Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2013

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 01/31/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Stromquist, Shelton

First Committee Member

Stromquist, Shelton

Second Committee Member

Baynton, Douglas

Third Committee Member

Gordon, Colin

Fourth Committee Member

Penny, H. Glenn

Fifth Committee Member

Leicht, Kevin


This dissertation examines how the United Auto Workers (UAW) incorporated the applied social sciences behind the emerging postwar field of human relations to navigate the postwar terrain of labor relations and manage its membership. Like his counterparts in management, union president Walter Reuther was drawn to human relations' scientific approach to solving the human conflicts that beset large bureaucratic organizations. It traces the history and politics surrounding this psychological research, which includes the areas of group dynamics, counseling, opinion polling, personality profiling, motivational research, and attitude formation, and shows how these concepts were at the heart of the union's most ambitious reforms that overhauled membership education and leadership training programs, staff and organizer training, as well as its political action and public relations initiatives.

The UAW's use of social science framed how the union met a range of large-scale challenges, from labor relations, to the Cold War and threat of automation. On the one hand, the union's use of applied psychology illustrates a unique willingness to innovate and modernize to address new problems and recapture the union's dynamism of the 1930s. While these innovative reforms did not always succeed, such experimentation with organizational science was unique among a labor movement that was largely isolated from these trends. On the other hand, however, the top-down nature of these reforms exerted social control that clashed with the union's democratic traditions. Applied psychology played a key role in Reuther's rise to political power and was subsequently at the center of Reuther's efforts to control and repress union democracy. These science-based reforms were rarely introduced without political controversy.

The methods of applied psychology could be used to promote and repress union democracy and this dissertation shows how Walter Reuther used applied psychology towards both ends. Moreover, this dissertation examines the cultural context that prompted union leaders to pioneer organized labor's use of the applied social science as an organizational tool. Walter Reuther's willingness to embrace the newest scientific methods stemmed from his technocratic faith in society's ability to engineer pathways to material prosperity and socially-engineer ways to democratize that prosperity. Reuther was part of liberal reform community that included a number of progressive social psychologists who believed that the tools of applied social science were essential to maintaining a stable and rational, albeit highly managed, democratic society that could fend off the forces of reaction and fascism.

Applied psychology emerged as a tool for many in the postwar era looking to effectively manage the complexity of communication in vast bureaucratic organizations. But for leaders of democratic organizations like Walter Reuther, this tool had to be handled with care so as not to erode the core values that first gave the union strength and legitimacy. The history of how the UAW balanced this task provides a revealing glimpse into how a grassroots organization weighed its democratic values against its desire to effectively participate among the powerbrokers that increasingly shaped America's political and economic future. Moreover, it highlights the class politics that framed postwar scientific research and illustrates the complex ways that applied social science influenced power relations and democracy in postwar American society.


Congress of Industrial Organizations, Democracy, Psychology, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, twentieth century, United Auto Workers


vi, 360 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 348-360).


Copyright © 2013 Matthew Michael Mettler

Available for download on Sunday, January 31, 2021

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