This concept was made famous in mid-1950s America with the publication of William Hollingsworth Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). Sponsored by Fortune Magazine to do extensive interviews with chief executive officers of major companies such as General Electric, Whyte (1917–1999) studied white-collar employees of large, successful corporations in the heyday of the Eisenhower administration. These men did not simply work for the corporate world; they belonged to the Organization. This new stratum of American society was no longer driven by the spirit of individualism that had characterized the early Protestant settlers, the frontier, and nineteenth-century capitalism. A code was emerging that Whyte called the “social ethic,” which involved a new, all-embracing fealty to the corporation. This ethic, which was associated with the growing professionalization of management and a commitment to practical expertise rather than abstract knowledge, emphasized belief in the social group as the fountain of creativity and the importance of “belongingness” for the individual. Whyte’s ethnographic study was a bestseller intended for a nonacademic audience, but it had a serious purpose, which was to argue that the Protestant ethic—the ascetic individualism and sense of calling made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber—was in decline and America was changing profoundly as a result.
Weber, who visited the United States in 1904, recognized a connection between the ascetic sects of American frontier society and the European Reformation, a comparison he outlined in 1905 in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was impressed by the vibrant nature of local religious communities and the obvious connections between American capitalism and the asceticism and individualism of the sects. In contrast to the culture that Weber had observed, the new corporate culture, Whyte argued, did not reward thrift, hard work, and self-reliance. The organization man spent his working day in a committee and was rewarded as an administrator for working “through others for others” (p. 22). The principal influence over corporate culture was not Protestantism, but the pragmatism of John Dewey (1859–1952). Whyte’s analysis formed an important social critique of corporate America, and suggested that the prospects for an energetic entrepreneurial culture were significantly diminished by the social conformism of corporate executives and their managers.
The social ethic of organization men, Whyte claimed, spilled over into their private lives. Personal saving had lost its moral imperative, and young couples in the new corporate culture saved for specific items—houses, cars, or schooling—that would give their lives more security and stability. The organization culture of 1950s suburbia created what came to be called a “lifestyle,” in which couples progressed from a two-bedroom court apartment to a three-bedroom house, and subsequently to a ranch house, a split-level home, and finally, as retirement approached, back into a two-bedroom apartment. These suburbanites chose their friends from a limited social milieu, principally consisting of their suburban neighbors. Church attendance and the education of their children was key to achieving stability and security in lives that were characterized by transience, due to frequent postings to new branches of an organization. The conformist values of the organization also had implications for gender relations. Company wives were expected to be pretty but not sexy, and ambitious, but not too overtly materialistic. Even women’s physical appearance expressed corporate values, which put a premium on female slenderness: As their husband’s income went up, women’s waistlines went down.
Whyte’s ethnography now looks socially obsolete. Organizations at the beginning of the twenty-first century offer not life-long employment but short-term project-based careers, and company downsizing has produced a survival-oriented mentality among employees. Whyte’s picture of the happy wives of organization men carefully managing their suburban households is also historically dated. The stability of life-long commitment to the company has collapsed in the face of intense economic competition in a global economy.
SEE ALSO Bureaucracy; Organizations
Weber, Max.  2002. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. and ed. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin.
Whyte, William Hollingsworth. 1956. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Bryan S. Turner