Follett, Mary Parker

views updated

Follett, Mary Parker



Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) was a social philosopher who attempted to apply the principles she deduced to practical problems in business, politics, and social work. She was born a member of an old Quincy, Massachusetts, family and was educated at Thayer Academy, Radcliffe College, and the Sorbonne. While still a student at Radcliffe she spent the year 1890-1891 at Newnham College, Cambridge, England, where she formed many lifelong friendships. Her intellectual contribution to the social sciences is contained in two books, The New State (1918) and Creative Experience (1924), and a posthumous collection of papers, Dynamic Administration, published in 1942 (see 1926-1930). She died in London.

Among the earliest to see the importance of the group in understanding an individual and his thoughts, she rejected schemes which postulate a dualism between the individual and society, as well as most other forms of causal interaction between these two entities, in favor of the notion of integration.

The New State is a plea for a political order based on an interlocking hierarchy of membership groups, beginning at the neighborhood level. The unit of the community is the socialized individual, that is to say, the individual who, through associational membership, has become a fully participating member of society. This is the new individualism of the new state. In the ideal democracy, therefore, integration of the individual personality and the society is so complete that no conflict, either psychological or social, is conceivable. “Democracy does not register various opinions; it is an attempt to create unity” (1918, p. 209).

In Creative Experience Follett discussed the prevention and elimination of the failure of integration, that is, of social conflict. She was particularly interested in problems of social change and conflict in small-scale social systems, such as factories, wage boards, regulating commissions, community centers, and neighborhoods.

The concept of circular response, developed in Creative Experience and in later essays and lectures, is her principal contribution to the analysis of failures of integration. Circular response rests upon the theory that the unit of social analysis is the pattern of relations between actors, conceived as a single situation produced by a union of their interests (1924, p. 188). No response by an actor is wholly predictable for he must continually modify his behavior to adjust to the expected responses of others, who constitute his environment. This modulation of both the activity and the sentiments of the actors in an environment constitutes circular response. As Follett put it: “The most fundamental thought about all this is that reaction is always reaction to a relating. ... I never react to you but to you-plus-me; or to be more accurate, it is I-plus-you reacting to You-plus-me” (1924, p. 62). Somewhat similar theories have been used by Foote and Cottrell (1955), but their chosen unit of analysis is the episode or event rather than the single social act.

Thus, the only good solution to social conflict is not compromise, not conquest, but integration. Integration in this context means the creation of a novel solution that penalizes no one and that becomes the only sure base for progress toward an ideal democracy. If integration is to be achieved, various forms of coordination must be introduced as fundamental principles of organization: (1) direct contact between the responsible people who have to carry out policies, rather than hierarchical control; (2) early contact between these responsible people, so that policy may be created by them, rather than later meetings that can only try to resolve differences between policies already evolved by isolated groups; (3) the reciprocal relating of all factors in a situation, that is, equal attention to all the variables in the social system.

Coordination in these various forms is a continuing process, since in any complex social environment there exist many points of creativity, and established policies can never be executed as designed but must constantly be reformed in consonance with basic goals.

The sources of Follett’s ideas are to be found in the thinking of her own time: she borrowed much from Cooley’s concept of the primary group, which became her ideal social setting, and from G. H. Mead’s analysis of the “I” and the “me.” Her work also reflects the psychological approach to politics of such English political philosophers as Graham Wallas as well as the emphasis on purpose or will or thought in contemporary idealist political thinking. Follett did not appreciate the role of institutional structures, bureaucracy, or force. She firmly rejected Durkheim’s proposition that social facts may be conceived of as “things,” and her approach to the concept of the state was unsophisticated. She never mentioned the existence of legitimate power or the prevalence of legitimized and idealized peace that has its source in bloody conquest.

Her early papers were in political analysis, but she later found that she could more conveniently study the operation of political influences in industrial systems. Her positions in the Department of Vocational Guidance of the Boston school system and on the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board gave her access to basic data with which to test her generalizations. She never presented her data in the form of tables, preferring to communicate by generalization and illustrative story.

Professional sociologists have tended to ignore Follett’s writings, although they contain many interesting and sensible statements on the subjects of primary group analysis and the creative process in society. Nor are there many references to her work in writings on industrial relations or political science. Curiously, the pluralistic concept of the state is occasionally attributed to her by political scientists (for example, de Grazia 1952), although she had been highly critical of that concept in The New State: her emphasis on integrative behavior is not compatible with the concept of the state as an amalgam of discrete political groups.




1892 Henry Clay as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. American Historical Association, Annual Report [1891]: 255-265.

(1896) 1909 The Speaker of the House of Representatives. New York: Longmans.

1918 The New State: Group Organization, the Solution of Popular Government. New York: Longmans.

(1924) 1951 Creative Experience. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

(1926-1930) 1942 Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. New York: Harper. ⇒ Contains a bibliography.


DE GRAZIA, ALFRED (1952) 1962 Politics and Government: The Elements of Political Science. 2 vols. New ed., rev. New York: Collier. ⇒ First published as The Elements of Political Science.

FOOTE, NELSON N.; and COTTRELL, LEONARD S. 1955 Identity and Interpersonal Competence: A New Direction in Family Research. Univ. of Chicago Press.

WOOD, ARTHUR E. 1926 The Social Philosophy of Mary P. Follett. Social Forces 4:759-769.