Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: Steve Fuller, Charles Darwin, William Whewell, Charles Babbage, Emile Durkheim, Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Chris Renwick, Patrick Geddes, Herbert Spencer, David Ricardo, Talcott Parsons, Francis Galton, L. T. Hobhouse, Martin White, Victor Branford, Victoria Lady Welby, Gregory Radick, Maggie Studholme, John Scott, Christopher Husbands, Frédéric Le Play
This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us. With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).
A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history. The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.
However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers. The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.
By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem. It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.
If Renwick’s book is hung up by anything in particular, it is its modesty in framing itself as a sort of pre-history of the twentieth-century discipline of sociology. In doing so, it concentrates on three intellectual programs that vied to seize the commanding heights of the Sociological Society (inaugurated in 1904), and Britain’s first chair of sociology (established at the London School of Economics in 1907). These were Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) eugenics, Patrick Geddes’s (1854-1932) “civics”, and L. T. Hobhouse’s (1864-1929) liberal social reformism.
These heights were commanding because they were explicitly considered to be an institutional locus for the development of a properly “scientific” sociology. The search for an independent science of “sociology” can be traced to Auguste Comte’s (1798-1857) intellectual project of “positivism” and his attempt to foster a “religion of humanity”. However, institutionally, it can also be traced to the activities of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA, est. 1831). Backed by Charles Babbage (1791-1871), William Whewell (1794-1866), and allies, in 1833 the BA established Section F, dedicated to statistics (which meant social and economic statistics, not statistical theory). The section’s existence was certainly a reflection of the reach of the BA’s ambitions to promote rigorous scientific discourse as far as it could be applied. It was also, however, antithetical to that project as its activities were highly popular, and, for not unrelated reasons, resistant to intellectual control. It soon became a home for writers in deductive political economy, who followed in the tradition of David Ricardo (1772-1823).
In chapter 1 (a.k.a., Part I), Renwick discusses the battles surrounding Section F, and their connection with the fortunes of classical political economy. By the 1870s, political economy had come under pressure on account of its deductive nature and its inability to guide productive reforms. One source of pressure was Galton, who would go on to become a founder of Section H, dedicated to anthropology. At that time, Galton was, of course, in the middle of his lifelong project to establish an empirical and statistical science of eugenics, which had not yet found a large following. Section F’s travails also impelled Geddes, who suffered from decaying eyesight, to turn from his biological studies of ”reciprocal accommodation” (symbiosis, essentially) to social philosophy (also discussed in one of Renwick’s post on Geddes for EWP, in which he also provides a good, brief bibliography on Geddes).
Part II of Renwick’s book is very strong in its comparative discussions of different efforts to establish a programmatic basis for social thought. Following Charles Darwin’s accomplishments, the doctrine of evolution provided a clear model for what sort of argument would serve as a logical basis for analyzing complex, changing systems, both at the level of the individual organism, and the system of organisms and the geography they occupied (what would come to be called an ecosystem).
For Galton (Darwin’s cousin), the onus was to use statistical methodology to trace the biological inheritance of characteristics between generations, by which means selection could be observed to work. Geddes, on the other hand, was more indebted to the social philosophy of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose arguments drew analogies between biological selection and the development of society. Also influenced by the ideas of Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882), he urged that, like animals and plants, social-spatial forms (the distribution of social strata in cities, for example) could be subjected to a rigorous taxonomy, and so productively analyzed and guided. Further, drawing on his early interest in biological symbiosis, his civics anticipated the arrival of a harmonious rather than combative society.
In Part III, Renwick turns to a tightly focused analysis of the institutional battles around the Sociological Society and the sociology chair at LSE (originally intended for University College London), focusing particularly on the efforts of Geddes’s patrons, Victor Branford (1863-1930) and Martin White (1857-1928), and Victoria, Lady Welby (1837-1912).
The narrative of Part III provides an odd sort of anti-climax to the book. Renwick makes clear that the initial vision had been to integrate Galton’s eugenics with Geddes’s civics. Even though Galton’s program was about to achieve its well-known early-twentieth century notoriety through the Eugenics Education Society (est. 1907) and elsewhere, it fell flat on proponents of sociology. Further, though longtime supporters of Geddes were instrumental in the efforts to institutionalize sociology, Geddes’s civics also failed to gain wider support. In the end, L. T. Hobhouse took up the Martin White Chair of Sociology.
