Renwick, Chris, British Sociology's Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past

By Lybeck, Eric Royal | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Renwick, Chris, British Sociology's Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past


Lybeck, Eric Royal, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Renwick, Chris, British Sociology's Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past. 2012. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 264 pp. $90.00 hardcover (978-0230356160)

On the surface, Chris Renwick's detailed study of the origins of sociology in Britain might appear as an arcane study of specialist interest for historians of Edwardian social science. However, as Renwick articulates in his introduction, the debates and concerns at stake during this lost period of British sociological history at the turn of the 20th century are directly relevant to contemporary developments in the social sciences. In particular, the author highlights the debate over the relationship between biology and sociology. The ontological and epistemological relationship connecting the natural and social sciences was at the heart of concerns motivating key actors, including Victor Branford, Lady Victoria Welby, and James Martin White, who helped establish the discipline's first foothold in Britain. Thus, in addition to the book's substantive intervention in the niche debate between Geddesian scholars over whether Geddes' biosocial science would or would not have led to Nazism in Britain, Renwick also challenges the all-too-commonplace assumption that Britain was without a proper sociological tradition until Anthony Giddens' ascendance in the 1970s.

Renwick frames his narrative across six chapters by noting a crisis within Section F of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) which covered "Statistics and Economic Science." In 1878, the closet Comtean statistician, J.K. Ingram verbalized a view increasingly shared by scholars in the field--that classical political economy was intellectually bankrupt. Individualistic utilitarian economics' heyday receded as the Golden Age of British industrial capitalism in the 1850s and 60s gave way to the deflationary decades of the late 19th century. This legitimation crisis led to Ingram's clarion call for a proper science of society, namely sociology, which should be established to replace political economy.

Renwick describes three alternative paradigms which emerged as potential solutions to this disciplinary need. The three social scientific schools of eugenicist Francis Galton, Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes, and Oxford idealist philosopher L.T. Hobhouse are addressed in turn. While in the period immediately following Ingram's speech at the BAAS, a synthesis between Galton's eugenics program and Geddes' civics school seemed imminent, Hobhouse's ethical sociology, which expressly denied a substantive relationship between biology and the human sciences, won out in the race for institutional resources including academic posts and journal editorships. The disciplinary resolution of Hobhouse at the head of the pack conditioned the subsequent development (or lack thereof) of British sociology.

As Renwick recounts, the eugenics program developed by Galton, would have been thoroughly assimilated into the field of "sociology" had not contingent influences led to the establishment of an independent science of "eugenics." Galton, who dedicated the second half of his life to the scientific grounding of his evolutionary ideas relating to inheritance, not only established advanced statistical methods for understanding the normal distribution of qualities amongst populations, but also invested heavily in primary data collection. By 1903, Galton had become a preeminent scholar, who was most recognizably "scientific" and influential among advanced mathematicians and statisticians including Karl Pearson, W.F.R. Weldon, and William Bateson.

While Galton's Darwinian approach might appear as the most "biological" sociology, Renwick effectively demonstrates that the biological aspects of eugenics were limited to a few assumptions. Rather, the sociology of Patrick Geddes, who had trained as laboratory demonstrator for T.H. Huxley, was perhaps the most "biological" in terms of theory and method. …

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