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Industrial Sociology


The term industrialization connotes the development of social organizations, generally in nation-states in which large manufacturing enterprises loom large and in which adjunctive legal institutions supporting laissez-faire philosophies of market relationships and providential public and private services grow with them in tandem. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations became early on, after its appearance in 1776, a kind of founding blueprint for the exploitation of private interests and initiatives in the service of the "general good." Industrial sociological studies accordingly focus on the "causes" or prerequisites for, the correlates of (in family, community, and other social settings), and the consequences of the industrialization process, largely in social systems governed in accord with eighteenth-century liberalism, with its emphases on the economic rights of property owners and their agents.

The key consequences under examination have been the "rights, privileges, and immunities" of parties to labor contracts; the characteristic social and economic relationships among investors, producers, workers, and consumers in Western societies and, in turn, the circumstances of dependents, communities, and regions; and, finally, the resulting stabilities and changes in the social, economic, and political structures of the nations in which all these persons live.

Those whose research and teaching agendas include several of these broad domains draw very heavily on specialists in "world systems," economic development, economic determinism, legal institutions, social stratification, public policy, organizations, urban sociology and community studies, labor markets, and economic sociology. A number of issues treated elliptically in these lines of research, especially those addressed by French, German, British, Italian and Japanese scholars, are discussed in relevant articles in this Encyclopedia.

Industrial sociology as a distinguishable if very broad field of study may truly be said to have been born in the late 1770s, so continuous with their forebearers' interests have been many of the specific subjects of concern of modern investigators. Systematic studies of social organizations in industrial societies date from the long-celebrated if not always carefully read analyses by Adam Smith, who addressed philosophical issues having to do with economic activities and related "moral sentiments" early in his writings and then turned to his widely known and enduring work on the social (macroscopic) and organizational (microscopic) roles in society of capitalists and, more famously, of labor. Smith regarded labor and its effective mobilization and utilization, not the fruits of mercantilism (i.e., the quantity of gold and silver imported from colonies and the exportation of finished goods), as the real sources of what he termed the wealth of nations. Smith's studies of the superiority of specialized divisions of labor in a pin factory became a template for studies of the personal and social costs and benefits of manufacturing enterprises by scholars of all political colors.

Furthermore, Smith's analyses and urgings about the benefits of free trade, of constraining the role of government in economic affairs, of the critical roles of increasingly differentiated divisions of labor, and of the emergence of the "factory system" in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century England staked out most of the basic subjects of modern industrial sociologists' research studies: economic organizations; managers' and workers' ways; the correlates of technology and divisions of labor; economic exchange and trade; questions about the roles of central governments in economies, and about innumerable regulatory measures affecting workplaces; and, finally, the distributive effects of industrialization on national stratification systems.

Industrial sociologists can also trace their roots to Charles Dickens's very popular literary treatments of life in early-nineteenth-century England and to other early and more pointedly social, economic, and political reformers in Europe. Thus, investigators now undertake studies with debts to English and French critics, commentators, and philosophers whose works are captured in the term "the Enlightenment"; to Henri St. Simon's urgings about the application of scientific rationality to social organization; to Karl Marx's historicist treatments of capitalism's problematical "maturer" states; to the pros and cons in arguments about nascent trade union movements; to debaters arguing over alternative welfare, trade, and other initiatives by governments; and to assessments of the philosophical legitimacy of the emerging stratification of societies, as variant forms of aristocracy gave way to variant forms of more representative governments. Dickens's characterization of an employers' association that resisted safety guards on moving machine parts as "The Association for the Mangling of Operatives" and his and his audiences' concerns about the improvement of working conditions presaged a great deal of the work of industrial sociologists in the twentieth century, most of whom have been critical of unfettered markets. Continuities since the nineteenth century, meantime, in all but methods of research, have been notable. The subjects pursued include the forces that virtually compel ever more differentiated divisions of labor; the effects of different patterns of national income distribution; and the contributions of these forces to the rise, expansion, and characters of both "blue-collar" labor forces and, overlapping with them, the expansion of middle classes in urban centers; the forces that contribute to the rise of trade unions and the resulting growth of new systems of law that have changed the nature of property and property claims to include more than physical capital and realty; the forces that have contributed to the decline in small agricultural holdings, small towns, and rural areas; and, withal, the forces that generally make social life more secular, political life more democratic or undemocratic, and working life more bureaucratic.

