Organized Session

Working Theories: The Human Sciences and Motivation to Labor in the Twentieth Century

Organizer

Simon Torracinta

Yale University

Chair

Dana Simmons

University of California Riverside

Metadata

Session Abstract

This panel examines attempts to create a science of motivation over the long twentieth century, connecting thought in economics, psychiatry, anthropology, management theory, experimental psychology, and social policy. How have the human sciences apprehended the motivations that cause people to do or make things? How have different forms of work and kinds of workers been understood differently by scientists? What forms of knowledge and technique are generated in the unending search for greater productivity, and what happens when motivations flag?

From Taylorist-behaviorist techniques and psychiatric assessments of fitness for industrial work in the early twentieth century, through to human capital, psychologically-inflected management theory, and corporate obsession with the productivity of "creative" labor in Silicon Valley at the end of the millennium, this panel charts the labor of the human sciences in transforming the meanings of productivity, motivation, and work itself.

One of the aims of the panel is to explore a thesis put forward by Michel Foucault, Philip Mirowski, and others that a hallmark characteristics of post-WWII neoliberalism was the transposition of an economic rationality into all forms of human behavior. The papers in the panel consider the broader historical stakes of that thesis, while challenging its exclusive postwar periodization, by considering how the sciences of motivation across the long twentieth century might have been one of the central sites through which life, labor, and the entire domain of the vita activa increasingly took on an economic logic.

Presenter 1

Simulation, Industrial Labor, and Economic Pathologies circa 1900

Nima Bassiri

Duke University

Abstract

This paper examines the turn-of-the century suspicions among European physicians and medical officers that industrial workers often simulated workplace injuries in order to secure accident compensation claims. The simulation of injury for financial gain was a longstanding medical anxiety throughout the nineteenth century, but it took on a new urgency after the European wide proliferation of nationalized accident insurance legislation between 1884 and 1906. For most medical experts, however, the question of simulation had been complicated after the 1870s by the diagnostic emergence of traumatic disorders - such as hysteria - which proposed that simulative behaviors could very well be legitimate symptoms of post-accident pathological states. The question, then, concerning the suspected malingerer was not whether the worker was simulating but whether the simulations was simply the voluntary expression of greed or the involuntary expression of post-traumatic pathology. These two possibilities were increasingly folded together after 1900 when clinicians began to claim that social welfare economic policies and worker compensation laws could involuntarily induce workers to simulate workplace injuries and thus inadvertently seek to defraud the insurance industry and the state. Newly formed, albeit short-lived diagnostic categories, like the French 'sinistrosis', which this paper will principally explore, claimed that worker compensation laws were virulent in themselves, insofar as they could, through suggestion, engender morbid mental states, idleness, and false symptomatologies among even healthy laborers. Welfare economic policies were, indeed, viewed to be as traumatically pathogenic to the health of the worker as actual workplace accidents.

Metadata

Presenter 2

It Made Human Life Seem like the Worst Kind of Wage Labor: Imagining the Motivation to Produce from Behaviorism’s Stimulus-Wage to Cognitivism’s Innate Creativity

Danielle Carr

Columbia University

Abstract

Over the twentieth century, anxieties about the mechanization of the human have developed in relation to changing forms of production and hegemonic forms of work. This paper examines a shift in twentieth century discourses about labor and value, from behaviorism to the Cold War turn toward notions of creativity and intrinsic motivation. Early twentieth century psychology relied on behaviorism to the same extent that industrial production relied on scientific management: both scientific management and behaviorism rendered their domains "scientific" by blackboxing questions of internality and mind. Behaviorism postulated an equivalence of the stimulus and the wage, figuring monetary reward as the driver of worker's motivation within the laboratory-factory. Control over behavior and production alike could be achieved by adjusting stimuli and wages. This economistic-reductionistic approach was attacked by both labor leaders and social theorists alike, who claimed that it mechanized the human into a machine animated only by stimulus and response. With the dawn of the Cold War, behaviorism increasingly came under fire as part of a larger discourse of creativity that opposed totalitarian, Pavlovian control of behavior with a supposed innate human tendency to democracy, free inquiry, and creativity. Cognitivists critiqued behaviorists as clinging to a "wage labor" model of human nature, and held that the behaviorist laboratory and industrial factory alike had not merely described, but produced a mechanized human. Increasingly, motivation was figured not as the result of a fixed wage/stimulus, but as the expression of an innate creativity or reckoning on future reward. This paper situates this shift in theories about the motivation to work-- from stimulus/wage to creativity/intrinsic motivation-- within the rise of cognitivism and its centrality to both Cold War ideologies of freedom, and the emergence of cognitive work in the "post-industrial society."

Metadata

Presenter 3

Time, Labor, and Motivation in Midcentury Economics

Simon Torracinta

Yale University

Abstract

This paper examines a flurry of theorization in the social sciences and especially economics in the 1950s and 1960s that connected questions of consumer want and work motivation, labor and leisure, to revisit the fundamental premises of a science of human behavior. A major problem that bedeviled social-scientific observers of the United States in the age of full employment was the apparently systematic preference of American workers for consumer goods over leisure time, in ways that appeared to put into question basic assumptions about motivations to work. One answer, offered by John Kenneth Galbraith, suggested that the production process itself produced a new array of "synthetic" wants to make up for the decreasing marginal utility of goods, primarily through the psychological manipulation of advertising, in order to generate the demand necessary for full employment. Motivations to work, in this account, were needlessly generated by the endless "squirrel wheel" that connected production and consumption. Yet a rival answer offered by Chicago School economist Gary Becker instead sought to understand households and their time like the balance sheets of corporations, in which rising real wages upped the ante on the foregone earnings of leisure time, and therefore increased the relative "efficiency" of apparently "expensive" but relatively less time-consuming major consumer goods (like cars and fridges). This paper suggests that these sharply different conclusions were produced out of fundamentally incommensurable conceptualizations of work, want, and even time itself.

Metadata

Presenter 4

The 100xr Road to Neoliberalism: Engineers, Meritocracy, and Economic Inequality, 1950-2000

Charles Petersen

Harvard University

Abstract

It is a commonplace across the contemporary workplace that a small group of workers will be 10 or 100 or even 1,000 times more productive than others - a belief summarized by the Silicon Valley linguistic shorthand of the '10xer' or the '100xer'. Although they have diverse sources, such ideas have figured in the tech worker imaginarium for some time. The 1983 edition of The Hacker's Dictionary states that "productivity can vary from one programmer to another by factors of as much as 1000," while one tech-world observer declared in 1993 that some engineers could be "infinitely more productive" than others. Pay rates are then held to correspond with these natural facts. In one 2015 survey of Silicon Valley tech CEOs, for instance, most agreed that "the top 10 percent of talent would naturally earn more than 50 percent of the nation's wealth." Rather than correlating extreme economic reward with risk-bearing attributes, as in the entrepreneurial theories of Frank Knight and Joseph Schumpeter, this approach proposes that pay-outs that exceed more obvious measures of supply and demand can be attributed to real, if difficult to observe, differences in skill. The result has since the 1970s been said to be a "meritocracy" - a calculable correspondence between ability and reward that Friedrich Hayek had insisted, in 1959, could only be inimical to capitalism. In contrast with such high economic theory, this paper charts what might be called the "100xer road to neoliberalism" through William Shockley's calculations of productivity and pay-rates at Bell Labs in the 1950s, social scientific studies at IBM in the 1960s that claimed to precisely quantify the ability difference of the best programmers, or the way an exponentially-minded subjectivity was brought into being in the 1970s and 1980s at the intersection of venture capital and Moore's Law.

Metadata