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Society, Politics & Law

HG Wells and the mystery of the vanishing utopian sociologists

Updated Wednesday 29th June 2011

HG Wells was one of the first sociologists - but why has his style of utopian sociology disappeared from the modern subject?

Laurie Taylor:
When I did my masters' degree at Leicester University, the head of the sociology department was a Professor Neustadt - Ilya Neustadt. Well he was no doubt a distinguished scholar but all I can now really remember about him was his bad temper. In the middle of a staff-graduate seminar, he'd suddenly explode with indignation at the most unexpected moments and members of staff got used to these interruptions they used to insert pauses into the reading of their papers so that the interjections would be less disconcerting.

But visiting lecturers well they weren't quite so well prepared and I can recall one man who came to give a paper on what he called "the sociology of socialism". Well it all began rather well - Professor Neustadt introduced the guest and explained he'd be talking about the various historical and contemporary components of socialism and relating these to developments in sociology.

He sat down and the speaker rose nervously to his feet. His paper, he told us, was still in a tentative state so he hoped we'd be generous in our comments. Well so far, so good. But then he embarked on his thesis.

I can't recall his argument. All I remember is after no more than five minutes of exposition he was suddenly interrupted by a roar of indignation from Professor Neustadt. "This", he said, in his strong Middle European accent "is not the sociology of socialism. This is socialist sociology. And I will not have it in my department."

Well I often think of Neustadt's objection when I'm reading emails from listeners to Thinking Allowed which complain about the left wing or socialist bias of a particular piece of research.

The manner, for example, in which research on declines in social mobility or increases in income equality intimate that both such developments are matters for regret. "All you socialists are old fashioned leftie idealists", as one listener abruptly put it.

How interesting then to discover from a new research paper there was one sociologist who saw this as an inevitable feature of the discipline and here are his words:

"There is no such thing in sociology as dispassionately considering what is without considering what is intended to be. I think, in fact, that the creation of utopias is the proper and distinctive method of sociology. Sociologists cannot help making utopias, though they avoid the word, though they deny the idea with passion their silences shape a utopia."

And that was written in 1907 by none other than the very well-known sociologist H.G Wells. To explain all I'm now joined by the author of that research paper Ruth Levitas, who is professor of sociology at Bristol University.

HG Wells Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: NCMallory under CC-BY-NC-SA licence
HG Wells by NC Mallory

Now I didn't know that Wells had ambitions, aspirations, to be a sociologist, tell me about his sociological career Ruth.

Ruth Levitas:
Well Wells had his first literary success with The Time Machine in 1895, went on to write a series of other novels but in 1901 he wrote a series of articles in a fortnightly review that was subsequently published in a volume called Anticipations which is principally about the social implications of scientific advances but opens out into the - at the end - into an argument for the need for a rational society, which he calls the new republic.

And Sydney and Beatrice Webb were so taken with this that they rushed off to find Wells and Sydney Webb invited him to join, first of all, a small group of politically motivated men, it was a sort of dining club, led by Webb and some of his associates called the Coefficients, whose plan was to work out the alliance of this rational society. And Wells then joined the Fabians.

But at the same time the beginnings of the institutional development in sociology in Britain took place, this was quite late, it was some 20 years later than in France, and the Sociological Society was set up in 1903 and H.G. Wells joined it and was on its council.

And the early discussions of the Sociological Society are set out in the sociological papers for that time. Actually reviewing the first volume of this in something called the Independent Review in 1905 you find Wells' first statement of his position about utopia.

Laurie Taylor:
And he was so keen to be a sociologist, wasn't he, that didn't he apply for a position for the first chair of sociology at LSE?

Follow in Wells' footsteps: Study the social sciences with The Open University

Ruth Levitas:
He may possibly have applied for the first chair of sociology in 1907, there is no hard evidence of that. But what we do know is that in 1904 and 1905 he was writing haranguing letters to Beatrice Webb demanding that she find some way of getting a chair for him and being very rude about some of the other potential candidates for the chair.

