Human Relations Movement

A school of the sociology of industry originating in the United States before the Second World War, whose influence spread to Britain for a short period after it. Human Relations (often referred to simply as HR) comprised both an academic literature of varying quality and a set of prescriptions for managerial practice supposedly based upon it. Authority for the ideas in both components was initially developed out of the so-called Hawthorne experiments (or studies) which were carried out in Chicago from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s, under the aegis of the Western Electric Company, and in conjunction with the Harvard Business School.
Academically, HR sought both causes and solutions within the workplace, for worker dissatisfaction, trade-union militancy , industrial conflict , and even anomie within the wider community. Because, for a time, human relations and industrial sociology were virtually synonymous, the latter also tended until recently to study in-plant factors in isolation. However, human relations theorists have also been noted for a willingness to downplay the role of economic motivations even within the workplace itself, and to stress instead the supposed logic of sentiments affecting worker behaviour. Sentiments, and work-group norms deriving from them, create an informal structure within any organization that cuts across the goals and prescriptions of the organization's formal structure , which is dictated by the contrasting managerial logic of efficiency.
Within this broad analysis there is considerable variation. The naïve ideas of Elton Mayo , based on vulgarization of the social theories of Vilfredo Pareto and Émile Durkheim , are commonly taken as the major theoretical statements of the movement. They assert that market industrial societies suffer from a loss of empathy and community feeling that is (mistakenly) characterized by Mayo as anomie. Workers attempt to compensate for this by seeking social satisfactions in the workplace. But the formal structures and payment systems established under the vogue for scientific management fail to meet this need, with the result that supervision and productivity goals are resisted.
Mayo's analysis depends on an interpretation of the results of the Hawthorne studies which does not wholly coincide with that of F. J. Roethlisberger and W. J. Dickson, the authors of Management and the Worker (1949), the main report on the experiments themselves. In turn, the compatibility of their own interpretation with the actual findings as presented in the report itself, has been challenged by various authors. In particular, it has been argued that the findings do not confirm the authors' thesis that workers attach more importance to the social than to the economic rewards of work. The main interest of Management and the Worker today is, first, as a historical document showing the reaction against behaviourist and economic approaches to the industrial worker in social science; and, secondly, as a warning of the methodological traps awaiting unwary field-workers, especially in the industrial context. The most famous of these is the so-called Hawthorne Effect, in which the very act of setting up and conducting research produces reactions in the subjects, which are then reported as findings about social reality.
Greater methodological sophistication is to be found in the various ethnographic studies of W. Lloyd Warner , Melville Dalton, Donald Roy, and William Foote Whyte. All of these researchers developed or modified Human Relations doctrine in some way. Warner conducted a classic study of a major strike, caused by job losses and de-skilling characteristic of industrial decline and recession, among a hitherto quiescent labour-force. Dalton and Roy both carried out influential research by means of participant observation that showed how this method could illuminate the behaviour of industrial work-groups. Roy's work, especially, demonstrated that workers' treatment of pay incentive schemes is economically rational once allowance has been made for their long-term income expectations. Whyte's studies were among the first to acknowledge the effects of technology and work organization on industrial behaviour and job satisfaction.
Very little of the above work was carried out as entirely disinterested science: the search for successful management techniques to boost worker productivity is often explicitly acknowledged by Human Relations writers. This aspect was so prominent at one point that the perspective was dubbed ‘cow sociology’-from the saying that contented cows give the most milk. Managements were urged to enrich the experience of work by enlarging its content and understanding workers' problems. For Mayo, therapeutic counselling was the principal means of mollifying workers' antagonism to managerial plans; for other writers, effective employee-centred supervision provided the key. Increasingly, theorists working within the tradition prescribed participatory styles of management or even self-supervision by workers, in order to give a veneer of industrial democracy and to humanize employment (especially in factories). Nevertheless, no writer within the movement abandoned the idea that management constitutes a legitimate scientific élite, or ever proposed a permanent shift of effective control to the workforce. Ultimately, therefore, human relations managerial techniques were criticized as manipulative and as a classic example of a method of managerial control which one author has called management by responsible autonomy. The much later Quality of Worklife Movement is thought by some observers of management theory to be a recrudescence of Human Relations. The same might be said for the 1980s fad for so-called Japanization and for post- fordist management styles. Indeed, Japanese quality circles are a development of human relations prescriptions imported into Japanese companies from the United States after the Second World War, and developed there more successfully than in their country of origin.
There is an excellent account of the human relations approach-or, rather, two excellent accounts-in separate editions of Michael Rose's Industrial Behaviour (1975, 1988).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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