 90). In what follows,
details of the disaster are presented alongside discussion of how it affected the workforce and local community. The case also assesses how Western Electric symbolically
managed the aftermath, with this issue being considered further in the Analysis and
Human Relations 65(11)
The Hawthorne Works Picnic and its expansion The history of the ‘Hawthorne Works
Employees’ 5th Annual Picnic’ is that on 24 July 1915 the Western Electric Employees’
Association chartered five Great Lakes passenger steamers to carry almost 7000 employees, their relatives and friends on a four-hour excursion from Chicago to Michigan City,
Indiana. This had been an annual event since 1911 and was considered the social outing
of the year for a young workforce of predominantly immigrant origin engaged in repetitive telephone assembly work (Western Electric News, 1915b).
The number of employees attending the annual picnic began to increase significantly
from 1913. Following attendance by approximately 3500 for the first two years, in 1913
it increased to over 6000. The main reason was that the picnic shifted its focus from
inviting the immediate family of employees to members of their extended families
(Western Electric News, 1915b). In a rather gendered statement, Hawthorne publicity for
the 1914 picnic declared, for example: ‘Bring along her mother and her sister and her
sister’s youngsters. Make a family party of it’ (Hawthorne Works Museum, 2010). This
expansion, however, brought with it the need to provide additional transport capacity,
and in being a maritime outing to charter an additional vessel for the voyage across Lake
Michigan. For the 1914 excursion, therefore, an extra ship was hired, the SS Eastland
(Western Electric News, 1915b).
One year later, the 1915 picnic was organized by the newly formed Hawthorne Club
(or Western Electric Employees’ Association), which had been created from the merger
of the Men’s and Women’s clubs in April (Whyte, 1977). For the 1915 event, the
Hawthorne Club established a formal structure for organizing the event. This saw
employees encouraged to take part in various aspects of the process, joining committees
such as: ‘Program, Judges, Prizes, Beach, Dancing, Tug-of-War, Central, Honorary,
General, Amusement, Picnic, Transportation, Tickets, Photographic, Reception, Grounds,
Publicity, Music, Athletics, and Races’ (Wachholz, 2005: 28). The destination for the
1915 picnic was Washington Park, Michigan City, which offered a range of facilities
appropriate to the event, including a baseball park, roller coaster, electric merry-goround, dancing pavilion, bowling alley, amusement park, bathing beach and picnic
grounds (Wachholz, 2005). The outing was arranged such that, after disembarking at
Michigan City, passengers would partake of a ‘pot-luck’ picnic and then engage in various activities organized by the committees. Although the Hawthorne plant normally
operated for six days a week, it was closed for the Saturday of these annual festivities,
always the last in July (Western Electric News, 1915b).
The SS Eastland The background to the tragedy of the 1915 Works Picnic was a series
of events relating to the aforementioned SS Eastland. In wake of the 1912 sinking of the
RMS Titanic, the LaFollette Seamen’s Act (1915) was passed mandating ‘lifeboats for
all’. In the case of Great Lakes passenger ships this would see additional lifeboats and
rafts fitted, despite advice that this could cause some vessels stability problems. Indeed,
for at least one of the steamers hired for the event, the Eastland, a boat that sat relatively
high in the water, this would make her potentially unstable (Hilton, 1995).5
On the morning of Saturday 25 July 1915, Hawthorne Works employees and their
families boarded the Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River, downtown
between Clark and Lasalle Streets (Western Electric News, 1915b, 1915c). People had
not been allocated to specific ships and there were no passenger lists. The Eastland was
scheduled to be the first vessel to depart, and by around 7 o’clock 2752 passengers had
boarded (Hilton, 1995). With many passengers initially standing on the wharf side to
wave to friends, but subsequently moving to the river side to observe the view, the
Eastland began to list initially toward the wharf and then the river (Western Electric
News, 1915c). Attempts to stabilize the vessel by adding water to the ballast tanks failed
to remedy the problem (Hilton, 1995).
