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Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940The Politics of Method$

Mike Savage

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199587650

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199587650.001.0001

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1940: The Resurgence of Gentlemanly Expertise in Post-war Britain

1940: The Resurgence of Gentlemanly Expertise in Post-war Britain

(p.93) 4 1940: The Resurgence of Gentlemanly Expertise in Post-war Britain
Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940

Mike Savage

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the idea of the ‘gentlemanly social sciences’ that dominated Great Britain not only in the first part of the twentieth century, but well into the 1950s. It shows that there was no easy progression from these gentlemanly social sciences to the ‘new’ social sciences of the 1960s, and describes the dramatic changes which took place between 1955 and 1965 in the conduct of sociological research. The chapter discusses how gentlemanly social sciences prospered in post-war conditions, leading to a reviving synthetic sociology based at the London School of Economics (LSE), and explains how the expansion of the LSE brought tensions between sociology as a specialist discipline and as an overarching evolutionary synthesis to a head.

Keywords:   social sciences, Great Britain, sociological research, post-war conditions, LSE, sociology

There were few academic social scientists in the late 1940s. They had a limited research infrastructure. However, it would be a profound mistake to draw the conclusion that the social sciences were somehow absent or weak.1 Rather, they occupied a small but strategically important niche within a ‘gentlemanly’ academic culture, in which their jurisdiction lay in their moralizing accounts of evolutionary development. I use the term ‘gentlemanly’ advisedly to emphasize three key points: firstly, their complicity to what Cain and Hopkins see as the distinctively British ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, in which commerce, trade, and empire dominated over manufacturing and industry.2 Secondly, to insist on the sexual politics in which masculine authority, linked to the male role of head of family and household was paramount. Thirdly, to note the insertion of this expertise within a broader gentlemanly infrastructure of elite schools, universities, social organizations, and labour markets.3

In this chapter, I want to show that there was no easy progression from this gentlemanly social science to the ‘new’ social sciences of the 1960s. The tension between the modernist aesthetic and technical identities that I have discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 had their counterparts within the social sciences themselves. The older, gentlemanly formation had to be actively contested and defeated in order for new ways of conducting the social sciences to gain ground. In the first decade after the Second World War, there was actually a strengthening of gentlemanly social science.4

(p.94) Fundamental to this shift, I argue, is not simply theoretical innovation, or the accumulation of knowledge in substantive research areas, or indeed the professional institutionalization of social science disciplines, but the deployment of new kinds of methods as tools by which academic social scientists claimed access to, and jurisdiction over, the social. In so far as gentlemanly social scientists conducted empirical research in the earlier years of the twentieth century, they mainly did so either through the documentary analysis of sources or through observation by ‘cultivated’ observers. This was a research culture in which historians and anthropologists commanded the empirical high ground. There was little role for the narratives and statements of ‘the researched’ to count for very much. Quantitative analysis remained largely within a census enumeration tradition. During the 1950s, this emphasis on observation was increasingly challenged by an insistence on eliciting ‘direct’ accounts by the researched themselves, especially through survey responses to questionnaires, and narratives produced by interviews. Rather than mediate social knowledge through the library and archive, or through the visual gaze of the educated, cultivated observer, it was instead gleaned ‘directly’ and inscribed into various kinds of narrative. A central feature of this new research culture was a concern with sampling: it was no longer imperative to map whole populations: one could delineate an account of social relations by talking to just a few people.

I begin by illustrating the dramatic changes which took place between 1955 and 1965 in the conduct of sociological research, before considering in greater detail the role of visual observation for the gentlemanly social sciences. I indicate how its preoccupation with personality and normalization was dependent on the unquestioned moral authority of the educated researcher. In the second part of this chapter I show how this gentlemanly social science prospered in post-war conditions, leading to a reviving synthetic sociology based at the London School of Economics (LSE). I finish by noting how the expansion of the LSE brought tensions between sociology as a specialist discipline and as an overarching evolutionary synthesis to a head.

4.1 Three Models of Social Research

Consider the following research report examining the characteristics of young men turning 18 years of age in a London suburb. It is not a famous piece of research and has not been cited by later authors. Nonetheless it was published in the leading British Journal of Sociology (BJS), founded four years before by a young group of ambitious sociologists at the LSE, undoubtedly the dominant group of their time.5 Two extracts from the conclusion, where its authors Logan and Goldberg distinguish in ideal typical form the characteristics of two very different kinds of 18-year-old boys, are indicative of the article as a whole.

(p.95) [T]he most mature young man was well developed physically: he had got over the ‘spotty’ stage and was shaving regularly. He had passed the adolescent phase of frequent masturbation and seminal emissions were now mainly heterosexual. He understood readily what was required of him in completing the questionnaire and could comment sensibly on it. His career so far showed a consistent pattern…he was growing towards independence of his family, he was handling his own money, buying his own clothes which were no longer adolescently flamboyant…he was fitting in smoothly at his place of work and he was pulling his weight there as a man…he was no longer shy with girls. In short, this young man knew what he was capable of, what he wanted and where he was going.

However, at the opposite extreme

was a child who had scarcely reached puberty. His body was underdeveloped and his fat was ‘chubby’, he had hardly any hair growth on his face, very scanty pubic hair and underdeveloped genitals. His voice was soft and unbroken, masturbation was infrequent and with scanty emissions. He was semi-literate and still read comics, he had difficulty in understanding and filling in the questionnaire, he was befogged by the interview…he had little idea of himself, and did what he was told both at home and at work: the future had little meaning for him.6

This is a telling example of a particular mode of going about social research, one familiar from Michel Foucault’s account of the formation of the human sciences, with his emphasis on the power of ‘gaze’.7 Let me unravel some of its key features. Firstly, consider the role of observation. To be sure, questionnaires and interviews were used, but in these concluding passages it is clear that the data from these are ultimately less revealing than the researchers’ observation of the way these were interpreted and answered by the boys themselves.

