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Liu Shangchao: Practical and theoretical implications of Hawthorne studies

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The Hawthorne studies have been playing important roles in psychology and sociology since the publication of the experiment report “management and the worker” in 1939(Gillespie, 1991). The studies were undertaken at Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago, Illinois during the period from 1924 to 1932(Robbins & Judge, 2007). For this reason, these experiments were named the Hawthorne experiments. The studies had four major phases: illumination Experiments, relay assembly test room experiments, employee interviews and bank wiring observation room experiments. The Hawthorne studies are often identified as the most important piece of empirical industrial social science ever undertaken because of their great contribution to social science. For example, Buchanan and Huczynski (2004) indicated that “the Hawthorne research revolutionized social science thinking”. However, the Hawthorne studies are also considered as poorly designed experiments and demonstrated nothing but the need for careful controls in scientific research. In order to know more about the Hawthorne experiments and to evaluate comprehensively, this essay will firstly introduce the Hawthorne studies briefly; and then discuss the contribution made by the Hawthorne studies and debates on the Hawthorne studies; at last an evaluation of the Hawthorne studies and a conclusion will be given.

Content of the Hawthorne experiments
Firstly, content of the famous Hawthorne studies should be introduced briefly. Robbins and Judge (2007) provided the information that in the year 1924, for the purpose of promoting sales of light bulbs, the General Electric Company started to do the illumination experiments which were aimed at demonstrating the positive relation between strength of illumination and productivity of workers. The researchers formed an experimental group and later introduced a control group to be compared with the experimental group. The intensity of illumination in the experimental group varied according to researchers design while it was constant in the control group. However, to the researchers’ surprise, productivity raised both in two groups (Gale, 2004). Hawthorne Academy (2007) gave the information that productivity even increased when strength of lighting was reduced and workers were not informed reduces of lighting. Hawthorne Academy (2007) also mentioned the conclusion of the illumination studies: “neither improvement in lighting conditions, nor the perception of improvement in lighting conditions had any effect on worker productivity”. Furthermore, it is generally agreed that the illumination studies are the origins of the term “Hawthorne Effect”. Hawthorne Effect, a famous term related to psychology and sociology, refers to “the change in behaviour by experimental subjects that arises from their awareness that they are taking part in an experiment” (Hawthorne Academy, 2007). The second phase of the Hawthorn studies is relay assembly test room experiments. This series of experiments had 13 periods and concerned how factors such as fatigue, rest pauses, length of working days and communication affect the workers’ productivity. The result of relay assembly text room experiments showed that there had been a sustained increase of morale and productivity in the 13 periods. The Hawthorne studies’ researchers came to the conclusion that besides improvement of salaries and working conditions, extra attentions and apparent interests shown by management could also contribute to the increase of productivity (Mullins, 2007). The reason tended to be that these extra attentions and interests in management led to workers felt they had a high value both for their teams and tasks and then they are motivated to be more productive (Hawthorne Academy, 2007). To investigate the attitudes of workers further, the third phase of the Hawthorne studies, which was called interviewing programme, was taken from 1928 to 1930. The interviewing programme involved over 20000 interviews and focused on family and social issues instead of supervision and working environment. By using non-directive approach, interviewers found that workers seemed welcome the interviews in which they could confide their feelings and problems with a friendly mood (Mullins, 2007). The last phase was the bank wiring observation room experiments. The existence of informal organization was found within the working groups. There were also norms such as “do not be a rate-buster or squealer’ and sanctions such as “tap on upper arm” in these informal organizations (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2004). The Hawthorne Academy (2007) drew the conclusion of the bank wiring observation room experiments that “the informal organisation existed to satisfy the more social needs of the workers” and “The formal organisation became target and weapon for the informal organisation of the workers which demanded expression and satisfaction”.

Contribution made by the Hawthorne experiments
The Hawthorne studies tend to be the single most important piece of empirical industrial social science ever undertaken. The contribution made by the Hawthorne studies can be mainly divided into two parts: contribution to the theoretical social science and to the practical society.