During the next quarter of an hour, possibly owing to passengers wishing to observe
a canoe race, an additional number moved to the river side (Bonansinga, 2004). One suggestion is that this caused further listing and allowed water to pour in from portholes on
the main deck, causing furniture and passengers to slide (Western Electric News, 1915c).
(Counter-arguments, however, question elements of this scenario: see Hilton, 1995:
234-235.) In any event, 10 minutes after the gangplank had been drawn in and when the
Eastland began to push off from Clark Street dock, the vessel lurched, rolled and capsized, resting on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet beneath the surface (Hilton,
1995). Given that a large number of passengers had already moved below decks (‘It had
begun to drizzle … and the mothers had taken their children inside’, Western Electric
News, 1915d: 20), hundreds became trapped owing to the sudden capsizing of the vessel.
Despite an immediate response by the tugboat Kenosha and the fact that the vessel was
still partially tied to its mooring, 841 passengers (mainly women and children) and four
crew members perished, the death toll including 22 whole families. This represented the
greatest loss of life in Chicago’s history, America’s worst maritime disaster, and for
Western Electric ‘the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen organized industry’ (Western
Electric News, 1915e: 16).
Impact, aftermath and symbolism In the days following the tragedy, Western Electric
made little effort to operate the Hawthorne plant (Western Electric News, 1915b). On
Monday 27 July a few hundred employees turned up for work, followed by a few thousand on Tuesday. By the end of Tuesday 28 July Western Electric had turned away around
800 local residents offering to fill the jobs of victims (Adams and Butler, 1999). Wednesday 29 July saw the day of the greatest number of funerals and was declared an official
day of mourning by the company; the main entrance gates were draped in black. All but
very essential employees were excused from work in order to attend the many services
held in Illinois and cities across the United States. En masse, Western Electric’s senior
management team attended a special memorial service in Chicago (Western Electric
Historians have described the impact of the incident on the Chicago metropolitan area
(Hilton, 1995) and in particular on the western suburbs around Cicero (Kay, 2000;
Wachholz, 2005). Within the Hawthorne plant itself ‘survivor stories’ (Western Electric
News, 1915c) recounted acts of heroism performed by the crews of the Kenosha and
freighter Schuylkill, the Coast Guard, frogmen and divers, doctors and nurses, members
of the public, and Hawthorne employees themselves. In accounting for the tragedy in the
Western Electric News, however, the company suggested, rather paternalistically, that it
did not wish to ‘single out any individual for personal mention’ as this could be ‘unfair
to the rest’ (1915b: 8). As survivors of the Eastland continued to work at Hawthorne for
several decades, this preserved the disaster in the company’s oral history (Whyte, 1977).
Indeed the last known survivor of the Eastland, Libby Hruby, daughter of a Czech
Human Relations 65(11)
immigrant employee, died locally in Berwyn as late as 6 November 2004 (archiver.
Sources also describe the role Western Electric played in the relief effort (see Hilton,
1995; Wachholz, 2005; Western Electric News, 1915b). Meeting with officials of the
City and the Red Cross at City Hall the following morning, the company’s senior executives agreed to raise $200,000 within 48 hours. In addition, Western Electric offered a
$100,000 subsidy to the relief initiative; ultimately both figures were over-subscribed.
Of the corporation’s initial subsidy, $75,806 was spent on funeral expenses (Hilton,
1995). Wider action saw Western Electric make its medical, nursing and welfare staffs
available to survivors and the families of victims, with treatment being offered at either
the Hawthorne plant or by way of house calls (Western Electric News, 1915b, d and f).
In early August 1915, Alexander Graham Bell, who had been retired from the telephone business for a number of years, but still held considerable stock in AT&T and
Western Electric, accompanied his wife Mabel on a visit to the Hawthorne Works
(Inficad.com, 2011). During the visit, the Bells reputedly stopped at each work station,
shook hands with employees and discussed the disaster and how it had affected them.
Sources suggest that Mabel Bell took details of employees who had perished together
with the names and addresses of family members affected by the tragedy. These individuals subsequently received notes of condolence and personal gifts from the Bells
(Inficad.com, 2011). This visit was followed by a period of recruitment in which Western
Electric adopted a policy of favouring victims’ relatives when assessing employment
applications (Adams and Butler, 1999).
