This essay examines the various field observational methods used in labor economics in the United States from the early 1900s to the 1930s. Labor relations, at that time, was an area of critical importance as well as an area in which existing economic theory provided little guidance. Labor economists had, of necessity, to become field observers. Three examples are examined. The first is the work of John Fitch, The Steel Workers (1910), done as a part of the Pittsburgh Survey. Fitch’s book on the steelworkers included his own observations of steel mills, interviews with steelworkers, and photographs and drawings by Lewis Hine and Joseph Stella. The second example is the work conducted under the supervision of Carleton Parker for the California Commission on Immigration and Housing. Parker employed F. C. Mills and Paul Brissenden to work undercover to investigate conditions in labor camps. The last example concerns the work of Stanley Mathewson, published as Restriction of Output among Unorganized Workers (1931). Mathewson’s study was an early example of the use of participant observation methods in industrial sociology and was widely influential. How this varied observational material was used, both in terms of policy advocacy and theoretical developments, is discussed, as are the strengths and weaknesses of the methods employed, and the changing place of field work in economics.

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