Le Play House and the Regional Survey Movement in British Sociology 1920 - 1955 | CONTENTS | Introduction | Theory | Origins | Early C 20th | Le Play House | IoS | WW2 | Postwar


"Sociology is the name given by some people at some times in some places to a very wide range of intellectual practices indeed, and its history is the history not so much or even mainly of intellectual intentions as of personal, political and institutional ones. A history of sociology therefore which restricted itself to those activities so described ... would be a very puzzlingly partial history, a history of flags of convenience that supposed a known history of navigation and trade" (Hawthorn 1979:478)

Most standard accounts of the history of sociology tend to overlook sociology in Britain, the history of social research and amateur sociology; so it is scarcely surprising that Le Play House, the Institute of Sociology and its organisers, Alexander and Dorothea Farquharson are unfamiliar to many sociologists today. Such is the strange combination of patricide and ancestor worship within the discipline that a whole tradition, initiated by Frederic Le Play in France in the mid 19th century, developed by Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford in Britian in the early 20th century, and regarded by Pietrim Sorokin (in what was for several years the most widely read account of the history and development of sociology) as "one of the best systems of social science" (Sorokin 1928:63), has been erased almost without trace. Indeed, Sorokin goes on to praise Le Play and his followers for displaying "a conspicuous scientific insight, a brilliant talent for scientific analysis and synthesis, and an originality of thought." (Sorokin 1928:63)

In an attempt to redress the balance, and to answer the call made recently by Stebbins (1978) for more attention to be given to amateur sociology, a study of the work of the Farquharsons and the Institute of Sociology in Britian between the wars seems timely. There are already several studies of the early years of British sociology. Abrams (1968) deals with the 19th rather than the 20th Century, and his work on the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science remains unsurpassed. His account of the formation of the Sociological Society in 1903 and the tentative account he offers of what happened after 1914 is however rather more sketchy. His treatment of the self-confessed amateurism of Branford and Geddes tends to substitute anecdote for analysis; his comment that, "the men who took the decisive part in institutionalising sociology in the Edwardian period were one of three things; wealthy amateurs with careers elsewhere, academic deviants or very old men" (Abrams 1968:102), while it may be true, does not explain why they did what they did. Abrams criticises Le Play House for not being specific on the survey method, - "From 1905 to 1947 (the reason for these dates is not clear - DE) first Geddes and Victor Branford, and then Le Play House issued a host of pamphlets, articles and studies advocating the sociological survey. But nowhere is there a rigorous specification of the principles of survey design." (Abrams 1968:115) He, like his father (Abrams 1951) does not choose to consider the possibility that the kind of survey Le Play House was engaged in was qualitatively and consciously different from that being developed in Britain by Bowley, Rowntree and the Webbs, and developed in the United States by Lazarsfeld and Stouffer during the Second World War. It is essentially a reluctance to treat the Regional Survey tradition seriously as an object of study in its own right, as a form of sociological activity with different aims, different methods, a different past and a different purpose that mars most of the other brief accounts of the work of Le Play House outlined later in this section. It is perhaps worth noting that in his later work on the relationship between history and sociology, Abrams comes close to recognising these limitations, when he writes, "there has been a marked appreciation of the need to establish the cogency of both narrative and theory at the level of subjectivity (both the consciousness and relationships) of the people whose lives are to be explained; to give them what Weber would have called adequacy at the level of meaning ... Excursions into the study of 'mentalite' are not a withdrawal from the explanation of history as process; they are a necessary detour in order to arrive there safely." (Abrams 1980:12).

Halliday (1968) offers a shorter but more detailed explanation of the formation of the Sociological Society in 1903. (Halliday, unlike Abrams, makes specific reference to the Archives of the Sociological Society at Keele University. Whereas they were not complete at the time he would have used them, Branford and Geddes' papers and many of the records of the Sociological Society would have been accessible, albeit in the unsorted and largely disorganised state that they remain in today. Abrams appears to have relied on the archives of the University of Chicago, much better ordered, but with very little, if any, original source material on British Sociology). Halliday's account of the somewhat uneasy three-fold alliance which formed the Sociological Society (the social workers, the eugenicists and the town planners) remains a useful, if not wholly adequate starting point for any subsequent study of the early years of organised sociology in Britain, of which there have been very few.

Other accounts appear as parts of biographies of some of the more prominent figures in late 19th and early 20th Century British Sociology - Boardman (1977) on Geddes, Collini (1979) and Owen (1974) on Hobhouse, Simey and Simey (1960) on Booth, and Peel (1971) on Spencer, although Peel's book is a significant contribution to the theory and methodology of the history of sociology as well. However, when one proceeds beyond the First World War, the accounts become more hard to find. The period between 1920 and the early 1950s, and outside the London School of Economics (the only institution teaching a degree course in the subject: Fincham 1975) is almost entirely ignored. What went on, if anything, is the subject of gossip and guesswork, based on a few less than adequate accounts, which are in turn based on incomplete and unsubstantiated secondary sources.

