British Social Theory: Recovering Lost Traditions before 1950


John Scott

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    About the Author

    John Scott CBE is a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Essex, Exeter, and Copenhagen. He was formerly Professor of Sociology and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Plymouth University and before that was Professor of Sociology at Essex University and Leicester University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An active member of the British Sociological Association, he has held the posts of Secretary, Treasurer, Chairperson, and President. His most recent publications are Conceptualising the Social World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis (edited with Peter Carrington, Sage Publications, 2011), and Sociology (with James Fulcher, Oxford University Press, 2011). This book is the latest in his investigations into the history of British sociology, which have appeared as Envisioning Sociology: Victor Branford, Patrick Geddes, and the Quest for Social Reconstruction (with Ray Bromley, SUNY Press, 2013) and The Palgrave Handbook of Sociology in Britain (edited with John Holmwood, Palgrave, 2014).


    This book has been in preparation, in one way or another, for a very long time. Two of the first books that I bought as an undergraduate were Benjamin Kidd’s Social Evolution of 1894 and William McDougall’s Group Mind of 1920, found in a Dundee secondhand bookstall in 1968. These were not, perhaps, the most likely purchases for a young sociologist in that year, though I did also buy the Penguin edition of Student Power in which Perry Anderson was denying the existence of a classical sociology in Britain. The purchase of the two old and dusty volumes made me aware of the pre-history of the current sociological concerns to which I was being exposed as a student and sowed the seeds of doubt concerning the foundations on which Anderson’s stimulating critique of British culture was built.

    My haunting of secondhand bookshops continued and led to the much later discovery of Edward Urwick’s Philosophy of Social Progress of 1912, a book that made me aware of a sociological line of thought that was, at the time, completely unknown to me. It did, however, enable me to see why the London University degree course that I had followed had included a compulsory course on ‘Ethics and Social Philosophy’ with a tedious textbook (Benn and Peters’s Social Principles and the Democratic State) that I had bought as new but barely opened. I investigated this idealist line of thought, thanks to an invitation from Robert Moore in the early 1990s, in my first attempt at a book on the history of British sociology.

    Preparing for that book I discovered the work of Leonard Hobhouse and began to rethink what I thought I knew about Herbert Spencer. My book was never completed, and had been refused a contract by the proposed publisher, and this was a blessing in disguise as I came to realise that my knowledge of the subject was still very incomplete. While working on my PhD I had got to know Ronald Fletcher, whose knowledge of the history of British sociology had introduced me to the name of Victor Branford and the role of the Sociological Society. However, it was not until the 1990s, when I was working on my projected book, that I had the opportunity to learn more about Branford and his associates. Working with Chris Husbands and then Ray Bromley from 2005, I uncovered the work of Patrick Geddes and undertook a large project on his role in the development of sociology. At about the same time, a chance invitation from John Brewer led me to discover the part played by Robert MacIver in the early years of the twentieth century.

    Having filled some of the gaps in my knowledge it was possible to begin again the project of a history of social theory in Britain. The present book draws on all those earlier strands and will, I hope, do something to rehabilitate the men and women who contributed to this history. The social theorists discussed were, of course, products of their time and their insights are combined with now superseded views. Their arguments and language also reflect the biases and prejudices of their time, not least in their use of sexist and sometimes racist language. I have not tried to ‘correct’ this language, even when they use ‘man’ to refer generically to ‘humans’. In this respect, they are no different from their contemporaries in other countries who have achieved a place in the sociological pantheon. It is important that they should all be understood, warts and all. I hope, however, that I have sufficiently demonstrated that many of their substantive ideas have a continuing relevance and that they are deserving of more than mere antiquarian interest.

    John ScottCornwall, November 2017
  • Appendix: Principal Social Theorists

    The principal social theorists discussed in the book, arranged in chronological sequence by date of birth.

    John Locke (1632–1704)

    David Hume (1711–1776)

    Adam Smith (1723–1790)

    Adam Ferguson (1723–1816)

    Edmund Burke MP (1729–1797)

    John Millar (1735–1801)

    Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

    Robert Owen (1771–1858)

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

    Robert Southey (1774–1843)

    James Cowles Prichard (1786–1849)

    Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)

    Mary Shelley (1797–1851)

    John Henry Newman (1801–1890)

    Harriet Martineau (1802–1896)

    Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–1872)

    John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

    George Lewes (1817–1878)

    Charles Kingsley (1819–1875)

    Hugh Doherty (d.1891)

    Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

    Henry Buckle (1821–1862)

    [Friedrich] Max Müller (1823–1900)

    Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)

    John Ferguson McLennan (1827–1881)

    Josephine Butler (1828–1906)

    Frederic Harrison (1831–1923)

    Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917)

    William Morris (1834–1896)

    John Lubbock [Lord Avebury] (1834–1913)

    Edward Caird (1835–1908)

    Henry Hyndman (1842–1921)

    Edward Carpenter (1844–1929)

    William Robertson Smith (1846–1894)

    Bernard Bosanquet (1848–1923)

    Sir Henry Jones (1852–1922)

    David Ritchie (1853–1903)

    Ernest Belfort Bax (1854–1926)

    Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932)

    Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941)

    Eleanor Marx (1855–1898)

    Hubert Bland (1855–1914)

    John Mackinnon Robertson MP (1856–1933)

    [George] Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

    Benjamin Kidd (1858–1916)

    Graham Wallas (1858–1932)

    Beatrice Webb [Lady Passmore] (1858–1943)

    John Hobson (1858–1940)

    Sydney Olivier (1859–1943)

    Sidney Webb [Lord Passmore] (1859–1947)

    Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861–1947)

    Edvard Westermarck (1862–1939)

    Victor Branford (1863–1930)

    Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864–1929)

    Sir Arthur Keith (1866–1955)

    Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937)

    William McDougall (1871–1938)

    Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962)

    Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955)

    Robert Morrison MacIver (1882–1970)

    Bronisław Kasper Malinowski (1884–1942)

    William James Perry (1887–1949)

    [George] Douglas Hugh Cole (1889–1959)

    Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889–1975)

    Harold Joseph Laski (1893–1950)


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