HG Wells on the “So-called Science of Sociology”

H.G. Wells is famous for a lot of things, like “The Time Machine”, “The War of the Worlds”, and co-founding modern science fiction. Wells is not quite as well known as a social theorists, or critic of sociology, but perhaps he should be. In an essay entitled “The So-called Science of Sociology“, Wells critiques contemporary sociological theory and methods. Wells in particular is angered by the misreading of the history of the natural sciences, and the attempt to model sociology on an inaccurate vision of those sciences. Here are some excellent bits, but if you (like me) share Wells’ concern with the way sociology conceives of itself, of science, and itself as a science, read the whole thing!

Let me begin by pointing out that, in the more modern conceptions of logic, it is recognised that there are no identically similar objective experiences; the disposition is to conceive all real objective being as individual and unique. This is not a singular eccentric idea of mine; it is one for which ample support is to be found in the writings of absolutely respectable contemporaries, who are quite untainted by association with fiction. It is now understood that conceivably only in the subjective world, and in theory and the imagination, do we deal with identically similar units, and with absolutely commensurable quantities. In the real world it is reasonable to suppose we deal at most with _practically_ similar units and _practically_ commensurable quantities. But there is a strong bias, a sort of labour-saving bias in the normal human mind to ignore this, and not only to speak but to think of a thousand bricks or a thousand sheep or a thousand sociologists as though they were all absolutely true to sample. If it is brought before a thinker for a moment that in any special case this is not so, he slips back to the old attitude as soon as his attention is withdrawn.

Oh, if only every introductory sociology student, along with every graduate student and faculty member, kept that in mind! What a discipline we’d have! Note though, Wells goes on to say, “Be it noted that, so far as the practical results of chemistry and physics go, it scarcely matters which assumption we adopt. For purposes of inquiry and discussion the incorrect one is infinitely more convenient.” That is, this completely false assumption does a lot of work – in physics and in chemistry! But what about sociology? Or even biology?

In the biological sciences of the eighteenth century, commonsense struggled hard to ignore individuality in shells and plants and animals. There was an attempt to eliminate the more conspicuous departures as abnormalities, as sports, nature’s weak moments, and it was only with the establishment of Darwin’s great generalisation that the hard and fast classificatory system broke down, and individuality came to its own. Yet there had always been a clearly felt difference between the conclusions of the biological sciences and those dealing with lifeless substance, in the relative vagueness, the insubordinate looseness and inaccuracy of the former. The naturalist accumulated facts and multiplied names, but he did not go triumphantly from generalisation to generalisation after the fashion of the chemist or physicist. It is easy to see, therefore, how it came about that the inorganic sciences were regarded as the true scientific bed-rock. It was scarcely suspected that the biological sciences might perhaps, after all, be _truer_ than the experimental, in spite of the difference in practical value in favour of the latter.

Well, there is a growing body of people who are beginning to hold the converse view–that counting, classification, measurement, the whole fabric of mathematics, is subjective and deceitful, and that the uniqueness of individuals is the objective truth. As the number of units taken diminishes, the amount of variety and inexactness of generalisation increases, because individuality tells more and more. Could you take men by the thousand billion, you could generalise about them as you do about atoms; could you take atoms singly, it may be you would find them as individual as your aunts and cousins. That concisely is the minority belief, and it is the belief on which this present paper is based.

Shades here of Asimov’s Foundation series. If only human beings existed in sufficient quantities, and we had sufficient distance from them, we could really get some nice ideal gas-law type knowledge of them. But.. they don’t.

So what then should Sociology do, if not be the physicists of society? Wells suggests that we should be on the one hand, able historians, and on the other, philosophical dreamers. The first is “the social side of history” and is already in progress, according to Wells. But the second is more like Plato, and less like Comte:

But it is in the second and at present neglected direction that I believe the predominant attack upon the problem implied by the word “sociology” must lie; the attack that must be finally driven home. There is no such thing in sociology as dispassionately considering what _is_, without considering what is _intended to be_. In sociology, beyond any possibility of evasion, ideas are facts. The history of civilisation is really the history of the appearance and reappearance, the tentatives and hesitations and alterations, the manifestations and reflections in this mind and that, of a very complex, imperfect elusive idea, the Social Idea. It is that idea struggling to exist and realise itself in a world of egotisms, animalisms, and brute matter. Now, I submit it is not only a legitimate form of approach, but altogether the most promising and hopeful form of approach, to endeavour to disentangle and express one’s personal version of that idea, and to measure realities from the stand-point of that idealisation. I think, in fact, that the creation of Utopias–and their exhaustive criticism–is the proper and distinctive method of sociology.

What do you think? Should Sociology rebrand itself a la Wells?



  1. Aaron

     /  June 23, 2010

    “Oh, if only every introductory sociology student, along with every graduate student and faculty member, kept that in mind! What a discipline we’d have!”

    A discipline like cultural studies? (I write this not in jest, I sometimes feel more at home in such an [anti] discipline). We do have ethnography though.

    • Well, I don’t know that we’d need to go that far. I think just a bit more humility in our measures, at key moments, would help. I agree with Wells – sometimes you have to do violence to their world, and mash it up into numbers. You just need to be very careful that what you are doing works for the purposes you intent, and to be careful of intended effects. For example, if we weren’t tracking gender disparities in wages, there are a whole lot of things we wouldn’t know or be able to work on fixing. But we shouldn’t take a binary measure of gender too seriously – as we know from studies of individuals and small groups, as well as big cultural systems, gender is much more complicated than that.

  2. I’m reading Schutz right now and he seems to have gone in the direction Wells advocated. Also, Blumer was a big critic of sociology’s obsession with variable analysis. Great Find! I definitely agree with Wells. Has this orientation been rare in your personal experience?

  3. Thanks for the reference to H G Wells’ essay. I hadn’t come across this before. I have always seen him as a writer with an acute sociological imagination but had no idea he had explicitly engaged with the discipline. I wonder how much of his fiction can be seen as explicitly following his idea of sociology? Or his view of sociology somehow emerging from his fictional writing perhaps. He seems to be suggesting, and I absolutely agree, that it is impossible to have a sociology without a normative basis (even if you delude yourself that you can by using variables and numbers) and so the best you can do is be upfront about what that normative basis is, what values inform your sociology. Have you read Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘Socialism: the active utopia’ by any chance? You may be interested in the reference to Wells in the page in our Public Sociology blog that attempts to explain what sociology is. It contains an excerpt from Mr. Polly that is very reminiscent of C Wright Mills description of the Sociological Imagination.