Secondly, we see the close relationship between social and medical knowledge, the weaving together of physical, social, and moral characteristics: one’s appearance was a central signifier of not only your dress sense or personal hygiene, but your entire social and moral being. Undergoing late puberty is not just a physical process, it is also a social and moral marker. Thirdly, we see no conception of the individual, as if this could be abstracted from sex. Sex itself is the central focus of anxiety, with worries about the regulation of ‘appropriate’ sexual activity (not too much masturbation and not too little, clearly a fine line to tread!). Sex appears problematic because it is not amenable to direct visual observation; it takes place ‘behind the scenes’ and therefore unsettles the preeminence of visual inspection. Indeed, this worry about pathological sexuality is more marked than concerns with race and immigration or juvenile delinquency. Even the liberal New Society, which in the early 1960s was publishing sympathetic articles about black immigrants, could publish a paper about homosexuality noting that ‘the homosexual is permanently debarred from fulfilment in his most intimate personal life…. He will probably remain (p.96) unsatisfied at the core of his being’, and that homosexuals need to ‘make the best of a bad job’.8

Fourthly, we see issues of moralization and normalization not just resulting from the findings of the study, but as integrally related to the procedures by which knowledge is gathered. There is no recognition in this paper that these adolescents are agents in their own right, but rather an unquestioning assumption about the existence of a normal adult male state – to which some move more easily than others. Finally, we see how moralization depends on an account of personality, so that social research depended on eliciting and arraying accounts of the person. What we see in this study are core features of the gentlemanly social sciences that held sway in the early and mid decades of the twentieth century, and still highly visible in the later 1950s.

Consider now two other research projects, written in the same period, which were to prove much more influential in the later history of sociology. Elizabeth Bott’s book Family and Social Network was published in the same year as Logan and Goldberg’s study, and has proved to be the most cited work of British social science published during the 1950s.9 This was also a project which was based on intense observation, with its repeated home interviews with its twenty selected households. It continued to have a very clear foot in the moralizing and medicalizing tradition, nowhere more apparent than in the culture of the research team which consisted in holding detailed case conferences on each of the households in which their psychological, emotional, and social states were extensively discussed. The respondents themselves were not present at these meetings and did not have the opportunity of giving their own views. Yet when we read the field notes, we can see important differences from Goldberg’s study. There are occasional references in the interview notes to observational features – whether the respondents were attractive, whether the children were well behaved – but on the whole, neither Bott nor Robb was very interested in the visual array of the households or their members. What they were interested in, however, was the ‘hidden’ psychological states of the respondents, attributes which were held to lie behind surface appearances and which needed to be elicited by other means, namely the probing, face-to-face interview, as borrowed from the practice of psychotherapy. Their notes are littered with their reflections on the psychological attributes of their respondents, extracted from their interview discussions. Here are three examples:

Mr F’s control and domination of his wife in various ways is no doubt a more loving and tolerable form of her mother’s domineering ways. In escaping from her mother she has not lost the security involved in being controlled.

While his peaceableness seems to be largely a kind of obsessional attempt to keep order and control in a world that threatens to get out of hand, I think hers is more (p.97) of a depressive reaction to a situation which seemed to offer extremely limited opportunities for satisfaction.

He has a feeling of deep dependency on women which seems to be inextricably tied up with aggression towards them. All this makes him feel anxious and guilty. He feels impotent and at a loss in unfamiliar unstructured, emotional situations. His usual defences do not work. He feels completely potent and in control of himself, others and impersonal forces when he is in a situation where aggression and destruction are positively sanctioned and in which he is bolstered by the support of homosexual relationships. Being the pilot of a big bomber is his idea of bliss.10

There are no visual cues in any of these references which are instead to the ‘deep’ psychological complexes of the men concerned. This is the world of Nik Rose’s ‘psy-sciences’, where the observer uses psychological expertise to elicit an inner, hidden state, and through this mechanism constructs new notions of democracy and the ‘self ’.11 But there is a further paradox here. When we read Bott’s published book, rather than the field notes of the project itself, none of these kinds of psychological discussions appear in its pages: it is the stated social identities of the respondents, and their reported social connections that are given pride of place. The overt psychologizing has given way to the language of social relationships, roles, networks, and norms, the evidence for which is extracted from people’s own accounts. And, rather than psychology’s distrust of stated narrative, with its insistence on reading behind what is said for its refusals and absences, and for the role of the ‘unconscious’, the form of what is said is now given much more importance. Something seems to have happened between the fieldwork of this project, in the early 1950s, and its writing up, which transforms the relationship between psychology, narrative, and observation.

This paradox deepens when we move forward to the early 1960s and consider John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood’s Affluent Worker studies, the most influential British sociological study ever conducted. Its insistence on the continued role of class division even in affluent society shaped British sociological debates ever after. Methodologically, the book is famous for its pioneering use of questionnaire methods, and its published work relies overwhelmingly on reporting cross-tabulations of questionnaire responses. This study is dramatic in part because none of the previous generations of social researchers had thought it necessary to attend to the attitudes and practices of working class households in such elaborate detail. In its design and conception, this study had also residues of the observational tradition. This is especially true of the home interviews: it is intriguing to consider why the research team, with its interest in work and employment, thought it was necessary to interview at home at all, and why wives were supposed to be present on these occasions. After all, and notoriously, the study only used the accounts given by men in reporting its findings. Reading the interview notes, we can see that the home interview was important in part for (p.98) allowing the researchers to conduct a visual inspection of the home surrounds, to get a sense of the ‘context’. Visual observation remains important, though now as part of the research background. Here are some examples, drawn from the interview notes:

Wife childless, she has made the house the working class equivalent of ‘twee’. Lots of wrought iron and canary yellow. Horrible large non functional glass ornaments, elaborately arranged plastic flowers and lots of draped muslin.

