Issuu on Google+

Mitchell’s Musings 1-10-11 I was pleased to see the positive response at the Denver-LERA meetings last week to the official unveiling of EPRN. Because of a teaching conflict, I could not attend the Thursday panel related to EPRN but the Friday session definitely provoked audience enthusiasm. The key idea behind EPRN is to provide a convenient site for both scholarly communication and for media representatives and policy makers to engage with researchers on critical issues surrounding the labor market. Policy maker is in fact a vague concept. We often see it personalized as a particular official, perhaps a president, governor, mayor, or a congressional or legislative leader. In fact, policy is commonly made in a diffused fashion with a mix of ideas, ideologies, and agenda capture that involves both officials, researchers, media dialog and reports, etc. It is through gaining a voice in that diffused process that EPRN can make its influence felt. One item that caught my attention recently is a paper by Steven D. Levitt and John A. List in which they find that the famed Hawthorne Effects were much overstated. (“Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments”) You can find the paper – if you are a member of the American Economic Association – at http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/app.3.1.224 If you are not a member, you will have to get hold of the January 2011 issue of the American Economic Journal. However, the paper in fact has been available in draft form for some time. The longstanding view of the Hawthorne Effect – based on experiments in industrial lighting in the 1920s – is that the productivity gains reported were due to workers being appreciative of the attention they received – not the variations in the lighting. Others, before Levitt and List, have been skeptical. But for advocates of that viewpoint, this interpretation fit very well into the narrative of the human relations side of management. Findings of the Hawthorne Effect were seen to prove that treating workers well and having them participate in decisions was an alternative to the more Taylorist approach then in vogue. From the human relations perspective, workers were more than cogs in an industrial machine to be manipulated by industrial engineers and clever piece rate systems. What the Levitt-List paper suggests is that researchers must be careful to consider whether their own predilections are in some way coloring their interpretations of empirical investigations. That’s not an especially original or profound thought. Who could disagree? But it is a good reminder.


MitchellMusings 1-10-11