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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/October 1886/Le Play's Studies in Social Phenomena

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | October 1886


WHILE George Eliot was still a writer of essays, she complained that the "psychology of the lower classes" was misunderstood by nearly all who had to do with them, from legislators to novelists. She therefore said approvingly, in reviewing the works of W. H. Riehl, that he was "first of all a pedestrian, and only in the second place a political author." In literature, the work of portraying truly the lower classes has since been prosecuted with zeal by herself and others; but social science still shuns methodic observation.

The number of social facts is so nearly infinite that many have lacked the courage even to begin the work of collecting them. Frederic Le Play was a man who had the courage.

Not a few of the French economists and students of social science have received their early training in the polytechnic schools of Paris. The lesson which their early education seems usually to have taught them most thoroughly is that of the omnipotence of the human reason; they have too often attempted to reform the world by a dead-lift effort of the intellect. The lesson, however, which Le Play derived from his training in the School of Mines and applied to his work in the study of society was that of the vital importance of observation and analysis. His life in theory-breeding Paris only convinced him that social theorizing was the curse of the French people. In 1824 he came to the metropolis, being then in his eighteenth year, and as during his long life, which lasted till 1882, he watched the kaleidoscopic history of France, he was more and more confirmed in this opinion. After the fall of Napoleon III, he pointed significantly to the fact that during less than one hundred years France had had ten different forms of government—each one set up and overthrown with bloodshed. Horrified by the carnage of the July Revolution of 1830, Le Play vowed to devote himself to the restoration of "social stability and peace"; and turned a large share of his splendid and effective energy to the study of social problems. A new method was developed, a new school was founded, his followers are still vigorously prosecuting the work along lines which he marked out, and the publications of their societies already number some fifty volumes.

As a mineralogist, Le Play's work was to analyze minerals; as a student of social science, he observed men, and strove to analyze at their very source the influences that shape society. In this work he strove, with all sincerity, to be unbiased by preconceived ideas, and he prepared for and began it merely by practicing what he calls "the art of traveling." In order to complete his studies in the School of Mines, it was necessary for him to make personal observations of some extensive mining district, and, having obtained the means of prolonging his journey beyond the time actually required for mineralogy, he set out, in company with his friend Jean Renaud, for the Harz Mountains and the plains of Saxony. For six months, in 1829, they indulged in an energetic note-taking tramp. But in addition to mineralogy they studied what has been termed "the natural history of German life." Their route was through districts which are part of the territory that Riehl afterward tramped over, and, like the author of "Land und Leute," Le Play recognized the fact that he was studying "history incarnate." The two friends were calculated to be profitable companions, each for the other, because they disagreed almost perfectly as to the interpretation that should be put upon the facts observed. Le Play says that they both became convinced that "the social question" was more complicated than they had at first supposed. But he adds: "I was confirmed in my thought that the solution was to be found in a great measure in the customs of the past. My friend, on the contrary, maintained his belief in the doctrine of 'continual progress,' and, in general, in the importance which in this matter, as in all others, he attached to the spirit of change." Thus we see that Le Play had hardly succeeded in divesting himself of preconceived ideas as completely as he seems to have thought. Though beginning with certain prejudices, and though he collected, before he had pursued his studies far, a most formidable array of theories, yet the paramount need of observation was always his fundamental idea. The methods employed by Le Play and his companion of studying the different facts in which they were interested varied according to circumstances. At times they established stations for study (les stations d'étude) near the mines, or factories, or families of laborers, or social authorities (autorités sociales) that they desired to learn of. From here they made excursions into the immediate neighborhood to learn more definitely of the local influences that had to do with with the community they were studying. These were supplemented by geological explorations, by more extended explorations of the whole district, and finally by rapid journeys to entirely different districts and new fields of work. "The art of traveling" was with Le Play indeed an art.

