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Family Fictions and Family Facts: Harriet Martineau, Adolphe Quetelet and the Population Question in England, 1798-1859

Author(s):Cooper, Brian
Reviewer(s):Forget, Evelyn L.

Published by EH.NET (January 2008)

Brian Cooper, Family Fictions and Family Facts: Harriet Martineau, Adolphe Quetelet and the Population Question in England, 1798-1859. London: Routledge, 2007. xiv + 294 pp. $130 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-415-15058-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Evelyn L. Forget, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba.

T.R. Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population challenged social commentators in the first half of the nineteenth century with its claim that the capacity of the world to feed itself could not keep pace with population growth. What role did “family” play in the operation of the Malthusian population mechanism? Brian P. Cooper, currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, places the ensuing debate over the definition and role of family in the context of social reforms including changes in the English marriage laws and the New Poor Law of 1834. Understanding the causes of social ills and formulating appropriate policy responses required an understanding of the concept of family, but Cooper shows that contemporaries were ultimately unable to agree upon the definition of a concept that embodies both observed attributes and normative beliefs about gender, class, race and national identity.

This insightful and well-written book uses literary theory and ideas from the history of science to survey the representation of family in a range of texts including travel literature, novels, educational treatises, books of conduct, parliamentary papers and statistical accounts. The centerpiece of the analysis consists of three case studies: Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy, Adolphe Quetelet’s A Treatise on Man, and the commentary surrounding the British censuses of the early nineteenth century, especially the 1851 Census under the direction of population health expert and sanitary reformer William Farr. The visceral appeal of the book lies in Cooper’s seamless juxtaposition of Martineau’s “Cousin Marshall,” Moll Flanders and commentary on the data collection for the Census.

Cooper follows three main ideas throughout his analysis. First, he traces attempts to classify different kinds of families in order to illuminate the relationships between individuals, families and populations. Contemporaries used two main methods. Martineau, on the one hand, created “representative types” ? fictions designed to emphasize the different behaviors and outcomes of the deserving and undeserving poor. Quetelet, by contrast, invented the concept of “average man” ? a statistical aggregate no less a fiction than Martineau’s “Cousin Marshall.” Martineau’s figurative language and cavalier attitude towards what she represents as “fact” make us immediately aware that she is writing fiction, but Quetelet’s “average man, while a ‘fictitious being,’ represents ‘the facts and the phenomena which affect [man]'” (p. 155). Quetelet’s readers, however, did recognize that his categories were somewhat less natural, and a good deal less stable, than they might appear. Applied statisticians are still enamored with Quetelet’s “average man,” much as economic theorists continue to develop Harriet Martineau’s representative types.

Second, Cooper traces the role of education in these texts. Categories help to produce data to describe the social state, but they also help to generate policy responses. Quetelet, Martineau and Farr all saw a role for education. Martineau advocated moral education and education in political economy to help teach the poor their role in population growth. Quetelet challenged unseemly population heterogeneity by suggesting his subjects be educated to become more like “average man” ? “the true, the good, and the beautiful” (p. 156). Farr, however, advocates a much more interesting and subtle role for education. He, like most of the sanitary reformers, believed that social ills were not primarily the result of individual behavior but rather the consequence of environmental or ecologic causes that were not readily apparent to individuals. It was for the social reformers to investigate and, ultimately, to rectify the social causes of disease and excessive population growth. Nevertheless, he did not deny individuals agency; education could help individuals and families to understand and, perhaps, to counteract the social causes of their distress. I will return to this theme of agency below.

Cooper’s third theme is the development of ways to observe, represent and, ultimately, to reform social conditions. The concept of family, he argues, is central to the development of the social sciences and we can see in the different approaches adopted by Martineau and Quetelet on the one hand, and Farr on the other, the divergence between political economy and sociology that would grow over the next century.

This third theme is intimately related to the idea of agency. Family is a concept that gave, and continues to give, social scientists difficulty because it highlights the question of agency. The representations of individuals and families in the work of Martineau and Quetelet are consistent with the central idea of individual agency that was fundamental to political economy. Both Quetelet and Martineau created fictional families and fictional individuals that, no matter how well or how badly they conformed to the social “facts,” were designed to underscore the agency of the individual. If individual circumstances are to change, then individuals have to change and, perhaps more importantly, individuals have it within their capacity to change. Farr, by contrast, downplayed the idea of individual agency and suggested that individuals and families are who they are and do what they do because of the circumstances that govern their lives, including where they live and how much money they have. To change the individual, one must change the environment ? fix the water supply, build the sewers, clean up the housing and the streets, and provide adequate subsistence so that individuals and families can make better decisions. The central problem, in Farr’s estimation, was how one could intervene in a way that improved the capacity of families to make better choices without creating disincentives for individuals and families to work and to strive to better their own conditions. It is not a surprise to learn that Farr was no more successful at solving this problem than the social scientists that followed him.

Defining family is at the heart of the divergence between Martineau and Quetelet on the one hand, and Farr on the other. Do we aggregate the representative individuals of Martineau or the average men (and women and boys and girls) of Quetelet into equally fictional families that embody our conceptions of the ideal? Or do we begin by imagining we can collect data that reflect how people really live in the world as Farr would have it? And if the latter, can we escape from imposing our notions of how the family ought to be as we choose how we will collect and categorize data? Both approaches ultimately leave the concept of the family a mixture of observed attributes and normative beliefs about gender, class, race, ethnicity and national identity.

Cooper’s book ends with a recognition that the problem of defining family is one that still bedevils us, whether we are considering reproductive law or gay marriage. Defining what a family “is” depends very much on what one believes a family “should be.” No social scientist who attempts to understand the world of real flesh and blood people can ignore the classification difficulties that the concept of family continues to place in our path. Brian Cooper has written a fine book, based on his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, which will give all of us plenty to think about, whether we are primarily interested in the representation of gender and family in the early nineteenth century, or whether our interests tend to epistemological and methodological matters.

Evelyn L. Forget is Professor of Economics in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada. She has published a number of books, papers and articles in the history of economic thought and in population health, and is currently working on a study of the North American Guaranteed Annual Income social experiments of the 1960s and 1970s.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century