Human Sciences


Human Sciences for ToK thanks very much to  plangdale

The Hawthorne Effect

Elton Mayo: The Hawthorne Studies

Elton Mayo was the founder of the Human Relations Movement. Mayo was initially a believer in F W Taylor’s scientific management and indeed had been lectured by Taylor. He was asked to look at poor productivity at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago.

When Mayo initially approached this task he felt, as a believer in scientific management, that the problems would be related to a poor working environment or unsatisfactory reward structure.

Hawthorne Experiment

These studies were carried out between 1924 and 1932 at a factory called the Hawthorne Works. The plant was owned and operated by Western Electric Company in Chicago in the United States. At its height, the plant employed 45,000 workers.

Following Taylor’s scientific management approach, Mayo and his team of researchers took a group of six women of the main factory as a control group and to allow easier observation. He tested his hypothesis that working conditions significantly affect the motivation of the workforce. He believed that the poor productivity must be the result of the environment, such as noise or poor lighting conditions. Starting with lighting conditions, Mayo and his team altered conditions of work in a number of ways over a five year period, and observed the effects on production and the morale of the control group. Over the period, changes such as new payment systems, rest breaks of different sorts and lengths, varying the length of the working day, and offering food and refreshments were tried. In almost all cases, productivity improved.

At the end of the experiment, Mayo felt that he had proven his point and closed it down, returning the women to their original conditions, a six day week, with long hours and no rest breaks or refreshments. Surprisingly, productivity in the group rose to their highest levels and Mayo had to rethink his conclusions. This effect became known as the ‘Hawthorne Effect’.

He questioned the women and discovered that they:

  • felt important because they had been singled out for attention.
  • had developed good relationships amongst each other, which often extended outside of the workplace – they formed a close working group.
  • felt empowered as they had been allowed to set their own work patterns.
  • believed their relationships made for a much more pleasant working environment, which included the fact that the researchers were prepared to answer their questions.

Mayo decided that work satisfaction must depend, to a large extent, upon the informal social relationships between workers in a group and upon the social relationships between workers and their bosses. Classical theory had focused exclusively on the organisation structure and the formal relationships that existed. Mayo focused on the informal organisation that developed out of the interactions between individuals. He concluded that the power of the working group (both formal and informal) should never be underestimated.

Key concepts

I want to try a different approach to teaching this area of knowledge. I want to start by discussing some key concepts that I hope, in turn, will really help us to interrogate the Human Sciences.

Path Dependence 

“Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.” The linguist  John Mcwhorter tells us on The Edge website

He goes on to say …

“The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards. Why not just have the letters in alphabetical order, or arrange them so that the most frequently occurring ones are under the strongest fingers? In fact, the first typewriter tended to jam when typed on too quickly, so its inventor deliberately concocted an arrangement that put A under the ungainly little finger. In addition, the first row was provided with all of the letters in the word typewriter so that salesmen, new to typing, could wangle typing the word using just one row.

Quickly, however, mechanical improvements made faster typing possible, and new keyboards placing letters according to frequency were presented. But it was too late: there was no going back. By the 1890s typists across America were used to QWERTY keyboards, having learned to zip away on new versions of them that did not stick so easily, and retraining them would have been expensive and, ultimately, unnecessary. So QWERTY was passed down the generations, and even today we use the queer QWERTY configuration on computer keyboards where jamming is a mechanical impossibility.”

Later in his short essay he explains that pet owners believe that cats cover their waste out of cleanliness. This is a projected view – cat owners are attributing human values to the cats when they display this behaviour. Mcwhorter proffers and alternative idea; he claims that this behaviour is path dependent, i.e; it is an instinct or adaptive behaviour that has its roots in a different time when cats hid their scent in this way so has to minimise the risk of predators finding them.

The concept of path dependency has two strands then when applied to the human sciences …..

  1. Much of the behaviours that social anthropologists, sociologists and human geographers etc study are often determined by instincts and primal urges (and indeed physiological systems) that were developed to help us survive in completely different circumstances in prehistory.
  2. Often human interactions are determined by what went before, as much by contemporaneous causes.

On the “Understanding Society” blog Daniel Little explains …

“The idea of path dependency is chiefly relevant in application to particular events and happenings. But there are large social structures that display path dependency as well. These examples amount to structuring conditions that persist for a long time and further condition other historical developments. Their emergence is contingent, and other directions were feasible in the early stage. But once the structure is in place it creates its own conditions for persistence. Because the Interstate highway program privileged automobile transport over rail in the 1950s, it is now difficult to create a financially viable passenger rail system in the United States.”

‘Path Dependence and Creation’ Raghu Gurad

CINAC (Correlation is not a cause)

In terms of logical fallacies this is also known as Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase for “after this, therefore, because of this.” The term refers to a rhetorical fallacy that because two events occurred in succession, the former event caused the latter event. read more … here

Meme Theory

Definition – A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?

Mankind’s greatest inventions are all the result of individual flashes of inspiration – or are they? Jonnie Hughes argues that, instead, ideas are subject to evolutionary principles, and we humans are little more than their hosts.

“Like Darwin, I ventured abroad, into the cultural wilderness of America, to search out first-hand evidence that ideas are subject to natural selection. As I crossed the prairies, I classified the changing moustaches of farmers, plotted the evolution of the cowboy hat, dated American barns, and charted a taxonomy of tepees. In doing so, I found the evidence I needed to suggest that ideas do evolve just like the finches and tortoises that Darwin discovered in the Galapagos.

What’s more, I found that viewing our world through ‘meme goggles’ is like suddenly spotting that vase in the optical illusion with the two faces. Your focus shifts from the human beings to the things in between – the countless living ideas that skip through our seven billion brains, each one competing for space in our cerebrums and the chance to procreate through our tongue and wrist movements.”

…. read more here

Dan Sperber takes the idea of the meme further. He develops the idea of Cultural Attractors.


  • Why is it that memes seem to have a collective significance and yet they are hard to predict? (Think about twerking for instance – who saw that coming?).
  • What are the purposes of different cultural forms / genres?
  • How do cultural genes get transmitted and how do different cultural memes develop and what problems do they solve? Consider dubstep, new slang terms, etc.
  • How do cultural attractors determine peoples actions and beliefs? …. or is it the other way around?

Free Will – The Philosopher’s Arms BBC

Free Will –


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