Very plebian atmosphere. Husband a big, moustached, sweaty reference to a sort of faded style of male glamour, with toothbrush moustache of the Flynn variety and long oily black locks. Sleeves rolled up, and semi-hearty. I got the impression he’d been ‘a bit of a lad’ before marrying. Definitely a working class flavour to everything they said and did…. Wife a very ordinary girl, just unmemorable in every way.12

None of this observational material gets into the finished volumes – and, indeed, it would now appear cringeworthy if it did. These notes are ‘asides’, apparently the private, semi-amusing reflections of members of the research team to each other, but not deemed the ‘stuff ’ which social science itself is made of. Here the contrast with Logan and Goldberg is revealing, where these kinds of observations, albeit in more sober terms, were central to the analysis. Yet even as internal asides, we now see that the classifications that intrigue the researchers are not those of personality type but those of social class, fashion, and celebrity. Appearance is now the marker of class, rather than of personality. Whether or not class matters to the respondents, it certainly matters to the sociologists. In one case, the interviewer was struck by the apparent ‘un-working class’ nature of the interview.

Mr and Mrs X all dressed up to ‘receive’ me. She constantly called me Mr…which no one ever does. The interview began in a restrained, middle class, manner, but this disappeared rapidly as the questions got more searching…. Mrs X tall and domineering and flirted a bit with me as the interview progressed…. They were the first couple I’ve had who were in any sense middle class…. I imagine that coming to Luton had increased their contact with the working class (Eastbourne strikes me as a petit bourgeois town)…they used a variety of phrases which reminded me of the aggravating little remarks Wells used to put in the mouths of his lower middle class characters, bridge phrases like ‘plus the fact’, ‘in actual fact’…but even though they were bourgeois, they didn’t quite correspond to the conception of the w class bourgeoisified.13

This particular interview had obviously been the subject of a lot of discussion amongst the research team. There was a note on the cover of the file from another team member: ‘definitely bourgeois. You should find it interesting.’

There was nothing new in social researchers huddled round their notes discussing the characteristics and general worth of their subjects behind their backs. What is new is the way that this profiling is now explicitly done in the name of class, and not in terms of personality type. And what is also interesting (p.99) is how references from literature and the media – Errol Flynn and H. G. Wells – inform such observations. But, the published work itself refuses to use any of the ethnographic material and stakes out its case solely on the basis of questionnaire responses. What we see here is a reworking of what counts as evidence, and what parts of the encounter between the researcher and the researched are viewed as salient to the formation of knowledge of the social, and how the balance between visual observation, elicited narratives, and responses to survey questions is being reworked in favour of the latter two.

What happens, in short, between the 1940s and 1960s is the redefinition of the kinds of legitimate devices that social scientists can put to work, and in particular the downplaying of visual inspection and the proliferation of elicited narrative data, details of which are abstracted from the individual and defined in terms of social relationships. In this process, the relationships between psychology, anthropology, and sociology are contested and remade, and the jurisdiction of the social sciences redefined.

4.2 The Gentlemanly Social Sciences in Post-War Britain

Rather than see Logan and Goldberg’s study of young men growing up in a London suburb as a throwback, it is important to recognize that up until 1955, this gentlemanly tradition was in the ascendant, and had indeed actually expanded in the years since 1945. Their study was premised on the ability of researchers to position themselves apart from, and in a position of unassailable moral security over, those they researched. It was thereby dependent on claims to cultural hierarchy on behalf of an inherently superior cultured elite, an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ to use Noel Annan’s terms.14 Patrick Joyce has examined some important features of the power of this ‘administrative’ cadre of governors. He emphasizes the production of its habitus in public schools and in Oxbridge, and sees the reform of the public schools as about the formation of a distinctive administrative ethos.

The old idea was that one could only be a free man if one had experienced freedom in youth. In the old order boys seem to have been neither inherently good nor inherently bad: in the new order, Thomas Arnold struggled against what he called ‘the bond of evil’ of the small boy group. In England he felt he was surrounded by a ‘mass of evil’ that had to be reformed. This evil was at once a social evil, requiring social action to make school society a social community, but it was also in particular a sensual evil in the boys, something requiring action on the senses and the body. Again, the training of the flesh is seen to go hand-in-hand with the training of the mind. As Basil Willey saw, Arnold’s great gift was to make ideas real, realising (p.100) the Christian Society at Rugby in practical terms, the terms of the training of the whole person.15

This concern with differentiation from ‘evil’ was a powerful impulse behind a powerful gentlemanly social research apparatus. During the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century, ‘gentlemen’ used their bases in local statistical and charitable societies to pioneer influential forms of social research, and which were to be prominent vehicles in urban governance.16 All the major social science surveys which were to be canonized as progenitors of scientific sociology before the 1940s were bankrolled by private ‘philanthropic’ benefactors, including considerable largesse from the United States.17 Even the state, which backed up this prodigious voluntary effort through the census and related intelligence gathering, such as through local medical officers’ reports, relied on gentlemanly support, for instance through its Royal Commissions, which relied overwhelmingly on evidence given by amateur ‘experts’.

