Promoting Public Knowledge and Publicity

face of a prisoner

The development of social science has promoted public knowledge and devalued prisoners’ ordinary communication with their families and friends. Leading late-nineteenth-century social-scientific authority William Guy described prison-reformer John Howard as “the discoverer or inventor of that modern method of dealing with social wrongs.” Guy explained the initial steps of this modern method of social reform as follows:

Some person, among those lookers on who proverbially see more of games than the players themselves, happens to become cognizant of some cruel injustice, the inheritance perhaps of remote times, the product, may be, of some brisk and thriving industry, and he exposes it. If there is some real ground of complaint, the public is brought to sympathise with the sufferers, the press gives the needful publicity, and possibly some benevolent association lends its support.

Non-participation (those in the position of “lookers on”) in this scheme is associated with more acute recognition of “cruel injustice.” If some implicit, objective evaluation finds “real ground of complaint,” publicity is then invoked as an instrument to create public sympathy. The next step explicitly creates public knowledge:

The subject is brought under the notice of Parliament, or laid before some executive department of the Government. A Parliamentary Committee or a Royal Commission is appointed, witnesses are examined, evidence taken. The results are embodied in a report.

Only then occurs legislative action, along with institutionalization of an associated process of public-knowledge creation:

At length an Act of Parliament is passed, and Inspectors are appointed, with power in some cases to bring about punishment of those who neglect its provisions or set them at defiance; in others to give, by means of periodical reports, that publicity which either checks malpractices, or, by pointing out legislative shortcomings or defects, paves the way for improved legislation.^

This method emphasizes mass communication (publicity) relative to ordinary communication among family and friends. It emphasizes the production of public knowledge (reports) relative to democratic action (individual behavioral choices and electoral voting).

Guy’s modern method helps to support claims of social science for public funding. Guy, like a hard-working university administrator, sought to secure a gift of public land on which to construct a new building for the Statistical Society. Guy promoted this objective in an article entitled “On the Claims of Science to Public Recognition and Support; with Special Reference to the so-called ‘Social Sciences’.” This article was published in the Journal of the Statistical Society in 1870. Guy was by then vice-president of the Society and on his way to becoming president in 1873. Guy opened the article with relatively abstract competitive assertions:

In treating the claims of Science, I have two objects in view, the one general, the other special. I wish to show, in the first place, that Science, as distinct from Learning and Art, is eminently deserving of the support and patronage of the public; and, in the second place, that the branches of knowledge now generally known as the “Social Sciences” have special claims of their own.

Then Guy moved directly to specific institutional interests:

I desire so to handle my subject in these two divisions, as to promote an object our President has long had at heart, and in which every member of this Society, and of those which are now co-operating with it, may be presumed to take a lively interest: I mean, the bringing together under one roof, with the great and obvious advantages of fixity of tenure, close proximity, facile and friendly co-operation, and economy of management; with office convenient for the transaction of business, a spacious theatre, large meeting rooms, and well-lighted libraries and museums; of such societies, or groups of societies, as have most in common in their aims and objects.^

Such facilities provide critical infrastructure for the social-scientific aim that Guy identified: “the patient heaping up, intelligent sorting, and critical examination of the elements of a knowledge which, properly applied, is power indeed.” These activities Guy described as promoting “practical works of justice and benevolence” via the modern method of dealing with social wrongs.

The modern method that Guy described isn’t the only possibility for addressing social wrongs. Howard’s example shows that serving the interest of legislators can help to advance their legislative interests in addressing what they perceive to be social wrongs. Howard had close personal relations and considerable contact with legislators introducing prison-reform legislation. Serving legislative interest in prison reform appears to have motivated Howard’s work. In contrast to Guy’s modern schema for dealing with social wrongs, Howard’s work was first published in 1777, while directly relevant prison-reform legislation was passed years earlier in 1773 and 1774. Howard continued to inspect prisons personally for more than a decade after his work was first published. Parliament first appointed prison inspectors only after additional decades. Nonetheless, Guy declared:

“Now every word of this description {of the modern method of dealing with social wrongs} applies in its full force to the method of procedure of John Howard.

Guy didn’t even manage to convince himself of that. About a page after that statement, Guy noted that Howard was able to bring “the grand total of personal injustice and national peril” to interested members of the House of Commons, “and thus it would happen that the long and tedious process of instructing and interesting the public might be rendered unnecessary.”^ Right up through to the present, most legislative acts occur with little public understanding and interest. The most direct means for non-legislators to support legislation is to help interested legislators.

Ordinary communication among family and friends can address social wrongs without scientific authority and without creating public knowledge. Gossip has long functioned as an informal social sanction against perceived social wrongs. Gossip lacks authority and does not constitute public knowledge. In democracies, broad-based elections select political leaders. Voters are not required to state publicly reasons for their votes, nor are they required to be able to articulate such reasons. Through ordinary communication among family and friends, voters may come to perceive a social injustice not well-documented in public knowledge. Their votes can elect legislators likely to act to address that social justice. The social-scientific model of social reform serves the interests of social science as well as social reform. It is not the only possible model.

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