His trip through the Harz Mountains and the surrounding districts was useful to him in two ways: First, his researches as a mineralogist were such as to make him at once prominent in that department and insure his continued usefulness to his government; while, secondly, he had had his liking for social investigation heightened and his ideas regarding the proper method of prosecuting these studies rendered more definite. On his return to Paris he took up his studies at once in the laboratory and in the tenement-houses; and so diligently were his researches subsequently carried on that there is hardly an important section of Europe which he did not finally visit. From Sheffield to the Ural Mountains, and from Norway even across the strait to Tangier, he prosecuted his studies regarding the lives and habits of the peasants and laborers, trying always not only to learn definitely of their environment and industrial life, but trying also to understand their thoughts and their mode of thinking. He considers the family the social unit, and is ever reiterating the idea that as the mineralogist studies the different minerals, or the botanist the different kinds of plants, so the student of social science must examine and analyze the individual families. To obtain systematic and cumulative results he developed a fixed method of observation, and a fixed terminology for recording the facts observed; thus rendering the work, even of different men, definite and comparable. All the facts regarding a given family were to be recorded in a monograph prepared according to an unvarying model. The first sixteen divisions of each monograph are always the same; the facts regarding any family are to be marshaled under these rubrics. Under the head of "General Description" the first five of these are grouped and include—1. Character of the soil, labor, and people; 2. Civil status of the family; 3. Religion and moral habits; 4. Hygiene and healthfulness; 5. Social station of the family. Then, under "Means of Existence," are grouped three of the subdivisions as follows: 6. Property; 7. Subventions; 8. The tasks of the different members of the family. Next, under "Manner of Existence," come—9. Food and meals; 10. House, furniture, and clothing; 11. Recreations. Finally, under the division "History of the Family," we find: 12. Principal phases of its history; 13. Customs and institutions assuring the physical and moral well-being of the family; 14. Budget of receipts for the year; 15. Budget of expenses for the year; 16. Family accounts annexed to the budgets. Beyond the sixteenth division we find grouped the "noteworthy facts concerning the community or the family," and here the subdivisions are allowed to vary according to the exigencies of each case.

The mere scrap of a hotel bill found in Falstaff's pocket tells much concerning the character of the "valiant knight"; and when we remember that in these budgets of expenses and receipts which Le Play prepared there is apparently nothing omitted which can throw light on the character and condition of the family, we see how suggestive and useful such a system of social and industrial photography might become in the hands of skillful workmen. All sources of receipts are enumerated, including the house-work of the women, and whatever work may be performed by the children. The production of values in use is reckoned at its estimated worth, but the actual receipts and disbursements of money are kept separate. The classification of the expenses is especially suggestive. The expenses for provisions are classed under seven heads, beginning with cereals and concluding with fermented liquors. Next come the expenses for dwelling and the incidentals of heat and light; then follows the expenditure for clothing; while after this are placed the items of expense for religious purposes, for the instruction of the children, for alms, for recreations and festivals, and for health service. The list of expenses is concluded with the outlays necessitated by the work done, by the interest on debts, by taxes, and by insurance. When, in looking over these systematized account-books, we find that a certain Parisian tailor spends two hundred and ninety-five francs for alcoholic liquors, besides six hundred and eight francs spent in hobnobbing at the cabaret, lost at gaming, etc., we are not surprised to find that he spends nothing for religion, but thirty-four francs for education, twenty francs in charity, and saves nothing whatever. The facts taken together tell us very plainly of his character, and, remembering that Le Play made it a point to study none but typical families, we are brought face to face with some "temperance statistics" of a most suggestive kind. We may also see at a glance the difference in economic condition between the semi nomadic herdsmen of the Ural Mountains where a family consumes seventy-eight per cent of the products of its own labor and the condition of a watchmaker of Geneva, who, assisted at his trade by his wife, consumes only two per cent of the result of their joint labor without exchanging it for money. With the herdsmen the problem of the distribution of the fruits of labor is unimportant, but with the mechanic it is all-important.

With this patient thoroughness Le Play studied some three hundred families in various parts of Europe; and it was while performing this prodigious work that his methods and theories took shape. In 1855 was published the first edition of his greatest work, "Les Ouvriers Européens." It contained thirty-six (afterward fifty-seven) of the most representative monographs. In January, 1856, the French Academy conferred upon him the Monthyon prize for statistics, and at the suggestion of the Academy there was founded the Société Internationale des Études Pratiques d'Économie Sociale (International Society for Practical Studies in Social Economy). The first article of the statutes of this society declares that its especial purpose is "to determine by the direct observation of facts the physical and moral condition, in all countries, of those engaged in manual labor, and their relations to each other and to those in other classes." The society is to offer prizes to members or outsiders for the preparation of monographs of special value. Before acceptance all papers or reports are discussed by the society, but the regulations forbid the discussion of any theory not based on observed facts; any one violating this rule may be called to order by the president.

