Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Breakdown of the Productive Self: Work Sciences and Industrial Affect in the Twentieth Century

Organizers

Sam Schirvar

University of Pennsylvania

Jiemin Tina Wei

Harvard University

Chair

Jennifer Alexander

University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Metadata

Session Abstract

As industrial worker and political economist Harry Braverman explained in 1974, the sciences of work are "not the 'best way' to do work 'in general'... but an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labor." From the nineteenth century, engineers and human science researchers lent their expertise to this problem of control, producing knowledge about working bodies to assist managers in orienting their workers towards greater "efficiency" and profits. Despite being developed for capitalist industry, these sciences of managing other people's work also became sciences of self-management, shaping workers' subjectivities, and extended to settings outside the capitalist waged workplace, informing the organization of domestic work and even socialist production.
This panel interrogates how industrial relationships encourage particular ways of seeing the human affects of suffering, fatigue, and stress. We trace moments through the long twentieth century in North America, Asia, and Europe to investigate industrial affects and diseases. We will explore how the interest in managing the human worker's body as a machine-whether for individual well-being or productive output-drove the formations of modern subjectivities. From scientific management and industrial psychology in the late nineteenth century to human factors and ergonomics in the late twentieth, the sciences of work have developed minute measurements for working bodies and introspective techniques for working minds. Because the development of work sciences took place amongst intimate human-machine interactions and involved transfers of key concepts between engineering and psychology, we believe that this panel speaks to HSS and SHOT communities.

Presenter 1

Ameliorating Worker Fatigue through the Body's Motions and Pauses: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's "Motion Studies," 1910-1924

Jiemin Tina Wei

Harvard University

Abstract

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth studied the motions of workers, in settings from hospitals to industrial factories, seeking-through a documentary approach-to engineer the "one best way" to do work. Their pioneering work departed from Frederick Taylor's "time studies" to their own framework of "motion studies"-and in doing so, psychologized Taylor's paradigms. Drawing on the multimedia repository in the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Collection at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History, this presentation examines the early work of their joint career, from 1910 to 1924. It argues that they analyzed not only workers' micro-motions but also pauses between motions-that is, the breaks. Through inventing devices such as the chronocyclegraph, to capture workers' arm and hand movements, the Gilbreths translated the spatial, visual, temporal configurations of the pauses and motions of worker bodies into systematized and objective knowledge about mediating worker motivation and ameliorating worker fatigue. The diversity of settings into which they forayed revealed underlying assumptions about the broad applicability of their theories: it seemed that fatigue in all work, no matter what kind, could be managed-away through tinkering with its arrangement of motions and breaks, without changing the nature of the work. Even the labor of running a household (as implicitly instructed by Cheaper by the Dozen, the book that memorialized the couple), could be scientifically managed. Importantly, their work set the stage for individual workers to ameliorate their own work conditions by implementing these controls on themselves.

Metadata

Presenter 2

To Advance Innovation and Invention, to Agitate for a Technological Revolution: Labor Psychology in the Early People's Republic of China

Victor Seow

Harvard University

Abstract

In 1956, in the midst of China's ongoing industrialization drive, Mao Zedong declared the need to "carry out a revolution in technology." In terms of how this technological revolution might be realized, multiple possibilities were explored. One of these, the subject of this paper, was labor psychology. A reworking of pre-1949 industrial psychology, which was dismissed as a tool of "bureaucratic-capitalistic exploitation," labor psychology purportedly differed from its predecessor in accounting for the interests of workers. In terms of the technological revolution, proponents argued that labor psychology might help workers better learn, create, and improve upon the tools and techniques of production. This paper examines the development of this field of research in 1950s China. It traces how psychologists based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Psychology along with their counterparts at universities in Beijing and beyond carried out a range of studies in factories and other sites of production that were aimed at increasing the rate of labor output while ostensibly safeguarding the wellbeing of workers. From sensory experiments with steel workers on the visual judgment of flames within furnaces to consciousness tests with cotton spinners on the positive feedback loops of goal recognition, the work they did offered insights into how those who labored might do so with greater efficiency, safety, and creativity. Through this narrative, this paper explores how labor psychologists engaged important questions about the nature of work, the physicality of labor, and the relationship between man and machine under socialism.

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Presenter 3

HOWL! Human Factors Research on the Stressed and Strained Mind at Work during the 1970s

Sam Schirvar

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This paper explores the formation of the concept of "mental workload" among human factors and ergonomics researchers in the United States and Europe throughout the 1970s. It focuses on exchanges between psychologists, physiologists, and engineers of techniques for modeling and measuring mental strain at work, particularly among the participants of the NATO Panel on Human Factors' 1977 meeting on Mental Workload. Human factors specialists understood that automation, contrary to the rhetoric of its promoters, could involve an intensification of workload with a risk of dangerous consequences. Chemical process controllers, nuclear plant operators, and especially air traffic controllers were among the professions seen to be at the highest risk for disastrous human errors resulting from a workload which exceeded workers' mental capacities. To measure workload, these specialists saw the mental among a number of physiological processes, including pulse, hand tremors, and eye movements. But despite their litany of biometric recordings and task analyses, human factors specialists found it difficult to correlate their data with the workers' self-reporting of stress, anxiety, and fatigue. This paper shows how, despite their epistemological discomfort with subjective reporting, they consistently relied on it to calibrate their measurements. Furthermore, this paper argues that human factors specialists struggled for authority in complex technical working environments by transforming the suffering of overworked people from a political problem addressed by unions into a technical problem addressed by physiologists, psychologists and engineers.

Metadata

Commentator

Jennifer Alexander

University of Minnesota Twin Cities