Mirror images at Saint-Gobain. Public relations and the sociology of work (1956-1958)
This article focuses on large French companies’ communications policies and their reaction to planned surveys by sociologists of work in the late 1950s. It is based on a case study of French industrial group Saint-Gobain, whose glass works in Chantereine, Oise, was viewed at the time as one of the gems of French industry. Saint-Gobain was one of the French pioneers in “public relations”, a doctrine whereby companies were supposed to be “glass houses”. The Chantereine glass works was the subject of an intensive communications policy, and received many visits from French and foreign visitors. However, sociologist Pierre Naville, who wanted to use it as one of the examples in his major study on automation, was unable to persuade Saint-Gobain’s management to allow him to carry out his survey on site. The firm, which was in the process of further improving its production process, did not want to tarnish the image it wanted to project of its smooth productive organisation. Faced with the practical difficulties of automating its processes, Saint-Gobain – despite its claims to transparency – actually appeared as the “secret laboratory of production” denounced by Karl Marx.