In this organization have gathered all those specially interested in the work of social investigation as planned by Le Play, and from it have radiated the various lines of influence along which the work has been prosecuted. Its founder began in cold blood the writing of a library, and the society has carried forward this work most energetically. They have published already five volumes of monographs, and that the series is not intended to be soon finished is shown by the title "Les Ouvriers des Deux Mondes" ("The Laborers of Two Worlds"). Another series of publications, "Bulletins des Séances," has reached the eighth volume, and the miscellaneous publications of the individual members are numerous. French consuls, interested in the work, have carried it forward in the remotest parts of the earth. One monograph of the series describes a Chinese peasant community of Ningpo-fou; and the last volume contains an interesting monograph prepared by M. Gauldré-Boileau, the French consul-general at New York, picturing a family of French peasants of Sainte-Irenée, in Lower Canada. As early as 1870 the reports of their discussions contain a consideration of the customs of the Chinese and their emigration to California.

In 1872 Les Unions de la Paix Sociale were founded, an organization intended to be far-reaching and calculated as well for propaganda as for study. Each union is located wherever there may be a group of persons interested in Le Play's theories or methods; local investigations are undertaken, questions pertaining to their work discussed, and through a "correspondent" intimate relations are maintained with the district unions and the central union at Paris. The central union dines monthly, and listens to a synopsis of the month's correspondence. The membership of the organizations has aggregated as many as thirty-five hundred persons."La Réforme Sociale," a semimonthly review, serves as organ for both the unions and the Société d'Économie Sociale.[1]

Under the patronage of the Abbé de Tourville and others, there have also been developed courses of lectures designed to give instruction to university students or others who may be interested in the "method of observation" and the "art of traveling." Le Play admired greatly the English custom of supplementing university training by a period spent in travel, and hoped, by systematic effort, to develop a similar habit in France. Six courses of lectures in this department have been offered in a single year, which have been attended by about one hundred persons. Some of the students, on completing these courses, have been provided with means to put in practice the precepts taught them, and have gone to other countries to study history, or commerce, or politics.

"The dominant characteristic of my work has been," says Le Play, "the accumulation of innumerable facts, and the incessant gathering together of inductions and conclusions." He tells how, after more than ten years of patient though enthusiastic investigation, he began to wonder how it chanced that in the department of social science he had made none of those discoveries that, in the field of mineralogy, had brought him some renown. Then the thought occurred to him that "in social science there is nothing to invent." And thus the phenomenal Frenchman, who had aspired to be an economist without a theory, proceeded to saddle himself with an assumption as arbitrary as any to which an investigator could well enslave himself. Yet we may notice that acceptance of it need not in any way limit one's activity as a collector of facts, for if there is nothing to invent there must be much to find. But Le Play would not even permit himself to say that he had discovered the truths which he came to believe in, but only that he had refound them. "For," he added, "in social science there is nothing new save what has been forgotten." If only one be an expert quarrier, it matters not whether he supposes himself working at the base of a ruined pyramid or in ledges of living rock. But it is easy to see that, while Le Play was entirely confident that his opinions were the outgrowth of observation, yet in reality his methods of observation were largely shaped by his tenaciously held opinions.

This is still more evident when we come to examine the details of his beliefs and his methods. Wherever he looked he found but two things that are really essential to human happiness: the first is the means of subsistence, the other knowledge of the moral law. Whatever social organization insures these two things to all the members of society, thereby insures to them happiness and peace. The moral law is derived from the nature of man and from the decalogue, which formulates and completes it. He arranges, in parallel columns, "The Decalogue of the Hebrews" and "The Decalogue of the Chinese"

(gleaned in the latter case from no less than six different writers), to show that they are virtually the same. He denominates it the "Eternal Decalogue," and declares that obedience to it is the first essential of social organization. He enumerates seven essentials to the upbuilding of the social edifice. The first, as stated, is the decalogue, and this, with the second, paternal authority, are the two foundation-stones that must be permanent and inseparable. What he calls the "two cements" are religion and the authority of the state; while the "three materials" are the three forms of land-holding, communal, individual, and tributary.