Although more passengers perished on the Eastland (841) than the Titanic (832),
after initial media coverage the event began to fade from national attention.6 Among the
possible reasons are that the incident was overshadowed by the more global news
coverage of the First World War or that the City of Chicago did not want negative media
coverage and so suppressed the incident (Hilton, 1995). Another possible explanation,
however, is that as those who perished were predominantly working class immigrants –
mainly women and children – they represented actors with relatively little ‘voice’.
Unlike the Titanic, the Eastland did not claim the wealthy or famous, nor did any of
Western Electric’s executives perish.
In the years that followed the tragedy there appears a subtle change of register in what
might be called the social emphasis of the firm. One example is that from 1918 Western
Electric started to make a series of ‘industrials’ – short films about the nature of the business. As Wrege (2008: 2) has noted, several of these films (e.g. People and Productivity
and A Square Deal for His Wife) were markedly ‘people oriented’ and appear socially
enlightened for the time.7 Indeed, this was a period in which Western Electric seemed
keener than ever to emphasize its ‘Square Deal Policy’ for employees – a policy in which
‘practices have been worked out to make things convenient and pleasant for every member of the great Western Electric family’ (Albright, 1917: 29). Another subtle change
around this time saw the sub-title of Western Electric News change from: ‘Produced once
a month for the employees’ to ‘The Employees’ Magazine’.
In the early decades of Western Electric’s history, therefore, the Eastland tragedy
served to bring sociological profile to an organization that already possessed a significant industrial reputation. Above all, the event served to galvanize the workforce, bring
clarity to social and organizational relations, and make overt a range of cultural and
symbolic forces within the enterprise. These are factors that have yet to be fully accounted
for in historical readings of Hawthorne.
Analysis and discussion
These twin cases offer contextual information relevant to understanding the character
and culture of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works during the early decades of the twentieth century. In terms of organizational research they identify neglected ‘actors’ in the
company’s ‘network of meaning’ (see Bruce and Nyland, 2011; Mills and Durepos,
2010). The first case illustrates how Western Electric had developed a distinctive corporate and industrial profile, and the second how the social and cultural awareness of its
workforce was impacted by a major human tragedy. Taken together they counter the
traditional practice of explaining organizational behaviour at Hawthorne within a contextual vacuum.
Corporate philosophy and reputation
Through initially analysing corporate philosophy and reputation it has been argued that
during the early twentieth century Western Electric was a prominent employer. We have
illustrated how this decidedly paternalistic company, a major player in the Bell System,
possessed ‘high public profile’. In addition to its transcendent reputation for technical
innovation, we note how from its opening in 1907 the Hawthorne facility had a considerable reputation for promoting welfare policies and practices. Describing a photograph of
the Hawthorne Club track and field meet of 1927, Gillespie (1991: 20) suggests this
represents ‘welfare capitalism at its peak’; this picture was taken less than a year before
Elton Mayo first entered the Works. An organization renowned for technological
advances and possessing state-of-the-art facilities, in the years preceding the Hawthorne
investigations the Western Electric Company was also known for practising the ‘new
personnel policies’, for which its standing was apparently ‘unsurpassed’. In addition, it
was avowedly anti-union and deployed a range of measures (overt and covert) for combating the combination of workers.
It can be argued, however, that such a corporate style was not only the result of ‘strategic choice’ (Child, 1972) but also determined by industrial and sectoral ‘contingencies’
(Burns and Stalker, 1961; Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967). Although many American corporations of the early twentieth century received prominence for promoting apparently
‘progressive’ employment practices, this was nowhere more evident than for ‘sciencebased firms such as those in the electrical manufacturing industry’ (Adams and Butler,
1999: 97). As Jacoby (1997: 20) suggests, in many high technology companies of the
period, forms of welfare-influenced organization, incorporating an emphasis on ‘progressive’ forms of employment, had gained ‘the aura of technological inevitability’.