Those who have written about sociology in Britain between the wars are few, but include contemporary American visitors (Harper 1933: Palmer 1927), British sociologists whose careers began before or shortly after the Second World war and therefore can, in some sense be said to have been part of what happened (MacRae 1961: Mitchell 1968: Halsey 1982); and younger British sociologists who are part of what might loosely be called the revival of interest in the history of sociology in the late 1970s (Hawthorn 1976: Bulmer 1980: Kent 1981: Bulmer 1985). In none of these however is there any systematic examination of exactly what was going on under the broad umbrella of 'sociology'. Accounts are almost all biased towards the universities, on the assumption that if sociology was not being taught at degree level, then it was not happening at all. The work of the Le Play School, and the organisations arising from it, principally Le Play House and the Institute of Sociology is hardly mentioned, probably because of the lack of any secondary source material. Yet, despite the fact that the primary source material, the archives and records of the Institute and its predecessor organisations has been available for academic scrutiny for the past thirty years, the number of sociologists who have consulted it has hardly reached double figures.

Nonetheless, the absence of detailed knowledge of the field has never prevented those sociologists who have mentioned it in passing from concurring that there was little that could be called sociology in Britain during the interwar period. A contemporary American visitor, Ernest Harper of Kalamazoo College found sociology to be in "a rather undeveloped and even moribund condition ..... the professional association seemed below par and its Journal (The Sociological Review) not up to the standard of the earlier 'Sociological Papers'. ... On the side of theory, research and teaching, sociology in England appeared definitely weak. Perhaps it would be fairer and more exact to say that it appeared to be rare" (Harper 1933:335). However, Vivien Palmer of the Local Community Research Committee of Chicago University, who had sent a paper to be read to a Le Play House meeting in 1927 and written on Chicago Sociology for the Sociological Review, offered a more sympathetic account to American readers,recognising the links between the amateur and professional in sociology, and the connections between sociology and social welfare which was always an important part of the Le Play House approach, and concluding that, "when one comes into actual contact with the situation, one cannot help but feel that the British sociologists are clinging tenaciously to something that is distinctly their own. And when one speculates about it, one cannot help but feel that the time will come when the British interest in social evaluation, practical application and the synthesis of knowledge from the various fields of social science will yield something of value for those sociologists who have profitably swept these aspects aside in their efforts to create a pure science of human relationships." (Palmer 1927:761)

More recent accounts differ in their assessment of the period, although all tend to paint the same kind of picture. According to MacRae "(The Sociological Review) improved greatly after 1930 under the influence of Ginsberg and others, and an Institute of Sociology founded in that year did some useful work" (1961:22), although his attitude towards both the Review and the Institute has sometimes been more disparaging, describing the former as "not a serious Journal" and the latter as a "perfectly respectable" but "clapped out" body (Macrae 1981). Hawthorn claims that "under Farquharson's editorship, the Sociological Review "almost immediately changed its character, and by 1934 there was no sign in it at all of the romantic effusions of those who had begun it" (1976:167), but Mitchell claims that "the older interests which stemmed from Geddes' writing and lecturing, worthy in aim but undisciplined, idealistic but intellectually feeble, still persisted" and refers to Farqhuarson's editorship as "rather indiscriminate" leading to "a ragbag of all kinds of articles, only some of which could be said to be sociological" (1968:230). Bulmer decries "the awful variety of material published in the Sociological Review between the wars" (1981:159), although four years later suggests that it contained "from 1930 to 1952 ... much more real sociology than hitherto" (Bulmer 1985:11).

Various reasons are put forward for the 'absence' of sociology. Hawthorn, in one of the few attempts to offer a serious thesis on the question claims that "Sociology ... was absent because it was almost everywhere present" (1976:170); that "there is ... no need to be especially suprised by the lack of a flourishing self-styled sociology in England before 1939". The proper explanation, he suggests "starts rather from a redescription of what has to be explained", although his claim that the existence of 'sociology' in the liberal-socialist consensus which prevailed in the intellectual climate of the inter-war years precluded its development as a subject of serious academic study overlooks the work of those in the academic world who might have been said to be part of that 'consensus' (David Glass and Tom Marshall for example, who were both consciously socialists and sociologists during this period), and the work of the Institute which certainly does require such a 'redescription', although not the one that Hawthorn offers. Hawthorn's thesis is also strongly criticised by Ziff, on the grounds that a radical, socially conscious sociology had existed in Britain since the late 19th Century, although he only deals with academic sociology (1978; 1980). Shils, borrowing a phrase from E M Forster blames what he calls the "undeveloped heart" and the Oxbridge tutorial system which does not readily breed understanding of other peoples' predicament - "How could sociology come into existence in Britain" he writes, "when in Oxford and Cambridge sociologists were looked on as pariahs, as no better than Americans or Germans ... as awkward foreigners or restive lower class boys" (1960:447).

What is clear from all this is that Le Play House, the Institute of Sociology and the Farquharsons are not widely known, have not been reassessed seriously since their disappearance from the scene, and need rescuing from the misunderstanding, misrepresentation and trite dismissal which accompany their infrequent citations - for it is not going too far to say that, were it not for Alexander and Dorothea Farquharson, no organisation representing the interests of sociology as being something more than an abstract social philosophy would have existed in this country between the wars.

Le Play House and the Regional Survey Movement in British Sociology 1920 - 1955 | CONTENTS | Introduction | Theory | Origins | Early C 20th | Le Play House | IoS | WW2 | Postwar