Surely, Le Play is to be classed with "the social architects," yet he and his followers have always inveighed against "the dogmatists of '89," against the Saint-Simonians, the Fourierites, and all others who believed that they had "discovered" the perfect society while groping amid the shadows of an idealized antiquity, or through the cloudlands of their inner consciousness. The "golden age" in which Le Play believed was not of the past only, nor of the future only, but exists whenever and wherever a people fears God and keeps his commandments. His elaborate specifications regarding "the essential organization" of society claim to be only descriptions of what is always found in a society where peace and happiness obtain. He had labored long and faithfully at the task of social analysis, and, when at length he turned to the work of synthesis, it was his firm conviction that in the three volumes, "L'Organisation du Travail," "L'Organisation de la Famille," and "La Constitution Essentielle de l'Humanité," he did nothing more than bring together the influences which rigidly scientific investigation had proved to be the indispensable sources of man's welfare. Among all the races that enjoy social peace and stability he found the solidarity of the family intact; he found that this form of organization gave the best opportunity for the effective training of the children in the moral law; and he concluded that the chaotic and unsatisfactory condition of the foremost nations of Europe resulted from the breaking down of the almost patriarchal system in which he was learning to believe, from the "infinite morselization" (morcellement infini) of interests, from that division of labor which compels the father of a family to be too much of a drudge ever to be a guide, and leaves his children's education to the precarious chances of right management at the hands of various sorts of specialists. He dared to say flatly, for his own country, that her politics and social state were the most unsettled in Europe because her morals were the worst, that her laborers were restless and dissatisfied because they were vicious, because "the system of adultery, instituted with éclat at the court of Versailles, had led to the public concubinage which now desolates the Parisian workshops."

A remedy for existing evils, he believed, could not be found by ingenious theorizing, but only by the development and application of whatever is sound and true in the tradition-wealth of each people. In his thought social organization was an art rather than a science. Though many of the legislative remedies he advocated may seem to us peculiarly trivial and inapplicable, yet we must remember that he regarded laws as merely aids to right development, and for the most part sought to ingraft upon existing French legislation only such special features as had been found helpful elsewhere. By changing the laws of inheritance, or giving more power to the fathers of families, one can not bring again the reign of primitive simplicity. For, despite Le Play's denial, we are not in all respects "the same that our fathers have been." Even though it were admitted that the moral law change not, yet the means of procuring daily bread do surely change, and that continually, and in some measure "invention" must be used in social science to find the proper way of fitting society to the changed and changing situation.

But, in spite of all defects, two special merits belong to Le Play's work in social science. The first is, that he insisted on studying concrete, not abstract "society"; he employed the statistical method. It has been said, to be sure, that "figures always lie"; and certainly charts and diagrams, and brace-synopses that profess to set forth social facts, either past or present, should be accepted with profoundest caution. They are things to be used as Spencer uses them in his "Descriptive Sociology," not as being in themselves final results, but only as a means that may help us in reaching results more nearly final. Social facts are too intangible to make it possible to bottle and label them, once for all, as one may chemicals. The per cent "lost in analysis" is always too large to allow the results to be taken as final. But, after all this has been acknowledged, there remain manifest advantages from even "approximate determinations." Though the methods are not perfect, they are the best that social science has, the only ones that make continuous progress possible. The great mass of work done or inspired by Le Play has already been of use to many students not of his school. Laspeyres has classified and compared his "budgets" with valuable results, and the omnivorous German statisticians have, of course, made use of them.

But, aside from right method and patient accumulation of social data, Le Play should, in the second place, be remembered as one who dared to question the seductive finalities of what claims to be economic orthodoxy; who, in turning from the study of abstractions to the study of men,"refound" the need of insisting always upon not only the social and sociologic, but also upon the economic importance of morality and regard for fellow-man.

  1. In 1885 a disagreement occurred between the leaders, and Demolins, a prominent lecturer, for some time the editor of "La Réforme Sociale," withdrew in company with others and began to publish "La Science Sociale," which also claims to follow the method of Le Play.