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Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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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.

*“Primer: Patrick Geddes” and “Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science”

†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.



1. Geof Rayner - November 27, 2012

I am replying to this after just having a look at Chris Renwick’s book and a paper given by him. I think that it is excellent that he has published in this area, as well as the others you have mentioned above. My take on this is quite different from CR, however.

This is a very interesting area with potentially vast scope for debate. I think that Chris Renwick’s work has a rather narrow view of biology and ecology which collapses everything into a particular mode (and the shadow of eugenics hanging over them). I think this is unfortunate and is a disservice to Geddes and the potential that could have come from a more ecological and embodied version of sociology, even if Geddes might not have been the person to do it (but Lewis Mumford, his protege, certainly was – in my opinion). It is no disservice to Geddes that he did not achieve the happiest of resolutions between biology, botany and sociology. The pressure to conform to a jog-along with eugenics was great, but civics was certainly different and not reducible to it. it is not good for Renwick to say that it was merely a form of biologism, essentially not much different from Galton. This is not true, at least in my opinion. Yes, Geddes was trained as a biologist, but he was one of the few people to intellectually look much further. Let’s call him an ecologist therefore – as Mumford did – with the much wider scope of thought that this word suggests.

Geddes was after all the intellectual mentor of Lewis Mumford (a relationship happier in letters than in real life) and the Mumford’s fabulous multidisciplinary tradition of sociology, ecology and urbanism is the heritage which comes from Geddes.

Part of this case comes not just from what you say above – which i agree with, but from the USA, where eugenics was also powerful (in biology, ecology and politics). But here a sophisticated interpretation of Darwin’s thought underlay pragmatism (Peirce, Dewey, Mead, James) and moreover took evoluntionary thought in a very progressive direction and, to be frank, outdistanced British sociology in its sophistication. Likewise the ecological tradition in sociology, much adopted from botany – some influence from the conservative E Warming – but ultimately progessive perspective of the Chicago school, showed that naturalist metaphors needn’t take one down the eugenicist route either.

I certainly think that this is a story of missed opportunities. Lady Welby, who saw herself as semiologist, and was a very active correspondent of CS Peirce – today acclaimed as a genius (and who gave the conceptual footings to much of Habermas’ thought), stood at the intellectual crossroads. The fact that sociology in Britain became rather dully set within a disembodied and oversocialised intellectual space is something that those of trained in it have had to work hard to overcome. It could have been worse of course. Just think of Talcott Parsons.

Geof Rayner co-author
Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions of Good Health, Routledge, 2012

Will Thomas - November 29, 2012

Hi Geof,

Thanks very much for the comment. I do believe there is a lot of room for additional debate on these questions, especially since we don’t have a fully worked out knowledge of all the contours of 19th and early 20th-century thought. Within that vast field, it is hard to carve out “biology” and to connote it clearly with foul-smelling politics. That said, Renwick is probably right to note that Hobhouse actually saw himself as distancing his thought from biology.

But what can we say about the thinking of people like Geddes? In addition to eugenics, ecological thought was also historically linked to biologically informed politics. Fuller certainly makes this point in his above-cited article, citing some ecological thinkers’ sympathy to the connections that Nazis made between Volk and their attachment to the land. Fuller points to Mumford on this score, though I don’t know enough about Mumford’s ideas to comment. One could also point to Smuts in South Africa. (Peder Anker’s book, Imperial Ecology, is good on this.)

At the same time, though, that line of historical reasoning tends to treat anything vaguely biological as a kind of ideological vortex, which pulls all thought surrounding it inevitably toward that sort of politics. But, as we know, you certainly didn’t need to be a biologically inflected thinker to have fascist sympathies in those days, either. Moreover, if we look at Geddes’s ideas themselves rather than what might have lain dormant within them, it is clear that environmental sociologists are not wrong to see analogues to their present views in his ideas.

Finally, it’s worth noting that historians have skin in this game, too, tending to take their own analytical tools from lines of thought emphasizing the cultural and the social. I’d point particularly to Boas’s cultural anthropology and Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge as our favored ancestors from that period. (In fact, Fuller is unusually strongly committed to an interpretive metaphysics of “social epistemology”). Curiously, many environmental historians understand themselves to depart from this trend, though I gather that their reintroduction of the biological comes from an attempt to expand “agency” (whatever that might mean) to non-human actors, and perhaps less from older ecological concerns.

2. Geof Rayner - March 19, 2013

Hi Will, attributing sympathetic links to the nazis or communists to the founders of ecological thought is nothing novel. It had already been done to Humboldt, Haeckel, and Darwin. Further investigation of each of these finds the charges incorrect and often amounting only to a slur. Haeckel has been treated particularly nastily, as Robert Richards has shown (in ‘The Tragic Sense of Life’). If some sociologists want to extend the slur to Geddes and Mumford (and pull in Smuts as a kind of bad company influence) then the exercise is all the sadder.

It is a pity that Fuller wants to create a biology-free sociology as I expect he has a body like everyone else (and indeed I heard him give a paper a few weeks ago, so I can attest to the fact.) This is a defensive position which will do sociology no good. Nevertheless it is good that Fuller preaches it because it might everyone else more interested in the opposite.

What do I suggest instead? Well, I think we should begin by a fully embodied understanding of life ie that we are members of an evolving species, and build the social sciences around the recognition of that notion. It is not biological reductionism at all to understand biology and mind; indeed understanding human society requires it.

So let’s backtrack to a starting place linked to a much broader sense of inquiry of an interdisciplinary kind but one where we fully accept the role of nature – whether as biology, botany, physics or chemistry. My preference is in the evolutionary, post-Darwinian thought of the pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead), economists influenced by them, like Veblen, and the sons and daughters of pragmatism, ranging from C Wright Mills or Susan Haack today. Mills, you will recall, wrote the Sociological Imagination, which is a post-pragmatist account of sociology.

I know too that Fuller has written the ‘New’ Sociological Imagination. At least he has a sense of humour.

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