The Public Sociology of Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about the foundations of British sociology and the motivations of its main figures. One of the most striking things about their work was how explicitly committed it was to a moral vision and sociology’s role in realising that vision. Whereas contemporary public sociology is driven by the impulse to escape the (perceived) confines of the university, sociology at this point in time still had not been fully institutionalised. Combined with the independent wealth of some within this nascent ‘sociological movement’, these conditions created an astonishingly energetic, even entrepreneurial, public sociology. This is how John Scott and Ray Bromley summarise it on loc 2044 of their Envisioning Sociology:

Sociology is not, therefore, a detached and completely “value-free” discipline, but neither is it an ideologically committed doctrine. It is an autonomous discipline with a responsibility to engage in public discourse and involve a wider public in its own deliberations. Branford and Geddes’s view of the discipline sees it as what Burawoy (2005) has called a public sociology. Their public sociology does not pursue its practical vision and strategy of reconstruction in the manner of the bureaucratic expert, and they rejected the Fabian reliance on the centralized temporal power of state politicians and administrators. They called, instead, for a “resorption” of the powers of government from the state to the individual and the community ( Branford 1914a, 319–23 ), with sociologists promoting their ideas in cooperative and participative endeavors

They saw the role of sociological science as being the liberation of suppressed possibilities, deploying sociological knowledge in pursuit of realistically achievable ends: eutopias rather than utopias. The sociologist took on the role of coalition-builder in their scheme, creating initiatives through which fragmented groups could come together in common purpose. As Scott and Bromley describe it on loc 2063:

They must challenge dominant or mainstream thinkers and actively involve those who are engaged in spiritual tasks and so can best contribute to spiritual renewal: “These are the marching torchbearers of our social inheritance. It is theirs, in the onward and upward movement of civilization, to lead the way and light the path” ( Branford and Geddes 1919b, 93, 87, 92 ). They have the capacity “for exalting well-being, quickening the spirit, dignifying labor, beautifying cities, ennobling personalities” (ibid., 93). They include artists, poets, musicians, novelists, architects, and scientists: “The sociologist has now to search out the fragments of spiritual powers which have been growing up spontaneously and in isolation” ( Branford 1914a, 307 ), bringing them together in a coalition for social reconstruction.

There were two key mechanisms of engagement which they pursued: dramatisation and social surveys. Dramatisation was motivated by a belief that “sociologists could join with playwrights, poets, and other artists to write and present sociological knowledge and understanding in a way that is both accessible to a general public and could motivate them to join in a strategy of social change” (loc 2063). Surveys were a form of direct participation through which “those most affected by contemporary conditions” could become involved in a way that “would allow them to participate in the formulation of social policies” (loc 2119). In a future post, I’ll write more about these mechanisms and the role of the ‘sociological laboratory’ in facilitating them.

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