george elton mayo bookblast diary

BookBlast® Archive | Elton Mayo, The Descent into Chaos | Speech, New England Conference on National Defense, April 1941

Certain ideas expressed in speeches made half a century ago by my grandfather, the psychologist and organizational theorist, George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), are disturbingly relevant to the world today.

He is an inveterate optimist who is not sobered by a comparison of our own time with the high expectations of a century ago. Bernard Cracroft, writing in 1867, expressed the general attitude of the early years of the nineteenth century. “The mercantile fever, the ardent faith in progress” was based upon belief in “the boundless development of human energy striving like fire ever upwards.” “Unforeseen but probable discoveries” were expected at any moment to “throw additional millions into the lap of human comfort.” By such means it was expected that man would raise himself above the possibilities of privation and strife.

This belief expressed certainty of immense future advance in scientific discovery, mechanical invention, the development of economic knowledge and industrial organization. And this belief has nowhere proved vain: the actual advance in the last century of scientific discovery, mechanical invention, economic knowledge and organization has surpassed by far anything that Cracroft and his contemporaries could possibly have anticipated. To cross the continent from coast to coast in a few hours of the night by air has become a commonplace. Men talk to each other across three thousand miles of sea without wires or any tangible connection. In no area of activity have nineteenth-century expectations been disappointed: the fulfilment has by far outdone the hope.

But privation and strife have not vanished from the Earth. On the contrary, we look out at a world torn by internecine strife that extends more widely and runs deeper than any other instance history can show. The human privation that has followed, and is still to follow, is of similar dimension. AII the immense advancement of knowledge has apparently been powerless to prevent a resurgence of the most savage barbarism. Indeed, it often seems as though scientific advancement has served only to implement – to give weapons to – resurgent barbarism.

This leads to a feeling of confusion and pessimism. The word “chaos” creeps into the daily vocabulary. Evidence given before a recent Senate committee showed a tendency to bitter acceptance of chaos as inevitable. But pessimism of this type is too general, too obsessive. It does not pause to ask more precisely where the chaos lies. In the strict sense, it cannot be said to lie in science, or mechanics, or economics, or industrial organization. The work that has been done, and is being done, in these areas, though necessarily limited, is admirable. But, beyond all this, some essential determinant  of order in human affairs has been left out of account in two centuries of rapid development.

The writings of economists hint the omission. Sir Arthur Salter, in 1933, in describing the structure of an ordered society, asserted that no such order can be contrived unless backed by “collective determination.” Sir George Paish, in a small and recently published essay, The Defeat of Chaos, (1941), describes, probably admirably, the economic conditions necessary to the achievement of international (and intranational) prosperity and peace. At the beginning and end of his essay, he mentions a “spirit of willing co-operation” as necessary to any such happy issue out of our afflictions. But he does not tell us how this exceedingly important change is to be effected. The human fact that emerges from these, or any other studies, is that while material efficiency has been increasing for two hundred years, the human capacity for working together has in the same period continually diminished. Of late, the pace of this deterioration seems to have accelerated. This observation is strikingly evident in the international field; it is evident also within society, if the relation between the constituent be closely inspected. Discussions in the technical reviews, somewhat grandiloquently entitled “the growth of nationalism” or “collective bargaining as a means of preventing industrial disputes” merely serve to mask the fact that the capacity for spontaneous co-operation has greatly diminished or, at least, has not kept pace with other development.

This alarming break in the structure of civilization did not appear suddenly in 1939, nor was it first manifest in 1914. For at least a century competent observers, Cassandra-like, have called attention to the danger. At the very time when Cracroft published his Essays on Reform (1867), Frederic Le Play was continuously writing up his studies of the European worker made between the years 1829 and 1855. Le Play was a French engineer who, on account of his professional interest, had traveled through the Continent. Believing that he observed a diminishing capacity for working together in industrial , he set himself to observe and record systematically the social situation in various parts of Europe. His observations extended from the steppes to the Western Atlantic shores: they are recorded in six volumes published between 1855 and 1879; these volumes are still obtainable and are worthy of closer attention than has yet been given them.

His first volumes describe certain of the simpler communities in Northern and Eastern Europe where agriculture or fishing is the central activity. He finds in such communities peace and stability, a simple faith in, capacity to live by, (for Le Play this social code is that of the Decalogue). In such a community, the individual understands every social activity, and in a greater or lesser degree, participates in it. The ties kinship and family operate to relate every person to every social function: human contentedness and happiness, the power to co-operate spontaneously and effectively, are at a high level. The members of such a community do not work together by reason of any sort of social or legal constraint. The social code and the desires of the individual are practically identical; every individual participates because his strongest wish is to do so.

As Le Play’s studies move westwards, the communities become more industrial, more urban; the material standard of living is apparently much higher. In his terminology, some communities are merely “shaken,” others are already “disorganized”; with great care he describes both situations. The characteristically modern industrial community, he finds, has lost its capacity for peace and stability; the authority of the social code is ignored; the ties of kinship are no longer binding. In such a situation individuals are unhappy, the desire for change –  “novelty” – has become almost passionate and leads to further disorganisation. The capacity for spontaneous and effective co-operation with other people has almost disappeared. In this situation three characteristic abuses make their appearance. These are: the abuse of riches – the remote owner cannot be actually co-operative with those whose activities he directs; the abuse of science and knowledge – the supposedly enlightened academic tends to attack and destroy the very traditions upon which co-operative capacity rests; the abuse of power – the destruction of traditional institutions leads to concentration of power in the central political authority, even when this authority is nominally democratic, the move is necessarily in the direction of dictatorship.

