Field, Undercover, and Participant Observers in US Labor Economics: 1900-1930

26 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2011

Date Written: February 5, 2011


This examines the various field observational methods utilized in the area of labor economics in the United States from the early 1900s through to the 1930s. Labor relations, at that time, was an area of critical practical importance as well as an area in which existing economic theory provided little guidance. Labor economists had, of necessity, to become field observers of working conditions and workplace practices.

Three examples will be examined in detail. The first is the work of John Fitch on The Steel Workers (1910), done as a part of the Pittsburgh Survey. Fitch’s book on the steel workers included his own observations of steel mills, interviews with steel workers, and photographs and drawings by Lewis Hine and Joseph Stella. The investigational methods also included the collection of documents such as trade union constitutions, congressional testimony, written statements, and the collection of statistics.

The second example is the work conducted under the supervision of Carleton Parker for the California Commission on Immigration in the aftermath of the Hopfield Riot. Parker employed F. C. Mills and Paul Brissenden to go on the road and work undercover to investigate conditions in labor camps, attitudes towards the IWW, and the lives of itinerant labor. Part of this work involved the reporting of factual material, but part involved an investigation of the attitudes of those involved gained though informal conversations and interviews. The last example concerns the work of Stanley Mathewson, a student of William Leiserson’s, published as Restriction of Output Among Unorganized Workers (1931). Mathewson’s study was an early example of the use of covert participant observational methods in the area of industrial sociology, and was widely influential.

How this varied observational material was brought into the more theoretical interpretations of the labor movement and trade unionism by Commons, Parker, and others will also be discussed, as will the strengths and weaknesses of the methods employed, and the changing place of field work in economics.

Keywords: Labor Economics, Field Observation, Participant Observation, Pittsburgh Survey, IWW, Casual Labor, Itinerants, Labor Camps, Soldering, John Fitch, Carleton Parker, F. C. Mills, Mathewson

JEL Classification: B15, B25, B41, J40

Suggested Citation

Rutherford, Malcolm, Field, Undercover, and Participant Observers in US Labor Economics: 1900-1930 (February 5, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Malcolm Rutherford (Contact Author)

University of Victoria - Economics ( email )

Victoria V8W Y2Y, BC

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