The fact that empirical social science was dependent on private funds, and that such resources were only forthcoming when the benefactors concerned could place their own ‘stamp’ on the work is clear enough in the pioneering poverty research of Booth and Rowntree. These surveys deployed visual technologies to construct sociocultural maps of poverty and respectability. Their investigators were trusted, professional agents, who using their detailed knowledge derived from face-to-face observation, could classify households ‘reliably’. Booth interviewed 400 school attendance officers to elicit their notes on every family they worked with. He then did further ‘wholesale interviewing’ of police, rate collectors, sanitary inspectors, school teachers, Charity Organisation Society investigators, hospital almoners, trade union officers, agents of sewing machine manufacturers, ‘together with individual personal observation of particular streets and even particular households when exceptionally required’.18

Rowntree’s study of York was more ambitious in implementing a house-to-house canvass from a specialist researcher, though he also consulted local dignitaries. This was a minute inspection of household circumstances and budgets – though the accounts given by the researched were not taken at face value: ‘in some cases there was a disposition to give incorrect information, but experience soon enabled him to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and in doubtful cases the facts stated were checked by neighbours and others’. The detailed house registers include information on the architecture and visual array of the house (the number of its rooms, whether it has a yard, toilet facilities, and so forth). Its columns for remarks are dominated by visual impressions: ‘house dirty, very little furniture’; ‘wife and house dirty and untidy’; and (p.101) such like. This tradition was therefore closely allied to that of ‘household inspection’ institutionalized in the practice of social work and religious practice, which was predominantly conducted by middle class, usually unpaid, women. The work of the Statistical Societies fitted into this form, as did that of the Sociological Society founded in 1903.19 From their unassailable position, it was possible for cultivated observers to pass judgement on household morality, not by taking the views of household members themselves as a primary piece of evidence, but rather by a holistic moral assessment based on visual dissection, cross-checked with the accounts of influential notables.

By the post-war years, however, the central role for elite patronage on which this endeavour had relied was called into question. Wealthy plutocrats were thinner on the ground. The increasingly corporate structure of the British economy, where joint-stock companies replaced small privately owned firms, meant that interest in this kind of social investigation faltered. That private funding for research which did exist, changed its form, as it was increasingly funnelled through trusts and foundations which reduced – though it did not eradicate – the autonomy of the patrons. The Nuffield Foundation (formed in 1943), the charities associated with Joseph Rowntree (formed originally in 1904), and the Leverhulme Trust (dependent on a bequest in 1930) remained significant benefactors of social research, but placed their funding on a more formal, academically mediated, footing. New corporate bodies found it less important to conduct social research. In the mid-1960s Ray Pahl, teaching senior managers as tutor in the Cambridge Madingley extension classes, a pioneer form of executive training, attempted to enlist his managerial students in support for research on the rise of the managerial ‘spiralist’. Many managers, evidently impressed by Pahl’s charisma and enthusiasm, tried their best to lobby their companies to fund Pahl’s endeavours. However, not a single company could be persuaded to part with any money to fund the research. In the end, Pahl had to resort to begging letters to his university dean for the limited resources which allowed him to write Managers and Their Wives with Jan Pahl. The gentlemanly social sciences lost one of their main supports, and it was not clear what the alternatives were in the absence of sustained public funding.

The post-war fortunes of the British Academy are a revealing indication of the changing powers of gentlemanly social science and its capacity to reform itself through an embrace of the public purse. Formed in 1903 specifically to promote the arts and humanities, the British Academy had by the middle years of the century become a major institutional force, a repository of the British imperial mission, through running ‘British Schools’ in Rome, Iraq, Athens, Egypt, Ankara, and Jerusalem. It was involved in elections to University Courts,20 and in running several trusteeships of learned bodies. Yet its president embraced post-war (p.102) austerity in gloomy mood, uncertain about the values of humane learning and pessimistic about the prospects for cultivation.

[T]he peace came, but it brought disappointment. We have realised that it is easier to destroy than to rebuild; that we may dissipate in a few years material and spiritual treasures which it will take decades, if not centuries, to restore…. In such a world, what place is there for a body like ours…? None at all, some would assure us. Scholarship, learning, humane letters are doubtless an admirable adjunct to life in periods of peace and security; now they are an irrelevance…. There is observable everywhere a terrible coarsening and hardening of moral fibre. Slovenly usages of all kinds are corrupting one of the noblest parts of our British inheritance, the English language, and not English only…it may be doubted whether more than a comparatively small minority of men are at any time capable of the highest cultivation. Certainly it is easier to preserve a high standard in a limited than in a wide community of culture, and the first result of any educational extension is inevitably a decline in quality. This, though regrettable, is no more than the price which must be paid for social justice.

This pessimistic and elitist attitude was similar to that which we have encountered amongst Mass-Observers of the time. Yet it was short-lived. Only a few years later, the British Academy had pulled itself out of its depression and launched an impressive campaign to enhance its role and status as custodian of humane learning in post-war conditions. Skilful managerial moves were made. In 1950, discussions with the Treasury persuaded the Chancellor to end all its direct subsidies to educational bodies, and give a block grant to the British Academy which would henceforth administer the entire budget to learned societies and causes. Even in austerity conditions it persuaded the Treasury to double its budget, and by 1951 could report that it was able to disburse £40,000 a year. By the mid-1950s, it had persuaded several foundations, such as the Nuffield, to invest monies in it so that it could support its publication programme.

Part of its revival was due to an effective strategy of incorporating enough of the gentlemanly social science community to prevent its alienation and possible peeling off. Institutionally, this was through its section which recruited Fellows in the area of ‘Economic Science’ (significantly relabelled ‘Economic and Social Science’ in 1945), though this one section competed with eight others representing Fellows in the arts and humanities. Nonetheless, this was a route to incorporate leading economists, and the net was steadily cast evermore widely, with the election of anthropologists Radcliffe Brown and Evans Pritchard, and the LSE sociologist Ginsburg in 1954. The terms on which this inclusion took place are telling. The official British Academy obituary for Keynes in 1949, written by his fellow economist Pigou, began not as one might expect with his achievements in probability theory, in economics, or with his role as wartime statesman, but with his contribution to the arts (especially his role in building the Cambridge Arts Theatre). Pigou’s obituary went on to emphasize that Keynes ‘believed in that now tarnished watch-word “culture”…. The chairman of C.E.M.A. must be seen as a disciple of “A gentleman of Oxford” and of the author (p.103) of Culture and Anarchy’.21 Through such means, no doubt, other British Academy Fellows could feel common cause even with an economist. As late as 1949, the President of the British Academy could rail against the fact that ‘science and economics are claiming, as against the humanities, an ever larger place in education and public esteem’, apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be representing the interests of economists.22

