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Biology and social science

August 12, 2011

University of York – by Chris Renwick

My research explores how the historical interaction of biological and social ideas has shaped the identity and practices of British social science. I first examined this field in my doctoral work, which argued that British sociology was founded on a series of late 19th- and early 20th-century debates about its relationship with biology. However, having published a number of articles and recently submitted a monograph manuscript to the University of Chicago Press, I have widened my research to consider mid-20th-century developments – in particular, how the economist William Beveridge attempted to reform social science at the London School of Economics during the 1920s and 1930s.

Beveridge used his directorship of the LSE to establish a project called the Natural Bases of Social Science, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and included a controversial department of social biology. Although it aimed to change the way social science was practised in Britain by ‘cross-fertilising’ biological and social science, Beveridge’s project has received little scholarly attention. For example, while Ralf Dahrendorf’s history of the LSE (1995) and Jose Harris’s biography of Beveridge (1977, 1997) both examine the project, neither closely considers its substantive and methodological content or its wider significance in the history of British social science. As a consequence, we have a poor understanding of the kinds of change that the project was meant to initiate, why it failed to achieve them and the impact that it had on the direction of social science in the UK.

William Beveridge. Wellcome Library

William Beveridge. Wellcome Library

My research will therefore make an important contribution to our understanding of British social science by deepening our knowledge of a series of events that helped shape its current intellectual identity and practices. The programme will do so by using historical methods on the archival sources held by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York State. These substantial holdings, which are not available online or on microfilm, contain key documents relating to the Natural Bases of Social Science project. These documents include extensive correspondence between Beveridge and officers of the Foundation, committee minutes, diaries, progress reports and a previously unknown manuscript entitled ‘Suggestions for Program in Social Sciences in England with Comments on Past Rockefeller Foundation Policy’, which was written by Beveridge in 1937. Building on what I have learned from the correspondence of Lancelot Hogben – who led the LSE’s department of social biology – and archives at the LSE, the materials held by the Rockefeller Foundation will provide me with both essential information about the project and contextual details that are necessary for interpreting its development. This will enable me to complete the process of recovering the methodological and substantive content of the social science that Beveridge’s project aimed to create and the reasons for its failure. In doing so, my work will reconstruct an alternative but forgotten vision of how to relate biological and social science, which will enrich our understanding of current debates about the issue.

A note on my upcoming book, titled British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots. For some time, the social sciences have been under attack from those who believe that biology, not society or culture, provides the best explanation of human behaviour and social organisation. Evolutionary psychologists speak disdainfully of a ‘Standard Social Science Model’, picturing the human mind as formed through nurture alone; social scientists react by decrying the reductionism of biological views. With positions so polarised, it is easy to forget that the social sciences and biology were not always regarded as separate spheres. When, how and why did the split come about? My book seeks answers in the debates about sociology in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, where rival visions of the relationship between biology and society competed to shape the burgeoning discipline’s future.

Charting the emergence of sociology in Britain from the mid-1870s to the early 20th century, when L T Hobhouse, who battled to separate the biological and social sciences, was awarded Britain’s first chair of sociology and editorship of the Sociological Review, the UK’s first sociology journal, this book casts fresh light on the roots of current debates about the place of biology in sociology. Moreover, by recovering the visions for sociology of Hobhouse’s rivals, including the Scottish biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes and the eugenicist Francis Galton, the book contributes to historical and sociological debates by showing how the history of British sociology can inform current discussions about the future of the relationship between the social and biological sciences.

Chris Renwick is Lecturer at the Department of History, University of York.

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