Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century.
Smelser himself harks back to his first book, Social change in the industrial revolution, first published in 1959, and comments that this return to Victorian Britain and to historically-orientated research felt like a return to his youth. But the thirty-odd years of experience in between have helped to generate a much happier outcome. That first book was deeply flawed. Much of its detailed argument has since been destroyed by historians who burrowed away in archival sources which Smelser did not use, motivated in part, no doubt, by irritation at the grandiose claims which Smelser then made for a triumphalist structural functionalism which was supposed to fill the empty boxes where the historians' theories ought to be. The new Smelser is much more effective at marrying up the characteristic virtues of the historian and the sociologist. The theory is more eclectic and less dominant, although British--and European--sociologists may find it a little old-fashioned. More importantly from a social history perspective, perhaps, Smelser's angle of vision enables him to provide an interesting, detailed and open-minded interpretation of the course of educational change, with explanations on offer for the contrasting trends in England and Ireland and the distinctive features of Scotland and Wales. The primary sources are all printed, but the labor of wading through the parliamentary debates and the Blue Books, and making sense of the results without suspending the critical faculties, must have been enormous. The chapter on the socially anomalous status of pupil-teachers, teachers and inspectors, and the conflicts to which these unclear identities gave rise, is particularly interesting and convincing, and the conclusion relates the findings to wider debates in American sociology (note the emphasis here) rather than merely summarizing. The book as a whole is complex, especially when it charts the overall pattern of change and the influences at work, but very rewarding.
Smelser does not attempt to assess the results of all this conflict and activity. He ignores the literature on literacy and popular reading habits, and does not grapple with the question of education and social mobility in the depth which should have been possible, apart from the specific issues raised by the recruitment of teachers from the working class. These thematic omissions and limitations are perhaps legitimate, but potential readers should be made aware of them. Relatedly, perhaps, important cognate themes like economic and living standards trends and social structures are treated rather crudely and superficially, and errors are made which suggest a limited wider grasp beyond the author's chosen themes. The appearances of Sir Joseph Rayner Stephens and Dr. Leon Playfair are perhaps symptomatic. And the 1870 Education Act did not withdraw all state funding from denominationally-run schools, although what it did do in this respect is a matter of more complexity than is suggested here. This is a long book--370 pages of text--and there is plenty of scope for quibbling about details. But I would prefer to end on a more positive note, emphasizing the value of the enterprise and its utility in helping both to complicate and to clarify our understanding of the important issues which are here discussed.
John K. Walton Lancaster University
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|Author:||Walton, John K.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
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