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History of Political Economy 36.3 (2004) 557-578

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Lawrence Kelso Frank's Proto-Ayresian Dichotomy

For institutionalists working in the Ayresian tradition, the dichotomy between technology and ceremony is still referred to as a "central analytical tool" (Waller 1982, 757). This dichotomous approach to the study of institutions considers technological advance as the most significant cause of social and institutional change. Peculiar to the institutional framework is an absolute and irreconcilable tension—the dichotomy—between the dynamic and progressive force of technology, and the static and conservative structure of ceremony and institutions. Clarence E. Ayres was the one who most systematically designed the dichotomy and elevated it to the status of paradigm, claiming that technological advances are the only way to undermine and modify the underlying value system within a culture. Accordingly, for Ayres, "deceremonialization, deinstitutionalization, and ‘institutional decomposition' can occur only if there are advances in science and technology that are so rapid and pervasive that more and more people become increasingly occupied, in [End Page 557] thinking and doing, in activities that are devoid of ceremonial and mythological contents" (Jensen 1987, 1060).

In an article that has now become a classic in the history of institutionalist methodology, William Waller (1982) has explored the evolution of the technology-ceremony dichotomy from its beginning to its latest refinements. As far as interwar institutionalism is concerned, Waller focuses on the contributions of Thorstein Veblen—the alleged originator of the dichotomy—Walton H. Hamilton, and, of course, Clarence Ayres.1 However, a closer scrutiny of the institutionalist literature of the 1920s reveals that the philosophically trained economist Lawrence Kelso Frank also devoted some attention to the interaction between technological innovation and institutional arrangements.

Lawrence Kelso Frank (1890–1968) belongs to the lesser-known group of individuals affiliated with interwar American institutionalism. Frank received his bachelor's degree in economics in 1912 from Columbia University, where he studied under John Dewey and Wesley Clair Mitchell. During World War I he served as an advisor for the War Industries Board, working together with two other institutionalists, Walton H. Hamilton and Walter W. Stewart (Dorfman 1959, 5:498).2 While he never held an academic position as an economist, Frank first acted as a systems analyst for the New York Telephone Company in 1919, and then, from 1920 to 1922, as business manager for the New School for Social Research. There, he taught courses on business and economic statistics, and organized a series of seminars on mental hygiene that were given by some of the most distinguished psychiatrists of the time (Johnson 1952, 278). In this position at the New School, Frank came into close contact "with its galaxy of stars in new frontiers, including psychiatry and group dynamics" (Dorfman 1959, 5:498). Soon Frank shifted to foundation work. In 1923, in fact, he was appointed to the permanent staff of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, as an assistant to its director, Beardsley Ruml. There he remained until the memorial disappeared as a separate body in 1929. During those years, Frank held specific responsibility for programs dealing with child welfare and human development, [End Page 558] acquiring a strong reputation among infant psychologists (Bulner and Bulner 1981). Later in his life Frank also worked at the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation and the Caroline Zachary Institute of Human Development.

Although Frank is often referred to as the originator of the child development movement in the United States—a field to which he devoted his entire career after the late 1920s—his early contributions to economics deserve some attention. In a series of articles published between 1923 and 1925, both in economics and philosophy journals, Frank discussed the effects of technology on the institutional structure of society and the cyclical movements of contemporary economies. As we shall attempt to show in this essay, these articles contain some interesting—and, to our knowledge, heretofore neglected—contributions to the nature of the fundamental dichotomy, which also anticipate some of the themes later developed by Clarence Ayres.3

The present...


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