Likewise, reflecting Walter Allen’s ‘applied psychology’ proposals for Bell companies a decade earlier, psychologist Robert Yerkes (1922: 56-57) in a speech to the
National Research Council outlined the shift in personnel research from ‘things that are
worked with, to the worker; from the machinery of industry, to the man who made, owns,
Human Relations 65(11)
or operates it’. Yerkes’ speech suggests that employee psychology and well-being were
on the personnel research agenda years before Mayo exploited his significant Rockefeller
support at Hawthorne. This resonates with Gilson’s (1940: 98) review of Roethlisberger
and Dickson (1939), which suggests that the Hawthorne Studies ‘operated at the kindergarten stage of industrial knowledge’ in that it they had ‘consumed years to discover’
notions that ‘should have been clear at the outset if the investigators had acquainted
themselves with the experience of others’.
Further, Bendix (1956: 311) notes how in the years preceding the Hawthorne investigations many managers had ‘anticipated Mayo with regard to a reassessment of the motivation of workers’, and indeed that during the early 1920s ‘several writers had pointed
out that it was wrong to think workers were only interested in money’. Bendix comments
on how many of Mayo’s sentiments appear to have been rehearsed in the earlier ‘Openshop’ campaign, which like Mayo tended ideologically to ‘neglect … trades unions and
their role in industry’. Indeed, Bendix argues that employees involved with the campaign
directed their attentions to ‘introducing many measures designed to forestall [unions] by
satisfying the demands of workers in line with managerial objectives’, the campaign thus
reflecting many of the motives of welfare capitalism.8
In her critique of Management and the Worker, Gilson (1940: 100-101) similarly
draws attention to the failure of Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) (and thus the
Hawthorne research team as a whole) to discuss the issue of labour unions. She argues
that in ‘six hundred pages describing the Western Electric experiment, costing thousands
of dollars, and supported by some of the wealthiest groups in the country, no reference is
made to organized labour except a short statement, unindexed, that it was so seldom
mentioned by any workers that it was not considered sufficiently important to discuss’.
Gilson adds that the deployment of internal spies by Hawthorne’s management –
designed to identify labour activists amidst industrial uncertainty from the late 1920s –
may be one of the reasons why in the 20,000-plus interviews of the plant-wide Interview
Program (1928-30) workers were reported to have ‘criticised the company in no
instance’. She suggests, ‘we know of no instance where spies have been employed without some fear of unionism’. Indeed, the 1937 [US Senate] Committee on Education and
Labor noted how from 1933 to 1936 Western Electric spent $25,825.76 on such espionage (see Gilson, 1940: 100).
Such factors may provide explanation for why founder Enos Barton and the early
directors of the Western Electric Company put so much effort into establishing welfare
capitalism at Hawthorne – to shore up a particular form of liberal political economy by
appearing to create ‘capitalism with a human face’. Although in terms of American industry as a whole Western Electric’s seemingly enlightened organizational practices were
perhaps atypical (compare the early working conditions and industrial relations climate at
Ford’s Highland Park and Rouge plants), they were nevertheless taking place in an ideological climate where such deliberate paternalism was not completely unheard of. This
perhaps suggests a hypothesis for management history to explore: that Western Electric’s
highly paternalistic climate provided a particularly congenial environment for Mayo and
his colleagues to conduct their research (see Whitehead, 1938: 13, on this point).9
Indeed, in May 1924, six months prior to the start of the Illumination experiments
and four years before any Harvard involvement, the Hawthorne personnel function had
issued to employees responsible for ‘directing the work of others’ a statement of the
company’s Employee Relations Policies, commonly referred to as the ‘Ten
Commandments’. Completing a list of similar homilies, the last exhorts managers and
supervisors to: ‘Carry on the daily work in a spirit of friendliness. As the Company
grows it must be more human – not less so’ (extract from: Policy #10, Employee
Relations Policies, Hawthorne Works, Western Electric Company, May 1924: emphasis
By the mid-1920s, therefore, if ‘social man’ (Mayo, 1933; see also Dingley, 1997;
Rose, 1970) had not yet been discovered in theory at the Hawthorne Works, for a range
of ideological and commercial motives Western Electric’s management was already
minded to meet his ‘human relations’ needs in practice. Politically it can be argued that
Mayo – well known as an anti-union academic (Bendix, 1956; Trahair, 1984) and someone ‘shrewdly tuned in to what he believed his benefactor [John D Rockefeller Jr] wanted
to hear’ (Bruce and Nyland, 2011: 391) – was readily disposed towards Western Electric’s
strategic paternalism. Contrary to the orthodox narrative of management and organization studies, which suggests a theoretical and practical paradigm-shift in the wake of
behavioural experimentation, the impression from this research is that Mayo and his
team did not so much turn the sociological tide at Hawthorne as swim briskly with it.
