Tags: Andrew Abbott, Frederick Taylor, John Krige, Michael Weatherburn, Patrick Blackett, Philip Mirowski, Thomas Hughes
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I’d like to test drive my new critical tool (“discipline & ontology” vs. “projects”) on my new article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management”. I think it’s a useful alternative analysis, which would never have made any final, published version of the article, but which nicely brings out the intricacy, subtlety, and importance of the issues at play.
I would argue that the historiography of OR has been dominated by the notion that OR was, essentially, an attempt (in the footsteps of Taylorism) to transform the ontology of military planning and industrial management from one of seasoned leadership into one of “science”. This shows up in the historiography of wartime OR, but especially in treatments of OR’s postwar adoption of mathematical formalism as its intellectual core. This last turn has been regarded as a clear departure from any sensible conception of management, and it can therefore only be explained as a kind of fetishization of science.
As I put it in my paper:
Prior accounts of OR’s turn to mathematical specialization have … assumed that the development of a mathematical canon represented a sort of pathology of professionalization, which detached it from the generalist investigations touted by its wartime practitioners. Andrew Abbott [The System of Professions (1988)] has suggested that ‘mathematical preeminence’ was a ‘professional regression’ resulting from a turn toward self-regarding academic virtuosity in OR. Thomas Hughes [Rescuing Prometheus (1998)] has grouped OR with systems engineering as a technical form of expertise that became subjected to typical criticisms of technocratic management and had to be supplemented by more humanistic and democratically inclusive ‘postmodern’ methods. Such accounts … suppose a chronological process of neglect or attainment of some general nontechnical conception of management, which might have granted OR wider and more legitimate authority.
OR vis-à-vis Management in the 1950s: Background May 29, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
Tags: Alfred Chandler, Andrew Abbott, Christopher McKenna, John D. C. Little, John Magee, Philip Morse, Walter Friedman
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I have a new article out: William Thomas, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s,” Business History Review 86 (2012): 99–122. Thanks to the journal’s liberal author’s rights, you can download your very own copy by clicking on the title. Here’s the abstact:
This article examines the establishment of the field of operations research (OR) at the Arthur D. Little consulting firm and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OR advocates envisioned the field as a new kind of bureaucratic organ dedicated to general studies of business problems, staffed by trained scientists who could employ sophisticated methods if needed. The crux of their promotional strategy was to use their appreciation of general managerial practice to overcome the tensions to be expected from their claims to apply generic scientific methods to nonscientific activities. However, they discounted possible intellectual competition with established professions. This competition ultimately confined OR’s identity to a jurisdiction defined by novel mathematical techniques.
I’d like to try a little experiment with blogging as a complement to official publication. As all historians of science know, there is much more to science than the sum total of what is contained in published papers, and this, certainly, is no less true of the history of science literature itself. So, starting with this post, I’d like to use EWP to add some commentary on this article. I don’t think the article is especially worthy of such treatment, but I think it would be a better world if authors did this sort of thing for everything they wrote.