Sunday, November 08, 2015

Reading :: The Organization Man

The Organization Man
By William H. Whyte, Jr.

I had a very odd moment when reading this classic, oft-mentioned book from 1956. In Chapter 5, "Togetherness," the author describes how the National Training Lab in Group Development had been experimenting with the leaderless group. He notes that "One of the most astute students of the group, sociologist William Foote Whyte, was moved to write some second thoughts on his experience at Bethel." The author lauds Whyte's contribution and later investigations.

The passage confused me because I couldn't understand why the author was talking about himself in the third person. I had long assumed the two William Whytes—William F. and William H.—were the same. When I realized my mistake, the first thing I felt was relief.

Why relief? William F. Whyte's work is not always careful, but it's generally more textured than the broad strokes found in this book. The Organization Man is billed as "the first complete study of a way of life that many Americans are now leading ... life under the protection of the big organization" (back cover). Like any "study" of millions of people, this one relies on a combination of broad statistics and narrow anecdote. It attempts to characterize changes in education, jobs, careers, mobility, and teamwork as emanating from the shift toward large organizations and their ethos. Oddly, these discussions seem oblivious to other changes that affect the above: the shift from agricultural to industrial and service work; the impact of the automobile; the GI Bill and the broadening of the university system to serve the needs of a far more diverse set of students; the postwar boom.

As you might expect, William H. Whyte has a deeply (small-c) conservative understanding of how things ought to be, and his broad sketch of organizational impact in the US seems to look back constantly to prewar America as a guide: a time when people were stubbornly independent, created and lived in solid multigenerational communities, and studied subjects without regard to vocation. That is, although he doesn't put things in this way, he looks back to a more predominantly agrarian US that had not yet taken on a leadership role in the world. This essential change in the US' geopolitical standing—and in the source of its wealth—seems not to factor into his analysis at all.

In that context, I did find the take on universities to be interesting. Whyte notes that "Each June since the war, commencement speakers have been announcing that at last the humanities are coming back, and each fall more and more students enroll in something else," specifically vocational work (by which Whyte means engineering and business) (p.87). In particular,
look what's happened to English. Now it is becoming 'Communication Skills,' and in what is called an interdisciplinary effort everybody from the engineers to applied psychologists are muscling in. In some cases, Michigan State, for example, they not only have whole departments of communication but have made it the center of required under-class courses. In others, it has been made the heart of a vocational training in advertising and journalistic research. (pp.102-103).
He cites Drucker as saying that English, particularly writing poetry or short stories, is potentially the most important vocational course. But
That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well of English departments. They are right to recoil from justifying English on the narrow grounds of immediate utility, as better report writing and the like. But one can recoil too far. In so resisting the vocationalizing of English, they have contributed to it. If technicians of 'business writing' and the psychologists have been able to denature English into a 'communication' science, it is because the greater relevance of English has been left undrawn. (p.108)
Whyte finishes with a wan defense of English as providing universals but insufficiently addressing the particulars. This line of argument, nearly 60 years old, is still being deployed, and to just as little effect.

I stopped reading this book at Ch.22 (out of 29 chapters). Maybe I'll get back to it, but I doubt it. It's perhaps useful for understanding historical context, but I didn't find it to be intrinsically useful for understanding these societal changes per se.

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