Mary Parker Follett
With her concern for creative experience, democracy and for developing local community organizations, Mary Parker Follett is an often forgotten, but still deeply instructive thinker for educators.

follett.jpg (8518 bytes)The training for the new democracy must be from the cradle - through nursery, school and play, and on and on through every activity of our life. Citizenship is not to be learned in good government classes or current events courses or lessons in civics. It is to be acquired only through those modes of living and acting which shall teach us how to grow the social consciousness. This should be the object of all day school education, of all night school education, of all our supervised recreation, of all our family life, of our club life, of our civic life. (Mary Parker Follett 1918: 363)

Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) occupies a very significant place in the development of thinking and practice around adult and informal education. Her contribution can be seen in three particular arenas. First, her involvement in, and advocacy of, community centers in the first two quarters of the twentieth century did a great deal to establish them as an important social and educational form. Second, her theorizing around the notions of community, experience and the group, and how these related to the individual and to the political domain broke new ground - and was 'far ahead of her time' (Konopka 1958: 29). It provided a key element in the development of the theorizing and practice of groupwork and community development and organization. For example, her argument that democracy could only work if individuals organized themselves into neighbourhood groups, and people's needs, desires and aspirations were attended to was fundamental to the sorts of thinking that emerged. Last, she was able to help key figures like Henry Croly and  Eduard Lindeman not only to develop their thinking, but also to access important sources of financial help. 

Today, Mary Parker Follett is better known for her pioneering work on management - although her contribution was soon forgotten after her death in 1933 (especially in the USA). She looked to approach organizations as group networks rather than as hierarchical structures, and attended to the influence of human relations within the group. In terms of current debates around management such a perspective is hardly revolutionary  - but then it's radicalism and 'soft' orientation stood well outside mainstream.

Mary Parker Follett - her life

Follett was born in 1868 into an affluent Quaker family in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was educated at the Thayer Academy but had to take on a significant role within the family in her teens when her father died (her mother was disabled).  In 1892 she entered Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women in Cambridge , Massachusetts (later Radcliffe College) where she graduated in 1898 in economics, government, law and philosophy. While at Radcliffe she spent a year at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her research thesis at Radcliffe was published in in 1896 as The Speaker of the House of Representatives (and quickly became a standard work). 

From 1900 to 1908 Follett became involved in social work in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston (joining the staff of Roxbury Neighborhood House). She had an independent income and was able to throw herself into the work (in much the same way that Jane Addams and others were able to become immersed in settlement activity). She appears to have had the classic abilities of the informal educator to engage with a wide range of people, to listen and explore what they had to say, and to gain their confidence and esteem.

Roxbury at that point was a diverse neighbourhood both in terms of class and ethnicity. It had many of the classic dynamics of the suburbs - a grid-like design with no strong centre, a relative lack of attachment by its inhabitants and fairly limited local networks. However, Mary Parker Follett saw considerable possibility in the diverse nature of the population. Mixed neighbourhoods have potential, she believed, in that that they can work against the narrowness and exclusiveness of many, more homogenized, communities.

Instead of shutting out what is different, we should welcome it because it is different and through its difference will make a richer content of life... Every difference that is swept up into a bigger conception feeds and enriches society; every difference which is ignored feeds on society and eventually corrupts it. (Follett 1918: 40).    

Follett looked to encourage face-to-face encounter and the development of groups and activities. Diversity became a key ingredient of her vision of community. She believed that all human interaction held potential, and that it needed cultivating. Through such attention creativity and learning could be realized.

From 1908 Mary Parker Follett became involved in the movement to establish community centers in public schools (as chairperson of the Women's Municipal League's Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings). She sought to make 'the centers into institutions for overcoming civic apathy, further mutual understanding among groups, and creating a local framework for the integration of churches, trade associations, lodges and youth groups' (Quandt 1970: 39). In 1911 the committee was able to open the East Boston High School Social Center as an experiment for the winter. The success of the initiative proved to be a catalyst for the development of other centers. Her experience was to change her view of democracy and the place of local groups radically - and was a major force behind her work on the promotion of local networks and democratic forms in The New State (1918).

Later Mary Park Follett was to serve as a member of the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board, and in 1917 she became vice-president of the National Community Center Association. The interest in industrial conditions appears to have grown in part from a concern for vocational guidance in connection with evening schools. She was also involved in The Inquiry a social reform movement founded by the Federal Council of Churches in America. (The main financial backer was Dorothy Straight - who went on to marry Leonard Elmhurst and to found Dartington Hall in England). At this time (perhaps through Henry Croly) Follett met Eduard Lindeman and became deeply impressed with the direction and quality of his thinking. Lindeman was similarly struck by her 'marvelous mind' (Leonard 1991: 44). Aside from the political direction of her work (her concern with democracy and local group organization) one of the key things to strike Lindeman was Mary Parker Follett's interest in, and commitment to, adult education. 

