The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations:


Smallish (around forty staff) but very influential institute 1. dedicated to "social engagement of social science", finding and demonstrating ways to make the social sciences useful for promoting human wellbeing. Founded in London in 1946 (officially chartered and operational in 1947), with the help of funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation for "undertaking, under conditions of peace, the kind of social psychiatry that had developed in the army under conditions of war."2. Staffed at the outset by eight people, six of whom had taken part in the war-time projects, and whose disciplines included psychology, anthropology, economics, education and mathematics, it incorporated self-awareness, group awareness, and inquiring skills grounded in psychoanalytic training. It employs a paradigm it calls Action Research, and has evolved into a self-styled "type C" 3. institute. From 1963 to 1973, the Institute for Operational Research (IOR) operated as a semi-autonomous unit4. of the Tavistock, then joined the social scientists, forming the Centre for Organisational and Operational Research in 1979; this group disbanded in 1985. The current (2004) interests focus on:

  • inter-organizational relations,
  • the emergence of the knowledge society, and
  • challenging problems of organization, especially in the delivery of public policy.
for client organizations including the EU, private sector, and various UK administrations.


During the World War II, a small team of psychiatrists and psychologists from the Tavistock Clinic, with a few select complementary talents, demonstrated they could help a devastated army solve some of its own healing and growth problems. As well as research on shell-shock, closed head injuries, and reinsertion of soldiers to civilian life, they helped the British Army set up and use the experimental War Office Selection Board, a human resources management framework and organization. They then set out in peace time to help improve the workplace, family life, health care, human resource management, and other challenging social systems; that is, systems where interactions, and interpersonal communication and judgements could be changed to improve wellbeing.

They state :

Our purpose is to contribute to human wellbeing and development by advancing the theory, methodology and evaluation of change within and between groups, communities, organisations and wider society.

We do this by carrying out research and consultancy, running professional development activities, and producing publications. Our guidelines on good research practice (pdf) describe the standards we uphold in our work.

We use ideas and methods from across the social sciences to help our clients understand, engage with, and take action in complex situations. These situations include managing change and innovation; problems of policy and practice; and organisational behaviour and design.

Modus Operandi

A basic pattern discerned in the projects of the Institute is:

  • No standardized procedures were established, but a "social analysis" process inspired by analogy with the psychoanalytic method aided development of suitable interpretative languages in different projects and some of the methods introduced were manufactured more by the clients than by the Institute.
  • The aim was to build social science capabilities into organizations that they could then develop by and for themselves. 5.
  • The projects were joint enterprises of action research and social learning, conducted by co-operative, interdisciplinary teams, with substantial client organization involvement (and joint decisions on what to conclude and what to publish).
  • Because change processes take time, the most significant learning and advances of basic social scientific knowledge were derived from long-term relationships with stakeholders.
  • they addressed macro- or meta-problems emerging in society.
  • because the problems are emergent and not widely recognized, it is challenging to make the connections with stakeholders and become directively correlated.
The theory and practice of reticulist 6. planning which it introduced are now taught in planning schools throughout the world.
Action research is a topic in its own right, and footnote 3. summarizes the distinguishing features of a "type C" research institute.

Alumni (very incomplete list)

  • Tommy Wilson, who became Chairman of the Tavistock Institute. According to Trist and Murray, "In 1958 Wilson left to take up the position of strategic adviser to Unilever world-wide. This was the first time a social scientist (other than an economist) had been asked to fill a strategic position at this level in industry."
  • Eric Trist, a social psychologist, who was later to succeed Wilson as the Institute's Chairman before moving to the University of California at Los Angeles.
  • Fred Emery, widely regarded as one of the finest social scientists of his generation. The three books that perhaps best convey the extraordinary breadth and depth of his thinking are Toward a Social Ecology (1972, with Trist), On purposeful systems (1972, with Ackoff), and Futures We're In (1977).
  • Wilfred R. Bion, psychoanalyst convinced of the importance of considering not only the individual but also the group of which the individual is a member, whose pioneering work at Tavistock Clinic was essential to the development of the institute's innovative methodology.
  • A.K. Rice, who helped transfer the Tavistock culture to the U.S., and for whom the U.S. equivalent institute is named.
  • Hugh Murray, urban planning reticulist.
  • John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist and analyst, was made head of what he came to call the Department for Children and Parents.
  • Elliott Jaques, a Canadian psychiatrist and psychologist, was invited to join the Institute and played a prominent role during the five years he stayed.
  • Theodora Alcock, recognized world-wide as a Rorschach expert, who was kept on by the Institute when she reached the retiring age in the NHS, played a leading part in Tavistock tests development.
  • Hans van Beinum, who in 1971 went back to Holland to develop a new Department of Continuing Management Education at Erasmus University.

Artefacts and Publications

As the alumni list above, this bibliography is very incomplete. It is all the more so since clients preferred to keep some work unpublished.

  • Jaques's (1951) book, The Changing Culture of a Factory, was the first major publication of the Institute after it became independent.
  • Miller and Rice (I967) published their now classic book Systems of Organizations
  • Shell Management Philosophy Project (Hill, I971).
  • Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project (Thorsrud and Emery, I964; Emery and Thorsrud, 1969; 1977)
  • Phillipson's Object Relations Technique, one of the new Tavistock tests in the 1970s which were widely adopted.
  • Phillipson's book with R.D. Laing (Laing, R. D., H. Phillipson, and A. Lee. 1966. Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research . London: Tavistock Publications), opened up fresh ground.
  • The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments (a paper by Emery and Trist. 1965), a first attempt to conceptualize the new information-age post-industrial probématique', introduces a new theory of environmental types which arranges environments in terms of their increasing complexity. 7.
Three books produced by the IOR staff established its academic reputation :
  • Communications in the Building Industry (Higgin and Jessop, 1963),
  • Local Government and Strategic Choice (Friend and Jessop, 1969
  • Public Planning: The Inter-Corporate Dimension (Friend, Power and Yewlett, 1974)

Notes and References :
1. A registered charity and a not-for-profit organisation. Income comes from research grants and contracts for research projects, consultancy, training and publishing; plus their own resources.
2. From "THE SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT OF SOCIAL SCIENCE, A Tavistock Anthology : The Foundation and Development of the Tavistock Institute to 1989," by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray
3. op. cit., Trist and Murray, in a later chapter, propose three complementary types of research institutes. Type A are university departments, whose activity is monodisciplinary research and teaching, and who treat abstract problems to meet the needs of theory and method. Type B are user organizations (and consultants) whose activity is multidisciplinary research and service, treating concrete, specific client needs. Type C are special institutes whose research and action activity interrelates disciplines to treat generic problems, metaproblems, which are field determined.
4. Professor Russell Ackoff, pioneer of operations research and the application of general systems theory, who was on sabbatical in England 1962-1963, initiated talks between the Operational Research Society and the TIHR.
5. See also Chris Argyris, William Bridges for learning organization methodologies.
6. reticulist : using, building, and enhancing the performance of a network; in this case, probably synonymous with stakeholder-driven.
7. See also Beyond the Stable State, Donald A. Schon, 1971.

Tavistock Institute homepage --
F. Emery obituary --
Trist and Murray's history of the institute up to 1989 --
IOR Archives --
Civic Practices Network article --
The A.K. Rice Institute, the U.S. equivalent institute --

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