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The Three Faces of Elton Mayo | J H Smith | Professor of Sociology, Co-Founder of New Technology Research Group, University of Southampton | published December 1980 in New Society

Elton Mayo was born in Australia one hundred years ago this month (on December 26, 1880) and died in a nursing home in Guildford almost sixty-nine years later. Towards the end of his life, through his association with the Harvard Business School and the Hawthorne Studies, he enjoyed a public acclaim granted to few social scientists of his day. None however would have envied him the fall from grace which was to follow his death. By the mid-1950s, the terms ‘Mayoism’ and ‘Mayoite’ were recognised additions to the perjorative vocabulary of social science. In 1946 an overblown account of his work in Fortune compared him to Thorsten Veblen and John Dewey, praising his erudition, rare authority and beneficent influence on labour-management relations. Yet a decade later, in his influential monograph Hawthorne Revisited, Landsberger was obliged to devote a whole chapter to the deficiencies of Mayo, as listed by such critics as Daniel Bell, Reinhard Bendix, John Dunlop, Clark Kerr, C. Wright Mills and Wilbert Moore. Charges of conceptual ineptitude and of theoretical and methodological narrowness formed only part of the indictment: Mayo’s emphasis on industrial collaboration was said to ignore central economic and political issues (notably the functions of trade unions) and to relegate industrial social science to the role of a managerial or ‘cow’-sociology.

It might be supposed that it was the scope and scale of Mayo’s writings and his appetite for debate which made him the target of this full-scale academic blitzkrieg. This was not so; his published work is slight by North American standards and he did not involve himself in public controversy. While the significance of Mayo is not in doubt, it is best explained in terms of who and where he was and of the point of view he came to represent, rather than of concrete achievement measured by the written word.

He was born George Elton Mayo into a prosperous professional family in Adelaide and destined for a medical career. Any coherent account of what happened in his early student days must be largely speculative. Mayo himself made few references to it, but in some respects his adventures in the opening years of this century resemble the career of the student drop-out of our own time. In 1900 having failed the first year course at Adelaide, he was sent by his father to Edinburgh University, only to repeat the experience. Two years later found him enrolled at St George’s Hospital but to no greater effect. For a while he played the role of a young man-about-town in London, (having unsuccessfully tried his luck on a trip to the Gold Coast) but was eventually and firmly returned to the family fold by his elder sister. He took back with him a taste for life in England and for the short literary essay, a form in which he acquired some practice. He had also taught grammar at the London Working Men’s College; one of the few experiences of that period to which he was to refer in later life.

Not long after arriving home in Adelaide, Mayo returned to University to study psychology under Sir William Mitchell. It was the beginning of a stable and successful career in his own country: in recalling it as a turning point, Mayo later identified as the critical consideration the fact that ‘the professor could answer his questions.’ In 1911, he was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Queensland. The then raw state of that institution allowed Mayo considerable freedom to develop his interests. He built up, single-handed, a small but successful school of Mental and Moral Philosophy, in which he tackled whatever subjects he thought pertinent, including economic theory. His reputation as a teacher retained its lustre through the years, although his continuing interest in workers’ education and in industrial relations procedures was something which, at a later stage, his critics found it convenient to overlook.

In terms of his subsequent career, probably the two most important influences in Queensland were Mayo’s friendship with the social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and his work with shell-shock cases returning from the First World War. Malinowski first met Mayo on his way to and from the Trobriand Islands; they became close friends and were regularly in touch until Malinowski’s death in 1942.

