Abstract

This article examines emerging concepts of objectivity in the work of Harriet Martineau and Henry Mayhew. It focuses on Martineau's How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) and Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861), documenting how ideas about objectivity appeared in journalism and popular writing by these two prolific nineteenth-century social commentators.

Introduction

Lurid depictions of the lives of the urban poor were a striking feature of Victorian newspapers, from Henry Mayhew's letters in the Morning Chronicle to W. T. Stead's “Maiden Tribute” in the Pall Mall Gazette (Devereaux 2000). Simultaneously titillating the sensibilities of the middle class and exposing real social injustices, newspapers sold copies by exploiting sensationalized narratives of trembling virgins and innocent children, wild-eyed drunks and child pickpockets, proud but impoverished elders and morally ambiguous mothers. The purported goal was to sensitize readers to the “reality” of poverty, highlighting both the need for moral continence on the part of the poor and the rescue provided by the philanthropist. Along the way, the social practices and legal framework responsible for some of the misery might come in for criticism, and, for at least some writers, changing legislation was an explicit goal.

This article examines the legacy of two prolific contributors to various genres of popular literature depicting urban poverty, Harriet Martineau and Henry Mayhew. Both Martineau and Mayhew were, at various points in their lives, working journalists. Mayhew first conceived London Labour and the London Poor as a series of letters to the Morning Chronicle. Martineau contributed regularly to newspapers throughout her career and became a regular correspondent for the Daily Mail in 1852. Both authors have also been characterized as pioneers of ethnography who contributed to the emerging methods of social observation. Both believed narrative to be an important tool of social reform, and, because unadorned reality was too complex to generate a satisfying story, both moved fluidly between fiction and documentation. And the story was paramount. Mary Poovey (1995: 132–33) has argued that, among Victorian writers, “fiction claimed authority over emotional knowledge, while economics claimed authority over empirical knowledge.” However, Mayhew and Martineau were sophisticated enough to recognize that “fiction” and “empirical knowledge” were far from mutually exclusive, and they each built their legacies in slightly different ways by playing at the intersection. This article examines how two equally prolific and influential yet very different people worked at a key historical point when social science is just beginning to emerge as a discipline from the genre of popular journalism.

Of the two, Martineau made a greater effort to acknowledge when she wrote “fiction” or “observation” or “theory,” and she left behind a surprisingly sophisticated methodological treatise called How to Observe Morals and Manners, which has not been well acknowledged in the secondary literature. A rare exception is a chapter by Patricia Madoo Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge (2014), “The Meaning of ‘Things,’” which compares Martineau's theories with Émile Durkheim's. Martineau's book is also briefly discussed by Michael Hill in the essay collection Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines (Sanders and Weiner 2017). This little text, just over a hundred pages long, makes it clear that Martineau was aware of some of the greatest challenges of qualitative analysis and took conscious steps to ensure that her contributions were as little influenced by her unique and personal perspective as an observer as she could make them.

Mayhew, by contrast, characterized everything he wrote as artless reportage, a claim not entirely supported by either his product or his methods. Trying to disentangle Mayhew the social scientist from Mayhew the storyteller from Mayhew as retold by others is a more challenging task. There is a distinction in Mayhew's work that has not been acknowledged in the secondary literature, between the first three single-authored volumes of London Labour and the London Poor and the fourth (coauthored) volume, published many years later. It is in the fourth volume that Mayhew the social scientist appears, with a categorization that shapes the random, and very personal, storytelling of the first three volumes into a methodologically sophisticated social treatise. However, that sophistication comes at a cost: Mayhew's positionality is clear in the first three volumes. He is a reporter—an outsider—bringing a specific perspective to observation, and he assumes throughout that he shares that perspective with his readers. In volume 4, his positionality recedes into the background, and the charts and tables bring a distance to observation that encourages readers to believe that, somehow, what is reported is not influenced by the perspective of the observer. This academic distance that would be called into question a century later was just beginning to take shape in social observation as they wrote (Pels 2014).

Both Martineau and Mayhew wrote in a period in which ideas of objectivity were rapidly being transformed, and both contributed to the ways that social scientists would come to understand objectivity and their roles as expert observers for the next century and a half.

