Social investigation in rural England, 1870-1914
This thesis analyses the work of a large group of social investigators who were active in rural areas in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It follows on from studies of the investigations of Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree, Henry Mayhew and others, and shows how the investigation of rural life proceeded on different lines from the urban social inquiry of the period. It is argued that the political and social conflicts between town and country, and within the rural community itself, shaped the activities of the investigators considered. The model of a conflict between the 'informant' approach (where trustworthy authorities were asked to comment on the condition of the agricultural labourer) and the 'respondent' approach (where the labourer was consulted at first hand) is used to illustrate the complexity of the structure or rural social inquiries of the period. It is shown that the kinds of information which could be obtained from the two approaches differed, and that the same event or condition could be reported on very differently from two conflicting points of view. This argument is taken a study further by an examination of another genre of writers on the agricultural labourer. It is argued that the social commentary, usually by resident investigators, which tended to be cultural rather than economic in character, was as much a part of the project of social investigation as was the large-scale official inquiry or social survey. Drawing on the work of the few historians who have seriously analysed this genre of writers in its urban context, the thesis applies an analysis of this form of investigation in rural areas. The perceived need to communicate with the rural poor on a deeper level was another aspect of the 'respondent' approach to investigation, and is as much a forerunner of modern sociological method as is the classic social survey. The thesis also shows how the representations of rural communities and of agricultural labourers in the texts of the period affected the practice of investigators, and argues that the notion of the countryside as a scene of social peace and a repository of racial hardihood caused them to approach the task of investigation with particular preconceptions which shaped their diagnoses of the problems of rural life.