Social Forces

Date: 1954

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Human Ecology


Ecological Patterns in an Industrial Shop1

….This case study applies ecological analysis to an industrial situation.

Research in ecology has often been concerned with the spatial location of members of social categories, such as Negroes or alcoholics, rather than of social groups. When the variables are actually social groups, ecological studies of segregation usually focus upon a consideration of residential segregation. Sociologists are aware, however, that the institutional agencies of a segregated population are customarily confined to the delimited area in physical space in which their clients dwell.

The writer was a participant observer for six months in an area where segregation as an accommodation mechanism had been informally extended from residential space to the social systems of work groups, and had thus projected upon the physical space used by the industry certain patterns of social space. By social space is meant that location within certain physical boundaries is taken as a status symbol and becomes a datum in defining social relations.2 Although the town in which the situations discussed here were observed contains several ethnic groups, this analysis is concerned primarily with the social processes resultant from the contacts between the two largest ethnic minorities. The present state of human ecology makes it advisable to state early in a discussion one’s school or theoretical position. The writer posits no mysterious ecological "forces" as causal factors in societal relationships. Rather, he assumes that ecological processes such as invasion and succession are the results of more general social processes such as competition, conflict, and assimilation. One theoretical example may suffice to clarify this position. Dominance is conceived of as a result of specific social and economic factors; social and economic relationships are not conceived of as resulting from a mysterious non-social force called dominance.

We shall deal first with the contacts between the residential communities of the two ethnic groups, and then with the contacts between the two work communities. This usage of the term community is consistent with Hiller’s definition of the community as a social group with a locus. He says that the generic elements of all social groups are members, tests of admittance, roles of members, and norms of social relations. The community is differentiated from the group in that it adds to this list of elements locality as a datum in group composition.

The residential and industrial communities mentioned above are located in an iron-ore receiving port on the shore of Lake Erie. Most of the town’s pre-Civil War settlers came from Connecticut. During the greater part of the nineteenth century, it was a trading village serving the farmers of the surrounding area. The rise of the young iron and steel industry, however, coupled with its fine natural harbor, transformed the village into a major break in transportation between the ore fields of the northwestern Great Lakes region and the steel mills within a 150-mile radius.

Due to the sudden expansion of the docks and railroad yards about 1880, there began an influx of immigrants from northern Europe sufficient to double the size of the town within a decade. Although the immigrants came in roughly equal numbers from Sweden and Finland, a few Swedes were the first to arrive, with the result that this whole population aggregate became known to the old residents as "the Swedes." Even today, although the Uptown people know that the descendants of these immigrants recognize divisions between the groups, such as the Swedish Lutheran Church and the Finnish Lutheran Church, an occasional nose is bloodied because an Uptown youth, having heard his parents refer to "those Swedes at the Harbor," calls a Finn a Swede and is coerced into a recognition of the Finn’s pride in his national origin. Since the Uptown people consider both the Finns and the Swedes as one minority group and since, as an in-group which regards the rest of the town as an out-group, they consider themselves so, the remainder of this discussion will lump the two groups under the heading of Swedes.

Although some Irish immigrants settled there around the turn of the century, the town does not consider them to be foreigners, so they are not a major factor here. This analysis is concerned with relations between the Swedes and the other group considered by the residents of the town to be foreigners, the Italians.

The Italians came later than the Swedes; most of them arrived between 1890 and 1910. The population of the town has been relatively stable since the end of World War I, but during the forty years between its sudden boom as a shipping and railroad center and 1920, its population expanded from less than 2,000 to over 22,000.

The town is bisected by a railroad which runs east and west parallel with the lake front. The half of the town north of the east-west railroad tracks is bisected by another set of tracks connecting the docks and the railroad repair yards with the main railroad lines.

The portion of the city north of the main lines is inhabited almost entirely by the Swedes and the Italians, while the older section of the city south of the tracks is inhabited by the Uptown people, which means virtually everyone who is not of Swedish or Italian descent. In the northern section of the city, the Italians live on the east side of the dock-line tracks, the Swedes on the west side. To the Uptown people, any residence north of the east-west tracks is on the wrong side of the tracks, since it is inhabited by foreigners. To the Swedes, any residence east of the dock-line tracks is looked down on as being "Dago" or "Wop." The Italians, on the other hand, define residences on the west side of the same dividing line as being undesirable, since they are not "in the community" but among the "dumb-Swedes," a popular compound on the Italian side of the line.

Before attempting to analyze segregation as an accommodation mechanism in the work situation, it seems advisable to trace the processes which have led to the existence of three residential communities within the city.