During the period from 1900 to 1950, much of the macro-level research that continued to add to present-day conceptions of the body of industrial sociological literature was actually performed by institutional economists—in the United States principally students of labor, management, and the "legal foundations of capitalism", in the tradition of the "Wisconsin" or (J.R.) "Commons School" (Commons and associates 1926, 1935, 1936). These investigators also founded the field of industrial relations, whose practitioners' work has perennially overlapped with that of industrial sociologists. In more recent times, sociologists have essentially inherited what has come to be seen as the "institutional tradition" in economics, a longtime tradition in that discipline that has given way, in the post–World War II world, to mathematical modeling and econometrics. Parallel works in western Europe have similarly been informed by Sydney and Beatrice Webb and by pre–World War I Christian democratic and secular left-liberal traditions in France and Germany.

In the period after World War I, industrial sociologists gave increasing attention to the positive and negative social effects of business cycles: "Busts" undoubtedly helped to purge national economies of many types of waste and inefficiencies and thus contributed to subsequent "booms." At the same time, however, busts sparked unwelcome recessions and depressions, with their subversive effects on growth, employment levels, and thus on the living standards, attitudes, and behavior of most citizens. Researchers' attentions, in the 1930s especially, focused correlatively on the growth of large corporations in the Western democracies; the pros and cons of aggressive price competition; and the possibly leavening effects of unions and of interventions by the "positive state" against the centralization of economic and thus, potentially, of political power in private hands, such that some of the less admirable correlates of capitalist systems could be controlled. Generally the researchers sought not so much to traduce "big business" as to identify constraints on private economic power that would not reduce the benefits to societies of large corporations' productive capacities. The emergence of fascism in Germany in the 1930s embodied widespread apprehensions about both big government and the reach of the communist revolution in what became the USSR.

Systematic attention toward the middle of this period was also given to what is now termed the global economy, often in the form of studies of the effects of the international trade barriers that contributed so significantly to the collapse of the Western industrial economies—the so-called Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The political and economic interdependencies among nations—and those among classes of economic actors within them—became increasingly palpable to researchers, who began to see economies more clearly in terms of the structures of individual industries and industry groupings—new chapters in the all-important story of the causes and correlates of the division of labor (Brady 1943). Additionally, unions were gaining in their appeal, beyond skilled tradesmen, to industrial, "mass-production" assembly workers. Among the questions pursued by sociologists were those having to do with the prospects that a coherent working class would emerge in the United States out of the ferment of the pre–World War II era. Incipient "class warfare" could be tamed, if not quashed, by reforms that are collectively referred to nowadays as revisions in the (Jean-Jacques Rousseau's) "social contract" and by the construction of social "safety nets" of types that are currently being critically assessed in both the United States and in western Europe; renewed and very vigorous industrial price competition has contributed significantly to concerns about expansion of central government "welfare" budgets in competition with funds for private investment.