Eduard Lindeman

Lindeman and Follett were, according to Stewart (1987: 147), 'an odd couple' and their collaboration was always a little wobbly. She proposed that they wrote a book together - something which Lindeman rejected. However, both acknowledge considerable debts to each other. 

The exacting, sickly, maidenly, and (to judge from her correspondence with Lindeman) severely neurotic Mary Follett did not always achieve good personal chemistry with the volatile, lusty, and often disorganized Eduard Lindeman. Though her own behaviour could also be erratic, the ethereal Miss Follett required personal and professional surroundings that were predictable, built on ground that was solid - very solid. (Stewart 1987: 147) 

Her commitment and quick thinking made a last impression on many that met her (such as Lionel Urwick - who was to later edit her papers on management and administration). From the early 1920s Mary Parker Follett devoted a significant amount of attention to the state of management and administration in industry and public institutions. Creative Experience followed in 1924. This book, with its focus on learning, exploration and team, can be seen as a key predecessor of more recent interest in learning organizations

Follett became a popular lecturer - and it could be argued that one of the reasons that her ideas found a significant response at the time was the passion and charm with which she was able to communicate her thinking. Her writing was accessible and her talks full of examples and commonsense connection. Basically, she took her ideas around community groups and networks and applied them  to public and commercial organizations. With the continuing rise of scientific management and reaction to the social obligations that her views placed upon organizations her calls for a more 'human' approach to administration got less of an audience. After her death in 1933, according to Peter F. Drucker, 'she gradually became a ‘non-person’. Her ideas were not acceptable in the mainstream of American management and organization thinking of the 1930s and 1940s. In Britain she had still had a significant following. Her various speeches and articles around management, for example were brought together by Henry Metcalf and Lionel Urwick and published in England in Dynamic Administration (1941). Gradually, a number of management thinkers and practitioners began to pick up on her work (especially in Japan in the 1960s) and with the emergence of discourses around the learning organization she has become recognized, according to Peter Drucker as a 'prophet of management' quoted by Babcock 1998).   

The New State

In The New State Mary Parker Follett argued that group organization and local networks provided the key to democratic advance. 'The study of democracy', she wrote, 'has been based largely on the study of institutions; it should have be based on how men behave together' (1918: 19). The book was begun as an exploration of community and social centers and quickly changed into a much wider analysis. According to Konopka (1958: 28) the crucial elements were as follows: 

(1) Social experience is the basis of state structure. 

(2) Sovereignty is relative to the capacity to rule oneself, to rule a group or a state. 

(3) State structure is the expression of elements of identity in purpose. 

(4) The will of a group is not atomic but is the common expression of individual wills. 

(5) Rich experience can only come through actual experiences in group life. There must be experience in a variety of groups. Because of the multiplicity of human nature no one group can exhaust the capacity of the modern citizen. 

(6) Individual and group are not antitheses. 

(7) The individual is the ultimate unit which is more diversified than any group can be. 

(8) There is no necessary contradiction between the citizen and the state. 

(9) Freedom and determinism are not opposites. 

(10) Self and others are not opposites.

In exploring groups and experience in this way Mary Parker Follett draws upon the work of James and others (for example she looks upon the person as 'a complex of radiating and converging, crossing and recrossing energies 1918: 75). She is able to place individuality in a social context and to stress relationship.

The individual is created by the social process and is daily nourished by that process. There is no such things as a self-made man. What we possess as individuals is what is stored up from society, is the subsoil of social life.... Individuality is the capacity for union. The measure of individuality is the depth and breadth of true relation. I am an individual not as far as I am apart from, but as far as I am a part of other men. Evil is non-relation. (Follett 1918: 62)

Given this analysis it is no surprise that Mary Parker Follett argued for the deepening of people's capacities for, and commitment to, citizenship through involvement in groups and associations (in this respect she is an important advocate of la vie associative - the educative power of association). 'No one can give us democracy, we must learn democracy', she wrote.

To be a democrat is not to decide on a certain form of human association, it is to learn how to live with other men... The group process contains the secret of collective life, it is the key to democracy, it is the master lesson for every individual to learn, it is our chief hope or the political, the social, the international life of the future. (Follett 1918: 22-23) 

Neighborhood education was, thus, one of the key areas for social intervention, and the group a central vehicle. Her own experience in Roxbury and elsewhere had taught her that it was possible for workers to become involved in local groups and networks and to enhance their capacity for action and for improving the quality of life of their members. Group process could be learned and developed by practice. As Konopka (1958; 29) again notes, she 'realized the dual aspect of the group, that it was a union of individuals but it also presented an individual in a larger union'. She argued that progressives and reformers had been wrong in not using the group process. 

