Sociological Theory in Industrial Relations*

Herbert Blumer
University of Chicago

This paper is confined to a consideration of the kinds of theorizing and research in the field of industrial relations being made today by sociologists and to an expression of judgment as to the reasons for the inadequacy of such theorizing and research. Since much of this theorizing and research has blossomed forth under the current rubric of "Industrial Sociology" I think it fitting first of all to say a few words about this recent sociological interest. It must be apparent to a sociologist that a great deal of the current interest in, and enthusiasm for, a field of industrial sociology has the aspects of faddish concern, paralleling similar outbursts of excitement by sociologists over new fields in the recent history of American sociology.

( 272) The term, "Industrial Sociology," has an alluring ring. Supported by a generous amount of collectively generated enthusiasm it is not surprising that the field beckons to so many in our fold and attracts a lot on the basis of a specious offer of great and easy rewards. The present faddish character of interest in Industrial Sociology is perhaps inevitable and since we are all human, merits nothing more than mere comment. What does occasion some misgiving, at least to me, is the delusion that the words "Industrial Sociology" confer somehow an automatic assurance that sociologists who move into this field are equipped with an adequate fund of guiding principles and a pertinent set of instruments of research. As far as I can judge, the recent and current activities of students in the field of industrial sociology represent little more than the application of a conventional stock of ideas and methods of study to a new area of interest. In my opinion, this effort of application suffers from a double deficiency. First, the students making the application are dreadfully naive with reference to the nature of industrial relations—I say they are naive because I think all of us are naive in this area. Second, the stock of conventional ideas and modes of research which we employ in our discipline are not suited to the study of industrial relations in our contemporary society. Such ideas and modes of research are essentially hackneyed, unrealistic and uninspiring. These are strong charges. Their validity may be judged by the content of the following discussion.

The evaluation of current theory and research in industrial relations requires as a background a brief sketch of the nature of industrial relations in our present-day American society. The primary parties to these relations are workers and management.[2] The extent and variety of the relations between workers and management cannot be dealt with in this paper. I wish merely to note the obvious point that these relations in American industry are not in the nature of a simple contact between a worker selling his labor and an employer purchasing that labor. That bare fundamental relation has been elaborated in our society into an extensive, diversified, complex and indirect network of relations in which the individual worker becomes an insignificant and inconspicuous figure. With unionization, especially with industrial unionization, workers have become incorporated in organizations, usually of vast dimensions. The relations of workers to management become increasingly led by, directed by, mediated by and expressed through such organizations. The organization as such functions through a heirarchy of officers and central committees who formulate policies, establish objectives, decide on strategy and tactics, and execute decisions. On the side of management one finds similar organization which takes out of the hand of the individual manager the determination of the major outlines of his relation to the worker. Relations between workers and management become primarily a matter of relations between organized groups. The formation of huge national unions has especially given a new dimension and character to these relations.

To my mind the most noteworthy feature of the relations between workers and management in American industry is that the relations are dynamic, uncrystallized and changing. They may be regarded as in a state of continuous tension, even though the degree of this tension will vary significantly from time to time. The tension is, itself, an inevitable consequence of a variety of factors which lead workers and management to exercise pressure against each other at shifting points and in new ways. Each of these two parties is forced to meet such pressure—

( 273) to resist it if it can, to adjust to it in some way if it must. The result is that the relations are either moving, or if not moving, in tenuous accommodation poised to move.

That this is true should be apparent on an analysis of the basic and accessory conditions which impart impetus to the relations between workers and management. Fundamentally, workers and management in our economy are necessarily in conflict with each other. I don't say this in a Marxian sense. I refer merely to the fact that workers, especially in their organized groups, are seeking o secure benefits and to preserve benefits and that management is seeking managerial freedom and opportunities for business profit. As our economy is organized, these respective interests enter normally in opposition, As either of the two parties moves in the direction of what it is seeking, it encroaches on the interest of the other party. Thus, an advance is in the nature of pressure and as such encounters resistance. Whenever such advances are initiated the pattern of relations changes. This bare statement merely sketches the fundamental fact that industrial relations between workers and management under our economy are intrinsically instable and inherently disposed toward rearrangement.