Finally, by the 1920s and into the 1940s, there were growing concerns about whether Benito Mussolini's "corporate state" and Adolf Hitler's Third Reich represented a kind of conspiracy of fascists with Italy's and Germany's financial and manufacturing leaders (Neumann 1942) against those, especially in the three Communists Internationals, who were perceived by conservatives to be urging workers to turn to the revolutionary political left. This subject earned much increased attention after World War II; joined by historians' work in the 1950s, the social scientific literature on the social sources of totalitarian systems has become extensive, one of the recurring questions in this literature being whether the seeds of "totalitarianism of the right" germinate especially well in "capitalist" soil (Moore 1973). The answers from sociologists' studies, however, have tended to focus on the fragility of support for democratic institutions in most societies. These studies have analyzed the vulnerabilities of democracies to losses of the confidence of large numbers of citizens victimized by major and long-enduring economic collapses, rather than on markets' preoccupation with putative contradictions in capitalism per se, as a key reason for the appeal of social movements on the political right. Suffering from traumatic social, political, and economic discontinuities, sociologists reported, could all too easily contribute to the delivery of the loyalties of many—from Rome and Naples in Italy, to Marienthal in Austria, to Berlin in Germany, and to Buenos Aires in Argentina—to demagogues and "scapegoaters". Indeed, these studies led social psychologists among sociologists to important and widely influential discoveries about scapegoating phenomena that could generate poisonous race and ethnic relations (Adorno et al. 1950).

At what we may call the "mesoscopic"—middle—levels of analyses, industrial sociologists, in loose confederation with the more institutionally oriented scholars among labor economists, turned their attention in the pre–World War II period to the implications of the levels of aggregate demand (and deficiencies thereof) for the structures and experiences of communities before and during the Great Depression [as in Muncie, ("Middle-town"), Indiana, in the United States]; to the disinclinations of unemployed Americans to "blame the system" (rather than themselves) for their sad circumstances during the Great Depression; and to the pros and cons of government intervention in national economies and of the construction of the aforementioned "safety nets" for victims of economic downturns.

Not least among sociologists' interests were those in the stratification of societies, especially respecting the distribution of wealth and income among individuals and families; the behavior of economic elites in local communities; and the causes and correlates of social mobility. In the latter matter, evidence mounted that the economic successes and failures of individuals could not be attributed simply to their ambition, "drive," and hard work—or their lack of these oft-praised qualities. Indeed, many successes and failures are grounded in opportunity structures, not the least important of which are individuals' access to third-party "bonding" agents and access to formal education and training. While most economists have equated their educational achievement, or lack thereof, to earners' incomes without further ado, sociologists have urged that imperfections in markets enabled American employers to assume that better-educated workers were more productive and to pass on the costs of such an assumption to consumers (Berg 1970). For economists, bettereducated workers are paid more because they are more productive, but their measure of productivity is income, not actual output, as a supposedly valid measure of output.

The advent of World War II brought many industrial sociologists to focus, not without a degree of patriotic fervor, on organizational arrangements in relation to the need to heighten productivity gains in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the world's arsenal of democracy. Studies of workers' groups in industry in the late 1920s, many conducted by applied sociologists linked to academic business schools (at Harvard University especially), had already indicated that most workers were as responsive to work-group "peer pressures" to fix production quotas at rates below those contemplated by managers and by their time-and-motion experts as they were to economic incentives. These findings were replicated many times between 1929 and 1985. This view of workers' motives continues to inform the urging by many sociologists that we go beyond conventional economic studies of wage administration in seeking to understand the ways of citizens in their workplaces. At issue are the respective roles of communitarian and of individualistic predispositions among workers.

With a few very noble exceptions, and for the majority's own good reasons, economists conceive of production organizations as essentially unproblematic "givens" into which resources are pumped and from which outputs flow. Sociologists' lessons about organizations as social systems, which balanced the valuable lessons taught by economists, were widely applied in the electrical appliances industry, the airframes industry, and in automobile, steel, and other industrial settings. The lesson: Identify work groups and win over workers' groups and their leaders to corporate aims; then reap the benefits of the support of not-so-rugged individualists in workplaces, who often respond more favorably to group norms than to group-disrupting industrial incentive-type pay plans. As it turned out, these lessons were perhaps applied somewhat more assiduously from 1960 to 1990 in Japan than in the United States, where worker participation in organizational decision making and work reforms have appealed to comparatively fewer employers despite the possible benefits of "humanized" personnel policies. Researchers have discovered that U. S. managers' interest in worker participation tends to wax when there labor market conditions are "tight"—that is, high demand for workers—and wane when they are "loose." In Western managers' theory at least, human resources are factors of production—commodities—and the treatments of these factors are functions more of short-run market conditions than of long-term concern about the qualities of work life (O'Toole 1974). The latter concerns find more expression in collective bargaining relationships and in remedial legislation, with the endorsement and help of many sociologists who are skeptical of managers as patrons, than in initiatives by employers who are skeptical of the benefits of "codeterminative" relations with workers, such as those requiring worker representations on boards of directors under laws in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.