It is not incidental that economics could be embraced, even if agonistically, within this gentlemanly formation. At this time, it derived its intellectual power not from any concerns with gaining empirical information, but in interpreting ‘economic’ information provided by powerful agents, especially from official records. At this time, economics did not celebrate its technical expertise in any marked way, but rather based its jurisdiction on being able to interpret ‘macroeconomic’ indicators derived from trade reports and economic data. Keynes, the most powerful economist of the middle years of the century, exemplified this kind of approach both in his person and in his economic theory.

By the early 1950s, the British Academy demonstrated a diplomatic concern to promote the social sciences, so long as they stayed in their place. When Charles Webster was elected president in 1951, he emphasized that ‘not only the humanities but the social sciences are amongst the disciplines which form our body…in my personal view it is to the advantage of both the humanities and the social sciences to be as closely associated together as is possible’. Webster began insisting on the practical value of research in the humanities and the social sciences and supported rather than criticized the welfare state as a positive development.23

The fortunes of the British Academy reveal how a gentlemanly formation was able to regroup in the later 1940s, seeking to recast itself as cultural leader. It was thus part of Shils’s post-war revival of the modernist gentry that I have discussed in Chapter 3. Crucially, it allowed a role for the social sciences, so long as they ‘knew their place’, within an academic structure dominated by the older humanities. This form of gentlemanly social science was personified in the example of the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer. Because of his prominence as a prodigious reviewer in the broadsheet press, he was the most publicly visible social scientist of the immediate post-war years, though he is not a person whose reputation has endured. Having been educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, where he graduated in classics and modern languages in 1927, he spent time at the Sorbonne, (p.104) Paris, and in Berlin where he penned popular fiction to make his living. At this point, his interests were indeed predominantly in literature, but this changed in the 1930s, following his absorption in the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the psychology of the ‘abnormal’, which led him to become interested in psychology. During the 1930s, he also became acquainted with anthropological research as he spent time in Africa, leading him to write a popular book Africa Dances. During the war, he spent time at the Institute of Human Relations in the United States, where he became preoccupied by mental illness, leading to an unpublished work, ‘The World of Tom Madden’, tracing the onset of schizophrenia through a detailed case study. He became increasingly attached to the cultural anthropology associated with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, and followed their lead with studies of the psychological roots of different forms of national character.24

Gorer’s interests marked a mix of anthropology and psychology, fused in his public, gentlemanly persona as a public intellectual. He did not hold a university appointment, but used his country house base (at Sunte House, near Haywards Heath) as his intellectual base. His model was that of Charles Darwin, a century before, or Keynes. Like Darwin, Gorer also relied on an extensive web of correspondence for information and for establishing his public persona: he corresponded with not only many of the leading social scientists of the day (he was a particular friend of Margaret Mead), but with all the leading literary and cultural figures, including W. H. Auden, Kingsley Amis, Sonia Orwell (widow of George), Ivy Compton Burnett, Cyril Connolly, E. M. Forster, Victor Gollancz, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Stephen Spender. Apart from his private income, Gorer was reliant on commissions from the press, and the highpoint of his career was as late as the 1950s, when he used his associations with the press to generate a new kind of popular social science.

Gorer is an interesting case as someone who forged a new alliance with the press as funder of social science research. On the basis of his accessible account of American national character,25 and having later written on the Russian national character, the editor of The People asked him if he would be prepared to write an equivalent study of the English national character to appear in serial form in its pages. Having initially demurred, Gorer then suggested that the newspaper take responsibility for commissioning, and then analysing, a national survey of its readers. This suggestion was enthusiastically adopted by The People, and in 1950, Gorer issued an appeal to its readers to apply for a postal questionnaire which they could then fill in and return. The paper was overwhelmed by 14,605 requests for the survey, and by the end of June 1951, 10,524 responses had been sent in. The survey was coded and analysed by Hollerith punched cards which permitted Gorer to base his analysis on 503 cross-tabulations. His book, published in 1955, represents the first ever sample survey-based account of English culture. His theoretical framing was entirely based on a particular form of Freudian (p.105) psychology, allied to a loose kind of anthropology of the American ‘culture and personality’ school, where the youthful formation of personality was seen as linked to the control of drives.

To my mind, then – and I may still add, now – the central problem for the understanding of the English character is the problem of aggression…in public life today the English are among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen. But from the psychological point of view, this is still the same problem: the control of aggression…. This absence of overt aggression calls for an explanation.26

Subsequent chapters of his book focused on friends and neighbours, going out, growing up, love, ideas about sex, marriage, children and child rearing, law and order, religion, and the supernatural. Understanding the social and cultural could only be revealed through the framing concerns of personality and psychology.

Gorer’s case shows how gentlemanly social science could use its interest in the normalizing and pathological to take on a wide number of topics, embracing new kinds of research methods in the process. Nonetheless, what is striking is Gorer’s distance from the research process itself, and his reluctance to define himself in terms of his own methodological skills. He was absolutely clear that he knew nothing about how to analyse the data presented to him, presented himself as a bumbling innocent about research methods, and defined his expertise as the cultivated interpreter of the evidence.

