Incentives are so widespread and seemingly so insignificant that we might simply take them at face value and fail to ask how we can account for their emergence and proliferation. Building upon Foucault’s notion of ‘problematization’ as a mode of reading history, this paper questions the taken-for-granted place that incentives have come to acquire in our current reflections and practices. To do so, it returns to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when American mechanical engineers and social scientists turned the behaviour of factory workers into a managerial problem and began to design new instruments to incentivize them. The shift from the current proliferation of incentives to their past opens up a genealogical space that invites us to explore the contingent shifts in meaning and use of incentivization as a framework to understand and govern human behaviour over the course of the twentieth century. Such a shift opens up an analytical space too. The return to early instances of incentivization allows us to compare labour incentives with labour discipline and to tease out some of the similarities and differences between these two ways of wielding power on the shop floor – and possibly beyond.
- labour history
- mechanical engineers