William Lloyd Warner (October 26, 1898 – May 23, 1970) was an American anthropologist and sociologist, famous for his studies of social class and social structure in modern American culture. Warner applied anthropological methods to contemporary social problems, such as race relations and class structure in an urban, business-oriented environment. One of his notable contributions was the definition of three social classes: upper, middle, and lower, with each level further divided into upper and lower. He carried out extensive research on communities in the United States, in particular a long-term study of a small New England town, publishing his results in the Yankee City series. He was also involved in the famous Hawthorne studies with Elton Mayo, which revealed the importance of social and psychological influences in motivating workers. Warner's view of human society was not congruent with academia of his time, and so much of his work was not well received at the time. However, his research pioneered the application of scientific research in the urban, business setting, and emphasized the importance of social and psychological factors, rather than external financial motivations, in dealing with issues of social class and social mobility.
William Lloyd Warner was born in Redlands, California, into the family of William Taylor and Clara Belle Carter, middle-class farmers. Warner attended San Bernardino High School, after which he joined the army in 1917. He contracted tuberculosis in 1918 and was released from the service. In 1918 he married Billy Overfield, but the marriage lasted only briefly.
Warner enrolled in the University of California, where he studied English and became associated with Socialist Party. However, in 1921 he left for the New York City to pursue a career in acting. The plan did not work well, and Warner returned to Berkeley to complete his studies.
At Berkeley he met Robert H. Lowie, professor of anthropology, who encouraged him to turn to anthropology. Warner became fascinated by the work of Bronislaw Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, who introduced him to the British functionalist approach to social anthropology. He also developed friendships with anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber. Warner received his B.A. from Berkeley in 1925.
Warner spent three years, from 1926 to 1929, as a researcher for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Australian National Research Council, studying the Murngin people of northern Australia. From 1929 to 1935 Warner studied at Harvard in the department of anthropology and the Business School, trying to obtain his Ph.D. He used his study among Murngin for his dissertation, which was later published in his first book, A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (1937). He never defended the thesis, though, and accordingly, did not receive his doctoral degree.
During his years at Harvard, Warner became a member of a group of social scientists, led by Australian social psychologist Elton Mayo. Mayo was exploring the social and psychological dimensions of industrial settings, and evoked Warner's interest in contemporary society. Warner became involved in Mayo's project of studying the workplace and organizational structure, using the Western Electric Hawthorne plant in Chicago as its location. This work led to the famous discovery called "Hawthorne Effect," which revealed that social and psychological influences were more motivating to workers than economic incentives.
While at Harvard, Warner taught at the Graduate School of Business Administration. From 1930 to 1935 he conducted his most influential study, which was known by the name The Yankee City project. In 1932, he married Mildred Hall, with whom he had three children.
In 1935, he was appointed professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Chicago, where he remained until 1959. During those years his research included important studies of black communities in Chicago, the rural South, and a Midwestern community. In addition to these community studies, Warner researched business leaders and government administrators, as well as producing important books on race, religion, and American society. He served on the Committee on Human Development from 1942 to 1959, and in 1946 he co-founded Social Research, Inc., which had the goal of studying marketing and human relations in the business world, from an anthropological perspective.
In 1959, Warner was appointed professor of social research at Michigan State University in East Lansing. During his time there, he published numerous books, among which were The Corporation in the Emergent American Society (1962) and Big Business Leaders in America (1963). He spent the rest of his career in teaching and conducting research.
Warner died in Chicago, Illinois on May 23, 1970.
Warner's The Yankee City study was undoubtedly the most ambitious and sustained examination of an American community ever undertaken. Warner and his team of 30 researchers occupied the small New England town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, for nearly a decade, conducting exhaustive interviews and surveys. Warner was interested in applying his functionalist approach to the whole community, and Newburyport, with its 17,000 people, seemed a perfect place for that. Warner himself moved to the town and married a local resident.
Ultimately, the study produced five volumes, known as The Yankee City series: The Social Life of a Modern Community (1941), The Status System of a Modern Community (1942), The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups (1945), The Social System of a Modern Factory (1947), and The Living and the Dead: A Study in the Symbolic Life of Americans (1959).
The Yankee City portrays typical American life in a typical small town, influenced by social, religious, ethnic, and work relationships. Warner developed a social scheme according to which people determine personal social identity. The classification consisted of six levels of social class—Upper, Middle, and Lower (each further divided into upper and lower)—that is still in use today.
Despite his impressive productive and wide range of interests, Warner's work was not popular in his lifetime. An empiricist in an era when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner's focus on uncomfortable subjects made his work unfashionable. Warner's interest in communities when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization, and religion, when the field's leaders were aggressively secularist, also helped to marginalize his work.
One of the most scathing critiques of Warner's methods came not from a fellow social scientist, but from popular novelist John Phillips Marquand. A Newburyport native with deep roots in the town, Marquand was annoyed by Warner's efforts to quantify and generalize people and their experiences. In his book, Point of No Return (1947), Marquand criticized Warner and his work, objecting too his pessimistic objectivism and merciless generalizations. In fact, Warner was often criticized by others as being ahistorical and susceptible to overgeneralization.
Warner was one of the first anthropologists who intended to study relationships in the business world scientifically. He was also one of the first who made a systematic and categorical study of the contemporary American community as a whole, taking into account various levels of life—social, religious, ethnic, and business.
Warner's work has found new relevance since his death. His community studies have offered valuable material for scholars investigating social capital, civic engagement, civil society, and the role of religion in public life. Additionally, his studies of class, race, and inequality received new attention by researchers investigating and warning of the deep social inequities in American society.
Warner’s methodology, in which he related people’s social personality to social structure, has influenced modern research in social stratification and social mobility.
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