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Bias, history, and the Protestant Work Ethic

Virgil O. Smith (College of Business and Public Management, University of La Verne, La Verne, California, USA)
Yvonne S. Smith (College of Business and Public Management, University of La Verne, La Verne, California, USA)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 28 June 2011




The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) is an important construct for management theorists. However, there appear to be biases and distortions in the way it is used in research. This paper aims to discuss the issues of assumptions involving the PWE, thus addressing this gap in the management literature.


The management literature distorts the PWE in three ways. First, though there are multiple work ethics, researchers largely focus on this one. This paper examines work‐ethics research and language in various management fields. Second, the construct has been developed within limited philosophical perspectives. This is tested by comparing work histories. Third, the historic documents are investigated and it is argued that the PWE is not Protestant.


There is evidence of bias in the management literature concerning the PWE. Though there are many work values, management research is dominated by the PWE. Luther's and Calvin's writings indicate that their essential views on work are the opposite of Webers' formulation of the PWE. However, the views of Marx and Engels on work echo the PWE.

Research limitations/implications

If a basic assumption is distorted, research utilizing this assumption is suspect. The PWE is an important construct in several management disciplines. Bias in construct assumptions can result in inaccurate measurements and results.

Practical implications

Researchers must constantly be aware of possible personal bias, particularly regarding key constructs. Scholars should regularly examine assumptions in their discipline. The history of a discipline can greatly assist this examination.


This is one of the few examinations of the assumptions behind a key construct in the management literature, the PWE. There are strong indications that distortions about the PWE have been reified.



Smith, V.O. and Smith, Y.S. (2011), "Bias, history, and the Protestant Work Ethic", Journal of Management History, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 282-298.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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