All that is needed to set such relations in movement is the initiation of seeking efforts by workers or by management. The conditions, which initiate such seeking efforts are rife in our society and are likely to remain so. I call attention to only a few of the more conspicuous ones: competition in business with the inevitable effort to achieve efficient, low-cost production and managerial freedom; the effort of management to coup the gains of improved efficiency through technological improvements; the shifting and changing of management personnel with divergent philosophies; the development of new wishes and conceptions of rights on the part of workers; the exercise of pressure by the rank and file, particularly in large democratic unions; the formation of national unions, leading to uniform demands on diversified industrial concerns; the pressure on union leaders to produce increased benefits; the struggle for position on the part of union leaders or those seeking to be leaders; the development of a militant, aggressive psychology on the part of unions; the rivalry between unions for prestige, membership and the efforts to weaken rival unions; the change in price-wage relationships and the movement of the business cycle; shifts in political power offering to either organized workers or to management the opportunity to actively advance its particular interest; shifts in public opinion which yield the same encouragement; and the appearance of new legislation or new judicial interpretation which open new vistas of what is permissible, Such conditions—and the list is by no means complete—lead and coerce workers and management into new relations as each party seeks to pursue and to protect its respective interests. In response to such forces, industrial relations in our society become tense, changeable and ever moving.

The mobile character of industrial relations has taken on a new dimension and nature with the organization of workers in vast national unions. The focal point of relationship has been shifted away from the contact between workers and local management to the contact between big union organization and management organization. Although there are exceptions, the usual consequence of the organization of workers on a national basis has been a centralized guidance of labor activities over an industry-wide area. Bargaining is done for the industry as a whole or for large segments of the industry represented by huge corporations. Thus labor relations become increasingly a matter of relationship between gigantic organizations of workers and management, each of which functions through central policy and executive groups. Relations between workers and management in the local plants in the industry tend to lose separate and autonomous character and instead are determined in their basic outlines by the policies, objectives, plans and strategy of the central organizations. Thus to suggest an analogy, workers and management become related and aligned like vast opposing armies, with many outposts and points of contact but with the vast

( 274) relationship operating along lines set up by the central organizations.

These two characteristics of industrial relations—their mobility and their guidance by organizations—may appear trite and scarcely worthy of notice. If this is so, so much the better for the presentation of my thesis. The very commonplace character of the observations will help to establish the inadequacy of sociological theory and research in the field of industrial relations, especially so of the theory and research that parades under the banner of "industrial sociology." I can now address myself to this matter.

In my judgment the theory and research by sociologists in the field of industrial relations can be put conveniently into five classes.

One body of theory and research rests on the proposition that industrial relations are in the nature of organized practises and customary routines. Thus, such relations are to be studied as cultural data—as if they were expressions of a body of established regulations or definitions. In my judgment this type of theory and research misses the central character of industrial relations in our society. As suggested in my previous remarks, industrial relations in our society are intrinsically tense, mobile and unstable—not settled, regulated and set. They have a character which arises less from the mere fact of what has been, and arises more from what workers and management believe ought to be. Anyone who is at all realistic about our industrial relations must recognize that the wishes, hopes and intentions of workers and management alike far transcend what the parties are actually getting out of their relations. These wishes, hopes and intentions hover in the background as constant, impelling forces, exerting pressure on the relations, eager to seize an opportunity to realize themselves, and, consequently, breaking through or threatening to break through. Personally, I find it unrealistic and fruitless to try to study or interpret our industrial relations as if they were an expression of a body of cultural norms, definitions or regulations. In my judgment, to press the point a little further, it is far-fetched to try to study industrial relations in our society as one might a medieval guild or a primitive tribe. For a long time, I have believed that the conventional conception of culture which dominates so completely the thinking of sociologists, anthropologists, and fellow social scientists today is unrealistic and perverting as a scheme for the study of what is characteristic of modern social life. I am convinced that this is the case in current industrial relations. Such relations emerge from the energetic quest of active groups which are seeking new gains, advantages and protections and which are ever poised to seize and utilize the opportunities that arise. The wishes, intentions and calculations which underlie such efforts as well as the relations between workers and management that result therefrom are slippery matters that cannot be caught in the skeins of a cultural net.