The Swedes, since they came to work on the docks and in the railroad repair yards close by the docks, settled in the northeast portion of the town. This resulted in that section’s being known as "Swedetown." Only a few years later, the Italians began to arrive in large numbers. They, too, were employed by the docks or the railroads and therefore wanted housing in the lake-front area. There followed what any student of ecological processes would expect: the Italians invaded the area of cheapest housing—"Swedetown." The Swedes had already begun to prosper due to the magnitude and expansion of the ore trade. Feeling that their section of the town was being devaluated by the Italian invasion, they began to build in the previously undeveloped area west of the dock-line tracks, an area known simply as The Harbor. The Italians accomplished a process of complete succession in "Swedetown," which has not since been challenged. The old names of the areas have never been changed to describe their new occupants, a phenomenon which the city’s summer tourists find highly confusing, although the natives accept it without question. Civic leaders from "Swedetown" have recently attempted to get rid of the old name by having the area officially designated in the newspaper and on store fronts and club name prefaces as East Side, perhaps with the hope that some of the Uptowners’ feeling about the foreigners would vanish with the name. As yet, however, the movement has met with little success on the informal level; Italians as well as other townspeople still refer to the area as "Swedetown." The reader must bear in mind, then, that "Swedetown" refers to the Italian section, while The Harbor is the name of the area inhabited by the Swedes.

Despite the fact that they are incorporated within the same city limits as Uptown, both The Harbor and "Swedetown" constitute separate sociological communities. Their members, almost without exception, are all inhabitants of the physical space occupied by the communities. The reason that this is true is linked with the principal test for admittance: ethnic origin. A person who is not of Swedish or Finnish descent finds it quite impossible to join in community life at The Harbor, nor is anyone not of Italian ancestry ever really a member of the group in "Swedetown." Both the roles of members and the norms of social relations may be traced to these singular combinations of the locality datum with the ethnic origin test of admittance. At The Harbor one finds two Finnish Lutheran Churches, two Swedish Lutheran churches, the Harbor school, the Suomi Athletic Club, several filling stations, grocery stores, saunas (steam baths), confectioneries, cafes, and a Swedish bakery, all operated by Swedes. On the other side of the dock-line tracks are found Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church, its affiliated parochial school, the Columbus Street school, the East Side Young Men’s Athletic and Social Club, the Sons of Italy Lodge, and several filling stations, grocery stores, confectioneries, spaghetti and ravioli houses, and cafes, all operated by Italians. Despite the opportunity of several decades for assimilation into a small American town, these two cultural minorities still have distinctive patterns of behavior different from those of Uptown or of each other. A stroll through the Harbor on a summer evening reveals large, relatively new houses, neatly trimmed hedges, families seated on front porch swings or on lawn chairs in their large, well-cared-for yards. At the confectioneries, groceries, and filling stations one sees customers make purchases quietly and leave. At the bath houses, men sit silently in the steam rooms or, having finished their "steam," lie on benches in the outer parlor and discuss work, women, or politics. After one crosses the bridge over the river and railroad tracks into "Swedetown," he is immediately struck by the fact that the people he had seen moments before were light-complexioned. Coloring is not exceedingly noticeable among the Italians or Swedes so long as the observer is with only one group or the other, but the contrast is striking. Here, too, one is struck by the difference in life’s tempo and volume. Women are seated on the front steps of older houses, calling to friends passing on the walk or seated on the porch steps next door. Groups of men are clustered on the corners, by the filling stations, in the stores and bars—not always buying, but always talking. Even the children playing in the smaller, less tidy yards seem quicker and noisier.

In the above description, perhaps, lies the key to understanding the stereotypes, firmly grounded in ethnocentrism, which each group has of the other. To the Italians, the Swedes are slow, dumb, drab, or at best, dull and uninteresting. To the Swedes, the Italians are crude, immoral, gaudy, or at best, boisterous and ill-mannered. Although both groups take real pride in their Americanism, they also feel strong ties to their ethnic heritage. Hence, each ethnic minority thinks of itself as a hyphenated-American community, with the accent on the American, while each perceives the other as a community of foreigners. There are two ways, therefore, to live on the wrong side of the tracks. Residence in either portion of the lake-front area causes one to be defined as an out-group member by the Uptown people; residence on either side of the dock-line tracks causes one to be looked down upon by the population on the opposite side of the tracks.