Emerging Concepts of Objectivity

As Martineau and Mayhew observed the London poor, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets, lectures, and popular communications of all types were creating an opportunity for moral philosophers—nascent social scientists—to explore developing notions of “objective” ethnography alongside the entertainment and education they peddled. How closely did Mayhew's reports on the cholera epidemic that appeared in the Morning Chronicle represent empirical reality? How successful was Martineau at transcending the perspectives and moral judgment associated with her own class background? The trade-offs were challenging, and the monetary incentives associated with storytelling significant. The contributions of Martineau and Mayhew illustrate the struggle in which moral philosophers in the first half of the nineteenth century engaged with evolving ideas of scientific objectivity, ethical relativism, and sympathy in the context of advocacy for social reform.

Lorraine Daston (1992; Daston and Galison 2021) has documented the historical development of the concept of objectivity, distinguishing between ontological objectivity, which relates to the fit between theory (or story) and the real world; “mechanical” objectivity, which describes the conscious attempts to remove obvious personal bias expected of an expert observer; and a more abstract and sophisticated form of “aperspectival” objectivity. Aperspectival objectivity, she argues, is sought by observers through the use of a variety of empirical practices designed to remove the perspective of the reporter from the results reported. One such practice is Adam Smith's use of the impartial spectator in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Daston claims that the concept of aperspectival objectivity emerged first in the aesthetic and philosophical literature of the eighteenth century and spread to natural sciences only in the mid-nineteenth century.

In practice, these three aspects of objectivity are often less than distinct, and the feasibility of aperspectival objectivity has been heavily contested (Kukla 2008; Tannoch-Bland 1997). That which Daston refers to as mechanical objectivity is, as she claims, sometimes no more than the attempt to eliminate obvious personal bias, but it is also sometimes a way of attempting to take concrete steps toward developing aperspectival objectivity. If removing the particular perspective of the observer from the report is the goal, what behaviors and preparation on the part of the observer are necessary? Both Mayhew and Martineau worked hard to represent the reality of urban poverty—that is, to achieve ontological objectivity. To do that, they tried to report results that encompassed more than their own reflections, and both used specific behavioral techniques to do so. Mayhew's methods are implicit, but Martineau was quite explicit in describing the necessary preparation and activities of a good observer.

There is a (somewhat unconvincing) secondary literature that attributes to Mayhew some of these methods, notwithstanding the detail-ridden and very personal nature of the anecdotes he reports (Green 2002). There is no parallel claim that Martineau used similar tools, yet she published a methodological treatise in 1838 that reflected her growing awareness of the complexity of observation. How to Observe Morals and Manners is a systematic approach to field observation that made a good faith attempt to deal with the some of the most challenging aspects of qualitative analysis, despite her more than occasional inability to apply the methods that might have allowed her to escape from her class and personal background. That growing methodological awareness characterized not only her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34) and Paupers and Poor Laws Illustrated (1833–34), both of which were written before How to Observe Morals and Manners, but also her newspaper and periodical articles and even her novels. She always knew exactly what she was trying to do, no matter the venue for which she was writing.

Martineau on the Methods of Observation

From her first publication in 1821 at the age of nineteen until her death at age seventy-four, Martineau produced over seventy volumes, dozens of periodical articles, and over two thousand newspaper articles and letters. Her first significant work was Illustrations of Political Economy, with the first volume released in February 1832 and the ninth in 1834. Finding a publisher was an arduous task. R. K. Webb (1960) reports that Martineau shopped some sample tales to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1831, but they were rejected, allegedly because of their “dullness.” This is confirmed in Martineau's (2007: 148) Autobiography. The series was ultimately published by Charles Fox, convinced by Martineau to take a chance on her work after a long and exhausting quest.

She was one of the first to attempt to teach the principles of political economy in the form of short and didactic fictional tales,1 and the initial volume was first offered in a print run of fifteen hundred copies because few sales were expected. In the event, her monthly sales reached well over ten thousand, outselling Charles Dickens by a wide margin (Freedgood 1999: 213). The outsize success of this format subsequently encouraged Lord Brougham to commission her to write Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833–34), using a similar format, which was published under the “superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” By then, the society had recognized the opportunity missed when it passed on the Illustrations. Illustrations of Political Economy was an unprecedented success, and from the date of the initial sales she “never had any other anxiety about employment than what to choose, nor any real care about money” (Martineau 2007: 148).

Martineau never had any doubt about the importance of her work or the usefulness of her technique. In the preface to the Illustrations, Martineau (1834: xiv) acknowledged that economic principles could be very well explained by “dry argument,” but “a tale of the troubles, and difficulties, and changes of good and evil fortune” will illustrate the principle equally well, and “may be made interesting besides.” The challenge, of course, is whether a reader would recognize the truth embodied in a fictional tale, or imagine it as merely the “offspring of an uncontrolled imagination” (Martineau 1833: vol. 1, no. 1, The Parish). Martineau confronts this in the preface to Poor Laws and Paupers, where she “beg[s] to state that all that is most melancholy in my story is strictly true. I have unquestionable authority in the Reports of the Poor-Law Commissioners, and the testimony of others . . . and I have taken no pains to select the worst” (The Parish).

