The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control

The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control

by Jennifer Karns Alexander
     
 

Efficiency—associated with individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits or productivity—often counts as one of the highest virtues in Western culture. But what does it mean, exactly, to be efficient? How did this concept evolve from a means for evaluating simple machines to the mantra of progress and a prerequisite for success?

In

Overview

Efficiency—associated with individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits or productivity—often counts as one of the highest virtues in Western culture. But what does it mean, exactly, to be efficient? How did this concept evolve from a means for evaluating simple machines to the mantra of progress and a prerequisite for success?

In this provocative and ambitious study, Jennifer Karns Alexander explores the growing power of efficiency in the post-industrial West. Examining the ways the concept has appeared in modern history—from a benign measure of the thermal economy of a machine to its widespread application to personal behaviors like chewing habits, spending choices, and shop floor movements to its controversial use as a measure of the business success of American slavery—she argues that beneath efficiency's seemingly endless variety lies a common theme: the pursuit of mastery through techniques of surveillance, discipline, and control.

Six historical case studies—two from Britain, one each from France and Germany, and two from the United States—illustrate the concept's fascinating development and provide context for the meanings of, and uses for, efficiency today and in the future.

Editorial Reviews

Enterprise and Society - Eric S. Hintz
Alexander skillfully interprets a broad spectrum of sources spanning three centuries, three languages, and several academic disciplines. She packs a wealth of information into a slim and readable volume, carefully exploring the nuances of each case without straying too far from the central focus on efficiency's intellectual heritage.

Reviews in History - Peter Sutton
A thought provoking study... Widens our understanding of how ideas of efficiency began, how efficiency has been experienced in different historical circumstances.

American Historical Review - Larry Stewart
A very provocative book.

Canadian Journal of History - William J. Ashworth
An ambitious book that... largely succeeds.

Choice
This concise, scholarly study will not only encourage reflective analysis of historical events but also offer insight into potential future applications and change.

Enterprise and Society
Alexander skillfully interprets a broad spectrum of sources spanning three centuries, three languages, and several academic disciplines. She packs a wealth of information into a slim and readable volume, carefully exploring the nuances of each case without straying too far from the central focus on efficiency's intellectual heritage.

— Eric S. Hintz

Reviews in History
A thought provoking study... Widens our understanding of how ideas of efficiency began, how efficiency has been experienced in different historical circumstances.

— Peter Sutton

American Historical Review
A very provocative book.

— Larry Stewart

Canadian Journal of History
An ambitious book that... largely succeeds.

— William J. Ashworth

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801886935
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
02/28/2008
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.86(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Howard Segal
I find this to be the finest study I have ever read and likely will ever read on the evolution of 'efficiency' as an intellectual concept and, simultaneously, on its many applications over time. Alexander's book has remarkable depth, detail, coverage, and insight. Her work is most impressive in its tracing of efficiency from its origins as an obscure philosophical concept through the present, as a popular social and personal ideal.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Karns Alexander is an associate professor in the Program in History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

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