When I joined The Sociological Review in 2014 I was aware the journal had a long history. It has been published since 1908, even earlier if you count Sociological Papers as preliminary rather than predecessor, making it the oldest sociology journal in the country. But my role at the journal has been to explore how social media can be used to communicate sociological knowledge, something which feels intrinsically forward looking.
It was in this capacity that I began to look through the older issues of the journal, rapidly finding an enormous quantity of material that unsettled my sense of the discipline’s history. As I explored further I began to realise how little I actually knew about sociology’s history, with my awareness being little more than periodisations picked up from social theory texts. I realised I knew much less than I thought about the intellectual history of the discipline but I knew almost nothing about its institutional history. It is this latter question which The Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele University sheds so much light on. It contains the papers of a whole range of organisations and individuals who were instrumental in the early history of sociology. As the archive's website describes its scope:
Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography.
Since I began to look through this archive, I have found myself increasingly preoccupied by the question of what we can learn about shaping the future of sociology by looking to its past. So much of what it contains resonates with current concerns, from projects to involve the public in sociology through to debates about whether sociological writing is sufficiently scientific. There are a rich array of publications, including the journal Observation and pamphlets ranging across a dizzying selection of topics, now largely forgotten in spite of The Sociological Review itself being stronger than ever.
Many of the ambitions found in the correspondence and meeting reports are ones we still share now and it can sometimes be eery looking to these projects as someone working at The Sociological Review, with our present inspiration reflected back in the unfamiliar language of a century ago. One of the things I've found most striking was how the language used in meetings to account for legally instituting our predecessor organisations is immensely similar to the language used when The Sociological Review Foundation was established. It left me with a vivid sense of continuity, participation in what the people in these archives often talked about as the 'sociological movement', jarring though that phrase sounds in our present condition of being ensconced within the academy.
Over the next year, we intend to highlight what can be found within The Foundations of British Sociology archive. Our first step was a recent event at Keele University, with talks by David Amigoni (Keele University), Helen Burton (Keele University), Gordon Fyfe (Keele University), Rachel Hurdley (Cardiff University) and Rebecca Leach (Keele University) before we spent an afternoon working with materials we had selected from the archive. But we hope this will be just the start and invite online essays which continue these discussions, regardless of whether you were present at the event itself. The remit of the archive means our primary focus is on British sociology but we expect the feature will extend beyond this, not least of all by drawing out the connections between national sociologies. Topics for these essays might include the following, though please free to suggest ideas which are not featured here:
- What can we learn from the history of the discipline that can help us understand its present challenges?
- What forgotten stories of the discipline's early years need to be told? Whose contribution has been marginalised or overlooked?
- Is the study of British sociology's history necessarily parochial? How can we use it to explore (inter)national entanglement?
- What sense of the sociological can we find from this period prior to the existence of disciplinary sociology? How has the meaning of the sociological changed over time?
- How has British sociology been shaped by its position within universities? What did sociology outside academia look like in the early to mid 20th century and how does it compare to now?
If you'd like to contribute an essay then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and note there is no deadline for this call. As well as the blog posts, we'll be conducting interviews with scholars working on these questions and highlighting materials in the archive. We're open to other suggestions so if you have ideas about further initiatives then please get in touch using the contact address given above.