These remarks apply in much the same manner to another body of sociological theory and research which rests on the premise that industrial relations are primarily a structure of stratified or status relationships. This premise does not seem to me to have much sense. Admittedly, the scheme of a hierarchy of status relationships may be applied with fruitfulness to various kinds of social organization. Also, it can be applied to the organization of personnel in an industrial concern although I doubt whether such an application would yield knowledge of any particular importance. It might also be applied, however with somewhat less ease and no greater fruitfulness, to the membership of a union. I do not see, however, that the scheme is meaningful when applied to the relations between workers and management. Undeniably in the shop, mill or other plant situations, workers and local management have status relations. I am unable to see how such local status relations either occasion, govern or explain the mobile industrial relations which have been referred to in the previous discussion. The resentments that may flow from a sense of inferior status on the part of individual workers and also the struggle for status on the part of unions are of significance in the moving

( 275) relation with management—however, such individual resentments and such collective striving for status signify, if anything, a breaking down of a structure of status relations or an effort to create a new structure of such relations. The new activities are not ordered by the structure against which they are rebelling. Labor relations, as previously indicated, take the form of strivings and temporary accommodations in those strivings. This is an unsettled area which is not structured, or governed by a structure. The application of the conception of a structure of status relationship to the relations between workers and management in modern industry seems to me to be strained and barren.

There is a third body of sociological theory which regards modern industrial relations as products of long time trends or "super-organic" factors. There is considerable difference in what is taken as the significant trend or trends by different theorists or research students. The trend may be a class struggle, or a change in social stratification as a result of science or technology, or a change in the internal structure of industrial economy resulting from diverse inventions, or the operation of the business cycle, or it may be merely some kind of statistical trend. Whatever be the trend which is used, it becomes, logically, a kind of superorganic determinant of industrial relations. This type of approach seems to me to be markedly incapable of accounting for the mobile pattern of industrial relations, or interpreting what goes on in such industrial relations, or explaining the results or outcome of such relations. Admittedly, the activities between workers and management take place not in a vacuum, but in a historical context and in a field of pervasive social and economic factors. The context and the field undeniably provide stimulation and exercise constraints, opening lines of development and setting limits to developments. The fact that the context and the field constitute a framework does not mean, however, that the activities carried on in that framework are dictated or predetermined by that framework. The area of industrial relations, in particular, is marked by relatively constant striving of opposed parties requiring each to adjust to the other and imparting to their relation the condition of tension and uncertain outcome that has been referred to previously. What occurs in this area is forged from countless and varied discussions, from judgments of complicated situations, from calculations of the timeliness of action, from the threats and opportunities yielded by the play of events. Indeed these few remarks fail by far to depict the complicated and shifting arrangement of factors that must be calculated by the parties. It is not surprising that their relations are marked by compromise, expediency, and by uncertain and tentative outcome. I do not find that the concept of trends or of superorganic factors is suited to the analysis of what goes on in industrial relations; indeed I believe such a concept to be intrinsically unfit for such an analysis.

A fourth body of sociological theory and research that is particularly prominent in the field of industrial relations is associated with the gratuitous label of "human relations." No one can or should take serious issue with the view that industrial relations are human relations. However, one who proposes to study industrial relations as human relations should be faithful to the nature of human relations and should be sure that he is studying industrial relations. In my judgment the thinking and research in current studies of "human relations in industry" are deficient in either one or both of these two respects. In the studies, human relations are usually identified with and made synonymous with cultural relations or with structural relations. Here I merely repeat what I said above, namely, that it is inaccurate and misleading to regard dynamic human relations as predetermined or controlled by culture or structure. The other deficiency is more worthy of being noted. Current studies of "human relations in industry" rest, seemingly, on the premise that industrial relations are primarily direct relations between the people in the local plant or factory. Thus, studies may be made of the situation at a given work bench, assembly line, rolling mill or some other unit of operation. One may get information of cliques of workers, on alignments of super-