Indeed, Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939: 540), in a rare reference to Western Electric’s
cultural evolution, suggest that ‘perhaps the secret of this company’s favourable history
of industrial relations lies in the fact that it possesses a remarkable number of social
processes by means of which the individual is integrated or identified with the collective
whole’. They go on to acknowledge that ‘a large number of these integrating factors were
to be found in the activities sponsored by the Hawthorne Club’ (Roethlisberger and
Dickson, 1939: 540), a key arm of Western Electric’s welfare capitalism and a strategic
bulwark against unionization.
It can be argued further that the union of Western Electric and Elton Mayo’s Harvard
Group – brokered by the influential network of John D Rockefeller Jr – was to prove a
genuinely symbiotic one. Both would profit significantly from the reputation the
Hawthorne Studies were to bring. Whilst Mayo and his colleagues, through their longterm access to and involvement with Western Electric, could bask in the glory of discovering a new management model, ‘social man’, the corporation could build on its
reputation for progressive polices and employee welfare through the profile gained from
a wealth of publications (three books and 33 articles by the Harvard Group between 1929
and 1939) on humanistic ‘discoveries’ at Hawthorne. Indeed, one of the original reasons
why Western Electric executives had approached the Harvard Business School for assistance with the Hawthorne Studies programme was that personnel director TK Stevenson
had been impressed by Mayo as a ‘communicator’, following a talk he had given on
‘What Psychology Can Do for Industry in the Next Ten Years’ to an executive lunch at
the Harvard Club in October 1927 (Trahair, 1984: 208).
Thus, while evidence suggests that Western Electric was undoubtedly ‘scientifically’
managed in the period prior to the Hawthorne investigations (see Adams and Butler,
1999: 78-80), this is not the whole story, for the company also emphasized, for a number
of reasons, ‘human relations’ style philosophies through its strategic paternalism and
welfare capitalism. Before Elton Mayo’s time at the plant, the Hawthorne Works was
Human Relations 65(11)
already providing many of the classic ingredients of a human relations approach to workforce management – through media for satisfying social needs (e.g. social clubs, sports
teams), providing facilities for personal development (e.g. the ‘Hawthorne University’)
and devising policies for making the organization ‘more human’ (e.g. the ‘Ten
Commandments’). The narratives of contemporary textbooks on management and
organization fail to take such factors into account. Sociologically, although Braverman’s
(1974) well known suggestion is that the Human Relations School functioned as the
‘maintenance crew’ for Scientific Management – psychologically oiling its exploitative
economic wheels – another evolutionary explanation is that the doctrine of ‘human relations’ ultimately functioned as a modernizing agent for welfare capitalism. For many
industrialists, the appeal of the Human Relations School’s constellation of job-based
development and enrichment practices possibly lay in providing a watered-down wellbeing for firms not or no longer willing to support the full menu of welfare capitalist
services in order to avoid labour turnover and unionization.
Cultural experience and identity
If the first case illustrated macro themes of corporate reputation and philosophy, the
second focused mainly on micro issues of cultural experience and identity. Specifically,
the latter case described the impact of a major tragedy on Western Electric, its workers
and the local community. In so doing the case has not only offered insights into the habitus or life-world of Western Electric’s employees, but also the symbolism of how the
company handled the aftermath of a traumatic event.