Laurie Taylor:
And writing to the Prime Minister as well.

Ruth Levitas:
Yes and then he wrote to Balfour, who he had met through the Webbs, saying can you give me a thousand pounds so that I can spend my time thinking about sociology instead of having to write novels for my living.

And Balfour passed this on to his private - parliamentary private secretary to consider, who came back saying first of all he wasn't sure that Wells was the genius that he thought he was and secondly, that sociology wasn't an exact science.

Laurie Taylor:
Now let's pick up on that business of the exact science, because that is a most interesting statement from Wells about this utopian aspect and throughout your article it would be fair to say that in a way you're rather sorry that Wells rather lost the argument?

Ruth Levitas:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
You say one of the reasons that sociology is dull. or one of the reasons that sociology is boring. is because it so frequently eschews any idea of utopias or any notion of an ideal society, even though it's often implicit in what they're saying?

Ruth Levitas:
Well I think that's absolutely right, I mean we could leave on one side how badly written so much sociology is, which makes it almost unreadable. But I think there are two reasons why it has become quite boring.

One is that it's actually very fragmented as a discipline now, which means the kind of holistic thinking that Wells was interested in, and the early classical sociologists were interested in, doesn't happen very much, because everybody's too specialised; but also British sociology in particular has been obsessed from the outset with making itself respectable through a claim to being scientific.

And what that means is that people censor themselves all the time.

At any point you can't actually make the move from saying 'I have these findings about inequality or social mobility or gender discrimination' [to] saying 'for that to end society has to look like this, for that to end not only must we oppose that, but we need to think about the whole structure of society'.

Laurie Taylor:
So you would want to say that, perhaps, sociology should go in for proclamations about things like the Big Society; [that] that should be the domain of sociology, to make those pronouncements about what a future society should or might look like?

Ruth Levitas:
Well I would want to use the utopian approach in two ways.

One, archaeologically, as it were, to dig out what is meant by the Big Society and what is assumed about the society as a whole in current discourse, which I think I would personally find quite problematic, given that it's mopping up the failures of the market.

Alternatively, you can do it architecturally, which is of course what utopian writers do, which is to think about what would society really have to look like for the over principles of the Big Society and human flourishing to be a reality.

Laurie Taylor:
So you would want to say that sociology should come clean, because when you read sociological research papers [and] sociology books, you hear statements being made, or half hidden statements about what this research really means for the ideal society - and you want at least some sociologists to say 'this is the way I want the world to be in the future'?

Ruth Levitas:
It's partly a matter of coming clean, but it's partly that insofar as sociology does not do that it doesn't address the problems that face us.

The economic and ecological crises mean we cannot go on as we are. The truly utopian - in the sense of unrealistic - are the ones who think we can just restore business as usual.

So that what we need to be doing is thinking about alternative modes of living in the future and bringing those to public debate. And if sociology can't help us do that, to my mind that makes it really rather a waste of time.

Laurie Taylor:
You talk about the way in which thinking about utopias trains [or] opens the mind. Can you just expand on that a little?

Ruth Levitas:
If you take something like William Morris' News From Nowhere, it's often being discussed as a text which is really about the education of desire, it's a text which is both about how society might be otherwise, but also one which enables people to experience in the reading of it what it might be like to want differently, to live differently in a different kind of society; it has an experiential element to it which should lead one to then think about a politics that could bring that different society into being.

Laurie Taylor:
So in some ways, you want sociology to be unashamedly a little bit more literary in terms of its imaginative style?

Ruth Levitas:
Yes, I think the phrase that C. Wright Mills uses "the sociological imagination" is very like what Wells talks about as knowledge rendered imaginatively. And one of the problems with sociology is it is so often too unimaginative.

This article is adapted from an episode of Thinking Allowed broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on June 15th 2011

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