( 276) -visors or on how given workers and given supervisors get along with one another. The findings of such studies of this sort with which I am familiar have little relevance to industrial relations as they are developing in our society. It seems dear to me that industrial relations are becoming increasingly a matter of alignment of organizations—of unions on one side and industrial corporations and business federations on the other. What takes place on the front line of contact between worker and supervisor is admittedly of importance. However, unless the consideration of that front line of contact is made in the light of the relations between the organizations, the consideration will give rise to only a deceptive portrayal of industrial relations. In my judgment, this is a primary shortcoming of current studies of human relations in industry.

There is another body of sociological effort in the field of industrial relations that needs to be noted. It is in the form of quantitative studies of attitudes and opinions and sociometric studies of preferences, aversions and feelings. This body of study is attended by little coherent theory. The guiding idea seems to be that relations stem from attitudes and feelings and, consequently, are to be understood through the study of attitudes and feelings. This idea is fairly satisfactory. However, the studies being made of attitudes, opinions and feelings of workers and of managerial personnel fall short by far of coming to grip with the central character of industrial relations. Such studies consist usually of nothing more than the application of conventional techniques of "measuring attitudes" or constructing "sociograms" to any situation which is conveniently at hand. They seem to be conceived and made in complete innocence of the mobile and large dimensional character of contemporary industrial relations. A sociogram of clerks in an office, or the "scaled" attitudes of a given group of workers toward absenteeism, or a so-called study of morale of employees in a given work situation impresses me, frankly, as far away from the stream of present day industrial relations. Further, I doubt the efficacy of such devices if they were to be used in the study of current industrial relations in their mobile and large dimensional character. Assuming that what we commonly recognize as attitudes and feelings are faithfully caught by attitude scales or sociograms —and this assumption is actually not warranted—such attitudes and feelings in the field of industrial relations are subject to shifts, rearrangements, restraints, and replacements in the play of events in a dynamic moving situation. It is these latter conditions which are central. Consequently, I suspect that the application of our currently popular forms of scaled attitude studies and of sociometric studies would not yield analytical understanding. Such a pre-judgment, however, is not even called for since at present such studies do not seek to grapple with the mobile and complicated character of industrial relations.

I am acutely aware of the sketchy and cavalier summary of sociological theory and research in the field of industrial relations that I have made in the foregoing remarks. It is not possible to include in the scope of this paper a documented and detailed discussion of the individual works that fall under the types of theory and research which I have considered. I believe that the general points that I have made hold true. I do not wish to give the impression that all sociological studies made in the field of industry are valueless. Many of them, particularly those made by the "Harvard group" have been done carefully and conscientiously. Such studies have given telling accounts of the concrete situations studied and have helped to dispell inaccurate, fragmentary and biased ideas, particularly among members of higher management. Such studies have also given rise to generalizations which seem reasonable inside of certain limits. However, my judgment is that the value and validity of such studies become suspect at the precise point of entry into the area of mobile accommodative relations between organized workers and management. My point is that not only have these studies failed to deal with this, new area of industrial relations, but that their generalizations, such as those on "morale," become suspect when applied to situations

( 277) in this area. The question I have asked in reading such studies is whether they yield knowledge that is meaningful or relevant to an ordered understanding of industrial relations as we glimpse such relations in, let us say, news items appearing in our newspapers. My judgment is that the studies are not giving an ordered understanding of industrial relations in our society because of either a failure to see the outlines of contemporary industrial relations or because of intrinsic inability to fit such outlines.

