Obituary: Eric Trist
Monday 14 June 1993
ERIC TRIST's discipline of origin was psychology; but the title of the three chairs he held in North American universities between 1966 and 1983 offers a succinct statement of his central contribution to the social sciences: 'Professor of Organizational Behavior and Social Ecology'. And the titles of his best-known books, both written with colleagues from the Tavistock Institute, were Organizational Choice (1964) and Towards a Social Ecology (1973).
Until the Second World War, Trist seemed to be on the trajectory of a research and teaching career in clinical psychology. After grammar school in Dover, he had won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, obtained a double First in English Literature, then a First with distinction in Psychology. In 1933 a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship took him to the United States for two years. Trist had been at odds with the narrow emphasis on experimental psychology at Cambridge under Frederick Bartlett and chose to work at Yale with the cultural anthropologist Edward Sapir, who was building bridges between anthropology, social psychology and psychoanalysis.
Another significant US mentor was Kurt Lewin, the doyen of social psychology, then at Cornell. Back in Britain Trist secured a research post and then a lectureship at St Andrews, where he was also acting head of the psychology department. Early in the war he was given a prestigious teaching and research appointment as a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychology. He found much to stimulate him - casualties from Dunkirk; research into the psychological repercussions of closed head injuries (one of his first publications) - but there was something missing. When he met a group of psychiatrists and others from the Tavistock Clinic, who told him what they were doing in the army, he decided to join them.
With hindsight, it is evident that what was unsatisfied was a drive towards social action. He had been deeply moved by the effects of the Depression, first in the US, where he had joined the Hunger and Strike Committee in New Haven and spent time on picket-lines, and again in Scotland, where he had researched long- term unemployment. Further, he had broadened his theoretical repertoire to include psychoanalysis and anthropology. The Tavistock group offered the opportunity he needed.
Captain (soon to be Lieutenant- Colonel) Trist was a central figure in two major innovations. First, the design and operation of War Office Selection Boards, a sophisticated and effective system for identifying officer potential in the ranks as well as for selecting the many thousands the army needed. Second, the development of Civil Resettlement Units, designed to help returning prisoners-of-war with their often serious emotional problems in reconnecting to civilian life.
Trist himself had no such problem. He joined his comrades - Jock Sutherland, Wilfred Bion, Tommy Wilson and others - who returned to the Tavistock Clinic enthusiastic to apply their army experience to the problems of post-war reconstruction. The outcome, in 1946, was the building of another institution, the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, of which Trist was a key founder member.
The concept of the institute was unique. Its members were drawn from various social science disciplines, from psychoanalysis to economics, but it was to be problem- rather than discipline-centred. The premiss was that, as with clinical research in medicine, some advances in the social sciences could come only through involvement in tackling real-life human problems. As deputy chairman and later as chairman, Trist was a major driving force throughout his 20 years at the institute.
Trist's research in coal-mining established his international reputation. His concept of the 'socio-technical system' made it possible to think of work organisation as a meeting of two systems, technological and psycho-social. To optimise the one at the expense of the other was a recipe for sub-optimal performance. Instead of technological determinism there was a real possibility of 'organisational choice'. The semi-autonomous work-group, internally led and self- regulatory, was likely to be more productive and more satisfying to the workers than the conventional hierarchy. The idea spread rapidly in different kinds of enterprises in many countries. In continental Europe, especially Scandinavia, it was a significant ingredient of industrial democracy and it opened the way for the world-wide 'quality of working life' movement. In Britain, industry showed little enthusiasm.
Famous though it became, the socio-technical concept was but one of Trist's many contributions to the Tavistock Institute's work. In 1946, with Kurt Lewin, he was active in launching a new journal, Human Relations, at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Ann Arbor. He was instrumental in developing two new institutes under the Tavistock Institute umbrella: the Family Discussion Bureau (now the Institute of Marital Studies) and the Institute for Operational Research.
Trist was ambivalent about leaving the Tavistock for an appointment at UCLA. The precipitating factor was that his wife, Beulah, was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate. Although he had many American friends, he was not really happy until he moved to the Wharton School at Philadelphia in 1969, alongside Russ Ackoff, of operational research fame. From then his career continued its upward trajectory. He extended his interest in work organisation to wider social systems. Later, at York University, Toronto, he initiated a programme of future studies.
Dogged as he was by ill-health in the last 10 years of his life, his intellectual energy never faltered. He conceived a massive anthology of work undertaken or influenced by the Tavistock group from the Second World War onwards, and the title, The Social Engagement of Social Science, captured precisely the focus of his life's work. The first volume, on the socio-psychological perspective, appeared in 1990; the second, on the socio-technical, shortly before he died. They were co-edited by another ex-Tavistock man, Hugh Murray. Preparation of the third volume, which turns to the socio-ecological perspective, was well advanced and will be seen through by Beulah Trist.
What these volumes do not display is the Eric Trist who had a great sense of humour and was the life and soul of parties, in which, in his younger days, he could be persuaded to give a spirited rendering of a Navaho rain dance. He was a man of many parts.
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