34: Sociotechnical Systems – Trist and Bamforth

Episode 34 covers an important article by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth, “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting,” published in the journal Human Relations in 1951. Eric Trist was a British social scientist best known for his contributions to the field of organization development and one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute. Ken Bamforth was a miner and industrial fellow of the Tavistock Institute.

Eric Trist

The article’s subtitle is an examination of the psychological situation and defences of a work group in relation to the social structure and technological content of the work system, and explores how a technological change in the coal-mining industry tore apart the social structure of the workers who were supposed to have benefitted from the change. The technological change in question was the mechanization of the process of mining and extracting coal along a very long face, as opposed to the previous ‘hand-got’ methods where small teams would dig out coal from smaller faces.

The explanation of the differences between the hand-got and mechanized longwall is visually stunning as the article gave a thick description of the setting, the work performed, and the relationships among miners. Trist and Bamforth described how the hand-got method encouraged strong social bonds as workers toiled closely together and performed all tasks as an autonomous unit. This changed under the longwall method where the workers were spread out over long distances and operated in shifts such that no one team or person had visibility of the entire task. Despite the increased efficiency, the loss of the social bonds produced morale problems, internal fighting and blaming, and increased worker resistance.

The authors also described an example of growing bureaucracy in both the positive and negative sense. Mechanization necessitated the emergence of intermediate layers in the organization as managers were no longer able to observe the entire mining operation. Combined with the increased specialization and segregation of workers’ roles across three distinct shifts, the social structure grew fragmented.

The article came out at an important time, as Britain was still recovering from World War II. The mechanized longwall was seen as a way to restore coal production, helping fuel a resurgent economy. As the podcasters explain throughout the episode, the story told in this article resonates today. Many modern technological changes are promoted for their potential efficiency advantages.

But what impacts do they have on the social structures in the workplace and worker commitment to the firm? Our podcasters had a lot to say about this. Join us for the episode!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Also read Tom’s post about his visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland, which he references in this episode.
Read with us:

Trist, E.L. and Bamforth, K.W., 1951. Some social and psychological consequences of the Longwall Method of coal-getting: An examination of the psychological situation and defences of a work group in relation to the social structure and technological content of the work system. Human relations, 4(1), pp.3-38.

To know more:

Brooks, F.P. (1975). The Mythical Man Month. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Bechky, B.A., and Chung, D.E. (2017) Latitude or Latent Control? How Occupational Embeddedness and Control Shape Emergent Coordination, Administrative Science Quarterly

Financial Times. Driven to despair — the hidden costs of the gig economy.