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Harriet Martineau

The Sociological Framework of Harriet Martineau Over the past twenty years, sociology has gone through a process of self-evaluation, as field researchers and observers express a wariness about the empty universalism of speculative systems and look for ways in which to secure empirical foundations that give way to meaningful application in a pluralistic, postmodern world. The survival of sociology as a critical theoretical discipline is a concern expressed by many, such as contemporary social analyst George Ritzer, who are forging new paths of application that represent a paradigm shift in this classical social legacy.
In the framework of classical sociological theory, numerous sources, including Ritzer, investigate this brave new world of unified science and empirical foundation. They are moving amidst the “theory park” of speculative philosophical systems in sociology and yet they are turning to theoretical applications such as elementarist, holistic, and interactionist approaches. This technique is employed in order to make classical social theory more meaningful and to better engage theory with useful research (Sandywell, p. 607).
An analysis of the work of author and social analyst 19th century social analyst Harriet Martineau, while simultaneously evaluating Rizter’s contemporary application of social theory indicates that Martineau was far ahead of her time in this regard. Meanwhile, Rizter and others like him are beginning to reap the benefits of her benchmark work in interactionist social theory. Martineau in the early 19th century was the first therefore to offer this interactionist approach to social-scientific thought that is not unlike the approach being applied in contemporary efforts to engage classical sociological theory in a meaningful modern construct.
Indeed, Martineau’s work reflects a pioneering perspective that cut its teeth philosophically on the emergence of evolutionary naturalism. By referring to works on classical sociological theory and other sources, one can only arrive at the conclusion that Martineau provided a conceptual framework “capable of providing an integrating paradigm for the entire field of social-psychological-cultural relations” upon which many modern social theorists have been able to put forth theories that are attuned to postmodern realities, as well. (Hutcheon 2-3). In the seminal work, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, authors note the birth of meaningful social science concurrent with Martineau’s groundbreaking social research, as they explore her attempts to “move away from subjective authorship” in order to “devise objective methods for the observation and representation of the social state” (Cooper & Murphy, p. 122). Martineau, and her contemporaries such as George Ritzer, clearly have found the means to do this through the interactionist approach.
As method researchers observe, for Martineau, and her contemporary Ritzer, aesthetic considerations are as key to their method as much as scientific observation and representation. Critics have considered both Society in America, Martineau’s most widely known work which attacks the reality/rhetoric issues confronting methodological strategy and ethnocentrism, and her foundational treatise on sociological theory in data collection, How to Observe Morals and Manners. These works were born out of Martineau’s two-year empirical study of the United States, which was published in two works, Society in America and Retrospect of Western Travel in 1837 and 1838. As social theory analyst Valerie Pichanick notes, Martineau was exploring territory only later examined by the likes of Max Weber or Karl Marx in terms of observable and unobservable, subjective versus scientific issues in the construct of social class, religion, suicide, national character, women’s status, national character and relationships between individuals and institutions. Ironically, “Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range,” Pichanick observes (111).
Martineau’s technique--as Rizter’--results in an expression of interpretation that leaps over the obstacles of theoretical approach by intertwining sociological analysis theory into a forward-moving dynamic. Ritzer, in both The McDonaldization of Society and Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society, shows evidence of application of Max Weber’s rationalization process, for example, as well as other theoretical perspectives including those of C. Wright Mills, George Simmel, and Karl Marx. But Rizter then employs these constructs to describe what he terms a “range of closely related phenomena that are sweeping across and dramatically altering… America and increasingly a large portion of the rest of the world,” as they interact (Ritzer 203). Relying on both “micro and macro analyses where individual behavior intertwines with the larger social environment, Rizter’s central view offers a correcting paradigm”, notes theoretical observer M.J. Alhabeeb, of the dilemma that has entrenched sociological theory and its application for the past two decades (Alhabeeb 77). Ritzer’s work is actually founded in the interactionist approach that Martineau pioneered, and clearly, he would recognize it as such.
The interactionist framework draws attention to the patterns in the ways people combine dispositional and situational information—in other words, it coalesces the elementarist and holistic approaches and applies them to a new construct. By identifying key dispositions expected to affect choice (elementarist), then conceptualizing strategic situations and features according to a holistic theory of images that could be expected to affect choices, the interactionist recognizes that both the dispositional perceptions and values and the theory of holistic images matter in terms of discerning and identifying theoretical patterns in the interaction of these two streams of information. “This approach integrates existing taxonomies of individual differences with existing taxonomies of strategic situations; it also involves differentiating types of people with regard to their knowledge and identifying how this moderates the complexity and subtlety with which they combine elementarist and holistic considerations in making decisions” (Mischel & Shoda 230).
In summary, the pioneering work of Harriet Martineau is clearly defined as what one would term interactionist, and as such, it elevates social theory from subjective aesthetics and objective data collection to a dynamic that can identify patterns in the engagement of elementarist and holistic elements at work in society. Rizter and others have not only identified this approach, but have also utilized it in their pioneering work to find a workable construct for exploring the unwieldiness of a complicated, postmodern society.

Works Cited

Alhabeeb, M.J. “Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 38:1 June 1997, 77-82.

Cooper, Lawrence, Cary Murphy. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Chicago: Taylor & Francis, 1996

Hutcheon, P.D. Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought. Ithaca: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996.

Mischel, Walter, and Yuichi Shoda. 1998. "Reconciling Processing Dynamics." The Annual Review of Psychology 49: 229-58.

Pichanick, Valerie. Harriet Martineau: The Woman and Her Work 1802-1876 University of Michigan Press, 1980.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life, Rev.Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1996.

Sandywell, Barry. “Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader” Sociology 32:3. Aug 1998, 607-613.


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