Le Play House and the Regional Survey Movement in British Sociology 1920 - 1955 | CONTENTS | Introduction | Theory | Origins | Early C 20th | Le Play House | IoS | WW2 | Postwar


Origins of the Regional Survey Movement

The Regional Survey Movement, in so far as it related to British Sociology came into existence in the last few years of the nineteenth Century. (A similar movement, although owing its origins to different sources and not having much connection with the British movement was developing in the United States at around the same time.) In both countries however, the pace of early activity and interest was frenetic, generating amateur organisations, and a considerable amount of professional interest which lasted until the 1930s. From then on, professional interest in the Regional Survey tradition dissipated in the social sciences (with the possible exception of human geography), and the 'movement' such as it was had all but disappeared by 1950. The last vestiges survived until 1960. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century in this country, at least five organisations dedicated in one way or another to the practice of the Regional Survey came into existence and merged or declined, involving the active participation of several thousand people.

Fagg, writing in 1928 suggests that the Regional Survey movement can be traced back to the Renaissance, and the beginnings of 'the scientific phase' (p.72). He describes the origins and development of geological and plant ecology surveys in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the work of the population census from 1801. However, the Regional Survey does not become more than an exercise in natural science until the late 19th Century and the development on the continent of Europe of sets of ideas nowadays claimed by sociologists as their history. As has already been indicated in Chapter 1, the history of sociology (and by implication the history of social research, where it parts company) is heavily permeated by 'Whiggism' or 'presentism' and a standardised pattern is widely used, which selects a particular path of influence between a few nineteenth century writers, some of whom used the word sociology and some of whom did not, which it then claims as the 'history' of the discipline. So, for example, a chain of connection is drawn up starting with Auguste Comte, and leading through Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and possibly one or two others. Frederic Le Play, whose name is vital in tracing the history of the Regional Survey is often omitted or dealt with in cursory detail, as are many of the British sociologists such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Leonard Hobhouse, whose relationship to the Regional Survey Movement is marginal, but whose importance to the development of thinking in the social sciences is greatly underestimated. Notwithstanding the limitations of the use of the idea of 'influence' (Skinner), it can be said that the development of the Regional Survey Movement in Britain in the early 20th Century can be traced to the work of Frederic Le Play, John Ruskin, Charles Booth and to the generalised development of the disciplines of geography and sociology.

Le Play

Frederic Le Play was by training a mining engineer and a metallurgist. In the course of his studies, and subsequent work in mining (rising to be professor at the Ecole Des Mines by 1840) he travelled around Europe extensively, and became interested in the differences between the lives and families of miners in different countries and different regions. He subsequently resigned his post to concentrate on social research, turning to politics later in life and the social reform aspects of his work took over from the social research. There can be said to be two trends emerging from Le Play's work - that deriving from his research, reflected in the Regional Survey tradition, and that deriving from his politics (the Unions for Social Peace) which found favour with Salazar, Defuses and Mussolini - decried by Proudhon as 'the scientific organisation of servitude' (M Leroy 1954, cited in Goldfrank 1972)

Le Plays social theory was based essentially on first hand observation, which he saw as a surer guide to thinking about society than deductive reasoning. As a scientist he was proficient in statistics, but later dismissed them as useless for the social sciences 'because of their shallowness and their collection by untrained amateurs '(Gold frank). However, his influence was the greatest on just those amateurs whose efforts in statistics he decried.

Le Plays method centred on the study of the family, and in particular of family budgets. He saw them as indicators of societal conditions rather than interesting for their own sake, although there are suggestions that much of his first hand data collection was suspect (Gold frank). Le Plays method, unashamedly unscientific involved interviews with ordinary people, and his method was "to praise with discretion the wisdom of the men, the grace of the women, the gentleness of the children, and to distribute judiciously small gifts to all". From this approach, he arrived at a number of three-fold classifications - of societies as 'simple and happy', 'complicated and happy' or 'complicated and suffering'; which in turn related to the three family types, 'patriarchal', 'stem' and 'unstable'.