In addition to meeting the four criteria for a social group, and the additional one of locality, which allows us to define them as communities, both areas have their separateness both from each other and from the Uptown community, further reinforced by two other differentiating data: language and religion. Language as a variant datum, of course, becomes increasingly less important with the passage of time. It is well to remember, however, that in 1930 over 17 per cent of the total population of the town was still foreign-born, and that as late as 1940 the percentage of foreign-born residents was still nearly 14. Religion as a differentiating item shows less sign of weakening so far. The Italian population is even further divorced from Uptown than the Swedish in this respect. The Lutherans are on reasonably amicable terms with the Uptown Protestants, but a minimum of effort is expended in friendly relations between the Uptown Irish Catholic Church and the Swedetown Italian Catholics.

The writer knows of no indication that the conflict between the Swedes and the Italians—which arose out of differences in language, religion, general cultural background, and out of early competition for jobs and living space—has been or is being replaced by cooperation. It is merely latent; it has been accommodated through the rather efficient medium of segregation. Segregation as an accommodation mechanism between these two groups seems partially self-perpetuating; it is continually "pulling itself up by its own bootstraps." When a man has gained the necessary money, occupational prestige, and education to give him a fair chance of being accepted by the Uptown community, his advantageous status nearly always depends upon his staying in his own community. A second generation Italian who becomes a lawyer or a doctor may have an Uptown office to satisfy the yearnings of both himself and his clients for prestige; but if he is to become and remain a successful professional man, he had best keep his residence, club membership, and church membership in "Swedetown" and send his children to the Columbus Street school. The Swedish alderman can be re-elected only so long as he lives at The Harbor and participates in its community life; the successful grocer or care operator must keep his social ties as well as his business establishment within his ethnic group.

With this description of the history and patterning of residential segregation, we should be prepared to analyze segregation as an accommodation mechanism in an industrial social system.


Adjacent to the docks is the Railroad Car Repair Shop, which consists of a large factory building and an open area about 1,000 feet wide and 3,000 feet long, containing 20 spur tracks where gondolas, or coal cars, are side-tracked for wheel and body repairs. The shop normally employs about 400 men, of whom approximately 175 are Italian and 150 are either Swedish or Finnish. About 300 of the men are directly engaged in car repair inspecting, cutting metal patches, burning, drilling, riveting, blacksmithing, painting, driving cranes, oiling wheels, or supplying rivet gangs. The remainder of the shop’s personnel are administrative workers or work in the yards as flagmen, switchmen, engineers, firemen, or brakemen. The car repair work is of two types: "light" repairs such as burning out rusted places in the side of a car and replacing them with riveted patches, and "heavy" repairs which involve tearing down the whole car and putting in new support posts or end gates. This work is done outdoors so that there is no wall or other physical barrier separating the two kinds of work. Nevertheless, the two types of repairs are done in different sections of the yard; the men work on the "lights" on the easternmost 10 tracks and on the "heavies" on the westernmost 10 tracks. The men working on the "lights" and those working on the "heavies" are two distinct social groups having different members, tests of admittance, roles for members, and norms of social relations. If the separate work areas are considered a locality datum, the two groups may be considered as analytical communities.

All of the workers on the "heavies" are Swedes; all of the workers on the "lights" are Italians. The only exceptions are a few part-time summer workers, such as the writer. If such part-time workers are members of one of the ethnic minorities, they are assigned to the appropriate side of the repair yard. If they are from Uptown, they may be assigned to either side of the yard. However, there are seldom more than 10 or 12 Uptowners employed there, since it is not considered a desirable place for employment by Uptown people. The supply shop which dispenses new parts to repairmen is located at the northern end of the yard, and its personnel are also divided along ethnic lines. The western end of the supply room which supplies the "heavies" employs only Swedes; the eastern end which supplies the "lights" is staffed with Italians. It should be emphasized that all persons connected with the "lights"—inspectors, foremen, rivet gangs, oilers, supplymen, crane operators—are Italian. The same situation exists with regard to Swedes on the "heavies."

In analyzing the two as groups, then, it may be said that all persons employed in one of the work areas are the members of that group. As in the residential communities, the primary test of admittance is ethnic origin, although demonstration of on-the-job allegiance to the ethnic group with whom he works may suffice as a criterion of temporary admittance for an outsider, such as the writer. The roles of group members and norms of social relations demand a segregation as strict, or stricter, than that found in the residential communities. If, as occasionally happens, a "light" rivet gang gets ahead of the yard schedule and runs out of work, the members check in their equipment and go home. Even during the war, when the car shortage was acute and men were working overtime some days, the idea of a "light" rivet gang working on the "heavies" was unthinkable. When a crane is needed on the "heavies," which is more often than on the "lights" by the nature of the work, piecework gangs are sometimes delayed until a "heavy" crane is available, even though a crane might at the same time be idle on the "lights." Even so, no Swede would suggest that a crane from the "lights" drive across the invisible barrier between track 10 and track 11. If two cranes from the "heavies" are laid up for repairs simultaneously, it becomes necessary to transfer one of the cranes from the "lights." The Italian driver, however, is not transferred in such a case; his crane is loaned to one of the Swedish drivers until the broken ones are repaired. The segregation system is extended even to the lunchroom. Here again, there is no visible dividing line; there are just some tables and benches which are for the Swedes and some which are for the Italians.

