The sociological department at Ford

I stumbled across an interesting piece of information the other day: Henry Ford established a sociological department at his company in 1913. Here are some interesting tidbits about the short-lived department culled from some varied sources:

From a University of Michigan website:

The Sociological Department of the Ford Motor Company was organized in March, 1913, and oversaw a broad array of social benefits for Ford employees, including assistance in living in well-maintained single-family homes as opposed to small apartments. After the announcement of the Five Dollar Day in 1914, the Sociological Department was responsible for determining if employees’ personal lives and personal habits made them eligible for the full wage. This phase of the Department’s activities terminated with the reorganization of the company in 1920.

From a blogger:

On January 5 1914, Ford announced the revolutionary five-dollar, eight-hour day:

What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day. Instead, the company announced a plan to allow the workers to share in the company profits at a rate that promised five dollars a day … The five-dollar profit sharing plan was designed by the company to include only those who were ‘worthy’ and who would ‘not debauch the additional money he receives’.

The Sociological Department, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, was put in charge of administering the programme and investigating the home lives of workers: “investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers’ homes and suggested ways to achieve the company’s standards for ‘better morals,’ sanitary living conditions, and ‘habits of thrift and saving’.”…

Inspired by welfare capitalism, Ford’s “philosophy adopted a paternalistic attitude toward workers that, in Ford’s case, was rooted in the Protestant work ethic. Ford believed in it and wanted his employees to adopt it…” And Ford’s social standards reached far beyond the confines of work-life. The PBS film Demon Rum documents the Sociological Department’s efforts to “end the working man’s drinking habit” and how the “success of the small program led to a national prohibition campaign.”

-A 2004 article in American Culture titled “Ford’s Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture Among Assembly Line Workers.”

A two-day lesson for (high school?) students on the topic.

I am not surprised by Ford’s actions: there was a lot of pressure at the time to improve efficiency and a number of companies tried other tactics we might consider paternalistic today (example: the Pullman town which is now part of Chicago).

I am also reminded about the changed role of sociology. Ford seems to have viewed sociology as a means of “social engineering” or enforcing particular ways of living. This involved very strong value judgments and a lot of company control over workers. I imagine this would make most, if not all, sociologists today very nervous.

Lack of protection for confidentiality in oral histories

Sociologists and other researchers can offer confidentiality in consent forms but whether this promise would stand up in court is another question:

Researchers who conduct oral history have no right to expect courts to respect confidentiality pledges made to interview subjects, according to a brief filed by the U.S. Justice Department on Friday.

The brief further asserts that academic freedom is not a defense to protect the confidentiality of such documents.

With the filing, the U.S. government has come down firmly on the side of the British government, which is fighting for access to oral history records at Boston College that authorities in the U.K. say relate to criminal investigations of murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes in Northern Ireland. The college has been trying to quash the British requests, arguing that those interviewed as part of an archive on the unrest in Northern Ireland were promised confidentiality during their lifetimes…

Many historians have been backing Boston College in the case. Clifford M. Kuhn, a historian at Georgia State University who is a past president of the Oral History Association, filed an affidavit on behalf of Boston College in which he said that if Britain’s request is granted, the field of oral history could be damaged.

This is part of a long-running battle involving researchers and courts. Some of this is covered in the 2000 piece “Don’t Talk to the Humans.” When I’ve used this particular article in class, students always ask why researchers don’t have the same legal rights regarding confidentiality that journalists have.

Whenever these sorts of cases pop up, it always seems like we get the slippery slope argument: if they start with oral histories, how long until there is no confidentiality in other forms of research? In the meantime, we’ll have to see whether this goes beyond just this one brief.

h/t Instapundit