Thoughts on Warwick’s “Human Futures” Seminar

As promised, here are some responses to the discussion of my book manuscript, Biology and the Making of British Sociology, at Warwick’s “Human Futures” seminar. The book charts how L. T. Hobhouse came to be appointed Britain’s first professor of sociology and the first editor of the Sociological Review. In so doing, the book argues that Hobhouse’s appointments were the product of a largely overlooked debate about how to relate biology and sociology and that they had a profound effect on the future direction of British sociology. While the retelling of this history is the book’s major concern, it also argues that sociologists could get a great deal from reconnecting with the ideas and practices that were outlined and debated by Hobhouse and his contemporaries because they resonate with some of what’s going on right now in sociology.

Once again, my thanks to those who participated in the seminar. They raised a number of important questions about specific issues and what might be seen as the overall project the book addresses and/or promotes. I can’t say I’ve addressed everything that came up but I’ve put together some comments under headings that seemed to be the main concerns:


Is it a presentist history of British sociology?

I know the person who used the term “presentist” said they hadn’t read the book and were reacting more to Steve Fuller’s presentation than what I’ve actually written but I think it’s a criticism that touches on a number of points raised by others during the discussion. As someone said, people like the Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Charles Booth don’t appear in the book (well, Booth does but only once), which seems surprising given the importance attached to them in traditional histories of the British sociology. The fact of the matter is that the reasons for including the Webbs and Booth in the history of British sociology c.1878-1907 (which is the period my book covers) are ones that have more to do with what happens afterwards than at the time. Booth and the Webbs become important to a lineage of social investigation that’s constructed during the mid-twentieth century when interest in an empirical British tradition first got going. However, they simply aren’t players in the debate that took place during the first decade of the twentieth century. Traditional histories have excluded what was really going on then, which was a debate about biology. There are many reasons why but most are to do with the fact that the the level of engagement and enthusiasm for biology among Hobhouse’s contemporaries is a bit uncomfortable for many people, given what happens during the twentieth century (see final point).


Were Geddes, Galton, and Hobhouse really important?

This point was raised a couple of times as a way of saying that we needn’t bother with the history my book tells, mainly because what’s actually important, it’s argued, is what happened during the mid-twentieth century. There’s a sense in which this criticism is valid: the big institutional expansion in Britain happens post-1945 so the direct links to today are to be found there. Nevertheless, Hobhouse’s appointment played a massive part in laying the intellectual foundations on which that expansion was built. Just because Hobhouse wasn’t talked about during the mid-twentieth century, or indeed now, doesn’t mean he didn’t matter. The conclusion of the book tries to make this point in greater detail: think about what would have happened if British sociology had gone down the route proposed by Galton. Intellectual issues aside, one thing that would definitely have been different is that British sociology would have had a hell of a lot more money and would have therefore shaped up very differently institutionally speaking. Interestingly, biology might have shaped up differently too as the money Galton put into the Eugenics (now Galton) laboratory at UCL was a direct consequence of his rejection by British sociologists.

However, I’m prepared to stick my hands up and say that the title, Biology and the Making of British Sociology, might not be the best choice. I’m working on that.


The biology they had then isn’t the same as the biology we have now so why care?

This point is an interesting one. What’s suggested by the objection is that even if there are parallels that can be drawn they don’t help with the task of understanding what’s going on now. In some senses this is true — you’re not going to find the exact same points of detail in debates one hundred years ago. However, I don’t think the criticism carries much weight with respect to the argument I’m trying to pitch, which concentrates on the more general issue of the relationship between biological and social science, understood as practices and explanations. That seems pretty similar to me even if points of detail about evolutionary mechanisms are not. Indeed, I was struck today by something Francis Galton’s said in response to criticism from Hobhouse and others at the Sociological Society. Hobhouse and others had argued that Galton’s eugenic programme went beyond what biological ideas/evidence actually permitted. Galton’s stock response was that: “Much of what had been said might have been appropriately urged forty years ago, before accurate measurement of the statistical effects of heredity had been commenced… but it was quite obsolete” at the start of the twentieth century. What does W. G. Runciman say in response to criticism of his proposed neo-Darwinian paradigm in British Sociology Seen From Without and From Within? It can’t go the way of the bad old biological reductionism because we know a lot more than we used to.

In short, I think it’s really about time that the importance of this episode in the history of British sociology was recognised. I also think there’s much intellectual material to be mined by sociologists but I’m not a sociologist so that’s not really my place to dictate on such questions.


Beveridge and social biology: he realised what a mistake that was by 1942, right?

As Steve Fuller mentioned, I’m working on William Beveridge and social biology right now. Steve mentioned this in the context of a point about how the biology/social science question keeps on coming back in Britain throughout the twentieth century. The objection was made that whatever Beveridge was up to when he established a department of social biology at the LSE during the 1930s he subsequently came to his senses and realised it was dangerous eugenic nonsense, primarily because of what Hitler was up to in Germany. I’ve got a paper on this site that outlines a pretty early version of my research on this subject (a new and better version will be seeing the light of day early next year). To cut a long story short, there are a few brief points to raise here.

The first is that it simply isn’t the case that Beveridge just drops the social biology thing c.1942. In his autobiography and other post-WWII writings, he’s still banging the social biology drum and complaining that those who conspired against it at the LSE actually did a massive disservice to British social science. As for whether biology/eugenics is in the Beveridge Report, many of its most important ideas were formed in the context of eugenic discussions. Universal child benefit, for example, was an idea Beveridge developed in dialogue with the Eugenics Society. The second point is that the department of social biology at the LSE is massively important because of what it gives to the fabled British empirical and/or quantitative tradition. David Glass, for example, is in and around the department and lots of the British work on social mobility and intelligence comes out of what was going on there because that’s the kind of thing it existed to do (Ed Ramsden has a great paper on this in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences). And the social biology question just keeps on coming back, particularly among those people who helped establish the famous British quantitative/empirical tradition, in ways that seem to have been forgotten. The reason is that these left-leaning social investigators thought biology was a key part of realising social mobility. The third point is that what’s interesting about all of that is how slippery the definitions of various things, like “population,” are at the time. Are they biological things? Are they social things? That’s one of the things that the department of social biology was trying to sort out and, for what it’s worth, is one of the areas I’m hoping to address in a new project.

Anyway, that’s plenty from me for now.


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