Contribution to the theoretical social science
It is generally agreed that the Hawthorne studies were significant parts in the development of human relations approach and act as stimulus in organizational behaviour for exploring variables that drive human behaviour to work (Olson et al, 2004). Organizational behaviour is the study and application of knowledge about how individuals, groups act in organizations. The aim of the organizational behaviour is to build better relationships by achieving human objectives, organizational objectives and social objectives. Before the Hawthorne studies, classical scientific management theories such as Fordism and Taylorism were very popular in the field of organizational behaviour. Maslow (1998) indicated that these theories held the idea that workers are passive, isolated individuals. Moreover, workers were considered to working with a sole motivation: wage, namely money. Classical theories’ holders concentrated on structure of the formal organization as a whole and did not concern about organizational members (Mullins, 2007). Azrilalias (2007) said that “The period between the 1920 and 1930 saw the introduction of the Hawthorne Studies and brought about radical changes in organisational behaviour”. The reason for this seemed to be the human relations approach of management, which originated from the Hawthorne studies conducted by Elton Mayo, denied prior assumptions of worker behavior made by classical theories. With the Hawthorne studies’ result, the human relations approach believes that people go to work not simply to get monetary reward but also to satisfy their complex social needs (Mullins, 2007). This approach held the ideas as “democratic management” and “participative management”. That means attention should be paid to workers’ psychological and social needs. The reason for this is that the Hawthorne studies led to a widespread acceptance of workers’ social needs rather than economic needs were the dominant factors in the process of increasing organizational output. That is to say, workers tend to be “social man” in stead of “economic man”. In terms of emphasis placement, unlike classical management theories, the human relations approach focused on relations between individuals in stead of the whole organization and it highlighted the importance of the informal organization. These properties of the human relations approach seemed make it much more effectual in increasing organizational productivity. According to Smith (1998), from the point of view of the developing human relations movement, there have been no better exemplars than the Hawthorne studies. The human relation approach adopted in the Hawthorne studies almost increased rate of production by 20% to 40%. Thus, it can be argued that the Hawthorne studies generated and proved the human relations approach, and that fact led to an innovation in the discipline of organizational behaviour. Some active scholars in the organizational behaviour field, such as William Foote Whyte, even considered the Hawthorne studies to be the origin of the behavioural science research. The reason was that the Hawthorne studies had led to development of the study of human relations approach (Whyte, 1987).

The Hawthorne studies also left the social science an enduring legacy which is called “Hawthorne effect”. Mayo (1933), the key member in designing the Hawthorne studies, argued that the productivity of Hawthorne works had improved in the illumination experiments might because the test participants were implied the change of variables would increase their productivity and they might be flattered and motivated under concern from researchers during the experiments. That is Mayo’s prominent interpretation of the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect is often considered to be the most valuable findings of the experiments (Coutts, 2003). However, the term Hawthorne effect had not been used in the Hawthorne experiments and it was brought forward by subsequent sociological literature. After the term Hawthorne effect was raised, it has been widely quoted in articles especially in academic psychological and sociological reports. The Hawthorne Academy (2007) mentioned it is generally agreed that the Hawthorne effect can contaminate the results of sociological studies. That is why psychologists and sociologists have become more cautious to avoid the Hawthorne effect since its discovery. Thus, despite that the Hawthorne effect is an obstacle of psychological and sociological studies; it has really helped researchers to include psychological and social variables in the experiments so as to make experiments more holistic and convincible.

In addition, the Hawthorne studies also led to revolution in methodology, particularly in interviewing method. One of the changes was real test results and figures were implemented in the studies rather than relying on sources from library or laboratory. In respect of interviewing method, the original direct interview method was based on questions which had been selected before the interview (Gale, 2004). This inflexible interviewing technology subjected interviewees to follow the interviewer’s thought. The experience from employee interviews in the Hawthorne studies made interviewing process and questions more open to interviewees and made interviewers likely to be listeners rather than questioners. This non-oriented method of interview provides a friendly atmosphere for interviewees to relive their grievances by expressing. Therefore, it was widely adopted in medical and psychological consultations.

Lastly, the Hawthorne studies caused the debate over its significance which lasted until today. (Sonnenfeld, 1983). Studies taken for the debate have been credited with contributing to redirect disciplines of sociology, psychology and social anthropology, and with helping to build fields of social psychology, industrial relations, and organization behavior (ibid).

Contribution to the practical society
Compared with the Hawthorne studies’ contribution to the social science, its contribution to the practical society seems not so prominent. Nevertheless, the Hawthorne studies were still meaningful to the practical world. Hart (1943) mentioned that the Hawthorne studies laid the foundation of a new of personnel work style which views workers as total personalities in total situations. This new type of personnel work shifted the attention of managers from physical and monetary incentives of workers towards the social setting of workers and their social needs. In addition, it was considered to be the best piece of work ever undertaken in exploring the morale. For that reason, this type of personnel work was helpful in increasing rates of organizational output and it was applied extensively. Without the evolutional studies done by Elton Mayo, workers’ welfare might not have been considered by managers and they might have less motivation and interaction. If that happens, globalization will be impossible (Azrilalias, 2007).
The Hawthorne studies also contributed to the practical society by introducing the personnel counselling programme. The personnel counselling programme generated from the interview programmes of the Hawthorne experiments and surged across U.S. industries from 1935 to about the mid-1950s (Highhouse, 2007). It was adopted widely to placate grievances of workers even before official representation. However, it died down quickly after the 1950s as it had been used as a tool to suppress union activity.

Debates on the Hawthorne studies
The Hawthorne studies have been subjected to criticisms since it was conducted. Critics mainly focused ideological and methodological aspects of the Hawthorne studies. Ideological critics thought that the view of the studies was too narrow and the role of whole organization was ignored while the methodological critics concentrated on the studies’ conditions, the experiments’ design and the data analysis (Sonnenfeld, 1983). There were also many defenders of the Hawthorne studies and they have been arguing with the critics for decades of years.

