Front Page Titles (by Subject) Harriet Martineau\'s Social Thought - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3
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Harriet Martineau's Social Thought - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3 
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Harriet Martineau's Social Thought
“Who Was Harriet Martineau?” Journal of the History of Sociology 3 (Spring 1981): 63–78.
At one time more popular than Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) deserves reconsideration as possibly the first woman sociologist whose social analysis of institutions resembled that of the recognized precursors of modern sociology. Riedesel gives an overview of Martineau's life and writings; argues that key elements of sociological perspective (naturalism, empiricism, and objectivity) were evident in her thinking; and concludes by outlining the specific sociological hypothesis found in her work.
Born into a Unitarian manufacturer's family in Norwich, England (a provincial center of Dissent), Harriet Martineau imbibed the Enlightenment faith in empiricism, and despite deafness and a scanty education developed her writing talents. She judged Unitarian Christianity as too metaphysical and looked to natural science for understanding. In 1831, she embarked upon a series of didactic stories to teach the principles of economics and won a huge commercial success with her Illustrations of Political Economy (a popularization of James Mill's Elements of Political Economy). She next turned her impressions of a two-year visit to America (1834–1836), which included conversations with Emerson and Channing, into the popular three volume Society in America. Partly recovering from ill health in 1844 through mesmerism, she turned out a spate of writings which continuted after she became a recluse in the 1850s. In 1851 she began her well-received two-volume translation and abridgement of Auguste Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive. Her Positive Philosophy (1853) was a tribute to Comte's “scientific” rather than “metaphysical” approach to the unification of knowledge.
Martineau's Positive Philosophy, Society in America, and Political Economy displayed naturalism, empiricism, and objectivity—three components of a sociological perspective. The world she inhabited was truly “disenchanted,” a naturalistic order governed by impersonal laws which fashioned institutions. She fused together Unitarian necessitarian doctrine with David Hartley's (1705–1757) early version of mechanistic behaviorism, which she learned from Joseph Priestley's edition of Hartley. Empiricism as opposed to idealism seemed to Martineau a sounder basis for science and progress in the social sciences. Finally, her Society in America evidences a sustained effort at objectivity in judging a foreign country by non-arbitrary standards.
Among the elements and themes of applied sociological analysis found in Martineau's works are: community, cultural integrity, structural sources of social action, and stratification. In regard to this last element, she rejected Marx's ridicule of orthodox political economy's view of society and social classes.
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