Just what all this meant in educational terms was set out in the appendix to the book 'Training for the new democracy'

The training for democracy can never cease while we exercise democracy. We older ones need it exactly as much as the younger ones. That education is a continuous process is a truism. It does not end with graduation day; it does not end when ‘life’ begins. Life and education must never be separated. We must have more life in our universities, more education in our life... We need education all the time and we all need education. (1918: 369)

This appendix, according to Stewart (1987: 146) 'one of the earliest of scholarly writings on adult education in the United States'. It is marked by many of the concerns around education from everyday living and lifelong learning that Lindeman was to set out in his Meaning of Adult Education (1926) and that came to the fore in the famous 1919 Report in England.  

Creative Experience

Creative Experience (1924) while carrying forward a number of the themes developed in The New State (1918) reflects Mary Parker Follett's growing interest in the problems of industrial relations and the realm of management. She has the same commitment to democracy and encounter, but the focus is now on, as the title suggests, the creative use of experience. In this, David W. Stewart (1987: 145) suggests, her approach was basically that of a pragmatist, 'though she emphasized—and placed higher value on—the creative rather than the verifying aspects of experience'.

Experience is the power-house where purposes and will, thought and ideals, are being generated. I am not of course denying that the main process of life is that of testing, verifying, comparing. To compare and to select is always the process of education. . . When you get to a situation it becomes what it was plus you; you are responding to the situation plus yourself, that is, to the relation between it and yourself... Life is not a movie for us; you can never watch life because you are always in life... [T]he 'progressive integrations,' the ceaseless interweavings of new specific respondings, is the whole forward moving of existence; there is no adventure for those who stand at the counters of life and match samples. (Follett 1924: 133-134)

Follett's is a philosophy of engagement and encounter. Through thinking about our experiences, questioning their meaning and truth and looking to the people we are, it is possible to learn. But there can be dangers in this process if approached narrowly.

The people who ‘learn by experience’ often make great messes of their lives, that is, if they apply what they have learned from a past incident to the present, deciding from certain appearances that the circumstances are the same, forgetting that no two situations can ever be the same... All that I am, all that life has made me, every past experience that I have had - woven into the tissue of my life - I must give to the new experience. That past experience has indeed not been useless, but its use is not in guiding present conduct by past situations. We must put everything we can into each fresh experience, but we shall not get the same things out which we put in if it is a fruitful experience, if it is part of our progressing life... We integrate our experience, and then the richer human being that we are goes into the new experience; again we give ourself and always by giving rise above the old self.  (Follett 1924: 136-137)

What we have here is the difference in Follett's terms between a 'mechanical and creating intelligence' (op. cit.) (which in turn mirrors the distinction Aristotle makes between technical and practical reasoning). 

Mary Parker Follett on power and management

From the publication of Creative Experience to her death in 1933 Mary Parker Follett was best known for her work around the administration and management of organizations. In 1925, she presented an influential paper, 'The Psychological Foundations of Business Administration' to executives at the annual conference of the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York. She argued that the ideas she had been developing with regard to communities could equally be applied to organizations (we have seen a similar shift in recent years around the notion of social capital). Organizations, like communities, could be approached as local social systems involving networks of groups. In this way Mary Parker Follett was able to advocate the fostering of a 'self-governing principle' that would facilitate 'the growth of individuals and of the groups to which they belonged'. By directly interacting with one another to achieve their common goals, the members of a group 'fulfilled themselves through the process of the group's development'.   

Boje and Rosile (2001) suggest that Follett was seeking to temper scientific management with her own science of the situation, 'one in which management and workers together cooperated to define not only productivity but situations of social justice'. Exploring 'the science of the situation' involved both management and workers studying the situation at hand together. Boje and Rosile (2001) argue that she was 'the first advocate of situation-search models of leadership and cooperation'. This was not to some surface activity: 'the willingness to search for the real values involved on both sides and the ability to bring about an interpenetration of these values' (Follett 1941: 181).

One of the key aspects of Mary Parker Follett's approach was the 'circular' theory of power she initially developed in Creative Experience (1924)

Power begins... with the organization of reflex arcs. Then these are organized into a system - more power. Then the organization of these systems comprise the organism - more power. On the level of personality I gain more and more control over myself as I unite various tendencies. In social relations power is a centripedial self-developing. Power is the legitimate, the inevitable, outcome of the life-process. We can always test the validity of power by asking whether it is integral to the process of outside the process. (Follett 1924: 193)  

In terms of organizations this view of power involved managers, workers, and other stakeholders influencing each other. She distinguishes between power-over and power-with.  (or co-active power rather than coercive power).

