Eric Trist

1909 - 1993

Eric Trist was born in 1909 in Dover. He won a scholarship from his grammar school to Pembroke College, Cambridge University, in 1928, where he got a First in English literature in 1931 and a First with distinction in psychology in 1933. He studied psychology under Professor Frederick Bartlett, who introduced Eric to Kurt Lewin when he visited Cambridge on his way to the United States. Lewin was a great influence on Eric at the time, and made a lasting impression.

Next came a Commonwealth Fund scholarship which took Eric to the United States in 1933 for two years. Eric went to Yale, studied under Sapir (whom Eric described as “the biggest influence on my intellectual life”) and met up again with Lewin, who was at Cornell. Later, Eric described his shock at the hunger and poverty he saw while travelling through America in the Depression. This led him to become politically active, and when he returned to Scotland in 1935 Eric got a job researching the causes and effects of long-term unemployment in Dundee at St Andrews University. He stayed at St Andrews until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when he went to work as a clinical psychologist at the Mill Hill Hospital in London, treating men returning from the war. He was also a research fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley.

Some of the staff of the Tavistock Clinic, who had been called up into the army, heard about the work Eric was doing at the Maudsley and asked him to join their work on the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs). Eric worked with Wilfred Bion and Jock Sutherland. He was very close to Bion thoughout the war, and was Bion's assistant in Bion's original therapy group. From 1943 Eric worked as chief psychologist to the Civil Resettlement Units (CRUs) where he met another Tavistock man, Tommy Wilson. The aim of the CRUs was to devise a therapeutic community for helping repatriated prisoners of war to adjust to their home society from which they had been absent for up to five years.

When he was demobbed from the army in 1946, Eric helped Tommy Wilson, Jock Sutherland and others to found the Tavistock Institute. He had stayed in contact with Kurt Lewin, with whom the Institute founded the international social science journal, Human Relations. Lewin's seminal articles were published in the journal just before his untimely death in 1948.

Eric Trist directed the first group relations conference held in the United Kingdom, at the University of Leicester in 1957. This was the first of the Tavistock Institute's Leicester Conferences, which are still running today. It was the amalgamation of the Institute staff's wartime experience with leaderless groups and officer selection, therapeutic communities, and Kurt Lewin's human interaction laboratory or T-groups.

His contribution to the field of group relations included his classic research into the British coal industry, from which emerged socio-technical systems theory in the 1950s. This recognised the inter-relatedness of technical and socio-psychological factors in the workplace and that optimising both human resources and technology is the route to human and organizational heath and productivity. The original paper (Trist & Bamfoth, 1951) was followed in 1963 by Organizational Choice, with Higgin, Murray and Pollock, who by that time had established several projects in socio-technical systems development. The identification of the role of semi-autonomous workgroups in worker productivity was very influential, affecting theories about industrial democracy and the quality of working life internationally which continues to this day.

Eric Trist also influenced A.K. (Ken) Rice, with whom Eric worked for several years after Rice joined the Tavistock Institute in 1948. Ken Rice acknowledged Eric's ongoing help and encouragement in the introduction to his book Productivity and Social Organisation: The Ahmedabad Experiment in 1958. Ken Rice later went on to direct the Leicester Conference, from 1962 until his death in 1969.

Eric Trist was chair of the Institute's management committee from 1958-1962, then head of the Institute's Human Resources Centre until 1966. After twenty years with the Institute, Eric moved to the United States to take up the post of Professor of Organizational Behavior & Social Ecology in the Graduate School of Business Administration at UCLA. Three years later he became Professor of Organizational Behavior & Social Ecology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1978-1985 he was Professor of Organizational Behaviour & Social Ecology in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto.

Eric Trist, with his wife Beulah, and Tavistock colleagues Hugh Murray and Fred Emery, edited The Social Engagement of Social Science, a three-volume collection of writings giving an account of the work of the Tavistock Institute. The first volume, the socio-psychological perspective, is about the Tavistock's studies in groups and organizations. It was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1990. The second volume covers the socio-technical perspective and was published in July 1993. The third volume, the socio-ecological perspective, expands the earlier work to wider systems. It was published in 1997, four years after Eric died.

An autobiographical interview with Eric Trist is published online at

Selected publications

Eric Trist was a prolific author. These are just some of his publications. A fuller list is published on the Tavistock Institute's website at

Trist, E. & Bamforth, K. (1951) Some social and psychological consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting. Human Relations, 4(l).

Trist, E. & Rice, A. K. (1952) Institutional and sub-institutional determinants of change in labour turnover. (The Glacier Project- VIII). Human Relations, 5(4).

Trist, E. & Sofer, C. (1959) Exploration in group relations. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Trist, E. & Emery, F. Socio-technical Systems. In C.W. Churchman & M. Verhurst (Eds), Management Science, Models and Techniques (Vol. 2, pp. 83-97). London: Pergamon Press. (1960)

Trist, E., Higgin, G., Murray, H. & Pollock, A. (1963) Organizational choice: Capabilities of groups at the coal face under changing technologies. London: Tavistock Publications.

Trist, E. & Emery, F. (1965) The causal texture of organizational environments. Human Relations, 13(l), 21-32.

Trist, E. & Emery, F. (1973) Towards a Social Ecology: Contextual Appreciations of the Future in the Present. London: Plenum.

Trist, E. & Davis, L. (1974) Improving the quality of working life: Socio-technical case studies. In J. O'Toole (Ed.), Work and the Quality of Life: resource papers for work in America (pp. 246-284). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trist, E., Susman, G. & Brown, G. (1977) An experiment in autonomous working in an American underground coal mine. Human Relations 30(3), 201-236.

Trist, E. (1977) Collaboration in work settings: A personal perspective. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 13, 268-278.

Trist, E. (1979) Adapting to a changing world. In G. F. Sanderson (Ed.), Industrial Democracy Today. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Trist, E. & Keidel, R. (1980) Decline and revitalization: The Jamestown experience. In D. Morley et al. (Eds.), Making cities work: The dynamics of urban innovation. London: Croom Helm.

Trist, E. (1981) The evolution of socio-technical systems: A conceptual framework and an action research program. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Labour. (Also published in A. Van de Ven & W. Joyce [Eds], Organization design and performance. New York: Wiley-Interscience.)

Trist, E. (1983) Referent organizations and the development of inter-organizational domains. Human Relations, 36(3), 269-284.

Trist, E. (1985) Intervention strategies for inter-organizational domains. In R. Tannenbaum et al. (Eds.), Human systems development: New perspectives on people and organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Trist, E. & Murray, H. (eds) (1990). The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology. Vol. I The Socio-Psychological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Trist, E. & Murray, H. (eds) (1993). The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology. Vol. II The Socio-Technical Perspective. Philadelphia.: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Trist, E., Emery, F. & Murray, H. (eds) (1997). The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology. Vol. III The Socio-Ecological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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