Institutionalization of Social Science in England

face of a prisoner

When John Howard collected information about prison conditions in the mid-1770s, social science didn’t exist as a recognized field of intellectual activity. The Royal Society was founded in London in 1660 to promote “natural knowledge.” Such knowledge was associated with “experimental philosophy.” Subsequently, spurred by the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), scholars sought knowledge about national welfare and how to increase it. However, production-oriented, deductive theory, epitomized in David Ricardo’s On the principles of political economy and taxation (1819), dominated knowledge about national welfare in early nineteenth-century England. The term social science and the knowledge claims associated with that term did not emerge until the 1830s.

Demand for knowledge like knowledge about prison conditions formed social science. The British government first published geographically comprehensive returns concerning persons tried for criminal offenses in England and Wales in 1805. In 1815, an act (55 Geo. III c. 49) required returns from gaols. That act included a schedule set out in tabular form. Government-authorized factory inspectors submitted to the British House of Lords in 1819 and 1819 detailed worker roosters from cotton factories near Manchester. Early nineteenth-century official data requests such as these provided a basis for the development of social science.

About the same time, a group of scholars in important academic positions rebelled against Ricardian political economy and sought to promote systematic collection of information about social conditions. They considered such information to be analogous to the empirical data of experimental philosophy. These scholars sought knowledge concerning not just wealth and productivity, but also a wide range of population characteristics, such as total births and deaths, average heights and weights, sickness, and crime.^

An intellectual leader in the development of social science was Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet. Beginning in French statistical and mathematical publications in 1809, Quetelet directed attention to regularities in aggregate crime statistics. In an influential meeting with scientists at Cambridge in 1833, and in his highly acclaimed book, Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale (1835) (On man and the development of his capabilities, or an essay on social physics), Quetelet argued that crime was a function of social organization. He proposed that the “statistical budget” of social costs from crime should be managed like the state treasury.^ He thus conceptually offered scholars a new field of influence on a key government department: the Treasury.

The struggle to create social science generated new scientific institutions in England in the 1830s. Institutional support for knowledge production became a matter of considerable contention. Scholars complained that the leadership of the Royal Society was intellectually unimpressive, secretive, corrupt, and dominated by persons with personal connections in London.^ An attempt at reforming the Royal Society in 1830 failed. Tension between professional and amateur philosophers, differences between metropolitan and provincial philosophers, concern about the decline of science in England^, and the growth of persons interested in science roiled intellectual relations.^

Turmoil within existing scientific institutions provided propitious circumstances for creating new types of knowledge. In 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded. In 1833, the British Association for the Advancement of Science added a Statistical Section to provide “the raw material to political economy and political philosophy” and to promote “lasting foundations of those sciences.”^ In 1834, the Statistical Society of London was founded for the “collection and classification of all facts illustrative of the present condition and prospects of society.”^ The Manchester Statistical Society, founded in 1833, sought “to assist in promoting the progress of social improvement in the manufacturing population.”^ These societies all competed to produce knowledge like the public knowledge about prison conditions that Howard created in the 1770s.

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