Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Beveridge and the Brief Life of 'Social Biology' at the LSE

Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Beveridge and the Brief Life of 'Social Biology' at the LSE

Article excerpt


Sir William Beveridge, 1879-1963, was a distinguished figure in the history of public policy. His 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services - widely known as the Beveridge Report3 - played a key role in the development of the British welfare state. He was earlier the Director (equivalent to a Vice Chancellor of a British or Australian university) of the London School of Economics. This role throws interesting light both on Beveridge himself, and on issues relating to the financial support of academic research in Britain in the 1930s.

Beveridge was a strange man (for ample documentation of this, see Harris 1997). At Oxford he studied Mathematics and then Classics, and also read a lot of popular science - including the work of Thomas Henry Huxley, by whose inductivist writings about scientific method he was greatly impressed, and upon which he later lectured the staff at the LSE at every opportunity. He was essentially self-educated in the social sciences, having strong practical interests in the empirical investigation of issues to do with unemployment and social security. He worked at Toynbee Hall - an Oxford University Settlement in London's East End - and as a leader-writer on the conservative Morning Post, and also got to know, and was influenced by, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, who had played a key role in the founding of the LSE. Beveridge had wide-ranging, but somewhat inchoate, views on most issues, and was impatient with anyone who disagreed with him. He subsequently worked in the public service, and came increasingly under the domination of a cousin, Jessy Mair, who followed him to the LSE, where she became Secretary of the School, and in effect a kind of unofficial co-director.

Beveridge was an intelligent and capable man, but his concerns were out of tune with what was actually going on in the social sciences at the LSE as they developed. At one level he was effective as an administrator - he attracted massive resources to the School. Yet his personal style was dictatorial, his substantive views were idiosyncratic, and Mrs Mair - whom he was later to marry - was a major influence; she was opinionated, and seems to have been motivated largely on the basis of personal prejudices.4

Another key aspect of our story is the Rockefeller Foundation - or, more precisely, with people connected with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. This had been set up - with a massive endowment - in 1918, in commemoration of Rockefeller's wife. It was initially concerned to provide funding to various of the causes to which she had personally given support - including African-American education. But there was a shift of policy on the part of the Memorial under the Chairmanship (from 1922-29) of the young and entrepreneurial Beardsley Ruml. It shifted its policy from the funding of more obviously charitable activities, to the encouragement of the development of centres for serious research in the social sciences. Here, it gave massive assistance to a small number of Centres - of which one was the London School of Economics. Beveridge had spent time at the Memorial as an International Fellow, and had had many conversations with Ruml and other members of staff (he was well-known to them as 'Bill, the drink' [as in 'beverage']).

Beveridge got on well with Ruml, and shared strong preferences with him for atheoretical, empiricist work in the social sciences. Beveridge seems to have almost re-discovered the younger Historical School's agenda for himself - proposing, at one point, to undertake a large empirical study of trade cycles, and spending a lot of time on an empirical study of price fluctuations. His own style of operating fitted well that of the Memorial, for it was un-bureaucratic, entrepreneurial and willing to give large amounts of money for the needs of a few selected research centres in the social sciences, with only a minimum of accountability. (Things were to change dramatically when the Memorial was wound up and, in its place, its programs were administered by the Social Sciences division of the Rockefeller Foundation - hereinafter 'Foundation'. …

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