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The Hawthorne effect refers to the possibility that subjects in a research project may modify their behavior in a positive manner simply as a result of being aware of being studied. This concept takes its name from studies conducted from 1924 to 1933 at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant near Chicago. The specific research associated with the Hawthorne effect was the first step among several and was conducted by engineers at the plant from 1924 to 1927. This experiment involved increasing the lighting within a work area, using both experimental and control groups. Measuring worker output before and after the change in lighting showed an increase in productivity in both the experimental and control groups. Additional experiments with results along these lines led the researchers to conclude that increased worker output occurred simply because of increased attention directed toward the workers. It was at this point that Elton Mayo of Harvard University entered the research, and the focus moved from simple variation in illumination to a variety of alterations in actual worker activity. As a whole, the research provided the initial grounding for Mayo to create the human relations movement, particularly in complex organizations.
Later research has raised considerable doubts about whether the conclusions drawn across the studies as a whole are supported from the data. Subsequent studies show that the Hawthorne effect has a variety of limits and may also have been influenced by its novelty at the time. Nevertheless, the implications associated with the Hawthorne effect have been extended beyond classical experimental designs, which are relatively rare in sociology, to issues within survey research and to applied sociology by being incorporated into consultative approaches to labor management and productivity.
- Franke, R. H. & Kaul, J. D. (1978) The Hawthorne experiments. American Sociological Review 43: 623—43.
- Roethlisberger, F. J. & Dickson, W. J. (1939) Management and the Worker. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.