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The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (review)
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Efficiency is a key concept of modernity, and one previously explored in its managerial context by historians like Samuel P. Hays, Samuel Haber, and Robert Kanigel. In this book, Jennifer Alexander widens the lens to trace efficiency’s intellectual history from its origins as a measure of machines to its contemporary status as a personal and professional virtue.

Alexander embarks on six chronological case studies: two from Britain, two from the United States, and one each from France and Germany. First, Alexander compares the water-wheel tests conducted by Englishman John Smeaton and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, experiments that determined which configurations produced the most mechanical output for a given input of water. Alexander then describes the mechanical philosophy of Gérard-Joseph Christian, director of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in post-Revolutionary France. Christian believed that an efficient industrial system should employ labor-saving machines to perform only the most rote and repetitive operations, while retaining intelligent workers to perform tasks requiring special dexterity and judgment. With Christian, the proto-concept of efficiency expanded from a strict measurement of machine performance to encompass both human and machine elements.

Alexander then describes how notions of efficiency migrated from mechanics into other academic disciplines. For example, biologist Charles Darwin described natural selection as an efficient mechanism for choosing the variations that led to speciation, while neoclassical economist Alfred Marshall extended the concept of efficiency to assess the decision-making of managers, not just the productivity of laborers. Alexander then examines the American Progressive Era efficiency craze through the pages of two journals. In Engineering Magazine, columnists described techniques of technical efficiency, such as the establishment of differential piece rates and standardized maintenance schedules. In contrast, the Independent offered advice on how to achieve personal efficiency—job satisfaction, happier marriages, and general well-being—through scrupulous self-discipline.

Turning to Weimar, Germany, Alexander analyzes the introduction of industrial seating designed to minimize wasteful movements and reduce fatigue. This form of mechanical discipline underscored efficiency’s emphasis on control, even over workers’ bodies. Next, Alexander examines the controversy surrounding Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974). The authors found Southern antebellum agriculture to be 35 percent more productive than “free” Northern farming and attributed the difference to the laudable diligence and efficiency of slave laborers. Unable to decouple efficiency from its positive moral connotations, the authors concluded that slavery could not have been as barbarous as once believed. Fifteen years later, Fogel reversed his conclusions, admitting that efficiency was not inherently good and had only been achieved through brutality. Finally, Alexander asks whether efficiency—an industrial-era term—might continue to have relevance in our post-industrial society. Answering in the affirmative, Alexander notes that the computers and telecommunications systems that make the world “flat” are largely employed to ensure reliable transactions while minimizing disruptions—the very goals of industrial-era efficiency.

By examining efficiency across several contexts, Alexander uncovers the concept’s most salient characteristics. For example, there are both natural and arbitrary standards of efficiency; while the laws of thermodynamics impose natural limits to an engine’s efficiency, an industrial worker might surpass 100 percent efficiency by exceeding his daily production target. Alexander also identifies two “allied but distinct senses of efficiency, one static and emphasizing stability and balance, the other dynamic, linked with growth and transformation” (163). For example, a commitment to efficiency often resulted in dynamic changes such as increased production, higher profits, and personal well-being, but these benefits were typically achieved through static, conservative techniques of efficiency that stressed control, discipline, and routine, predictable behavior.

Alexander also shows that beneath every invocation of efficiency “lies the attempt to control a changing situation, by bringing it into conformity with a vision of how the world works” (163). Efficiency a unitless ratio of input over outputwas an intellectual abstraction that allowed managers and reformers to asses the degree to which they were achieving their visions of the world, while suggesting potential interventions to bend reality toward that goal. Often, this effort required the application of efficient strategies—tracking the performance of waterwheels and workers, installing ergonomic seating, or chewing one’s food...