In the fall of 1956, a young editor at Fortune magazine published a worrywart prospectus of corporate culture and its corrosive effects on American genius. The man was William Whyte, once a traveling salesman for Vick’s VapoRub and later a mentor to Jane Jacobs, and the book was called The Organization Man.
It was a peculiar little book—a jeremiad in a gray flannel suit—and it made for a peculiar bestseller, but a telling one. In that decade and the one that followed, dozens, if not hundreds, of popular works of speculative sociology were published—The Lonely Crowd, The Power Elite, The Triumph of the Therapeutic—as postwar America found its imperial footing through ever more elaborate feats of self-scrutiny. But The Organization Man distinguished itself through its emphasis on the fate of science, and the plight of the scientist, in an era of company men and corporate ketman that Whyte believed was "not only repelling talent but smothering it." "Management has tried to adjust the scientist to The Organization rather than The Organization to the scientist," he wrote. "It can do this with the mediocre and still have a harmonious group. It cannot do this with the brilliant; only freedom will make them harmonious." "The first-rate man has a prior intellectual commitment," he warned; "in no field, except the arts, does the elevation of administrative values hold more dangers."
This central anxiety of The Organization Man, that scientific inquiry demands insulation against corporatism, was echoed by many leaders of the sociologist caste—Thomas Kuhn, Talcott Parsons, Michael Polanyi and, most pusillanimous, Robert Merton, long credited with initiating the sociological study of science, and now largely known for coining the terms "self-fulfilling prophecy" and "unintended consequence." "The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community," Merton noted. "They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited." This was not by accident: "By the rationale of the scientific ethic," Merton wrote, "property rights in science are whittled down to a bare minimum." Communism, "in the nontechnical and extended sense," he said, was an "integral element" of that ethic, and an element that demanded protection: "The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as ‘private property’ in a capitalistic society."
But the experience of cold war scientists, captured in what the historian Steven Shapin calls the "shop-floor" literature of trade journals and testimonials, memoirs and memorandums, suggests that this perceived conflict between corporate values and scientific inquiry might be a "total illegitimacy." "With vanishingly few exceptions—exceptions that may dissolve on further investigation—unhappy industrial scientists," Shapin writes, of the kind forewarned by Whyte, "just do not exist." This phenomenon was in part a credit to the ingenuity of corporations in assimilating and accommodating the values of free inquiry in the supervisory age of industrial psychology. As Shapin points out, the governing aphorism "When you lock the laboratory door, you lock out more than you lock in" comes not from Merton or Whyte but from Charles "Boss" Kettering of General Motors, who also insisted, famously, "You can’t keep books on research."