Our social tapestry unravelled

The Contest for Social Science
May 9, 1997

Every historian of the 19th century has, at some stage, looked at institutions like the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and understood their immense influence without quite being able fully to explain it. Until this book by Eileen Janes Yeo, researchers had to use piecemeal secondary sources to find their way through the jungle of social science. This tour de force covers 200 years of social science and, with uncanny simplicity, weaves together the threads of a complicated tapestry. Yeo's text will assuredly hold an important part in the historiography simply due to the fact that it is almost the only one to deal explicitly and competently with the making and the unmaking of British social science.

This is a book which deals with gender, language and power as contested concepts. In often characteristically military language, Yeo aims to reclaim the voice from the past and to "shed light on the process by which varieties of action-oriented social science ... the science of happiness or of improvement or sometimes later of progress, came to occupy a place on the feminised margins of an academic map of learning". The word "feminised" is crucial, as the author goes on to show convincingly that contested concepts of femininity and motherhood shaped social science and social work in equal measure.

Her introduction surveys the great debates that have agitated history over the past 25 years without really engaging with the most sterile disputes. If one has to look for historiographical obedience, Raymond Williams's and E. P. Thompson's work inspire some of the best aspects of this book. After condemning the potted history of the great men who made sociology (although the work of Raymond Aron which she does not discuss should not be reduced to so little), Yeo cannot avoid reference to the great names. James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Bentham, Harriet Martineau, Chadwick, Maurice, Mayhew, Southwood Smith, John Simon, William Farr, Booth, Rowntree, the Bosanquets and the Webbs, to name but a few. Inevitably these characters take up a great part in her story. Her analysis of them is always sharp and incisive and draws a lot more on gender history than on the more traditional history of ideas. This list does not make for a litany; these characters shape and are shaped by the lively contests for social science.

The book is divided into three roughly equal parts covering respectively 1789 to 1850, 1850 to 1890 and the 20th century. This form of chronological division is necessary for such a survey. Within each section, social science is treated according to themes of politics and gender which slightly overlap chronologically but dovetail thematically. Readers will probably be familiar with the material of the chapters dealing with Chadwick, Owenism, Chartism and bourgeois social surveys, as a great deal of work on those themes has appeared recently. This will undoubtedly be less true for the middle section which deals with the co-operative movement and the Social Science Association which is analysed in great detail and very convincingly as the talking shop where all-important political and gender issues were initially voiced, even if they were subsequently ignored. The association eventually splintered into a diversity of more specialised groups forming part of the rise of professions in Victorian Britain.

The last section, on the 20th century, also covers some familiar ground, and a chapter on body metaphor largely influenced by Mary Douglas's work reminds us of the growing "biologisation" of social science in the 19th century. This section deals with the Charity Organisation Society, Patrick Geddes and the civic survey movement, the Fabians and the class tensions and debates about social work and science within feminist groups. The slow merging of social science within a "unifying sociology" was not easy and left behind it the eugenics movement. The integration of social science and its many internal debates within universities also proved difficult and destructive for anything that remained outside. Yeo gives a brief account of the early days of Ruskin College and of the proliferation of extramural departments, of "feminine" schools of sociology, social science and social studies across Britain, but she also looks at the parallel curtailing of working-class private elementary schools and other nonacademic forms of social science.

With the absorption of many voluntary agencies into the welfare state and the hegemony of academic forms of knowledge, this book argues that women either lost areas of autonomy or the reality of power. The more recent aspects of this contest for knowledge and power lead the author to discuss some of today's tensions between sociology, society, the state and academia. Her conclusions on academic cultural imperialism and isolation touch a raw nerve concerning the legitimacy of our own status.

This book will be important to students and researchers because, though it covers some familiar ground and discusses afresh well-known figures, it describes an important epistemological shift that may well be unique to Britain and part of a "British difference". There are some points readers might be uneasy with - such as the book's reading of Foucault and the author's implicit refusal to engage with aspects of the recent literature, for instance, Patrick Joyce. Another obvious absentee is Gertrude Himmelfarb. One regrets that this slowly matured book did not come out in time to act as an antidote to Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion.

Bertrand Taithe is lecturer in history, University of Huddersfield.

The Contest for Social Science

Author - Eileen Janes Yeo
ISBN - 1 85489 068 9
Publisher - Rivers Oram
Price - £30.00
Pages - 396

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