Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century

Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century

Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century

Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century


Neil Smelser's Social Paralysis and Social Change is one of the most comprehensive histories of mass education ever written. It tells the story of how working-class education in nineteenth-century Britain--often paralyzed by class, religious, and economic conflict--struggled forward toward change.

This book is ambitious in scope. It is both a detailed history of educational development and a theoretical study of social change, at once a case study of Britain and a comparative study of variations within Britain. Smelser simultaneously meets the scholarly standards of historians and critically addresses accepted theories of educational change--"progress," conflict, and functional theories. He also sheds new light on the process of secularization, the relations between industrialization and education, structural differentiation, and the role of the state in social change.

This work marks a return for the author to the same historical arena--Victorian Britain--that inspired his classic work Social Change in the Industrial Revolution thirty-five years ago. Smelser's research has again been exhaustive. He has achieved a remarkable synthesis of the huge body of available materials, both primary and secondary.

Smelser's latest book will be most controversial in its treatment of class as a primordial social grouping, beyond its economic significance. Indeed, his demonstration that class, ethnic, and religious groupings were decisive in determining the course of British working-class education has broad-ranging implications. These groupings remain at the heart of educational conflict, debate, and change in most societies--including our own--and prompt us to pose again and again the chronic question: who controls the educational terrain?


Writing this book was in one important respect a return to my youth. My first truly independent scholarly enterprise—my dissertation—was an application of sociological theory to changes in industry and workingclass family life in nineteenth-century Britain with special emphasis on the cotton-textile industry. Now I revisit Victorian Britain, this time with an eye to the development of a schooling system for the working classes. the era is the same, but the subject matters of this and the earlier work overlap only slightly, in chapter 8 below, where I explore the relations between education and the family economy. in addition, this book generates some new and different theoretical emphases and interpretations, which others are probably better able than I to fathom.

The book has been long in preparation, interrupted by many mid- to late-career involvements in other research, writing, and editing, and by several adventures in trying to defend, preserve, advance, and promote the institutions of social science in particular and higher education in general. the research began in earnest in 1977–79, when I was director of the Education Abroad Program for the United Kingdom / Ireland of the University of California. Those years provided an opportunity to return to the archival riches of the British Library in London, where I was based. in the 1980s I inched forward on a number of fronts, particularly the exploration of the comparative cases of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and New York, and wrote a few articles on the nineteenth-century British family and education. the final stages of research and writing were completed on a sabbatical leave in 1989–90, supplemented by a visiting fellowship at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.

In many ways working on this volume was a solo operation, but I

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