TAYLORISM (Social Science)

A traditional social science, sociology, informs this entry. Sociology is subdivided into areas of specialization that may overlap. Areas relevant to this topic include historical sociology, economic sociology, organizations and work, and theory.

The term Taylorism is synonymous with scientific management, both named after the American industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) and his 1911 monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor provided the framework for a management philosophy and method and for the organization of work. He based his framework on scientific law, breaking work into parts and separating mental from physical labor. His principles involved the following: (1) Developing a science of production; (2) carefully selecting and training workers; (3) connecting the science and the workers; and (4) splitting responsibility between management and workers. Taylor’s ideas contributed to a movement across industrialized countries. The Germans called it the rationalization movement.

Taylor’s framework rested on the assumption that workers are motivated by money. Through his time-and-motion studies, he established specific standards for how long each particular job should take and which kinds of physical routines it should involve. These efficiency guidelines were used as bases against which each worker’s output was measured, and pay was calculated once workers were selected in terms of their work ethic and trained consistent with established standards. The greater the worker’s output, the more pay the worker received. Taylor’s equation incorporated breaks during the workday at specific intervals and for a specified length of time because he realized breaks increased productivity and workers’ stamina. He saw breaks as efficient and effective for both workers and management.

Management was charged with the mental work in this hierarchical division of labor. In planning rooms above the shop floor and sometimes housed behind plate glass windows, management delegated responsibility,designed products, set the production schedule, and checked performance.

As a consequence of Taylorism, the organization of production became compartmentalized and control became centralized. Product design and production were separated. Work became task specific and mechanical as workers were turned into quasi machines. According to some critics, deskilling resulted, and the engineering of workers replaced the engineering of materials. In addition, productivity declined.

This model of economic organization lends itself well to mass production, historically the dominant form of industrial production in the United States. It catered to waves of immigrants and a growing middle class. With its focus on efficiency, the model emphasizes quantity over quality and innovation. This focus affected even the design and production of American machine tools, necessary for the production of most other products. Machine tools were designed for convenience of operation and to minimize motion and the operators’ need for skill. These machine tools were adequate for mass production, but not for flexible production or custom production.

The negative outcomes of Taylorism are consistent with Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) concerns. While Smith embraced the division of labor because he believed when works specialize, they become more productive, he emphasized that oversimplification of a worker’s tasks may have inhuman, demoralizing effects. Although famous for advocating a free market economy, Smith argued for government intervention if it is necessary for enhancing the quality of life, particularly for those with the least resources, to ensure the common good.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) preceded Taylor in history and did not address Taylorism specifically. Marxist theory, however, regards the mode of production as rooted in the economic system. Individuals must consume in order to survive, and they cannot consume unless they produce. They must therefore enter into relations they cannot control, such as economic relations. According to Marx, this differentiates them from nature, from their own kind, and leads to alienation. Marxist theory rejects Taylorism as a strident form of worker exploitation under capitalism that strips workers of control over their work. Workers become mere means to capitalists’ ends.

Fordism is a form of mass production linked to Henry Ford (1863-1947) of the Ford Motor Company during the early twentieth century. Fordism adopted the same principles as Taylorism, including the separation of mental and physical labor and the segmentation of work. Both pivot on quantity and speed. Using Taylor’s principles, Ford introduced the assembly line, which automated the control of work. The speed of the assembly line controlled workers’ movements and output and dictated the timing of breaks during the workday. The method of Fordism preceded the social scientific concept of Fordism, a term coined by the French regulation school. This school arose in the context of the first significant post-war recession during the 1970s as a critique of the capitalist mode of regulation, regarded as co-opting social and political life.

Globalization means interdependence of nations, groups, and individuals around the world. One dimension of such interdependence is economic globalization, which is fueled by capital’s search for cheap labor internationally. Cheap labor equals cheap technology; poor countries provide cheap labor and rich countries provide technological innovations. This division of labor between poor and rich countries represents a separation of physical from mental labor that is rooted in Taylorism. Technological innovations, like the Internet, facilitate speed by compressing time and space. A more holistic, flexible, and less hierarchical approach to the economic enterprise is required, however, for continuous innovation. Such an approach may provide the potential for the reintegration of physical and mental labor across the globe.

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