The work with shell-shock soldiers provided a focus for Mayo’s interests in clinical psychology and developed his skills in psychotherapy. In this he was strongly influenced by the work on hysteria and obsession of the eminent French psychiatrist, Pierre Janet, an old adversary of Sigmund Freud. For the rest of his working life, Mayo was an active psychotherapist and this practical experience became an essential prop for his subsequent theoretical and methodological work in America. His major publication in Australia however, Democracy and Freedom, was an essay in social philosophy addressed to the problem of realising political ideals in a society whose members face the need for continuing change and adaptation. By this time, Mayo had been appointed to a Chair of Philosophy, was married with a young family and was turning his attention to the investigation of industrial problems. Dissatisfied with the opportunities offered for the social sciences in Australia, he took leave from the university to make his first visit to America, arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1922. He was never to return to Australia.

Mayo’s considerable charm and lively wit were never more necessary than now. He had virtually no contacts among American academics and he had published nothing of consequence in the field to which he aspired. However, within a year he was on a winning streak; and like the natural gamesman that he was (cricket, swimming and tennis were among his interests) he was able to press home his advantage.

In 1923, Mayo was appointed to a research post at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. His initial research interest was in the relationship between mental states and measures of industrial performance: his work on labour turnover in a Philadelphia textile mill had as its focus the links between day-dreaming, output and labour turnover. Some years later he was to use this study to illustrate the limitations of conventional psychological approaches to worker behaviour; but its immediate function was to establish Mayo’s credentials as someone experienced in experimental studies of changes in working conditions. Many writers (including his critics) have chosen to represent Mayo as a seasoned industrial psychologist whose orthodox perceptions were dramatically transformed by the Hawthorne Studies. As it happened, until he went to the Wharton School Mayo had no direct experience of psychological studies in industry. The irony is that his few writings and lectures in Australia on industrial matters had been confined to the very questions – the development of trade unions and the economic and political aspects of industrial relations – for which his critics claimed he had no feeling.

Mayo’s run of success in America was signalled by his decision to resign his Chair at Queensland, prompted by the refusal of that University to grant him further leave. By now he enjoyed the support of Beardsley Ruml, the Director of the newly-founded Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation, set up in 1922 to promote the development of the social sciences. With Rockefeller funding, he continued his work in Philadelphia until 1926. During this period he renewed his commitment to the practice of psychotherapy on a voluntary basis. He also returned to what was for him the least disagreeable form of publication – the essay for the general reader. This had results which were unexpected and decisive for Mayo’s future.

Beginning in 1924, Mayo wrote a series of articles for Harpers‘ Magazine. Under such titles as Sin with a capital ‘S’, Should Marriage be Monotonous?, they offered philosophical reflections on current social issues in a light but elegant form. It was these and not Mayo’s articles in professional journals which first stimulated the interest of the Dean of the Harvard Business School and led to an invitation to Mayo in 1926 to become an associate professor of industrial research there.

The rest is history – or lamentably what too often passes for it in social science textbooks. There are two standard, sharply different versions. On the one hand: Mayo designed and directed the Hawthorne Studies which established the significance of group ties for worker motivation and of social skills for effective management, thereby ushering in the age of ‘Social’ as opposed to ‘Economic’ Man and founding industrial sociology and the human relations movement. On the other: Mayo had little to do with the conduct of the experiments, but merely popularised them, the studies were in any case of doubtful scientific value and Mayo’s sociological theories an implausible combination of Pareto and Durkheim. In the first of these versions, Mayo is cast in the traditional role of Founding Father; in the second (now the conventional view) he plays the part of a rather jovial out-of-town, uncle, not in on tie birth but for ever after handing out cigars.

The truth lies well between these extremes and is for the most part to be found in the archives of the Harvard Business School, in the personal papers of Mayo, and in the reminiscences of those who worked with him, such as Fritz Roethlisberger and George Homans.