What is the central problem of social relations? It is the question of power... But our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power. We frequently hear nowadays of 'transferring power as the panacea for all our ills Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul. (Follett, 1924: xii-xiii).

Follett suggests that 'power-over' is resorted to because 'people will not wait for the slower process of education' (1924: 190). 'Power-with', she argues, 'is what democracy should mean in politics or industry (ibid.: 187). 


While Mary Parker Follett's contribution to management theory has come to be recognized, relatively little attention has been given in recent years to her work around the development of thinking and practice in the field of informal education and lifelong learning. At one level this is not surprising. Just as her ideas around management were out of step with the dominant discourses of the 1930s and 1940s, so her concerns with local democracy, group process and the educative power of associational life do not find a ready response within policy debates today. However, it may well be that her time has come. Recent attention to the decline in civic community, most notably by Robert Putnam, may well encourage people to look at what Follett has to offer. Her arguments for the development of schools as community centres still holds considerable power; her exploration of the nature of experience still offers educators insights; and the case for the development of local groups and networks as the bedrock of democracy (and community) is as strong as ever.  Her finishing thought in The New State (1918), that the 'Community Centre is the real continuation school of America, the true university of true democracy' is something that we would do well to ponder. We need to extend and deepen associational life.

Further reading and references

At present there is not a full biographical treatment of Mary Parker Follett, although Joan Tonn at the College of Management, University of Massachusetts, Boston, is said to be currently working on one. Perhaps the best starting point for her work is:

Graham, P. (1995) (ed.) Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 301 pages. The is a useful collection of Follett's writings (with an emphasis on management). In addition, there are commentaries reflecting on the continuing relevance of her work by John Child, Nitin Nohria, Warren Bennis, Henry Mintzberg, Angela Dumas, Tokihiko Enomoto and Sir Peter Parker, together with a preface by Ros Moss Kanter, and an epilogue by Paul R Lawrence. Graham provides a useful assessment in her chapter, 'Mary Parker Follett: a Pioneering Life'.

Her key works are as follows:

Follett, M. P. (1896) The Speaker of the House of Representatives, New York: Longman Green and Co. 378 pages. 

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State - Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government, New York: Longman, Green and Co. 373 + xxix pages. This classic work by Follett has sections on the group principle, traditional democracy, group organization democracy's method, and the dual aspect of the group. The appendix on training for the new democracy is an important early piece of writing on adult education method (included in the archives). The third impression of the book (1920) includes an introduction by Viscount Haldane. Full text:

Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience, New York: Longman Green and Co (reprinted by Peter Owen in 1951). 303 + xix pages. The book is split into two parts: experience as  self-sustaining and self-renewing process; and an experimental attitude toward experience. Where The New State is largely focused around the problems of neighbourhood life, Creative Experience looks more strongly at examples drawn from industry and commerce. A concern with power and democracy remains 

Follett, M. P. (1941) Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett edited by Henry Metcalf and Lionel Urwick, London: Pitman. 320 pages. New edition published in 1971 edited by Elliot M. Fox and Lionel Urwick.

Follett, M. P. (1949) Freedom & Co-ordination: Lectures in Business Organization edited and with an introduction by Lionel Urwick, London : Management Publications Trust. 89 pages. This contains 6 lectures: "The Illusion of Final Authority"; "The Giving of Orders"; "The Basis of Authority"; "The Essentials of Leadership"; "Co-ordination" and "The Process of Control". 


Babcock, M. (1998) 'Review - Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s', Harmony,

Boje, D. M. and Rosile, G. A. (2001) 'Where's the Power in Empowerment? Answers from Follett and Clegg', Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 37(1): 90-117.

Horne, J. F. (1997) 'Mary Parker Follett: Visionary Genius Finds Her Own Time'

Konopka, G. (1958) Eduard C. Lindeman and Social Work Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education, New York: New Republic, republished in 1989 by Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Lindeman Leonard, E. (1991) Friendly Rebel. A personal and social history of Eduard C. Lindeman, Adamant, Vermont: Adamant Press. 

Quandt, J. B. (1970) From the Small Town to the Great Community. The social thought of progressive intellectuals, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Shapiro, M. 'Sketch Biography of Author Mary Parker Follett',

Stewart, D. W. (1987) Adult Learning in America: Eduard Lindeman and his agenda for lifelong education, Malabar, Fl.: Robert E. Krieger. 


Mary Parker Follett - useful page of resources maintained by Vigdor Schreibman including the full text of The New State,

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002) 'Mary Parker Follett and informal education', the encyclopedia of informal education,

Mark K. Smith 2002