Abrams, Philip. The Origins of British Sociology: 1834-1914. Chicago: The University of

 

Abrams, Philip. The Origins of British Sociology: 1834-1914. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1968.

What the author does in this essay is to isolate three major dimensions of social thought,
dimensions which were of great influence in the development of sociology in England. These
dimensions are political economy, ameliorism, and social evolution. Note that "positivism" is not
included because, in England, Comte was simply not that important and, in the other meanings of
that term, all three dimensions are positive and the term is meaningless.

By political economy the author refers to several things, including the development and
unfolding of Adam Smith's idea plus the notions of data collection and statistics which were
developing. Political theorists of the day firmly believed that government was a rational
procedure, that decision makers would always make the right decisions if only they had the right
data. So data collection in terms of useful information was begun; to these thinkers, disagreement
was a lack of information. Data generation was done, at first, by private individuals and
organizations and only later by government. It should be emphasized that data gatherers had
important friends in government; or, put another way, that government had important friends in
statisticians.

Ameliorism has always been big in England: the poor were there to be helped and to be
explained. But the problem was then - as it is today - that we lack an adequate theory and our
intentions to help don't always help. Spencer could, and did, criticize the impulse to help.

The growth of sociology as a profession in England is, then, thought to be the result of the three
factors. However, I get the feeling that these were not the necessary causes of professionalism.
That resulted from the unspoken recognition that without a structure, sociologists were just some
other social thinkers without any particular standing. To compensate for a lack of standing, the
profession was created. In response to critics, sociologists might be said to respond as follows:
"A more usual response (to criticism) was to recognize the present defects...but maintain their
viability in principle. For many this meant taking up a strongly methodological definition of
science, shelving questions of theory and turning eagerly to improvements of technique." (pp.
81-82)