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2018 Cheiron Book Prize

Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands
Histories of Human Engineering

Cheiron (The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences) awards the 2018 Cheiron Book Prize to Maarten Derksen, (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands) for Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Using the concepts of tact and technology, Derksen explores the history of human engineering, showing how for every attempt to control human behavior, proponents of these technologies of control also had to exercise tact to counter and pre-empt resistance. Tact means actions that “accommodate the sensitivities of the people involved and exploit what is opportune in a situation” (p. 199). This requires discernment, therefore human nature remains at the heart of scientific attempts to isolate ‘the human factor’. Thus, one of the lessons of Derksen’s book is that despite the dream that human engineering principles culminate in a complete and calculable science, all such attempts have been forced to supplement their calculations with an incalculable element of tact: knack, experience, or intuition.

One strength of Derksen’s book is its breadth: it weaves together such diverse strands as modern neuromarketing, traditions of Greek rhetoric, Communist brain-washing scares, Taylorism, and Dale Carnegie’s system.  Derksen’s original and engaging analysis of this very diverse collection of texts and controversies keeps attention on his central narrative of psychology’s role in the development of and resistance to strategies of control. Another strength is Derksen’s ability to tease out and evaluate the assumptions at work in these histories, such as the primacy of unconscious motives, a mechanical basis for behavior, the worker’s naivety, or the ideal of self-governance.

This book has new relevance in 2018, when public anxiety about the powers of manipulation wielded by Facebook and other controllers of ‘big data’ is rampant, and the failure to replicate classic priming research has roused disciplinary concern. Derksen’s volume is clear, thoroughly-researched, and compellingly argued—a contribution both timely and of lasting value.

Members of the 2018 Cheiron Book Prize Committee: Nancy Digdon, Elissa Rodkey (Chair), Phyllis Wentworth, and Leila Zenderland.