The Man Who Loved Cities

The Man Who Loved Cities

Nathan Glazer

He was best known as the author of The Organization Man, but William H. Whyte, Jr., was also a leading anatomist of city life.

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1m 53sec

William H. Whyte seems fated to be known as The Organization Man man. His death, on January 12, 1999, inspired numerous reflections on his sociological bestseller of 1956. Recognized as a benchmark in its own time, The Organization Man gave new meaning to a watchword of the decade, "conformity": Whyte's book put a carefully tailored suit of clothes on a vaguely defined but worrisome phenomenon of midcentury America. He identified what he saw as a "major shift in American ideology" away from an individualist Protestant Ethic. But his book was not a nostalgic lament. Rather, Whyte's mission was to reveal the dilemmas at the heart of a new group ethos--which he called the Social Ethic--that he saw emerging in the corporate and social world of the postwar era. The organization man was expected to be loyal to his organization, and the organization to be loyal to him. This was hardly a recipe for stability, however. He was required to pull up roots at a moment's notice and relocate himself and his family wherever the corporation thought it needed him. For these "transients," a new ideology of adaptive harmony beckoned.

The "tremendous premium on 'adjustment,'" on the "co-operative," on the "social," promised to make life and work proceed smoothly in "an age of organization"--and, Whyte observed, often did indeed help to do so. Yet he believed that the new group imperative, enshrined in social science and pop psychology and management theory, had also become "an ethic that offers a spurious peace of mind" and that should be resisted. And could be resisted: Whyte was convinced that "we are not hapless beings caught in the grip of forces we can do little about." The burden of his book was that "the fault is not in organization . . . it is in our worship of it. It is in our vain quest for a utopian equilibrium, which would be horrible if it ever did come to pass; it is in the soft-minded denial that there is a conflict between the individual and society. There must always be, and it is the price of being an individual that he must face these conflicts."  

About the Author

Nathan Glazer is a professor of education emeritus at Harvard University and the author of many books, including Ethnic Dilemmas (1988).