Harriet Martineau Essay

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Harriet Martineau’s 25 volumes of short novels illustrating the principles of political economy outsold the works of her contemporary, Charles Dickens; Martineau’s travel chronicles of nineteenth-century American society and its cultural beliefs are comparative historical accounts that have been likened to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; she authored sociology’s first systematic treatment of methodology six decades before Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method; and Martineau translated and condensed Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive, and introduced his attempt to establish a sociological science within the English-speaking world. However, the story of sociology’s emergence has been a history of men and their contributions to the formation of the discipline.

Martineau’s initial move into what would become sociology began in 1834 with her two-year travels to the USA. With Society in America (1836-7) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838b) Martineau transformed travel writing into social scientific inquiry. In these works Martineau implemented the theories outlined in her yet-unpublished method’s treatment, How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838a). She believed that any examination of society must take into account morals (i.e., cultural beliefs and values, and manners): social interaction. If a scientific observer of society seeks to understand the morals of a group, Martineau proposed that she examine the meanings of an activity for the social actor. Martineau did not propose value-neutrality on the part of the observer; however, she did propose that the researcher’s biases be acknowledged. According to Martineau, sympathy toward the actor was a skill that separated the scientific study of society from the natural sciences. (The methodological approach is similar to Weber’s verstehen.) How to Observe Morals and Manners is more than a methodological treatise; it sets social theoretical precedents. Before Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, Martineau sociologically examined social class, forms of religion, types of suicide, national character, domestic relations and the status of women, delinquency and criminology, and the intricate interrelations between repressive social institutions and the individual” (Hill 1991: 292).

Martineau’s approach to the study of American society dealt with the problem of ethnocentrism in comparative works written for a European male audience. She highlighted the importance of women’s issues as an essential component to the study of a society. Although she presumed her readers to be male, Martineau directed their attention to the study of the household and the domestic role of women in culture as necessary for a sociological study. And instead of merely comparing the USA to England, she divided her work into three volumes: political structure, economy, and a category she called civilization” that dealt with social mores and values. Martineau (1836-7) identified the moral principles that Americans claimed to hold dear, and then contrasted them to the everyday reality of life in the US to see how far the people of the United States lived up to or fell below their own theory.”


  1. Hill, M. R. (1991) Harriet Martineau. In: Deegan, M. J. (ed.), Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  2. Martineau, H. (1836-7) Society in America, 2 vols. Saunders & Otley, New York.

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