Slouching towards Maslow's pyramid

There has been, as far as I can tell, no canonical study of how and why certain ideas – psychoanalysis, Maslow’s theory of needs, gestalt therapy – infiltrated into the precincts of that most American of sciences, organization science, and all its business school progeny. The ultimate American utopia is the corporation – those of us on the reservation outside of it just think of ourselves as the dreamers of the better future. But inside those corporate walls, that future is manufactured wholesale.

In 20th century America, war, organization and information systems formed the sinister matrix to which our best guides are still the great dark codexes: J.R., Gravity’s Rainbow, Flow my tears the policeman said. Randall Jarrett’s tailgunner glosses not simply the belly of the state at war, but the great human product of the 20th century, organizational man.

Maslow’s career, to be read properly, must be read by the flickering light common to incendiary bombings and the vast, flawless labyrinth of neon lights that track the corridors of skyscrapers and of insane asylums.

Early in his career, Maslow’s major research concern was what he called dominance. In a paper from 1937, The Comparative Approach to Human Behavior, he wrote:

“The writer some years ago was confronted with the problem of the relationships between dominance behavior, sex behavior, and social behavior. The attempt to study this problem in humans directly turned out to be a failure. The multiplicity of theories, the variability of concepts and of terminology, the sheer complexity of the problem itself, the impossibility of separating the superficial from the fundamental, all combined to make the project a baffling and even possibly an insoluble one.”

This is a rather odd methodological statement. Why should we posit special relationships between the behaviors he lists – or even take those behaviors (such as dominance behaviors) as given? Especially as, on his own account, there is a ‘variability’ of terminology and theory.

Dominance, here, is certainly the dominant pre-occupation. The paper suggests that the problem is one that we all know from the sciences – the problem of being ‘objective’. Maslow’s suggestion that we can get there by an indirect route – namely, comparison with the less ‘baffling’ behavior of primates – and so disentangle the bloody bonds of human behavior was, of course, in the post-war period amply taken up. Yet the method seems to make headway sideways, for what could make the behavior of primates less baffling when the original baffle is in the cultural construction of the terms of the problem?

“It is just this situation, e.g. complex of similarities and differences, that makes it possible for the psychologist to set up experiments in which the main variable factor is the relative presence or absence of cultural influence. If these cultural influences can be controlled out by experimentation which involves groups of humans and infra-humans, there is then promised an improved possibility of achieving greater understanding of what our primate inheritance may be.”

What could ‘control out’ cultural influences mean, applied to the highly culturally specific notion of experimentation? Maslow here is participating in the social sciences paradigm that seeks the ultimate Other – the Other who functions, paradoxically, as the silent parameter, void of all ‘cultural’ properties – for instance, the property of having a first-person status – and at the same time as the template for the social sciences subject.

However, his animal studies were only one wing of his project. The other wing went in the contrary direction – seeking to bar entrance to cultural influences by welcoming them, aiming for the dead center of normality.

Maslow, as Dallas Cullen and Lisa Gotell have studied Maslow’s sexological research. This research was directed towards understand ‘normal’ female sexuality. To get behind this problem, Maslow, curiously, culled out Lesbians, Catholics, blacks and all women who came from families whose fortunes were not in the upper 5 percent of the American income percentile from his research set. He interviewed the resulting selection of women, all students at Columbia University, and concluded that the dead center for which he had embarked had finally been hit. And thus he was able to pursue a problem he articulated in a journal jotting from 1960:

“the 2-fold motivation of women (1) to dominate the man, but (20 then to have contempt for him, go frigid, manifpulative, castrating, and (3) secretly to keep on yearning for a man stronger than herself to compel her respect, & to be unhappy, & unfulfilled & to feel unfeminine so long as she doesn’t have such a man.”

From experimenting on animals to the ghastly postwar obsession with the frigid bitch – this is, of course, the dark side of what appeared, in the sixties, to be a humanizing program. The social structure should satisfy the needs of the people – isn’t that really what marketing is all about?


Anonymous said…

Have you come across Russell Jacoby's Social Amnesia in regard to Maslow and the other happy Freudians?

roger said…
I should read that! Thanks for the tip.