In present-day industrial sociology, the main subjects of study have been (1) the increasingly important roles of education and training in shaping Americans' opportunities (Jencks et al. 1979); (2) the relationships between the significant differences in circumstances between managers and workers in "core" industries and managers and workers in "internal labor markets" on the one hand, and the lower-paid, appreciably less capitalized, smaller, more vulnerable establishments in the "peripheries" of economies on the other (Kalleberg 1983); (3) in the correlates—income and otherwise—of discrimination against women and minorities; and (4) the problems of those who simply are not well integrated into the labor force, the so-called underclass (Wilson 1987). These newer topics have taken their places with continuing studies of work groups; industrial conflict; mobility patterns; the evolving roles of public policies and the state; the politics of income distribution; and intramural studies of organizations, their decision-making arrangements, and, more recently, their "cultures."

Studies by industrial sociologists are increasingly comparative in character, as these researchers seek to identify cultural and political factors—such as belief systems and constitutional arrangements, respectively—that influence the effectiveness of different nations' populations in efforts to mobilize human and other resources, motivate leaders and their human charges, design productive organizations, and make and provide goods and services (Cole 1989; Lincoln and Kalleberg 1990).

Overall, industrial sociologists have contributed to the delineation of options facing leaders in government but less so to enterprises, unions, and urban communities. During the period until 1970, industrial sociologists' investigations moved in increasingly specialized directions.

One thrust brought a large group of the field's leaders to concentrate on organizations (Coleman 1982; Stinchcombe 1990; Thompson 1967). In rich elaborations and embellishments on Max Weber's pioneering work on bureaucracies, sociologists in the United States and western Europe have ventured into "the Japanese factory"; the Tennessee Valley Authority; banks; mental hospitals; British coal mines; a gypsum mine; a state employment agency; schools, prisons and equivalent "total institutions"; a foundry; the U.S. Military Academy; steel mills (in the United States and Europe); German, Soviet, and Czech manufactories; the military establishment; French family firms; social movements; labor unions; merchant ships; American soldiers' organized experiences in and out of World War II combat; and the YMCA—to mention just a few contexts and populations about which studies were completed (Hall 1987; Perrow 1986).

While the vast body of literature produced by the observers in this disparate array of organizations has received little acclaim in the media, it is a sign of the importance of these investigators' findings, assessments, and consequent theories that their work is basic to the curricula of the very influential graduate schools of business and management, from Harvard to Berkeley, from Seattle to Miami, and from Maine to Los Angeles—and in Scandinavia; Germany; France; the United Kingdom; Japan; and, by the 1990s, Moscow. The lessons learned: It is possible to design a great many optional variations on the specific structures of hierarchical organizations, their intramural arrangements, and the "production relations" therein, to meet the exigencies confronting managers and their charges in dealings with each other; with competitors, clients, customers, suppliers, subcontractors, regulators, third-party insurers, and community forces; and with labor market developments.

Industrial sociologists—whether "majors" from colleges or holders of masters and doctoral degrees, some of whom work as consultants or as technicians or managers in corporate settings—offer prescriptions for improving employee morale and marketing programs (from demographic assessments to surveys of customer attitudes); for designing optimal "mixes" of wage and salary schedules with supplementary benefits; for reducing supplementary benefits; for reducing absenteeism and turnover; for productivity "enhancement"; for designing therapeutic (rather than custodial) environments in mental health care agencies; and for constructing occupational safety programs, grievance machinery, and quality control programs.