Ideological debates
Most criticisms in the early years stressed the Hawthorne studies’ ideological problems rather than the experiments. Critics argued that the Hawthorne studies presented an inadequate and narrow view of society. They emphasized that the intrinsic class conflict of interest was neglected in the Hawthorne studies and an assumed pro-management bias was used to manipulate the workers (Sonnenfeld, 1983). For example, Mills (1948) charged that there was little mention of the organizational class function and power function. On the other hand, defences of the ideological seemed more reasonable. The critics of the Hawthorne studies seemed to focus on the ignorer of outside sources conflict; however, the studies did pay close attention to the relationships between individuals and the organization, namely the conflict inside the plant (Sonnenfeld, 1983). Landsberger (1958) responded the ideological attacks by indicating that Mayo had already shown his deep concern about the way to submerge workers in collective activities. Moreover, the most comprehensive report of the Hawthorne experiment “Management and the Worker” disapproved the accusation that the experiments were pro-management by documenting the arbitrariness, favoritism, and callousness shown by management towards the Western Electric workers (Morse, 1961).

Methodological debates
The methodological criticisms mainly concentrated on parts of the experiments in stead of the entire Hawthorne research. There are three main aspects covered by these critics and these aspects are: studies’ conditions, the experiments’ design and the data analysis.

In term of studies’ conditions, Franke and Kaul found strong evidence that the fear of job loss due to onslaught of the great depression caused 14% of the variance related to average hourly output (Wardwell, 1979). They also stated that managerial discipline was a variable which may influence the productivity (ibid). Nevertheless, these factors were not considered in the research. From the point of view of critics such as Schalaifer (1980), however, the discipline and the economic depression tended to be less powerful than time to determine the variance of output. Moreover, the great depression had not yet hit when the relay assembly test room experiments were being undertaken (Sonnenfeld, 1983).

The experiments’ design has suffered from several competing views also. Critics like Grill (2002), maintained that the researchers could not match experimental and control groups by using randomization or systematic controlling methods in the illumination experiments. There was even no control group in the relay assembly text room experiments to control extraneous variables. Defenders responded that the Hawthorne studies were not intended to test or refute a certain theory but only to generate hypotheses (Sonnenfeld, 1985). Carey (1967) complained that there was no attempt in the Hawthorne studies to make sample groups which can represent a larger population. Carey (1967) also said that even if this point had been met, the experiments can hardly yield any reliable result as their small size of groups. As a defender of the Hawthorne studies, Whitehead (1938) pointed out that the use of a small sample could be appropriate as long as each member is treaded as an organization and events can be studied according to the natural time sequence and their organizational relationships.

Considering the data analysis, there was a famous criticism called the learning hypothesis which was advanced by Parsons. Parsons (1974) asserted that in the relay assembly test room experiments, improved conditions, which including the piece rate payment, a smaller group and a mechanical output recording device, together with the frequent performance feedback can accelerate workers’ learning for different relay models. Thus, it should have been considered as a major determinant of the output increase. From perspective of defenders, however, the different wage incentive approaches could not induce a steady increase of productivity and the daily performance feedback was not so novel for workers (Sonnenfeld, 1983). Furthermore, Whitehead (1938) demonstrated that there was no relationship between weekly relay type changes and weekly output rate. Just as Pitcher (1981, P146) said, “Statistical analysis is meaningless, however, when the substantive evidence does not support the assumptions underlying the analysis”. There were also critics such as Franke (1979) claimed that in the relay assembly test room experiments phase, the addition of two replacement workers rather than the change of welfare factors had led to a dramatic increase in group output without regarding of the qualitative support. Wardwell (1979) had already recognised this, pointing out that the increase of quantitative data of productivity was natural but because of the participation of two new productive works. However, defenders argued that an examination showed that these two works had not increased their output any more.

To sum up, there has never been an absolute accurate evaluation on the Hawthorne studies. The reasons for this are that criteria used to evaluating the research vary from person to person and debates on the research continue until today. Admittedly, the Hawthorne studies are neither perfect designed experiments nor the poorly designed experiments which demonstrate nothing but the need for carful control in scientific researches. Nevertheless, the Hawthorne studies can be viewed in a comprehensive way. Considering about the Hawthorne studies’ contribution to the theoretical social science which consists of contribution to the human relations approach, the Hawthorne effect an and to the change of methodology as well as practical society, it can be argued that the Hawthorne studies were the most important piece of empirical industrial social science ever undertaken. However, the research has been suffering both ideological and methodological criticisms. Although a number of defenders debated with critics, the Hawthorne studies do have problems both in designing process and in data analysis process. These problems of the research tend to make the Hawthorne studies more contributable as they caused numerous debates in different fields which even lasted to today, and debates can always promote development and application of science.


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By: Liu Shangchao, NAES
Time: May, 2012

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