A New Way of Thinking. The Sociological Imagination of Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

by Nina R. Jakoby and Michaela Thönnes

The classical social science tradition would remain incomplete without mentioning the first female sociologist Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) – a pioneer of sociological theory and social research (Rossi 1973). When C. Wright Mills (1959) elaborated his idea of Sociological Imagination and referred to the sociological classics Marx, Weber and Durkheim, among others, he did not consider the outline of a sociological discipline written by a British woman in the middle of the 19th century. Her theoretical and methodological concept of a “science of society” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 15), even before the name sociology was established and institutionalised as a science, has mostly been forgotten in mainstream sociology. Yet the plea for substantial, relevant, theoretical as well as empirical social inquiry – in the sense that Mills (1959) had in mind – is found in her pathbreaking work How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) and her study Society of America (1837). Both have to be recognised as sociological classics. Further, Martineau must be acknowledged because of her “condensed and free translation” (Martineau 1958a: 8) of The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1858). How to Observe Morals und Manners (1838) was the first book on methodology in sociology, published nearly fifty years prior to Durkheim’s Les Règles de la Methode Sociologique (Hill 2002).How can we capture the sociological imagination of Harriet Martineau? Well, it is best to let her speak for herself.

The Observer of Man and Manners stands as much in need of intellectual preparation as any other student. […] the science [of Morals] which of all the sciences which have yet opened upon men, is, perhaps, the least cultivated, the least definite, the least ascertained in itself, and the most difficult in its application (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 13–15).

Her work reveals an early outline of sociology as a distinct social science that includes micro and macro analysis, social structure and institutions, quantitative and qualitative analysis as well as the use of types and classifications (e.g., religion, suicide). “Things” serve as indicators of morals and manners in a given society, as the following quote demonstrates impressively:

The grand secret of wise inquiry into Morals and Manners is to begin with the study of THINGS, using the DISCOURSE OF PERSONS as a commentary upon them. Though the facts sought by travellers relate to Persons, they may be most readily learned from Things. The eloquence of Institutions and Records, in which the action of a nation is embodied and perpetuated, is more comprehensive and more faithful than that of any variety of individual voices. The voice of a whole people goes up in the silent workings of an institution; the condition of the masses is reflected from the surface of a record. The Institutions of a nation, – political, religious or social, – put evidence into the observer’s hands as to its capabilities and wants which the study of individuals could not yield in the course of a lifetime. The Records of any society, be they what they may, whether architectural remains, epitaphs, civic registers, national music, or any other of the thousand manifestations of the common mind which may be found among every people, afford more information on Morals in a day than converse with individuals in a year (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 73-74, original emphasis).

The investigation of the “physiognomy of a nation” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 71) implies the following fields of research that are necessary to understand the morals and manners of a society by investigating the “general tendencies of any society” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 225):

  • Religion (churches, clergy, superstitions, suicide),
  • General moral notions (epitaphs, love of kindred and birthplace, talk of aged and children, character of prevalent pride, character of Popular idols, epochs of society, treatment of the guilty, testimony of criminals, popular songs, literature and philosophy),
  • Domestic state (soil and aspect of the Country, markets, agricultural Class, manufacturing Class, commercial class, health, marriage and women, children),
  • The idea of liberty (police, legislation, classes in society, servants, imitation of the metropolis, newspaper, schools, objects and form of persecution),
  • Progress (conditions of progress, charity, arts and inventions, multiplicity of objects).

Martineau’s social analysis is guided by an overarching purpose underlying her research: to promote human happiness, including the values of liberty, equality and the participation of both men and women (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 25–26).

To test the morals and manners of a nation by a reference to the essentials of human happiness, is to strike at once to the centre, and to see things as they are (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 26).

Therefore she addresses ”substantive problems”, as Mills (1959: 128) emphasises that sociology should do, especially social inequality constituting a public issue as well as a personal trouble interwoven with social values, historical and social structures (Mills 1959: 130). Martineau’s conception of sociology as a distinct discipline incorporates the ideas of Mills’ Sociological Imagination, integrating biography, history as well as social structure as key elements of social analysis.

