Martineau and Early Sociology

(7) (Optional) Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was one of the earliest social theorists working to establish a ‘science of society.’ What do you think? Do her ideas have relevance today?  Which of Martineau’s ideas could be easily applied (perhaps with a little update to the terms) in contemporary society? Can you compose such an update? That is, try rewriting some of her ideas in your own words and in a way that could help us study societal patterns in 2011. 

Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998) write, “Martineau sought to create a science of society that would be sympathetic, grounded in empirical observation, and accessible to a general readership, enabling people to make personal and political decisions guided by a scientific understanding of the principles governing social life” (31). Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998) also describe four distinct elements of Martineau’s sociology, which include her development of a subject matter of sociology, an epistemology of sociology, a methodology for sociology, and her critique of domination.

In her development of the subject matter of sociology, Martineau called on sociologists to study what she referred to as manners and morals. According to Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998), “By ‘morals’ she means a society’s collective ideas of prescribed and proscribed behavior; by ‘manners,’ the patterns of action and association in society” (31). Martineau argued that manners, or the patterns of interaction, are deeply intertwined with morals, or the collective ideas of a society. She thought that the work of sociology is to describe, evaluate, and explain the relationship between manners and morals in society (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998). In preparation for writing How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), Martineau discovered a need for sociologists to also study what she referred to as anomalies, or the contradictions that occur when a society’s manners are different than its morals. Lengermann and Neibrugge (1998) write, “Focus on these anomalies leads her to formulate as a basic principle of social change that a tension between morals and manners cannot continue unresolved in a society” (32).

Martineau also developed an epistemology concerning the validity of sociological knowledge. She argued that sociological knowledge depends on the interaction of three different practices which the sociologist should employ: impartiality, critique, and sympathy. She was principally concerned with how sociologists can create fair, but accurate observations and generalizations about society. Martineau saw the sociologist as “a moral being who must critically but fairly assess the moral status of the society observed” (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998:33) and called for impartiality in sociologists as they study, observe, and evaluate societies. Martineau writes, “Here then is the wise traveller’s aim, – to be kept in view of the exclusion of prejudice, both philosophical and national. He must not allow himself to be perplexed or disgusted by seeing the great ends of human association pursued by means which he could never have devised and to the practice of which he could not reconcile himself” (1838/1998:47). In addition to her call for sociologists to be impartial, Martineau urged the sociologist to also be sympathetic. In How to Observe Morals and Manners she writes, “The observer must have sympathy; and his sympathy must be untrammelled and unreserved” (Martineau 1838/1998:48). Sympathy is, for Martineau, the key distinction between the scientific methodology of sociology, and the scientific methodology of the geologist, or mathematics (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998).

Perhaps one of the things that we most remember Martineau for is for her early work in developing sociological methods. Martineau’s sociological methods recommend that the sociologist study the morals and manners of society by beginning with “the study of THINGS, using the DISCOURSE OF PERSONS as a commentary upon them” (Martineau 1838/1998:49). In her methods, Martineau was concerned with studying a fair and accurate representation of the population; she knew that the sociologist could only talk to a limited number of people, and could never truly study the whole of a society. In order to resolve this dilemma, she argued that the study of Things in society would allow the sociologist to observe a smaller, yet representative sample of the population, and one that reflected the larger patterns of morals and manners in society. Martineau argued that the sociologist should begin by study the universal patterns of life: age, gender, mortality, birth, illness, death, etc. These things are experienced by all people in all societies, but are experienced quite differently by people in different societies (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998).

In writing about the purpose of sociology, Martineau argued that sociology has an ethical imperative to oppose domination (Lengermann and Niebrugg 1998). She wrote that the opposite of autonomy is domination, and that “the supreme right of all individuals, the key to each person’s pursuit of happiness within the general good, is the right to act as a moral being” (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998:37). In How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), Martineau offers three criteria for estimating the degree to which domination is present in society: “(1) The condition of less powerful or disempowered actors – women, prisoners, those in need of charity, (2) the society’s idea of liberty, which will show its attitudes toward authority and autonomy, and (3) the society’s progress in providing all people with the means whereby to be self-directing moral agents” (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998:37). By using these three criteria to evaluate the presence and degree of domination, Martineau identified four major examples of domination in American society, which, according to Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998) are: slavery, the treatment of women, the reification of public opinion, and the fetishizing of wealth (37). These four examples of domination are, to Martineau, also examples of anomalies, since the American government prides itself on the principles of equality, democracy, and each individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998).