4.3 Synthetic Sociology and Gentlema Nly Expertise

Gentlemanly social science had a particular understanding of sociology. It did not see sociology as a specialist subject, with its own intellectual agenda, but rather saw it as a unifying thread combining in grand synthesis a kind of evolutionary account of the rise of civilization, one that was congenial to the gentlemanly world view. This kind of synthetic evolutionary sociology could act as a kind of clearing house in which more specialized historical and geographical studies could be integrated. It is for these reasons that Perry Anderson’s argument that sociology was historically weak in Britain has been decisively rebutted by intellectual historians who have emphasized its enormous cultural power, when conceived as a broad project rather than as a specialist subject of its own. Lawrence Goldman has shown how in the middle years of the Victorian period the ‘Social Science Association’ emerged as one of the most influential lobbying bodies of the day, with considerable popular appeal as well as significant intellectual clout. It forged links between social scientists and the state which sociologists in other nations wished to copy.27

(p.106) It followed that sociology was not a predominantly empirical subject, though it could be associated with the considerable social research programme of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Victorian reformers and statisticians had already clearly defined the existence of a ‘social’ realm and the importance of ‘social’ policy without any need for recourse to a specialist discipline of sociology. By the early years of the twentieth century, knowledge of the social was routinely produced by a plethora of institutions: local authorities, intent on producing ‘social cities’,28 governments, in their ‘social reform’ projects, especially those associated with Edwardian welfare provision. Of particular importance here was the rise of the local social survey during the interwar years, with around forty a year being conducted by the 1930s.29 These were organized around gentlemanly concerns with observation, where the Sociological Society, founded by Geddes and Branford in 1903, played an important role. This enjoyed elite patronage, had limited connections to academic institutions, and drew on community studies using observational methods in the LePlay tradition. Middle-class observers descended on towns and observed what they saw. This could take the form of field reports on towns which they ‘surveyed’, such as Chester, with a particular interest in the use of visual methods, with a large and comprehensive photographic collection of urban and rural landscapes, comprehensive plans and charts of houses and towns, and the novel use of ‘thinking diagrams’. The Sociological Society continued throughout the middle years of the twentieth century from its London base, but could not compete with the rather different vision of social research imagined in Mass-Observation and was increasingly run by a rump of old affiliates of Victor Branford.

It was in this sociological spirit that we need to understand the developments of the post-war years. In particular, the formation of the British Sociological Association (BSA) in 1950 was seen not as the birth of a new specialist area of academic inquiry so much as the reassertion of a more gentlemanly form of inquiry. At the outset, sociology was seen as the synthetic subject allowing discrete branches of inquiry to be united into an evolutionary model. Jennifer Platt has shown how the BSA was critically dependent on the patronage and support of non-sociologists, including anthropologists, economic historians, political scientists, and economists. Prestigious academics from other disciplines – Gombrich from art history, Eysenck from psychology, G. D. H. Cole from politics, and Asa Briggs from history – were very happy to publish in the new BJS.30 By contrast, it was unusual for papers written by empirical sociologists to be published in its pages. A frequent refrain in the more synthetic theoretical papers of the BJS was the perils of empirical research when not interpreted through the right, sociologically informed, theoretical lens.

We get some indication of this synthetic, evolutionary sociology by looking at the contents of BJS. The decennial index for the first ten years of the journal (1950–9) allows us to detect its most prominent reference points of the time. It is (p.107) true that classic ‘sociological’ theorists commanded most interest, with Marx being cited twenty-one times, exceeding Weber’s sixteen, and Durkheim’s fourteen references.31 However, of more contemporary writers, anthropologists and psychologists dominated. Radcliffe-Browne is mentioned eleven times, Freud ten, Malinowski eight, and Evans-Pritchard seven along with the psychologist Kurt Lewin. The contemporary sociologists Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton also gain seven mentions. Of the most cited disciplines, there were seventy-three references to anthropology, sixty-four to social administration, forty-three to psychology, but only twenty-one to history, eleven to politics, and four to economics. This was clearly an interdisciplinary sociology oriented fundamentally to anthropology and psychology, in both of which subjects concerns about personality and culture were marked. Bastide noted the fusion of personality, culture, and society.32 Arnold went so far as to argue that ‘sociology in the end is identified with social psychology or even individual psychology’.33 It was from psychology that sociologists were interested in the use of quantitative measures, as evident, for instance, in Eysenck’s use of factor analysis in his study of political attitudes.34

This close association between psychology and sociology also explains the popularity of Parsons’s structural functionalism and Hobhouse’s evolutionary social theory as the dominant theoretical orientations of the day. Parsons’s synthetic concern to link personality with social structure attracted much interest,35 and indeed Parsons’s delineation of the overlapping interests in the social, cultural, and personality were the theoretical justification for the alliance between psychology, sociology, and anthropology, which characterized the gentlemanly vision of the social sciences.

Hobhouse’s preoccupation was with a science of ‘character’.

Hobhouse’s political philosophy was centred on his ambition to improve ‘character’…the Aristotelian ideal of the fullest possible development of each individual’s powers, which depended on two beliefs: first as they unfolded, the powers of each person in all their variety were mutually reinforcing: secondly, each person’s full development was assisted by the full development of the powers of other people, in their immensely greater variety.36

Reform was thus seen as a moral project, whereby the focus was on raising the standards of those who could not lead an appropriate life, and was couched within an ethical, collectivist frame.37 This kind of sociology reached its apogee in the work of T. H. Marshall and R. H. Tawney, with their concern to extend citizenship, both in meaning (so that it included social as well as legal and civil rights) and in scope (so that the working classes were included within its frame).38 (p.108) No clearer example of this can be found than in Marshall’s celebrated essay ‘Citizenship and social class’, which led to the still influential discussion about the difference between civil, political, and social citizenship. What is usually forgotten is that Marshall begins his essay with an account of how his sociological framing compared to that of the economist Alfred Marshall, who had famously asked under what conditions workers could be gentlemen. Rather like the Mass-Observers I discussed in Chapter 3, Marshall realized that in the post-war years of a socialist government, this question would no longer carry much legitimacy. He therefore subtly changed it by replacing gentlemen with citizens. Through this intervention, he took up a core moral concern of gentlemanly social science yet placed it in a frame deemed more appropriate to its age.