To appreciate the cultural context of the Hawthorne Works at this time an argument
is made for revealing, ethnographically, the impact of critical incidents such as Eastland
on the corporation’s social fabric. This case suggests that the essence of organizational
relationships is often revealed during moments of social crisis (Erikson, 1976). In contrast to so-called orthodox or mainstream analyses of Hawthorne in organization studies, which focus primarily on empirical data and their evaluation, this research highlights
factors and forces whose influence extends beyond the work of Elton Mayo and the
In making this argument, a focus of investigation has been the character of those
working class communities that bordered the Hawthorne plant and provided the mainstay of its labour force. This has been explored in relation to what, for Western Electric,
was the most notorious event in its history – the tragedy of the Works 5th Annual Picnic,
which crystallized issues of social organization and communal experience. In the wake
of this tragedy, the well-publicized relief actions of Western Electric and the high-profile
visit by the Bells appeared to place the symbolic accent even more firmly on paternalism
We have shown how the Eastland disaster and its aftermath were consumed primarily
by Hawthorne’s largely ethnic working communities. At the turn of the 20th century onequarter of America’s labour force was foreign-born, including half of all unskilled workers (Jacoby, 1985). When early social scientists at the University of Chicago, such as
Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, conducted their ‘social surveys’ they found astounding cultural variety in the neighbourhoods of Chicago (see Elshtain, 2002; Sklar, 1995).
It was such ethnically diverse communities that came together to chase the utopianism of
the ‘American dream’.
Hawthorne represented a similar social experiment. Sociologically it reflected the coexistence of cultural groups facing what Mary Parker Follett called the ‘dynamics of
integration’ (see O’Connor, 2011). For example, the establishment of the Hawthorne
Evening School saw Western Electric incorporate an education programme for immigrant workers that had previously taken place at Jane Addams’ settlement complex, Hull
House (near Western’s earlier Clinton Street facility). From around the turn of the century this arrangement had seen Hull House submit monthly accounts to Enos Barton,
with the system reflecting ‘a primitive form of welfare capitalism’ (Adams and Butler,
1999: 95). Indeed, Western Electric’s provident funds, together with the development of
the Hawthorne Club’s educational and recreational programmes, ‘essentially institutionalised the paternalism of Enos Barton … at Hawthorne’ (p. 96).
A key contextual factor highlighted by the Eastland tragedy, therefore, is the cultural
experience of the Hawthorne workforce, an issue that brings into focus the values, goals
and motives of ethnic communities. Although in comprising a diverse workforce
Hawthorne was far from unique among industrial employers, its distinctive social and
organizational history engendered a heightened sense of solidarity. Kai Erikson’s famous
remark that in the face of major disasters (such as Eastland) it is ‘the community that
cushions pain … represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions’
(1976: 193; emphasis in original) appears to fit Hawthorne well. The research presented
here suggests that crucial to understanding the cultural fabric of the Works is comprehension of the demographic character and communal experience of its workforce, or what
Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939: 538) refer to as its ‘social organization’.
For ethnographic history, appreciation of the social organization of the Hawthorne
plant requires awareness of the cultural preferences of ethnic communities at this time. A
good starting point is the anthropological and sociological literature on ‘ethnic Chicago’
(see Lindberg, 1997). If we take, for example, the sizeable Czech community at Hawthorne
we find that in the Chicago of the early twentieth century it was residing in what was now
the world’s third largest Czech city (after Prague and Vienna) – one that by the 1920s
boasted four Czech-language newspapers (Cozine, 2005). Politically, Czechs tended to
support the Democrats, with this support peaking on the election of Anton Cermak, a
Czech immigrant, as the Democratic mayor of Chicago in 1931 (Gotfried, 1962). Socioeconomically, the Czech community in Chicago had established its own network of institutions, including savings and loan associations, mutual benefit societies and fraternal
organizations (Lindberg, 1997). More prosaically, such first and second generation immigrants (and notably working women) provided regular support for family networks in
their country of ethnic origin (Baker Library, 2011). Hogan (1978) and Weiss (1981) suggest that transplanted peasant culture – which emphasized family collectivism, religious
devotion, and attitudes towards the value of money – affected workplace relations at sites
like Hawthorne. Above all, in terms of personal preferences, this literature suggests that
‘by the 1910s and 1920s’, Czech workers in Chicago ‘earned more and worked at a wider
range of occupations’, with an important corollary for this research being that ‘as operatives at Western Electric’ their energies were ‘devoted more to ethnic and neighbourhood
organizations than to radical or unionist activity’ (Cozine, 2005: 153).