This remarkable system of relations is, of course, informal. No railroad regulations prohibit an Italian’s working on "heavy" car repairs, much less his eating at a "Swedish" lunch table. Local management, however, which is composed almost entirely of Uptown people, recognizes the situation by assigning new employees within the framework of the existing system. To a person familiar with the railroad unions and the railroad seniority system, the most astounding manifestation of this segregation pattern is the custom of ignoring seniority when it is in conflict with the segregated work situation. That is, if there is an opening for a supplyman to be advanced to the position of riveter on the "lights" and the next supplyman in line for a promotion is a Swede, he is passed over, and the next Italian in line for promotion from supplyman to riveter is given the job. This practise is accepted by both local railroad management and the local union.

The writer saw no cases of attempted invasion on either side during his work experiences in the shop. Such attempts have occurred, according to informants. However, the cooperation of his fellow workers is imperative if a man is to perform his duties in an occupation such as riveting, and past experience with the effectiveness of informal sanctions usually keeps both management and individual dissidents from attempting to break the segregation pattern.

A fascinating question, of course, is how this system of organizing social space originated. We are faced with the problem, then, of tracing the ecological distribution of the groups back to the social processes which brought about that distribution and, so far as possible, inferring the conditions which caused these processes to operate. The writer was unable to contact anyone in the shop with a definite answer. A large number of informants indicated that the present system arose out of the difficulties which language differences caused in communication between the two groups. Language, however, appears to be only one of the factors making cooperation between the two groups unlikely. The most popular theory among the workers seems to be a sort of culture-and-personality school approach which, when compared with the descriptions of the roles of members and the norms of social relations in the two residential communities, is challenging. The Italians say that the Swedes are "naturally suited" to the type of work found on the "heavies": they are dull, stupid, stolid work-horses—"born rate-busters." The work on the "lights," the Italians will tell you, involves finer craftsmanship, more intelligence. The Swedes, on the other hand, claim that the work on the "lights" is a shreds and patches affair of minor importance which can be done by flighty, erratic workers, whereas the "heavies" require "real men," steady, capable workers. It seems reasonable to believe that these answers may indicate the process out of which the existing system has grown: the conflict between cultures with variant norms of conduct and of social relations. Such conflict would make it extremely difficult for a member from one of the groups to fit into the role expectations of the other group, even in a work situation. The obvious way to accommodate this conflict in the work area is to adopt the process utilized in the residential area: segregation.


The manifest functions of this division of labor along ethnic lines are two. Its first raison d’être, the avoidance of language confusions, is rapidly being outgrown. Were this the only justification for this unique system of social relations, we would be justified in labelling that system a survival, an illustration of cultural lag. The second explanation of the system, however, and the favorite of the men working in it, is that the two kinds of work call for two different national types. Both the language barrier and the "natural kind of work for that type of man" idea seem to the writer to be not causes but symptoms of the reason for work segregation. Segregation into two separate work communities along ethnic lines serves as a means for accommodating conflicts caused by extended contacts between members of two variant cultures.

A latent dysfunction of the work segregation system as an accommodation mechanism is to shut off communication and any opportunity for even limited cooperation between the two work communities.

Since both the industrial and the residential segregation systems are based primarily upon the factor of cultural differences, the industrial situation will probably be relatively static so long as the present residential communities remain unchanged. When the inter-community situation alters from one of accommodation to one where the two ethnic residential communities are being assimilated into the Uptown community, then it seems probable that the industrial segregation system will gradually disappear.

This study illustrates for one case at least the value of human ecology as a frame of reference for the industrial sociologist. Ecological analysis offers not a substitute for structural analysis but a complement to it for industrial sociology. The informal organization of this railroad repair shop is more easily discovered and better understood through the conceptual eyeglasses of the ecologist, in terms of social space and segregation.…

1 From , 1954, 32:351–356. By permission.

2 This definition, and the theoretical framework of this paper, are from E. T. Hiller’s excellent theoretical construct of "The Community as a Social Group," American Sociological Review, 6 (April 1941), pp. 189–202.


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Chicago: "Ecological Patterns in an Industrial Shop1," Social Forces in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2023,

MLA: . "Ecological Patterns in an Industrial Shop1." Social Forces, Vol. 32, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Ecological Patterns in an Industrial Shop1' in Social Forces. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2023, from