In the wider world of work, he suggests a three fold classification of the relationship between employer and employee - compulsory (e.g. European Feudalism), permanent voluntary (??) or short term (class antagonism, instability, the result of revolution, industrial or political.) Suffering and familial or societal instability had three causes; 'vice, error and the abuses of novelty', or 'overpopulation, exaggerated traditionalism and attempts at marriage regulation'. All the evidence for Le Plays mammoth works (Les Ouvrieres Europeeanes) suggests that he was well received by those families he visited, although the idea of meticulous examination of the family budgets of complete stingers is somewhat dubious today. Goldfrank suggests that Le Play actually visited families chosen for him by mining managers whose hospitality he enjoyed on his trips, and even that some were entirely fabricated (e.g. in Norway). He concludes, 'we are left with the sense that Le Play's claim to scrupulous observation is dubious. Or did he simply not see what he was steered away from ?'. (Goldfrank p. 142).

All in all, Le Plays method is heavily influenced by Comtean positivism, and a strong analogy between the mineral world and the social world. "The mineral kingdom (sic), with only a few hundred species and the human race with millions of distinct exemplars merely represent extremes of the simple and the complex". Goldfrank suggests that for the analogy for Le Play's social science is "not the lawful natural science of physics, but rather the classificatory and eminently practical one of metallurgy ... an application of his metallurgical training to the study of society'. (It is interesting to note that C H Desch, for many years an active member of the councils of the Sociological Society, Le Play House and later the Institute of Sociology was also a metallurgist, rising to professor of the subject at Sheffield University.

Le Play's influence on the Regional Survey tradition in Britain was at third hand initially, through his followers in French social science and geography to Patrick Geddes. Philip Boardman, in much the most useful biography of Geddes describes the moment when Geddes discovered Le Play and when the British Regional Survey movement could be said to have been born

"During 1878-9, Patrick (Geddes) wrote and published four scientific papers in French as well as lecturing in that language on certain occasions. Apart from such biological investigations, he steadily broadened his spheres of interest both intentionally and by chance. Walking one afternoon along the Rue Jacob, he happened to see a poster in a doorway announcing some lectures by a M. Edmond Demolins on the new 'Science Sociale'. Intrigued by the subject, he went in and heard the lecturer expound the work and social theories of Frederic Le Play. Though he had never heard of either person before, Geddes got then and there a new intellectual revelation. Le Play, he learned was a French mining engineer who had spend a lifetime in travel and first-hand study of social phenomena in worker-groups in all parts of Europe. His approach was concrete and comparative, on wages, family budgets, housing, stability of employment, and so on. Sceptical of the abstract reasoning of classical philosophers and new 'sociologists', including Comte, Le Play had worked out an objective method for studying actual cross-sections of society. Expressed by his famous triad: Lieu-Travail-Famille, he saw in 'Place' the force of environment which everywhere determined what sort of work men might do, 'Work' the main conditioning factor of family life and organisation, and 'Family' as the basic social unit.

Suddenly Geddes realised that in Le Play's travels and observations there lay a method of study which could satisfy him as a scientist and inspire him as one who now puzzled more and more over mankind's ways and institutions, to follow this literally down-to-earth lead. After the lecture he presented himself to M. Demolins with eager questions about Le Play and the work of the 'Science Sociale' group. When he left the Rue Jacob that evening, it was with a new idol to set up beside Thomas Huxley and Auguste Comte: Frederic Le Play, both as a scientific observer and as a man of action." CI LS2 LL70

The directions taken by Geddes as a result of his contact with Le Play will be dealt with in a later chapter (4.2).

John Ruskin

Writing in 1930, Alexander Farquharson spoke of the Regional Survey as being an "intensive and imaginative study of a concrete locality ... inspired by Ruskin, and using the methods derived from Le Play, from Patrick Geddes and from Charles Booth"(1930). The choice of adjectives is significant - 'intensive', 'imaginative' and 'concrete' all go a long way towards defining the kind of activity involved. The Regional Survey in its sociological form was never simply a dry catalogue of a district, but an attempt to combine the perspectives of the natural and human sciences with an artistic and spiritual appreciation. For this reason, John Ruskin is cited as a guiding inspiration, and certainly both Victor Branford and Alexander Farquharson were much influenced by him. Both were members of the Guild of St George, the organisation founded by Ruskin in 1871 to promote his particular form of social reconstruction - described by Frederick Harrison as "not so much an advance upon the present as a revival of the Past. It was in spirit Medieval, but purged from the cruelty of Feudalism and the superstition of Catholicism. It was to be neither Communist nor Monastic ... it was to show the world chivalry without war, devoutness without a church, nobility without luxury or sloth and monarchy without profligacy or pride ... It was to be a glorified medieval lordship fully equipped with the order, comforts and appliances of modern existence, but purged of its vices, its frauds, its base machinery and its sordid habits". Though the connections between this and the Regional Survey may not be immediately obvious, they are in fact vital. Ruskinism was a philosophy which influenced many social reformers and artists in the late 19th Century, and Ruskin's esoteric combination of art, socialism and self-help lay behind many of the ventures undertaken by members of the Regional Survey movement, and was one connective explanation between the diverse aspects of a Regional Survey. It was from Ruskin that the links between art, architecture and the environment were learned, as much as from Le Play's more famous 'Place - Work - Family'.