Mayo did far more than popularise the Hawthorne Studies. With L J Henderson (the biochemist and flamboyant advocate of Pareto) he provided, through the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory, a financially secure and academically respectable base for social science research. In the continuation and eventual publication of the studies, played a vital part: the full account, Management and the Worker, would not have appeared at all had Mayo not provided, over a long period, support in terms of money and academic guidance for Roethlisberger and Dickson to write it up. William Foot Whyte’s classic Street Corner Society was conceived and completed under Mayo’s auspices, as was Arensberg and Kimball’s Family and Community in Ireland; while George Homans has made it clear that his time in Mayo’s ‘Department of Industrial Research’ was the formative influence for The Human Group. These writers through the frequency of their acknowledgements to Mayo, and their own distinction, leave no doubt that here was someone whose breadth of knowledge, professional skill and personal generosity provided a major inspiration to those who worked closely with him.

Why then did Mayo attract so much hostility in the years following his death? The mystery seems greater if we look at all closely at Mayo’s four books Democracy and Freedom (1919), Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1933), Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1945) and Notes on the Psychology of Pierre Janet (1948). For the most part these originated as lectures. Mayo seems to have taken little pleasure in writing, except for turning the odd dramatic phrase. He was certainly scornful of the heavyweight academic treatise. As a result, his writings lack the vigour and constructive detail of a comprehensive argument. But they are full of ideas and insights, some of them surprisingly fresh and palatable to a contemporary reader. That Mayo’s emphasis on the work group as a focus for collaboration has been taken up by advocates of consultation and industrial participation is obvious enough. But his belief in the need for decentralization, his mistrust of politicians and of ‘corporate responsibility’ and his scepticism about the power of existing institutions to resolve conflict is capable of evoking a far more sympathetic response today than in the sanguine atmosphere of post-war reconstruction.

So too does Mayo’s emphasis on the ‘sociology of the intimate’ rather than on ‘grand theory’. His beliefs in the need to explore the meaning of a situation from the viewpoint of others and to base structures of knowledge in first-hand observations were to be echoed by a breed of ‘new’ sociologists more than a generation after his death. But few if any of these would have hailed Mayo as a kindred spirit. The weaknesses of Mayo’s work have always been more readily identified than his strengths – and the omissions proved indispensable to the industrial sociologists of the 1950s concerned to stake out a wider sphere of operations than they believed Mayo’s perspectives to allow. These disclaimers now seem contrived. Mayo never suggested that he had invented industrial sociology, nor that he had defined its boundaries; in fact, he had never used the term. Contrary to the stock criticism, however, he did recognise the need to place the study of factory behaviour in a wider social setting and the initial conception of Lloyd Warner’s Yankee City study came from him.

Mayo’s vulnerability was increased by his lifestyle and his isolation from mainstream social science. He kept his British nationality and spent most of his summers in the late 1920s and 1930s in England, where his daughters were at school. He spoke at summer schools here and was tempted by the possibility of becoming Director of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. But the Second World War (including his part in two well-known studies of war production industries) kept him in America and delayed his retirement. In Harvard, his close friendship with Henderson provoked the belief that Mayo shared the latter’s enthusiasm for Pareto and gave rise to assumptions about Mayo as an ideologue which the evidence simply does not justify.

There is no reason to suppose that Mayo cared very much about these matters. There was a restlessness in his life-pattern which he himself recognised and which was only checked by the first of the strokes that made a misery of his long hoped-for retirement in England. In seeking to fix an impression of this gifted but elusive man, we find not one but three faces, each reflecting the three societies with which he was familiar. Yet he remained a ‘marginal man’ throughout his life. Australia did not provide the opportunities he felt he needed; America offered the work and the recognition but not the sense of belonging; a settled life in England remained the goal but he was robbed of the capacity to enjoy it. No wonder his lifelong interest was centred on the socio-emotional needs of the adaptive individual.

© 1980 Professor J. H. Smith. All rights reserved.

A selection of Elton Mayo’s research papers, articles, letters and photos are housed by the following institutions:
The Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Bloomberg Center, Soldiers Field, Boston, MA 02163, USA.
The British Library, 96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2DB.
The Archives and Special Collections Team Library, London School of Economics and Political Science, 10 Portugal Street, London WC2A 2HD.
The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005 Australia.




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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of the London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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