Emile Durkheim and his many associates of the French school of sociology made similar observations of various French communities in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. Their studies are presented in many volumes of L’Année sociologique. In one study, however, Durkheim turned away from the mere recording of the facts to consider the effect on individual happiness in modern industrial development. This is his well-known study of suicide, and in it he points out that industrial development has diminished not only our capacity for working together but also the sum of human happiness.

On the one hand, he demonstrates that the ancient relationships that formerly trained the individual to association and work with others have collapsed or are collapsing; finally the State is left as the sole organizing activity facing “a disordered dust of individuals”. On the other hand, the collapse of traditional disciplines has not freed the individual from constraint; on the contrary it has deprived him of all values other than the merely material, of all sense of direction in living; it has left him to a loneliness previously unknown in human situations and to great personal unhappiness. This is the source of anomie, of that planlessness in living which, in one form or another, relates itself to the disorganization of the communal life demonstrated by Le Play.

These earlier studies tend naturally enough to look back at the life of a simpler community with regret; they tend inevitably to the conclusion that spontaneity of co-operation cannot be recovered except by reversion to the traditional. This is a road that we cannot travel in these days, even if we were certain of its advisability. But the implication of such opinion does not detract from the value of Le Play’s, or of Durkheim’s. The real importance of these studies is the clear demonstration that collaboration in a society cannot be left to chance.  Historically and traditionally our predecessors worked for it – and succeeded. For at least a century of the most amazing scientific and material progress abandoned the effort – by inadvertence, it is true – and we are now reaping the consequences.  Every social group must secure for it individual and group membership:-
(a) the satisfaction of economic needs;
(b) the maintenance of co-operation organized in social routines.

Our methods are all pointed at efficiency; none at the maintenance of co-operation. We do know how to devise efficient methods; we do not know how to ensure spontaneity of co-operation – that is, team work. The latter problem is far more difficult solution with us than in a simple or primitive community. In a simple society the extent of change from year to year, from century to century, may be relatively small. Traditional methods are therefore brought to a high degree of perfection; almost from birth disciplined collaboration is drilled into the individual. But in these days of rapid and continuous change the whole concept of social discipline must probably be altered. Study of the problem must begin rather as an investigation of human happiness than as an anthropological study of ceremonial participation.  

The acceleration of change that has characterized the past half century has been extraordinary. In horse-and-buggy days, a well-made vehicle would often outlast two human generations and many generations of horse. In these days, the average businessman feels somewhat apologetic if his automobile is five years old. In New England in the last generation, textile mills could count on long runs of gingham – scores of thousands of yards in a year. In these days it seems that there is no demand for gingham or for “long runs” of any type of cloth. So also with processes: in the tin mills of Western Pennsylvania a generation ago, the chief operators were highly skilled persons with a reputation in the mills and an equivalent social position in the community outside. In these days the skill they possess has been completely superseded,  their social position by consequence abolished.  

More important than product or process however, is the effect of this incessant change upon the human situation. Before the fateful year l929, Dr. J. S. Plant called attention to the fact that in a prosperous residential district in Essex County, New Jersey, although the greater number of residents owned their own homes, these same houses tended to change hands every five years.

The appearance of this novel character of the human scene was first noted by Durkheim in the study specified above (1897). He pointed out that it is only a family that has lived long enough in a district to become identified with it by social tradition and economic function that is a family in the sociological sense. The modern family, which breaks up almost as soon as it is formed – the children moving elsewhere for schooling and still further afield for work – such a family cannot help its members to develop capacity for effective association with other people, it cannot give that sense of personal security that derives from a certainty of belonging to an historic group. It is not only economic activities that desert a district; the local families split up and move in different directions also. In this situation, that training for participation in social life that our predecessors gave their children has dwindled almost to nothing.

Yet the desire for continuous and intimate association in work with others remains a strong, possibly the strongest, human capacity. It is the modern tragedy that the very strength of this persistent desire makes against rather than for effective co-operation. This occurs in two ways. The first is shown in the apparent increase of obsessive thinking. This has been studied by Janet, by Freud, and by the whole mental hygiene movement in this country. The so-called maladjustment to which these authorities trace the origin of obsession is a social maladjustment. It expresses the strenuous and ineffective efforts of an unhappy individual to relate himself effectively to other persons, when he has not been trained to engage in such relationships. Realization of his own ineffectiveness leads him to overthink the problem, to press too impatiently for some immediate and miraculous solution and to collapse into depression when his efforts almost certainly fail.

The other way in which the persistence of an instinct for association shows itself is perhaps even more important. There is no statistic to verify the estimate of a large increase in extreme cases of obsession, though all the authorities believe it. But, even if it is so, the consequent problem is small by comparison with that which arises from the intrusion of obsessive ideas into the thinking of persons essentially normal. For this means that in dealing with the already complex affairs of civilization we are faced with the intrusion of another, and a human complication. The relative isolation of small groups, their constant feeling of insecure tenure, imposes upon such groups an attitude of suspicion or even hostility in their attitude to other groups or, in industry, to management. By this road we drift downwards to what the historians call stasis, a disintegration of a community into an infinity of mutually hostile sections. By this road come disintegration, chaos, downfall.

This paper is not complete; it is an introduction to an address by my colleague, Roethlisberger. It serves, I hope, to call attention to the fact that collaboration cannot be left to chance, that by inadvertence we have done exactly this for more than a century, and that it is this neglect, more than any other determinant, which has resulted in the present chaos.


Copyright © The George Elton Mayo Estate. April 1941. All rights reserved. Photographs & graphical images copyright © their respective copyright holders. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use. Unauthorized copying, reproduction, hiring, lending, public performance and broadcasting prohibited. Photo by George Pitt-Rivers.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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