Hawthorne debunked?

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Steve Levitt–yep, that one–claims the Hawthorne effect was completely fictional:

The “Hawthorne effect,” a concept familiar to all students of social science, has had a profound influence both on the direction and design of research over the past 75 years. The Hawthorne effect is named after a landmark set of studies conducted at the Hawthorne plant in the 1920s. The first and most influential of these studies is known as the “Illumination Experiment.” Both academics and popular writers commonly summarize the results as showing that every change in light, even those that made the room dimmer, had the effect of increasing productivity. The data from the illumination experiments, however, were never formally analyzed and were thought to have been destroyed. Our research has uncovered these data. We find that existing descriptions of supposedly remarkable data patterns prove to be entirely fictional. There are, however, hints of more subtle manifestations of a Hawthorne effect in the original data.

Ouch.  I can think of a great many books and graduate programs that will need revision if this proves true.

[HT: Tyler Cowen]

MORE:  Peter Klein adds more ammo to the argument.  Several friends and colleagues claim to have always thought Hawthorne suspect.  I’m surprised more people haven’t spoken up about their misgivings before, but we’re all busy people.

3 responses to “Hawthorne debunked?

  1. Joseph, if we take a performativity lense, then the Hawthorne experiments not only construct the phenomenon they claim to explain, but are also practically useful. Or wait, was that the conclusion drawn from the Hawthorne studies?

  2. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 7Jun2009 « PublicOrgTheory

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