Finding sociology’s future in its history

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I recently finished reading Chris Renwick’s excellent book British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past. It’s a detailed history of the development of British sociology in the early twentieth century. The book focuses upon Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes and L.T.Hobhouse. There is a chapter on each before the book focuses upon the crucial appointment of the first British chair of sociology, which ended up being located at the LSE. Alongside this was the appointment of the editorship of the Sociological Papers (subsequently the Sociological Review), which was the first British sociology journal. Hobhouse ended up taking both positions. For Renwick this represents a crucial moment. It was at this moment that sociology and biology were deprecated, whereas the appointment of Geddes or one of Galton’s followers would have closely aligned sociology and biology. There have been various accounts of the work of these key figures and the circumstances of the LSE chair appointment, but Renwick really gets to the details and the underlying politics that led to the appointment. I found the facilitator role taken on by Victor Branford to be particularly revealing. Renwick also puts to rest the myth surrounding the interview process for the chair.

Drawing upon these historical accounts, Renwick argues that sociology might be better placed to shape its future if it has a greater understanding of its history. In closing the book he reflects on the possibility for using this history to imagine a future for the discipline, particularly with regard to its relations with biology. Indeed, the book is suggestive of how sociology might have evolved quite differently in the British context had some different decisions been taken. This in itself forces us to reflect on how sociology is not a fixed discipline, but that it might be reworked and reshape in the way it was back in the early twentieth century. It’s interesting that rather than cementing sociology’s established approaches in its roots, this book actually brings into question the form that sociology takes and how it might be conducted. Apart from developing a really interesting story, this book calls out for sociology to be re-imagined and rethought. I would definitely agree with Renwick, the history he provides here does enables sociology to reflect on its future in new and more informed ways.

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