Institutionalization of Social Science in England

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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.

Making a Myth of John Howard for Social Science

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In late nineteenth-century Britain, John Howard had become a fanciful figure in a founding myth for British social science. William A. Guy, one of the Vice Presidents of the Statistical Society of London, set out this myth in a paper read to the Statistical Society in 1873. Guy authored papers as William A. Guy, M.B., F.R.C.P., F.R.S. He was a doctor living in London, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Guy served as dean of the medical college of King’s College from 1846 to 1858, was elevated to President of the Statistical Society in 1873, and then served as President of the Royal Society in 1876-77.^ Guy thus occupied the highest positions of authority in British science.

Guy declared John Howard to be “founder of a new epoch both in statistics and humanity” and “one of the foremost statists of his time.” According to Guy:

The statist (or, if you prefer the term, statistician) I take to be one who devotes himself to inquiries practically important to the State, as the legislative and administrative centre of the nation,… one who shares with all men of science a love of truth for its own sake, coupled with supreme indifference, so it be truth, to the form it assumes,…one who spares neither time nor labour in the prosecution of the particular inquiry in which he is engaged – who plans it with care and foresight, pursues it with patient industry, and takes note with minute accuracy and particularity of all the facts that bear upon it.

Guy contrasted Howard’s motives with those of religious zealots:

What highly wrought religious emotions have prompted the founders and apostles of new religions to undertake and perform, that and nothing less did this man {Howard} do under the compulsion of a sense of duty, sobered down by the most minute and laborious attention to fact

As scholars often do, Guy urged study of Howard’s writings:

To understand Howard, his work and his motives, a man must study his writings. From them he will learn how reasonable were the motives that impelled him to action, how careful and systematic his mode of procedure, how calm, philosophical, and yet original and far-sighted, the views he formed, how searching and comprehensive his inquiries. … by his magic method of inspection and record, he had in one short year brought about the legal reform of English prisons

Guy concluded by identifying himself and the gathered members of the Statistical Society of London with Howard: “we who live in this year 1873 are but the disciples of the modest, noble Howard.”^

Guy and other members of the Statistical Society were not careful, systematic disciples of Howard. Prison reform legislation apparently motivated Howard’s initial prison inquiries, rather than those inquiries producing reform in a year. Howard effectively practiced applied theater, rather than merely sober observation. Moreover, Howard’s motives were far from reasonable in the sense that Guy described. In a representative entry of his diary, Howard wrote:

when I consider & look into my Heart I doubt I tremble, such a vile Creature, Sin folly & imperfection in every action, oh dreadful thot a Body of sin & death I carry about with me, ever ready to depart from God, & with all the dreadful Catalogue of Sins committed my Heart faints within me … I once more in the Dust before the Eternal God acknowledge my Sins heinous and aggravated in his Sight…oh compassionate & devine Redeemer save me from the dreadful guilt and Power of Sin^

A later twentieth-century scholar noted, “Even those eighteenth century biographers still steeped in the Bunyanesque tradition found some of Howard’s diary entries reading ‘like the ravings of a lunatic.’”^ Howard was also capable of expressing strong emotions with much greater verbal control. In a letter to his close friend Richard Price, a leading eighteenth-century philosopher, Howard wrote:

permit me to say with great sincerity my ardent wishes are for your Health and success in that great and good Cause you are embarkt in, the Honour of God and the true knowledge of Jesus Christ.^

In the eighteenth century, Protestant dissenters from the Church of England understood religious liberty, seeking truth, and devotion to God to be intimately related. Guy’s portrayal of the “statist (or, if you prefer the term, statistician)” retained Howard’s commitment to truth-seeking. But it replaced devotion to God with devotion to the state. It replaced religious liberty with a passionless methodology.

Promoting Public Knowledge and Publicity

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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.