Within this kind of sociology, the social did not exist as an autonomous realm, with its own self-determining forces and powers, but rather as the context in which individuals could best develop and prosper with citizenship being fundamentally a moral and cultural affair.

They thus become part of an individual’s personality, a pervasive element in his daily life, an intrinsic component of his culture, the foundation of his capacity to act socially and the creator of environmental conditions. (Right to Welfare, 141)

It could certainly be argued from within this tradition that the popular classes exemplified stronger moral character than the elite classes, as if their character had been hardened by the practical difficulties they had encountered during their lives. But there was no conception that moral values were fundamentally at odds with or in contestation with dominant governing ones. The fundamental issue was to extend consecrated values to everyone, to ensure that a common national social order could be achieved. This was a project which united the social sciences other than economics, which was portrayed as a philistine, amoral discipline. ‘Social scientists apparently are doubtful whether economics are even social.’39

Just as the cultural circles associated with Stephen Spender and Encounter, the BSA was preoccupied with forging American connections. Under various auspices, all the leading American sociologists were invited to come to Britain at this time, and most saw it as important to be active in British sociological circles: visitors and speakers in the 1950s included the doyens of the time: Merton, Parsons, and of course Shils, whose article in Encounter was to be of such moment in promoting the idea that the intellectuals were becoming reconciled with the gentry. Living up to his own precept, Shils moved to Cambridge, abandoned to a large extent his quantitative, psychologically focused sociology, in favour of functionalist accounts of the monarchy and the British consensus.

The kind of sociology that the early BSA exemplified, therefore, was that of the administrative advisor to the powerful. All its major exponents, without exception, made great play of the value of sociology for policy makers.40 The first (p.109) conference of the BSA was on the ‘Uses of Sociology’ and attracted 250 delegates. McCrae proclaimed the ‘fact that sociology is now deeply implicated in the public practice of doing good’. T. H. Marshall noted in his remarks on the BSA conference in 1953 that ‘Economics was the first of the social sciences to be enticed from its ivory tower into the dust of the arena during the great depression of the thirties, and others followed during WW2. Now we are all in it up to the neck. And the problems we set ourselves to discuss at this Conference arise because we are being used, not because we are not being used’.41

Today, it seems difficult to divine what use the kind of idealist, synthetic sociology which was paraded in the pages of BJS could be to anyone, and certainly not to policy makers. There is plenty of opinion, but very little ‘evidence’. And this is precisely the point. Sociology as a specialist, empirical discipline had not been invented. What sociologists were trying to do was to define themselves as guardians of the moral administrative project, as gatekeepers between mundane producers of social knowledge, the empirical social researchers of various kinds, and the public world of powerful elites. In this respect, they drew on the definition of sociology which saw it as a form of knowledge that could bring together insights derived from all the branches of social knowledge, from anthropology, psychology, and political economy. They were the ones who could put detailed research in context, explain how different social parts fitted together, and provide a rounded view of the social order. This explains the popularity of such synthetic theory as that of the American Talcott Parsons, where sociologists could seek to relate together facets of the social such as the personality, the cultural, and the social into an overarching social order.

The issue for sociology, therefore, was how it could claim some distinct knowledge of the social and how it could find a distinctive jurisdiction of its own in what was a very crowded field? What exact knowledge of the social did sociologists have which all kinds of other experts did not? It would be singularly unhelpful to tackle this question from the point of view of what sociology later became. It is clear that sociologists were not at all well placed to claim any kind of empirical expertise in the actual practice of social research compared to the traditions of social work, for instance, with their painstaking routines of household visits. Sociologists looked singularly ill-equipped to go into the field. Nor was their much promise in proclaiming methodological skills: the social statisticians and the civil servants responsible for the census and other surveys clearly commanded the high ground here. And, those attempts by sociologists to conduct empirical research had not exactly covered themselves in glory: the town survey movement associated with Geddes was both expensive and became increasingly embarrassing as it degenerated into an exercise in pointless voyeurism.

What we see here, is that sociologists’ claims to jurisdiction, as for much of the early twentieth century, lay in their concern to be a kind of gentlemanly court of appeal: to be men of learning who were able to synthesize knowledge of the social at a higher level, so putting more specialized results of empirical research into (p.110) broader perspective. This explains the pre-eminence of writers such as Hobhouse, Ginsburg, Sprott, and MacCrae in these years. These doyens of sociology, incumbents of its most senior positions in their times, today are virtually unreadable, and it seems difficult to understand their appeal and the seriousness with which they were treated. What they offered was a way of reconciling all the messy and disparate knowledge of the social produced at the time, in a kind of overarching synthesis, united by a commitment to a broad evolutionary and progressive view.

4.4 Conclusion

I have argued that we can best understand sociology in the immediate post-war years as caught up in, and indeed a significant part of, a realignment of intellectuals to national values, and to a gentlemanly social science. A fundamental feature of this kind of sociology rested on its non-empirical claim to jurisdiction. It could not in any obvious way claim jurisdiction over the ‘social’ itself – which might appear to be its ‘natural’ provenance. By the middle years of the twentieth century, social knowledge was so widespread that it was not located in any one discipline: at least four disciplines claimed knowledge of the social in some form or another. The discipline of social work had developed a well-tried method of eliciting social facts through the institution of case work and household visiting; social anthropologists, following the lead of Malinowski, used their ethnographic expertise to advance their own claims over social structure; whilst, as Rose has shown, psychologists played a key role in the development of social research. ‘Social studies’ itself, easily the most numerous of the social sciences, had considerable sway. Whilst later generations of sociologists might condescendingly see ‘social studies’ as amateur sociology, this was simply what it suited sociologists to believe: there was, in fact, a sophisticated body of knowledge about the social which resided under the label of social studies. And there were also numerous social investigators of one kind or another: journalists, novelists, artists, or even just flâneurs and voyeurs.

