Hawthrone effect: first contacts between anthropology and business

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Between 1924 and 1932 members of the School of Human Relations conducted research to evaluate the impact of changes in working conditions on the productivity of workers. The research consisted of a series of experiments developed at Hawthorne Works, an industrial complex located outside of Chicago, USA, belonging to Western Electrics an electronics and parts production company. Currently, this type of experiment has become a classic in social research and basic reading for students of management. This is so because their results were instrumental in stepping away from mainstream theories about the productivity of workers and their response to financial stimuli. In addition to this, as I will show later, one of the great conclusions of the experiments has to do with the influence that the researcher him/herself can have on those he or she studies, the so-called “Hawthorne effect”.

Based on reviews made by authors Sergio López (2017) and John Hassard (2012) about the research done at Hawthorne, in this text, I will present a short summary of the experiments developed, with the aim of showing the influence that research techniques proper of anthropology had during the investigation. At the same time, I will address the importance of the anthropological perspective in it.

The story began in 1881 when Alexander Graham Bell, owner of the phone’s patent, acquired shares of the Western Electrics company in Chicago and made it part of the Bell System (which would later become AT & T). Bell’s investment represented the beginning of a great economic boost for both companies and opened the way for Western Electrics to become a center of innovation in the technological and organizational fields (Hassard, 2012). In 1907 the company opened the doors of an industrial complex in Hawthorne, Illinois. By 1914, this plant had become the company’s main and only factory. Three years later the factory had about 25,000 workers, had become a subsidiary of AT & T and maintained a monopoly on the production of telephone equipment and components in the United States.

In 1924, year in which the Hawthrone experiments began, the company was considered one of the largest distributors of electronic equipment in the United States and had been characterized by maintaining a welfare policy for its employees, which, among other things, sought to prevent the formation of unions. The company had a health and pension system, a hospital within the facilities, workers’ clubs, above-average salaries, and good working conditions. All this contributed to generate an attractive corporate profile for the School of Human Relations and its research interests, especially for the number of workers (more than 25,000) and the progressive nature of the company at the administrative level, exemplified by the financial benefits given to the employs, retirement plan and the large portion of women among their workers, something that at the time was not common.

The experiments

To understand the research carried out at Hawthorne Works, one must begin by understanding the way in which the organization was thought within the industries. The theory of business administration at the time had as its main premise that the productivity of workers was directly affected by three elements: (1) infrastructure conditions at the workplace (lighting, noise, etc.); (2) working conditions (work and rest schedules); and (3) the financial incentives offered to workers. This meant that social relations at work and outside of work were discarded as part of the aspects that can affect people’s work life.

Thus, the first experiments carried out in Hawthrone wanted to evaluate the response of workers to changes in working conditions. Seeking to determine the relationship between lighting and the productivity of workers, the researchers separated a group of workers and made them carry out their activities under different lighting conditions. The participants knew that they were part of an investigation, but they had no knowledge of what it entailed. The results, for both groups, were not very different and, in fact, in both cases, the production increased (López 2017). A second experiment evaluated the effect of changes in work and rest schedules. The results were similar, with or without rest the productivity of the participants increased.

A conclusion emerged from these experiments: the changes in productivity were not affected by the modifications made by the researchers in the working place, but by the presence of the latter. That is, workers’ behavior varied when they felt observed and not, for example, due to light levels. This has been categorized as the “Hawthorne effect”. In this particular case, it seemed that the workers increased their performance since they felt that for being selected to participate in the research they should work harder. In other words, they wanted to show the observers what they believed was expected of them.

Examples as the aforementioned show why the “Hawthrone effect” has to be taken into account by any researcher. The presence of those who observe has effects on the practices and behaviors of the ones being observed. As a consequence, the results of the research can be affected, nonetheless, applying multimodal research methods can help handle this issue. Researchers working in Hawthrone were aware of this and implemented innovative methods in the next phases of the project.