For Martineau, sociology is the study of things, of morals and manners, and of the anomalies that occur when manners operate in direct opposition to morals in society. The sociologist is the “the traveller,” and “the observer” (Martineau 1838/1998:47-48). The sociologist is to be impartial, critical of the social order, and sympathetic. Sociologists are to seek to be representative in their studies, in order than they might make fair, but accurate generalizations of society. And sociology, the science of society, is to seek to oppose domination (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998).

I absolutely think that Martineau’s ideas are still relevant today, particularly her identification of the fetishization of wealth as a form of domination in society. Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998) write that Martineau saw the unending pursuit of wealth as leading to domination in two primary ways: (1) that it results in the stratification of individuals according to the amount of wealth they possess, and (2) that “the pursuit of wealth reduces people’s capacity for moral agency because it promotes anxiety and limits reflection” (39). This is particularly relevant today with the Occupy movement, and I think Martineau’s identification of wealth as linked to domination in society is almost prophetic. I am always so amazed at how these social theorists (particularly Martineau, Marx, Weber, and Simmel) were so keenly aware of the potential for capitalism and industrialization to cause serious detriment to society in the future. Martineau is exactly right (and she got it right before Marx and Weber, might I add), that the fetishization of wealth in our society absolutely leads to social stratification according to wealth, power, and resources, and that the endless pursuit of wealth does reduce people’s capacity for moral agency. Those of us who belong to the working and middle classes are anxious, we are desperate at times. The unequal distribution of wealth in this society is baffling, and I absolutely agree with Martineau that the pursuit of wealth reduces capacity for moral agency. Perhaps I would update Martineau’s “fetishization of wealth,” though, and argue that it is the necessity for wealth that reduces people’s capacity for moral agency. We live in a society that demands that we have money to survive. We need money to buy our way into social groups, we need money to feed ourselves, we need money to have power, we need money to have a voice. We have for the past several decades fetishized wealth – there was much to be desired, there was much to be consumed, and many people had the means to satisfied their desires through consumption. But many, many people in America are running out of those means of consumption; we’re losing jobs, we’re having a budget crisis, we’ve been in a recession for ten years. We can no longer afford to consume as we do, and yet our society still demands that we consume, and consume, and consume. We are taught to want, and we learn dissatisfaction with what we have. Yes, we have fetishized, and still do fetishize wealth. But I want to update Martineau’s argument that the fetishization of wealth leads to domination, and to say that it is the coupling of wealth with power and status that we now have a need for wealth, just to get by.

In addition to her analysis of domination in society, Martineau also wrote about the amount and distribution of happiness in society being reflective of progress toward the good of society. She equated happiness with the degree to which people in a society function as moral agents (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998). Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998) write, “Such a society requires a fair distribution of material goods, leisure for reflective choice, cultivation of intellectual and fine arts, full public education, equality between men and women, self-government, a spirit of moderation, and respect for all types of honest work” (40). I think Martineau had an incredible ability to observe the social order, to take note of the ways in which it was not progressing toward the good of society, and to identify things that are critical in enabling members of society to function as moral agents. Martineau is spot-on in identifying several key components of a progression toward the good of society. I would add to Martineau that we also need to cultivate empathy and love. We need to learn humility. We need to redefine and reengage in the development of community. We need a collective deep breath. We need to consider our global impact. We need to remember our absolute dependence on the earth, the sun, the moon, the atmosphere, the trees, the birds, the animals, the rain. We need to personalize our interactions. I could write forever about what we need to do, but I think Martineau’s belief in the principle of progress toward the good of society is still holds today. I especially like her view that the amount and the distribution of happiness are equivalent to the degree to which people in society function as moral agents (Lengermann and Niebrugge 1998). It works really nicely with her view that the pursuit of wealth reduces people’s capacity to act as moral agents. I love the decoupling of wealth and happiness – that the pursuit of wealth prevents moral agency, and that increased happiness inspires moral agency.

I also think that Martineau’s discussion of liberty in How to Observe Morals and Manners is relevant to American society today, and to Occupy. Martineau writes, “The Police of a country are a sure sign of the idea of liberty existing within it. Where the soldiery are the guards of the social order, it makes all the difference whether they are royal troops, – a destructive machinery organized against the people, – or a National Guard, springing up when needed from among the people, for the people’s sake…” (1838/1998:51). This is so perfect in the context of the horrendous police brutality that has occurred in the past three months, over and against the peaceful revolutionaries of the Occupy protests. Though I hate to think of those policepeople responsible for such violence as “royal” in any way, I will assume that what Martineau meant by royal was “total” or “absolute,” in which case it is clear that we are a police state, dominate by a totally and absolutely destructive machine, organized against the people.

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