Human Relations 65(11)
Hypotheses arising from this excursion into ‘social organization’ include that in the
economically more buoyant period of the mid-1920s – encompassing the early Hawthorne
investigations (i.e. the Illumination Experiments and the initial Relay Assembly Test
Room studies) – such ethnic communities not only possessed a familial orientation but
were also relatively quiescent as an industrial workforce (see Carey, 1967). A further
suggestion from the ‘ethnic Chicago’ literature is that this was more significant in the
case of women workers, for whom Hawthorne, given the nature of its assembly operations, was a major local employer (Lindberg, 1997; see Bramel and Friend, 1981; Locke,
1982). Such hypotheses provide grounds for ethnographic history to reinterpret the
orthodox narrative of studies such as the Relay Assembly Test Room, where issues such
as gender and ethnicity are rarely accounted for, notably in the explanations of organizational behaviour textbooks.
The notional quiescence of ethnic groups at Hawthorne in the 1910s and 1920s, however, can be contrasted with the image of Hawthorne workers that emerges from the later,
more sociologically oriented, Bank Wiring Room investigation of the early 1930s. One
contextual explanation for why the men of the Bank Wiring Room established a ‘negative group dynamic’ (as opposed to a positive or quiescent one) is that this was a natural
reaction to the timing of the study. Simply put, the research coincided with a sharp rise
in unemployment during the early years of the Great Depression (see Garraty, 1986):
Western Electric was making large-scale redundancies and workers wished to preserve
their jobs, a contextual factor of which the Harvard Group, although aware, was keen to
downplay. Despite 13 of the 14 operators being in ‘very poor financial condition’ and
that the group as a whole ‘speculated endlessly on when the depression would end’,
Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939: 531) maintain that the Bank Wiring Room study ‘was
not a “depression story”’ – a position that seems implausible when all factors are considered. When discussing ‘the effects of the depression’, Roethlisberger and Dickson’s
defence of their primarily psychological analysis of ‘cliques’ and ‘output restriction’ – a
central plank of the Hawthorne Studies narrative – appears flimsy.10
Similarly, taking their lead unquestioningly from Management and the Worker,
organizational behaviour textbooks ignore the dramatic shrinkage of the American economy during the ‘hard years’ of the Depression and how this was so critically experienced
at Western Electric, where sales fell from a high of $411 million in 1929 to less than $70
million in 1933 (Adams and Butler, 1999: 222). The 1930s was in fact the only decade
of the twentieth century in which the number of telephones per head of population fell
(Fagen, 1978). In contrast to some form of hypothesized corporate enlightenment emerging at Hawthorne in the wake of Harvard Group investigations, there is evidence to the
contrary – of increased workplace control throughout the 1930s, notably through AT&T
executives pressurizing Western’s management over productivity. Indeed, throughout
the early decades of the 20th century the influence of AT&T should not be understated,
for as Charles Wrege has suggested (personal communication) Western Electric had ‘no
real autonomy’ at this time and functioned primarily as a ‘ward’ of AT&T. Danielian
(1939), for example, notes how the 1935-37 investigation of the telephone industry by
the Federal Communications Commission revealed within AT&T divisions significant
work intensification alongside widespread redundancies and a preference for hiring on a
part-time basis. Charles Wrege (personal communication) has argued similarly that his
personal conversations with Bell operatives who were employed around this time
revealed a ‘human touch’ within the System, but only on the part of the workers themselves, who (reminiscent of the Bank Wiring Room subjects) would ‘stall the work as
long as possible so that the operators could be kept on longer’. This represents another
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