Renwick’s argument for the significance of this moment is that it represented a point when biological thought was eliminated from the program of sociology in Britain. Following the work of Greg Radick†, Renwick draws attention to Hobhouse’s own early career in biology, and his desire to engage with the philosophy of Spencer. However, unlike Spencer and Geddes, Hobhouse saw sociology not as an extension of biological evolutionary theory, but as a study of human mind, morals, and society as things that had already evolved beyond the applicability of evolution’s explanatory apparatus – a point Hobhouse explained in his 1901 work Mind in Evolution. This turned Hobhouse’s attention to political liberalism, reformism, and, indeed, journalism when he left Oxford to write for the Manchester Guardian before his ultimate return to academics as the face of British sociology.
But why suppose that Hobhouse’s unexpected claiming of a decidedly small prize is an important moment in intellectual history? It clearly didn’t slow the spread of eugenics, for instance. In driving toward this moment, Renwick is following in the footsteps of a 2007 back-and-forth in The Sociological Review specifically over what was at stake in that moment for later sociology.‡ But even this triumph was limited. As Renwick observes in his introduction, sociology’s canon-builders such as Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) would not acknowledge any energetic British tradition in sociology in the shadow of figures such as Max Weber (1864-1920) and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). Though the British tradition did also have its defenders over the years, according to Renwick they have tended to gesture to sociological work outside the discipline itself.
It’s not that the moment is without interest. I don’t think there’s much question that winning the identification of a sociological program as “scientific” and capturing key institutional positions was regarded as an important goal in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Further, actual academic opportunities to advance one’s program were exceedingly rare for those without independent means. Renwick does a good job showing the continual dependency of both Geddes and Hobhouse on patronage. In the end, Hobhouse did exercise influence from his London perch, and Geddes eventually moved on to Bombay.
The main advantage of the choice of Hobhouse’s moment is that it does actually provide Renwick with a good vantage point from which to survey some of the competing intellectual projects of the 1870s to the 1900s. It does, however, also limit readers’ view somewhat of the wider world of ideas, and how Galton, Geddes, and Hobhouse connected to it.
In that wider world, institutional high grounds and the status of social science are important, but not central. It is a world in which ideas inhabit and move between contemporaneous intellectual programs, not one where intellectual programs compete to have the privilege of generating ideas. To study this broader world, it would be necessary to look in more depth at the contents of intellectual programs as well as their programmatic foundations; it would be necessary also to expand the number of authors whose ideas one studied out into at least the second tier; and it would not be a history that drives to any particular moment in time.
Such an open-ended investigation would, perhaps, be asking too much of one book. But connecting the material in the book to the wider world would be a superb task for supplementary commentary by Renwick and others. In the meantime, we can be glad that the book provides good opportunities for such commentary.
This blog’s original spotlight on Renwick’s work highlighted his championing of intellectual history, and that shows up again here in his introduction. But, based on trends I’ve seen in books like this one, in journals, in the selection of HSS prizes, and elsewhere, I’m just going to go ahead and say that intellectual history is in good standing. The challenge now is to interrelate and consolidate projects in and beyond intellectual history, in order to ensure the retention and promotion of historiographical gains. Once we begin to understand what we know in intellectual history, we will be able to say clearly what constitutes progress.
†Gregory Radick, The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language (Chicago UP, 2007).
‡Maggie Studholme, “Patrick Geddes: Founder of Environmental Sociology,” The Sociological Review (TSR) 55 (2007): 441-459; John Scott and Christopher T. Husbands, “Victor Branford and the Building of British Sociology,” TSR 55 (2007): 460-484; Steve Fuller, “A Path Better Not to Have Taken,” TSR 55 (2007): 807-815; Maggie Studholme, John Scott, and Christopher T. Husbands, “Doppelgängers and Racists: On Inhabiting Alternative Universes,” TSR 55 (2007): 816-822.
In this exchange, Studholme wrote approvingly of Geddes’s emphasis on social-environmental interaction, while Scott and Husbands wrote about the crucial role of Branford. In turn, Fuller argued that those pieces turned a blind eye to the initial Branford-Geddes program’s amenability to Galtonian eugenics and the potential that its bio-social leanings could have resulted in a racialist taint. Studholme, Scott, and Husbands denied the interpretation. Although Fuller supplies the foreword to Renwick’s book, Renwick doesn’t really adjudicate the dispute, so much as simply affirm that Hobhouse clearly saw it as important to banish biology from sociology.