The Guild of St George as conceived by Ruskin was an organisation to bring about his vision of a practical, self-help road to social reform. Somewhat secretive and select in its operations, it lapsed into decline after the First World War, and never really recovered. Never achieving anything like its original aims it remained a "ghostlike" organisation (Mumford 1954), but the ideals on which it was founded, and the ideals which dominated Ruskin's life and work were very much the same as those which motivated Branford and Farquharson. From a peripheral involvement in the 1920s, Farquharson came to dominate the Guild, such as it was. The Guild's offices moved formally to Le Play House in 1933, although effectively it had been based there since the late 1920s, and Farquharson became Grand Master of the Guild in 1951 (Wardle 1954).

Charles Booth

Charles Booth, although important was not the prime source of influence to British social research that he is sometimes claimed to be. As Branford said of him, "While the Booth type of survey is admirable in giving a picture of the economic and material condition of the family, it is deficient in the more difficult task of describing and estimating ... its cultural status"; by which he meant more or less the same as Booth himself meant when he wrote, "I have at times doubted ... whether the prolongation of this work has had any other basis than an inability on my part to come to a conclusion" (Abrams 1968). Frederic Le Play was in many ways the more important influence, certainly on the Regional Survey movement (and he was an important source of influence on Booth too, although opinions differ about the extent of the influence. Both Wells and Abrams recognise it - "Booth was to some extent influenced by Le Play" (Wells 1935); "the influence of Le Play in determining Booth's main strategy .... was direct, powerful and acknowledged" (Abrams 1968); but Mogey suggests that Booth was not familiar with Le Play - "I can find no evidence to show that Charles Booth was aware of his predecessor in France" (Mogey 1956)). Most of the evidence however suggests that there was a direct influence, and that was certainly the view of most of the founders of the Regional Survey movement (Branford & Geddes 1917).

Geography, Sociology and other Disciplines

Although there were many books written in Britain in the late 19th Century which covered in one way or another the subject matter of what is today called sociology, there was no coherent discipline, and no recognised salaried practitioners of it. The most influential writers (John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Benjamin Kidd, J A Hobson, W Stanley Jevons and Henry Sidgwick among others) were men of property or worked in other fields, such as journalism. There have been several recent studies of the development of social and political thought during the period (Collini 1979; Inglis 1982; Clarke 1980), and none of them make more than passing reference to Geddes, Branford and what was to become the Le Play House school, because although they shared a common extra-academic approach to the study of society, their philosophies were in most other ways diverse. Many of their kind were members of the Sociological Society in its early days, and some survived as Vice-Presidents of the Institute of Sociology. But as a major source of influence on the development of the regional survey school, their importance can be overstated, and I do not propose to examine it in any detail. That is not to say that there are not connections to be made and lines of influence to be drawn; rather it is to say that the aim of the current thesis is to pursue relationships other than those which lead directly to and from the writings of those who can be conveniently categorised as 'sociologists'. In many ways, for example, the development of academic geography was more significant for the Regional Survey movement.

Geography as a discipline has an institutional history as long as that of sociology, and even longer if one includes volumes of 'travellers tales', going back for several centuries. In Britain however, the formation of the Royal Geographical Society in 1851 probably marked the beginnings of the regular use of the term, although for most of the nineteenth century geography consisted more of the "veneration of the explorer" (Freeman 1980) than a serious academic discipline. Like anthropology as described by Malinowski, geography was very much a discipline of the Officers' Club Balcony, tied to British Imperialism, the scramble for Africa and the development of means of transport - "wherever the railway went, the geographer followed" (Freeman 1980). Freeman notes that Halford Mackinder, often regarded as the first great British Geographer, and later Director of the London School of Economics climbed Mount Kenya in 1899, "because he thought no one would take him seriously as a geographer unless he had some exploit to his credit".)