We should not view sociology in the immediate post-war years, as precursor to a specialist discipline. Rather, we see the consolidation of a gentlemanly sociology, anchored at the LSE and in the newly founded BSA, that took its cue very much from the moralizing gentry project. Taking the value of contemporary civilization for granted, they saw their role as seeking means of extending citizenship and civilization to wider groups in the population.

Yet within this project, one unresolved question was whether one needed specialist sociologists to pursue moral sociology. And if so, what form should this specialist discipline take, and how should it relate to other social science and humanities disciplines. By the early 1960s, this issue was becoming one which mobilized interest in the highest possible places. In 1962, the revered classicist (p.111) and Oxford don Maurice Bowra became president of the British Academy. He was not an obvious ally for sociology. Yet even he recognized, for the first time, the possibility of a distinctive specialist form of sociology, rather than a subject which was distributed across all branches of learning.

Other subjects, of more or less recent growth, have come into existence not by the extension of familiar fields but by cutting across them. Sociology is perhaps unlucky in its hybrid name and in the difficulty of finding a precise definition of its activities, and partly for these reasons it does not receive everywhere the serious attention it deserves. Yet the study of human society is not to be despised or neglected, and the sociologist deserves credit and gratitude for the persistence with which they have fought their cause. Their subject cuts across history, anthropology, economics, religion, geography and psychology, but that merely means that it is a new and independent approach to matters which have not hitherto been fitted into any single sector of organised learning. Just because they are studied from fresh angles in this way, these matters assume a new significance and illuminate the fields of learning which they invade.

Grudgingly, uncertainly, but ultimately supportively, Bowra had identified the rise of a distinctive, specialist kind of inquiry. The year 1962 was to be an exciting one for sociology.


(1) This is the argument of Perry Anderson in his celebrated paper ‘Origins of the present crisis’. See the critical discussion in Collini (2006) and Edgerton (2006) for recent reviews of this argument in keeping with the arguments I develop here.

(2) Cain and Hopkins (2001). I do not have scope in this book to explore in detail the relationship between the cultural and social issues I examine here and economic changes in Britain, but my account is compatible with those who emphasize the power of finance capital within British capitalism.

(3) See more generally here, the important arguments of Joyce (forthcoming).

(4) My account is in part dependent on Rose (1999a), as well as his collaborative work with Peter Miller on the history of the Tavistock Institute, yet it will become clear during the course of the chapter that I offer a somewhat different interpretation of events.

(5) This is not a lone example. For other similar kinds of framings, see Castle and Gittus (1957).

(6) Logan and Goldberg (1953).

(7) See variously Foucault (1977, 1979).

(8) Kelvin (24 January 1963); for a contrasting and more sympathetic account of the black migrant, see James Berry’s paper about returning to Jamaica from England, New Society, 7 February 1963.

(9) It has well over 1,000 citations in the Social Science Citation Index, four times as many as its nearest rival, Lockwood (1957). A fuller account of Bott’s work and its relationship to the post-war social sciences is published in my paper ‘The enigma of Elizabeth Bott’.

(10) SN 4852.

(11) Rose (1999a).

(12) SN 4871 Box 9, Interview 77 and Box 10, Interview 130.

(13) SN Box 9, Interview 105.

(14) See Annan (1999).

(15) Joyce (forthcoming).

(16) See Yeo (1996).

(17) The Clapham Report specifically highlighted the funding of Booth, Rowntree, the Webbs, and the (often American) research foundations (e.g. Rockefeller, Pilgrim, Nuffield, Leverhulme, Cassel, Carnegie, Commonwealth, and Halley Stewart). See also Stone (1947–8).

(18) See the discussion in Webb and Webb (1932).

(19) Though see Osborne and Rose (2004), who see the spatial politics of the Geddes group associated with the Sociological Society as more ethical than that of the Booth.

(20) Proceedings of the British Academy, 1946, reports nominations to Hull’s court, for instance.

(21) Proceedings, 1946. Pigou’s remarks are, of course, perfectly apt, as my discussion of Keynes in Chapter 3 makes clear.

(22) Proceedings, 1949. See his further remarks ‘…I may surely say that without impropriety that science and economics are not in themselves an adequate foundation for a rich and vital civilisation…the academy is a body of scholars, not of written or creative artists as such; but it is, or ought to be, the national centre and focus for humanistic studies’.

(23) ‘We live now in what can be called without irony a welfare state. The national dividend has been redistributed so that the material needs of the people can be cared for in a manner impossible in previous generations…. I hope that we shall be able to demonstrate the practical wisdom of increasing the contribution of the State to the interchange of knowledge between scholars’ (Proceedings, 1954).

(24) See Mandler (2009).

(25) Gorer (1948).

(26) Gorer (1955, 13).

(27) See Goldman (2002).

(28) Joyce (2003).

(29) Bulmer, Bales, and Kish (1992).

(30) Platt (2003).

(31) It was not until the publication of Giddens (1971) that Marx was claimed as part of a sociological canon. Before this period, he was regarded as a sociological ‘outsider’ even if his ideas had some relevance for sociology.

(32) Bastide (1952).

(33) Arnold (1955).

(34) Eysenck (1951).

(35) For example, Sprott (1952) and Halsey (2004).

(36) Dennis and Halsey (1988).

(37) See Dennis and Halsey (1988) and Halsey (1996).

(38) T. H. Marshall (1951).

(39) Arnold (1955).

(40) See Bulmer et al. (1986).

(41) T. H. Marshall (1953).