A loosely defined, but well-established sub-specialism within sociology, which can trace its origins back to the discipline's founders. Its expansion in the 20th century was encouraged by the hope of certain company managements, notably in the United States, that sociological and psychological research might yield a set of management and supervisory techniques which could be used to prevent workplace conflict and raise productivity. Though its potential applications still impinge on the subject, later practitioners fought hard to establish the area as an independent field of academic study, which (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) accepts the inevitability of a so-called pluralism of interests in industrial work situations, and concerns itself with the consequences.
A major problem for industrial sociologists is to define their central term—industry. In practice, despite some important exceptions, a great deal of research in the subject has been about factory workers and factory work situations. It is far from clear how far these findings can be generalized; or indeed, under what circumstances the label ‘industrial’ is appropriately applied to non-factory work. The preoccupation with factories and manufacturing also resulted for a time in a tendency to over-emphasize the causal effects of workplace factors, especially technology and production methods, on worker and management behaviour both inside and outside the plant. Even today, there is considerable research on the internal and external effects of automation, information technology, and flexible methods of work organization. The result has been a tendency to technological determinism, and to the making of inferences about macroscopic change in industrial society, from findings gleaned in a few (usually large and possibly unrepresentative) industrial plants. A curious additional feature is that, because industrial sociology impinges on management education and theory, some of these over-generalizations have a self-fulfilling effect.
The explanatory emphasis on technology and methods of work organization has provided an important rationale for describing studies of non-factory work as industrial sociology. But, with the shift of research from (typically male) manual factory workers, the idea that factors within the workplace have an identifiable and independent causal influence on people's actions has been questioned. An important example is provided by research on white-collar workers. Clerks, technicians, and other white-collar workers have formed a growing proportion of employees in modern societies, as a result of the growth in company size, the expansion of public and financial administration, and the general increase in professional and service employment. However, it is clear that the attitude and behaviour of such workers towards (say) management or trade unionism, as well as the values with which they view their employment, are very different from those of their blue-collar counterparts, and are consonant with a higher class and status situation. A considerable body of literature attempted to explain these differences, and hence to say something about the dynamics of social stratification, by reference to workplace factors. These factors included the more personal dealings white-collar workers have with management, their greater personal autonomy, and the better remuneration and promotion prospects they were said to enjoy. It was also claimed that, as the many offices and white-collar workplaces became larger, more impersonal, and more automated, so the workers were becoming more like factory workers both in their objective work situation and in their subjective response to it. Recent research has revealed a more complicated picture from which the following findings have clearly emerged: social background and self-selection may be as important as workplace variables in shaping the characteristic attitudes and industrial relations of white-collar workers; technological change in offices was accompanied by major readjustments in the external labour-market for white-collar workers, which made it difficult or even unnecessary to separate out ‘in-house’ causal influences from external ones; not the least important of the labour-market changes was a shift to the employment of women, especially part-timers returning after a period spent at home. Thus, under the pressure of engaging with non-factory research agendas, the traditional approach of the industrial sociologist to this important topic tended to collapse into other well-established sub-specialisms: the sociology of class and status cultures, of labour-market structures, and of gender.