A proper orientation to the study of industrial relations in our society must be based, in my judgment, on the recognition that such relations are a moving pattern of accommodative adjustments largely between organized parties. In a valid sense industrial relations may be likened to a vast, confused game evolving without the benefit of fixed rules and frequently without the benefit of any rules. The setting of this game is itself not stable, but instead is shifting and presenting itself in new forms. This occasions strains on the pattern of game. In addition, each of the parties is subject to the play of pressures and forces inside of its own ranks which impart further tension and shifts in the game situation. Still further, the participants are far from satisfying their respective wishes and objectives in the temporal accommodations which they make to each other, with a consequence of constant pressure on their relations and an opportunistic readiness to change them. I think that we deceive ourselves and perhaps engage in wishful thinking when we regard this shifting flow of relations in industry as temporary and transitory, to be followed by a shaking down of relationships into a permanent orderly system. This, to my mind, is not at all likely as long as we live in a dynamic, democratic, competitive society. The degree of tension, the rapidity of accommodations and the extent of shifts in relations may vary from time to time, but the mobile character of the relations remains.

In my judgment the fruitful study of present day industrial relations requires a new perspective—one that is compatible with the mobile, indirect and large dimensional character of such relations. I sense the blurred outlines of such a perspective. It must visualize human beings as acting, striving, calculating, sentimental and experiencing persons and not as the automatons and neutral agents implied by the more dominant of our current scientific ideologies and methodologies. It must further visualize such human beings in their collective character—as arranged in diverse ways and incorporated in intricate and indirect network of relations. It must embrace the complicated behavior of these collectivities, particularly as they act and prepare to act toward one another.

The observation necessary to sharpen and fill in this vague perspective must meet the two requirements of intimate familiarity and broad imaginative grasp. That observation should be based on close familiarity with what is being observed is a truism and would require no mention here were it not for the woeful fact of the fashionable and respectful practise in our ranks to ignore and snub the truism. In addition to being based on intimate acquaintance with what is being observed, observation must be suited to the imaginative grasping of intricate complexes of data. It is unfortunate that observation in the field of industrial relations has to be made in the form of large intricate patterns—but it has to be, in order to be realistic. In a way, the necessities of observation in industrial relations are quite similar to those required in modern warfare. The individual soldier in his single observation post, regardless of how competent he may be as an observer, can understand little of what is taking place over the broad area of a campaign. A sociological investigator making observations in a single factory suffers, I believe, from a corresponding limitation. Effective observation requires the observer to sense the movement in the field, to take many varied roles, to size up a variety of different situations and in doing so to perform the difficult task of fitting such things into somewhat of an integrated pattern. This type of observation, whether we like it or not, requires a high degree of imaginative judgment in order to be accurate. It may be noted, in passing, that this type of observation is not nurtured in our training programs for sociologists;

( 278) indeed, our current conventions of research discourage this type of observation.

Assuming that observation based on intimate familiarity and using broad imaginative judgment is made of industrial relations, its findings, I suspect, will not lend themselves to treatment by our present kind or current stock of sociological theories. Our sociological thinking has been fashioned in the main from the consideration of matters which are quite apart from the central character of modern dynamic life. Our thinking has been derived from images of stable societies and of nicely ordered association; or from highly abstracted and emasculated data such as census and demotic items; or from a miscellany of imported theories which were formed with reference to matters different from those in our field; or from a variety of social philosophies which have appeared from time to time in our western civilization. Our sociological thinking has not been shaped from empirical consideration of the dynamic character of modern life, We need a scheme of treatment suited to the analysis of collective and mass interaction—the interaction between active and relatively free collectivities with different degrees and kinds of organization. To formulate such a scheme is the theoretical task which confronts sociologists in the field of industrial relations. I do not believe that sociologists have begun this task.


  1. Paper read before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Society, Chicago, Illinois, December 27-30, 1946.
  2. The relations which exist within the field of management, the relations between managers and owners, and the relations between managers of different industrial concerns and between owners of different industrial concerns-all are of admittedly great importance and deserve more than the negligible study that is being devoted to them today. Correspondingly, the myriad of relations between fellow workers ranging from contact at the work bench to the intricate indirect relations brought about by huge national unions are of definite importance. Such relations, likewise, have been studied only in a meager fashion. However, the relations between workers and management constitute what is centrally important in the field of modern industry.

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