Saturday, June 9, 2012

Does a common language matter?

   At one time, anthropology was faced with the prospect of becoming a scientific discipline. But science calls for a common disciplined standardized technical language that enabled researchers to communicate and share their findings. This is critical both for the validation process and for building meaningful hypotheses upon past discoveries to test new ideas. The success of the human relations movement within anthropology arose out of the Western Electric studies at the Hawthorne Plant. This landmark study pointed to the possible emergence of such an era for anthropology. Based on the finding that "communications" can improve industrial management and administrative, one might have thought that this hypothese would have sparked anthropological research into the role of "communication" in human relations based on scientific experiments applying the concept in different contexts and circumstances.

   Writing more than 60 years ago the editor of Human Organization observed the disconnect between the way the physical sciences go about addressing a problem and the way that the social sciences and industry address a problem.

Editorial Human Organization
Winter, 1949 Vol. 8 No 1 page 4

In the February issue of Fortune, two articles run side by side whose juxtaposition, deliberate or otherwise, seems to the editors to point a convenient moral. The first of these articles, "The Management of Men" is an analysis and summary of such familiar developments in the field of human relations in industry as the work at the Western Electric Company; the second, "Hunters of the Cosmos," is an account of the evolution of that branch of atomic physics having to do with cosmic rays.

Although Fortune does not itself make the point, the contrast between the two ways of tackling a problem is a striking one. Granted the differences in the tools available in the two fields at the outset, both begin with the empirical observation that certain kinds of happenings occur whose incidence seems to be of interest to the inquisitive investigator. In the early study of cosmic rays, little was known except that they occurred everywhere, and most of the research was concerned with trying to track these occurrences down and make some sense of them. This period was called the "earthplumbing, mountain climbing era," and physicists literally spent their time trying to measure the rays in the depths of the catacombs in Paris and on mountain peaks. Eventually, it was demonstrated that the higher you went the greater the ionization, and hence these rays could not be earth-originated. Millikan then made a series of measurements and formulated a hypothesis to reconcile their occurrence with the wave theory of light. Compton and others disagreed with this theory and proceeded to map the occurrence of cosmic ray intensities on a world-wide basis.

From these measurements, they were able to show that the intensities varied as a function of geomagnetic latitude. If this were the case, it followed that the rays should take a consistent direction with regard to the north-south meridian. To test the hypothesis, an ingenious combination of Geiger tubes was set up to measure the direction, and the results of applying this system of measurement demonstrated that the hypothesis was in accord with the facts.

At each stage of development thereafter a series of measurements were made, a hypothesis was formulated to explain ( describe) the measurements and proved experimentally by devising a means of checking the hypothesis through the ingenious construction of an instrument by which new measurements could be obtained bearing directly upon the point
at issue.

In its discussion of industrial relations, Fortune dates the beginning of the present approach from the discovery that better management-labor relations could be achieved by increasing what it calls communication between the worker and his boss. Without concerning ourselves with a more sophisticated definition of communication, what then happens? Instead of a multitude of workers in company after company trying to record systematically the occurrence of "communication," only casual references to it appear in the literature. Most of these are concerned with pointing out on the basis of the Hawthorne studies that' communication is a good thing; for years no one even considered the possibility of making systematic observations of the occurrence of "communication" at each level of supervision, in a manner analogous to that of the physicist. Granted the absence of a system of measurement, still our common experience tells us that we begin to achieve such a system by asking: how often, how much, how long, when, where and with whom. So we, face the first major difference between the fields so neatly brought out by the two articles: the lack of a comparative study of the occurrence of particular phenomena, on the basis of which generalizations can be made leading towards greater refinements of observations; and the formulation of hypotheses which can then be tested.

After formulating a hypothesis about the importance of increasing communication, decisions are made as to ways in which communication is to be "increased." Western Electric develops its counseling  program; IBM cuts down its levels of supervision; General Electric constructs a nine-point job package to be "sold" to its employees. Each company is presumably convinced that its way is the "best." No company has subjected its program to the further test of recording the ensuing packets of communication, their frequency and location, to determine whether they have increased, and if not, what factors are operating to interfere, to be explained in some new hypothesis.

It is unfair to belabor the industrial companies, since this failing characterizes the whole field of human relations. Nevertheless, one wonders why, with industry's experience in engineering and scientific research, very expensive programs are not based on something more than mere assumption. And one can wonder where we might be today if 15 years ago we had followed systematically the procedures which have so far worked successfully in the other sciences.
 Today, in 2012, Has anything changed?