A second group moved away from these more microscopic studies of organizations to study the social, economic, and political development of whole societies, some in historical terms during the post–World War II era, including India's, China's, Italy's, Japan's, and Germany's (actually "redevelopment" in the latter two cases), and the USSR's systems. Among the lessons were important guidelines to understanding the stabilities of some and the flexibilities of other social-cultural values that gave distinctive national shape to individual countries' brands of industrialization. It is clear that while the "common denominators" in the paths to both growth and development—the latter a matter of the degree of distributive justice in a society and the former a matter of increases in gross national product—are numerous, there are instructive differences as well (Inkeles and Smith 1974).

Indeed, a consortium of scholars, many of them sociologists studying "industrialization and industrial man" in comparative-international terms, produced well over forty volumes and a great many shorter pieces on the convergences and divergences among industrial and industrializating nations over the period 1955–1975 (Dunlop et al. 1975; Kerr and Dunlop 1973). These works of scholarship have helped thousands of leaders in governments, large corporations, labor unions, and international agencies to make judgments about investments (both public and private); social, political, and economic policies; and the aptness of designs of organizations in what is now truly a global economy in which nations' planning efforts are turning, more and more, toward market and away from command economies (Yergin and Stanislaw, 1998). The conclusions at the end of 1990, in a continuing body of research following the preceding twenty-four months of changes in eastern Europe and the USSR, were that the "marketizing" and democratization movements in previously planned economies would assuredly reduce divergences among industrial systems but would by no means eliminate entirely the influence of discrete national cultures in shaping the practices and institutions, from child rearing to legal structures, that help, in turn, to shape social relations in a given nation's enterprises, as some sociologists have long argued.

A third constituency moved "below" organizational levels to study the dynamics of work groups within organizations, picking up on the work of the previously mentioned human relations school before, during, and after World War II. This group of scholars drew heavily on earlier sociologists' insights and theories—from Georg Simmel, Charles Cooley, and George Herbert Mead, and especially from the massive number of post–World War II publications of data and analyses from one of the first very-large-sample and sophisticated social scientific surveys of wartime American soldiers (Inkeles 1964). These reports gave abundant corroboration to the findings in industry, by earlier human relations investigators, concerning the critical importance of small groups and their norms in efforts to understand individual attitudes and behavior (Homans 1950). The applications of these findings—in studies of satisfaction, leadership, morale, productivity, grievances, absenteeism, turnover, and incentive systems—have become staples in training programs for supervisors and foremen in the United States and in delineating jobs and designing work flows across American industries (Perrow 1986; Porter et al. 1975). A new group of business school educators in western Europe has generated very similar programs tailored to take account of the historical and cultural imperatives of managers and workers in different countries. The growing integration of Europe's economies and the mobility of their citizen promises to add to the convergence in the ways and means of financing and directing economic organizations.

A fourth group has focused on industries and occupations as special and highly significant aspects of organizations' "external environments" and as subsets of America's systems of social stratification. Sociological studies of whole industries—their personnel and collective bargaining policies especially—have often informed public agencies' regulations, legislators' bills, and judges' decisions. Analyses of differences among industries and occupations have helped leaders in government, business, and labor unions to understand better the dynamics of industrial conflict; the character and effectiveness of organizations; and the complexities in identifying the effects of physical technology—capital—in the spinning of "webs of rules" (Kerr et al. 1973) that, for all of their de facto and even informal character, function very much like governance systems in the workaday world (Kalleberg and Berg 1987). In their most formal states, these systems—arbitration procedures, for example—sometime mature into what the U. S. Supreme Court in 1960, in a "trilogy" of cases that defined the role of arbitration in industrial relations, called "systems of industrial common law" (i.e., as legal systems virtually unto themselves). Otherwise, more implicitly, as with work rules that establish "how fast is fast, how fair is fair, and how reasonable is reasonable", the webs of rules define relationships and codes applicable to both employers and employees that afford a kind of lubrication to the mechanics of human interactions in bureaucratic machines, with their close tolerances, involving millions of persons in hundreds of thousands of workplaces. Sociological studies of the costs and benefits to employees and employers (and ultimately to the public) of work rules, for example, have helped transform emotionally charged arguments about "featherbedding", "soldiering," and "goldbricking" (all efforts to escape irksome chores) into coherent and constructive debates about nonmonetary dimensions of working conditions. Studies of work rules suggest that "informal organizations" within parent organizations are really not so much informal as they are what Durkheim long ago called "the noncontractual element of contracts"; sociologists have demonstrated that though these patterned, enduring, and bilaterally honored arrangements do not appear on an organization's wall charts, they are significant components of organizational life unto themselves, not mere shadows of more familiar and more palpable structures.

