1 - The development of sociology and of empirical social research in Britain  pp. 3-36

The development of sociology and of empirical social research in Britain

By Martin Bulmer

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There are many famous British names in the Pantheon of empirical social and statistical inquiry, such as Edwin Chadwick, William Farr, Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree, and A.L. Bowley. Sociologists, too, have made a considerable contribution to the British tradition of social research (cf. Raison 1979). Yet the historical study of the growth of social research does not display any unified pattern. Rather it is characterised by episodic bursts, intellectual and disciplinary fragmentation, lack of cumulation and profound weaknesses of institutionalisation. In The Origins of British Sociology 1834–1914, Philip Abrams emphasised at the same time the strength of the tradition and the profound discontinuities which were apparent by the outbreak of the First World War.

This collection of essays takes the story forward into the twentieth century, with several backward glances to the nineteenth. Its focus upon empirical sociological research reflects its origins in a symposium on the British Survey Tradition. The theme of the book is at once broader and narrower than the history of sociology in general. Some of the antecedents of British sociology are identified, but also some developments – such as Mass-Observation and the Government Social Survey – which have stood at some distance from academic sociological inquiry are discussed. On the other hand, the aim is not to provide a rounded picture of twentieth-century British sociology.