In a later article, Martineau (1958b: 1119) addresses relevant issues of the development of a new social science by defining the subject methodically, laying down the definition of terms and its features, and ascertaining the essential principles around which this science revolves. With How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) she successfully lived up to her own expectations by specifying the content, methods and principles of the new science that is now called sociology. She indicates the importance of the quality of social research because “if the instrument be in bad order it will furnish a bad product, be the material what it may” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 23). Her recommendations and guidelines include sensibility towards “hasty generalizations”, ethnocentrism, and a “bias” due to the error-proneness of human perception and the “narrowness of the mental vision” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 24–25, 229, 223). To complement the study of “things”, representative data must be collected based on a variety of interviews “with all classes of the society […], – not only the rich and poor, but those who may be classed by profession, pursuit, habits of mind, and turn of manners” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 223).

The Martineauian sociological imagination offers a sociology that connects theory and life, theory and empiricism, and a mode of living devoted to scholarship and public enlightenment. The science of society is always comparative and historical, because “if he explore[s] only one country, carries in his mind the image of all; for, only in its relation to the whole of the race can any one people be judged” (Martineau 2002 [1838]: 29). With regard to these values and the sociological possibilities Martineau personified and demonstrated in her work, she must be included in the historical narrative of sociology (Hill 2003). Her sociological imagination avoids one-sidedness and trivialisation by considering man, woman and society, micro and macro, theory and empiricism, “verstehen” and “erklären” as the main objectives of sociology, written in an absolutely intelligible language. She reminds us that sociology has always been a critical social science with a public mandate to distribute knowledge and shed light on major societal problems, social inequalities, values or taken-for-granted truths. Remembering Martineau as a sociological classic means learning from a conception for gaining scientific insights that is still modern to this day – a conception that holds itself to the standard that its results be relevant to the reality of the object of research and thus demonstrates what has always been the strength of sociology in analysing social issues and problems. Sociology cannot afford to forget her.

Dr. Nina R. Jakoby is Senior Research and Teaching Associate in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Zurich 

Michaela Thönnes is a Research Associate in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Zurich


Hill, M.R. (2002): Empiricism and reason in Harriet Martineau’s sociology, in Martineau, H. (2002 [1838]): How to observe morals and manners, 3th ed., New Brunswick/New Jersey, xv-lx.

Hill, M.R. (2003): Epilogue, in Hill, M.R.; Hoecker-Drysdale, S. (eds.): Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and methodological perspectives, New York/London, 191-193.

Martineau, H. (2002 [1838]): How to observe morals and manners, 3rd ed., New Bruns-wick/London.

Martineau, H. (2005 [1837]): Society in America, 4th ed., New Brunswick/London.

Martineau, H. (1858a): Preface, in Comte, A.: The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, New York, 3-11.

Martineau, H. (1858b): What is “Social Science”? The Spectator 31, Oct. 23, 1119–1120.

Mills, C.W. (1959): The Sociological Imagination. London/Oxford/New York.

Rossi, A.S. (1973): The first woman sociologist: Harriet Martineau (1802–1876), in Rossi, A.S. (ed.): The feminist papers. From Adams to de Beauvoir, Hanover/London.



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  1. Thanks for this. A couple of years ago I actually called for someone to do a Ph.D. on Martineau’s work — indeed on this very blog: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/10796. One problem that Martineau suffers from — and this may apply to other marginalised figures from the early history of sociology — is that she self-identified with a movement that has fallen out of fashion, in her case ‘positivism’, which you deftly manage to avoid mentioning. Moreover, it was easy for her to avoid the theoretical/methodological dichotomies that have plagued modern sociology because she lived before they were institutionalised. She is basically from the generation before Dilthey and the Neo-Kantians started carving up the disciplinary space between ‘naturalistic’ and ‘humanistic’ modes of inquiry. Now some interesting consequences follow: (1) The original positivists may not be as ‘positivistic’ as we imagine them to have been. (2) That we might want to reconceptualise sociology from the standpoint of what the field would have looked like, had the naturalistic/humanistic distinction never been drawn, as Martineau clearly did in her own practice. (She was not alone, of course. John Stuart Mill is another obvious case in point.)

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