Meanwhile, the discoveries in international comparisons of data on grievances and strikes—that there are numerous short strikes and many grievances in the United States and few but long strikes and virtually no grievance procedures in western Europe for example—have led researchers, employers, and union leaders to appreciate the value of expeditious "on-site" bargaining relationships, on a day-to-day basis, such that emotional affect in disagreements may be drawn off and tensions relaxed before out-and-out conflicts disrupt production and social relations. It seems clear that these day-to-day adjustments and accommodations occur even as the efficacy of unions has declined in the United States and will likely wane in the "Euro" countries.

At the same time, the costs as well as the benefits of federal laws requiring that unions be democratic have helped us to make more realistic estimates about democratic arrangements' capacities to function as panaceas; democracy, for example, offers no guarantees against corruption, nor does it assure harmonious relations between parties to collective bargaining agreements. Sociologists have also documented a kind of (perhaps understandable) hypocrisy regarding democracy: Many lay observers and most labor columnists are delighted by unionists who vote to ratify contracts or to "decertify" their bargaining agents but are appalled by "strike votes."

Still another group of specialists have concentrated their attentions on worker satisfactions, dissatisfactions, and work experiences, by use of survey research designs that involve both periodic "snapshots" of different working Americans (and Japanese and west Europeans) and repeated observations of these same respondents, in "panel studies," over long time periods. These designs also make it possible to study "cohort effects," that is, the effects of reaching a given age in different time periods, each with their different qualities regarding a variety of social realities (Quinn et al. 1974). Thus there are significant differences, for example, in the experiences (and their attitudes about them) of workers, depending on whether they entered the labor force in 1960, 1970, 1980, or 1990. Sociologists can accordingly raise thoughtful questions about the implications, for public and private policies, of changing social definitions of aging, for example, in juxtaposition and contrast with essentially arbitrary public policies that fix eligibilities for a number of services and benefits on the basis of the chronological ages of individuals; not all those now 65 years old think, act, or want to be treated as a homogeneous class of senior citizens, nor have they had the same life histories, on average, as those who reached that age in 1940, 1960, or 1980.

Finally, the advent and continuing engagements of the civil rights movements have sparked the expenditure of a great deal of research effort on the comparative socioeconomic opportunities of men and women, and of minority group members in these groups (Jacobs 1989; Jaynes and Williams 1989). The findings by sociologists in these investigations have figured prominently in the drafting of legislation, legal suits, and employment policies, as well as in landmark civil rights decisions in courts at all levels.

In their work, as noted at the outset, a shrinking population of traditional industrial sociologists have drawn on work by sociologists in virtually every one of the profession's own major areas of interest with alacrity and have, in turn, seen much of their work inform the work of these other specialists. There has been similar intellectual commerce with social psychologists, industrial relations practitioners, and with full-time nonacademic social scientist practitioners in private enterprises, public agencies, universities, and research and other organizations in foreign lands, especially in the United Kingdom; Yugoslavia; Germany; Japan; France; Scandinavia; Canada; Italy; and what has, for so long, been called eastern Europe (Adams 1991; Barr, 1994; Freeman, 1994).

Industrial sociologists will likely grow in numbers in the years ahead, despite the growth of service sectors and information technology across the globe, as the global economy's structures will tend to be more related to multilateral regional pacts among nations with shared currencies, laws, and macroeconomic policies that will reshape the political, economic, and social characters of member nations.


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Ivar Berg

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