Efficiencies of Balance: Technical Efficiency, Popular Efficiency, and Arbitrary Standards in the Late Progressive Era USA

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Social Studies of Science, Volume 38, Issue 3, p.323-349 (2008)




Arbitrary measures of efficiency unsettle the dichotomy between engineering efficiency and efficiency in more popular forms: this dichotomy runs through the literature on the progressive era USA. Arbitrary efficiency standards were developed late in the progressive era for use in cases where ideal or theoretical efficiency could not be calculated. Arbitrary standards mediated between technical efficiency and efficiency's other forms, and illustrate important similarities between them. Examples of technical efficiency from Engineering Magazine, a prominent engineering journal, and of personal efficiency from the Independent, a prominent general interest journal of reform, reveal a common emphasis on efficiency as a tool of balance. In both, efficiency was a tool to help guarantee regularity, stability, and reliability, and used similar techniques of control, including continual surveillance and adjustment and deference to outside authority. Arbitrary measures of efficiency crossed the boundaries between the technical and personal, and underscore a shared foundation in their reliance on expertise.