However, by the late nineteenth century a different form of geography was beginning to emerge, largely through the gradual institutionalisation of the subject in the universities. Mackinder was appointed to Oxford in 1887 and F H H Guillemand to Cambridge in 1888 (succeeded by J Y Buchanan the following year). From 1887 until well into the twentieth century the RGS gave grants to universities for the teaching of geography, mainly to Oxford and Cambridge, but smaller amounts to other universities as they began to become involved in teaching the subject - Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Wales. The first department was established at Oxford in 1899, and the first full honours course begun at Liverpool in 1917. The Geographical Association was formed in 1893, specifically for the purpose of encouraging the teaching of geography, and geographical societies, with aims which straddled the veneration of explorers, education and practical survey work were formed in various places - Tyneside in 1887, Liverpool in 1891 and Southampton in 1897 (Freeman 1980). It is perhaps significant that some of these places were later involved in pioneering social surveys in the early twentieth century (see Section 6.6 below).

The connections between the emerging discipline of geography and the Regional Survey were very heavily dependent on the personality of Patrick Geddes and his influence on a range of disciplines in Scotland at this time, described by the geographer H R Mill, whom he "persuaded out of chemistry into geography" (letter to C C Fagg, quoted in Fagg 1928) as "the most inspiring influence in Edinburgh in the early 1880s when inspiration blew in from many quarters." (Mill 1895). Geddes work on the survey in Scotland led to the formation of Outlook Tower in 1903, and the Edinburgh Summer Schools on biology, geography and the Regional Survey, which led to the formation of the Regional Association (Chapter 4.2).

By the early twentieth century, it was possible to see the emergence of a number of different forms of geography, some of which were closer to the social survey than others. The old style of geography as exploration was dying out (although paradoxically, it was still the acts of explorers such as Scott in the Antarctic before the first world war that led to the greatest interest in geography), and being replaced by a number of distinct schools - a school of what can be called Regional Geography at Oxford ("at once physical and political and deeply concerned with human life in relation to the environment" - (Freeman 1980:43), and a more Physical Geography at Cambridge, with close associations with climatology, meteorology and oceanography. H R Mill, writing in 1895 proposed a hierarchy of geographies, beginning with mathematical geography at the base of the pyramid ("great blocks hewn from the quarries of the only absolute science, absolutely squared and fitted"), and followed by physical, biological, anthropological and finally commercial geography. (Mill 1895). The term human geography, nowadays often seen as the branch of the discipline closest to sociology did not appear until the 1920s (Roxby 1930).

The overlap between the interests of the disciplines of sociology and geography, while never much in evidence in the professional sphere was extremely significant in the development of the regional survey movement, which was, as has already been indicated an essentially amateur enterprise. While it is possible to attempt to draw dividing lines between those organisations (the Regional Association and the Le Play Society) which mainly attracted geographers and geography teachers and those others (the Sociological Society, the Institute of Sociology) which attracted sociologists, the extent of overlap is quite considerable, and the degree of cooperation across disciplinary boundaries, without any indication that the boundaries posed any serious problems at all, quite remarkable.

In dealing with the influence of geography on the development of the Regional Survey it is perhaps worth considering also, if briefly, the role of amateur survey work in other related disciplines. Amateur geological survey work began in the early nineteenth century, with the work of William Smith, which led eventually to the establishment of the official Government Geological Survey in 1832. The first amateur organisation of geologists was the Geologists Association, formed in 1859 (Fagg 1928), and which later developed into a full professional organisation. Similar movements existed in botany and plant ecology in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Robert Smith and Marcel Hardy both produced botanical surveys of Scotland, and were closely involved with Geddes in more general surveys of Edinburgh and Midlothian. In 1904, A G Tansley and Robert Smith among others formed the Central Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation, which became the British Ecological Society in 1913. A final development worth noting is the photographic surveys, inspired by Benjamin Stone, who formed the Photographic Record Association in 1897. Fagg (1928) refers to the Photographic Record and Survey of Surrey of 1902, consisting of several thousand lantern slides and a few films, which were later held by the South Eastern Union of Scientific Societies among its records.


Le Play House and the Regional Survey Movement in British Sociology 1920 - 1955 | CONTENTS | Introduction | Theory | Origins | Early C 20th | Le Play House | IoS | WW2 | Postwar