Three years after the start of the research the second phase of experimentation started. The psychiatrist of Australian origin Elton Mayo, who had already developed research in the area of industrial psychology, took the lead and proposed to develop interviews based on questionnaires to the workers who had participated in the first phase.  However, after a short time, the researchers realized that the structured interviews were not giving the expected results. At this point, one of the collaborators of the project, the anthropologist Lloyd Warner, suggested the implementation of unstructured interviews that allowed workers to express themselves freely and talk about all the subjects that they believed were linked to their working life.

This type of interviews meant a challenge for the group of researchers, it required people willing to listen without interruption to everything the workers wanted to say and, above all, trained to make the participants feel comfortable to express themselves. Therefore, they had to train interviewers and create guides that would allow them to carry out interviews successfully. The anthropologists of the time had been working with this type of research methodologies for some time, so Warner’s contribution to the project gave him new methodological support that already had good precedents. Between 1928 and 1931, interviews were conducted with more than 20,000 workers, a figure that, as Sergio López (2017) states:”[…] had no precedent in social research” (pp. 43).

The continuity given to the interviews over such a broad period of time (three years) makes evident the benefits that these brought to the company since the latter would not allow an activity that distracted its workers to take place if it did not have some impact on its value chain. The interviews achieved results from the point of view of the workers, this is known in anthropology as the emic perspective. Thus, for example, the meaning and the motives of disgust or the reasons behind an increase or decrease in productivity were studied and analyzed from the perspective of the workers.

One of the results of this research phase is highlighted by Sergio López in his book Antropología de la empresa (2017). According to the author, an 18-year-old female worker told interviewers that at home she was being pressured to request a pay raise at the factory. The personal situation of the girl had negative consequences at work level because, for her, receiving a raise meant separating herself from the group of workers among whom she felt happy. Situations like the previous one allowed the group of researchers to determine that economic incentives were not the only motivation in workers’ performance. Likewise, they discovered that issues such as the comfort among different groups of workers exemplified the existence of an informal structure within the company created from the existing social relationships among colleagues; which, in turn, was separated from the formal structure established by the organizational chart and internal regulations of the company.

In the third phase of the project, executed between 1931 and 1932, the research methods of anthropology were even more relevant. Interested in the group behavior of workers, Warner proposed to implement observation as a research methodology in order to get data from the perspective of the researcher, which is known as the etic perspective. An experiment was proposed in which the groups of participants would receive individual payments based on the achievements of the team as a whole, the idea was that the fastest workers stimulated the slowest. In order to gather as much information as possible about the behavior of the participant groups of workers, the researchers were divided into two groups: one had to be present and infiltrate in the daily work routines of the participants; the others would remain as external researchers offering an additional perspective to the data collected.

The obtained results indicated that the workers had created a rumor according to which the most efficient people were “servants” of the management who increased the average production of the group to obtain individual benefits. Consequently, no worker wanted to stand out. This belief had arisen from a misinterpretation of the incentive system implemented in the experiment and had become popular among workers. In this case, the informal structure had negative consequences for the company, since the interaction between workers worked against the interests of the directives. According to López (2017: 45), the discoveries made with the implementation of observation and unstructured interviews became the starting point to generate a permanent communication and assistance program for the employees which would allow the company to keep abreast of the informal structure and favor both employees and its value chain.

Undoubtedly, the results of Hawthrone’s experiments have had a remarkable impact on social research linked to industry and companies. The “Hawthorne effect”, understood as the change in the behavior of individuals when observed, is one of the main conclusions of the work carried out by Elton Mayo and his collaborators. However, the value of the implementation of methodologies that today continue to be used by anthropologists from all over the world in their investigative actions cannot be ruled out. Especially, because it was thanks to these that the importance of researching social relations in the workplace and its link to productivity motivations was recognized.

Hassard, John. (2012). Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric research in its social, political and historical context. Human Relations, 65(11), 1431–1461. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726712452168

López, Sergio (2017) Antropología de la empresa, ed. Bellaterra (Barcelona)

I am interested in applying anthropology in different areas of interdisciplinary research, especially the virtual and business worlds. I have done research in epidemiology, the design of products and services, virtual communities, knowledge distribution, comparative literature, and the “classic” socio-cultural anthropology. I believe that our discipline can offer something special to all research topics, hence my interest in it.

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