It was, however, in a later book that Martineau clarified her methods of observation, each designed to enhance the objectivity of the observer of human subjects. Martineau drafted How to Observe Morals and Manners in 1834 during a six-week sea voyage to America, and published it in full in 1838 after her return. The short book has been described as “the earliest explicit treatment of sociological methods and social research” (Hoecker-Drysdale 2011: 64). Nevertheless, there seems to be little historical evidence that the volume has had much impact.

Martineau argues that the observer is to be impartial, sympathetic, and critical of the social order. She urges the observer to pay attention to things rather than people, treating evidence from human discourse as secondary. This imparts a stylistic distance in her observations, and some critics have sought reasons for this distance more fundamental than her stated desire to be impartial. For example, Abigail Mann and Kathleen Béres Rogers (2011: 241) argue that Martineau used her deafness, gender, and illnesses to effectively create a “cyborg self,” making use of a series of devices including her ear trumpet, the telescope, and “various theoretical constructs” that separated her from the world she described. Mann and Béres Rogers correctly identify the subjective distance that characterizes Martineau's analyses, although the source to which they attribute that distance might be questioned. One certainly never gets the impression that Martineau would discuss politics over tea with one of the characters in Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated, even if they were real people.

Martineau subordinated the individuality of her subjects and witnesses to the characterization of ideal types, and even subordinated interaction with people to the study of “things,” so as not to be misled by the “discourse, the opinions, the feelings, the way of life, the looks, dress, and manners” of diverse individuals. If conversations with people were the only source of data, she noted, a scientist “might still afford important contributions to science by his observations on as wide a variety of these as he can bring within his mental grasp,” and over time “the experience of a large number of observers would . . . yield materials from which a cautious philosopher might draw conclusions” (Martineau 1838: 8–9). However, rather than, for example, drawing conclusions about religious practice in a community by talking in turn to random individuals, “a much shorter and surer method is, to examine the Places of Worship, the condition of the Clergy, the Popular Superstitions, the observance of Holy Days, and some other particulars of the kind” (80).

Another of the methods Martineau believed could be used to generalize is to base conclusions on data, collected and presented carefully enough to rely on the law of large numbers. Both Mayhew and Martineau collected data, but the data are of very different types. Martineau considers how one can use data to draw general conclusions about big issues. Concerning health, for example, she waxes eloquent about the potential usefulness of routinely collected data:

A faithful register of births, marriages, and deaths, is wished for by enlightened philanthropists . . . as a test of national morals and the national welfare. . . . For this the physiologist waits as the means of determining the physical condition of the nation; as a guide to him in suggesting and prescribing the methods by which the national health may be improved, and the average of life prolonged. (Martineau 1838: 163)

Alas, there is in all countries “an insufficiency of records framed for the purpose of induction, and subsequent practical use,” and even among the most “civilized” people, there are “few skilled in the art of constructing tables, and ascertaining averages” (165). In the absence of such data, other “things” can be examined, such as a cemetery wherein an observer might record the dates from the first thirty tombstones in order to make inferences about the comparative health and life expectancy of the local inhabitants (166). One could draw very different inferences about population health and the lives of inhabitants from evidence that the majority of inhabitants die young rather than old, or that most people die suddenly rather than from a lingering chronic condition. A nation where most people seem to live their full lives and then die in late maturity is different in many ways from a nation with a large child mortality, or one where young men die in their prime.

None of this ensures aperspectival objectivity, of course, but Martineau imagines using data in ways that go far beyond illustrating immediate conditions. The best way to understand populations is to study not people but things—institutions, registers, newspapers, cemeteries, clergy, churches, because “prevalent virtues and vices are the result of gigantic general influences” (40).

Try as she might, however, Martineau is still faced with the limitations any observer brings to the study. She acknowledges the human limitations of those who observe, wondering to what extent a “Shaker of New England” might be a good judge of “the morals and manners of the Arab” or a “gipsy” of “the monk of La Trappe” (Martineau 1838: 17). She acknowledges that true impartiality requires that “an observer . . . should be himself perfect” (40). Since no one meets such criteria, it is essential to cultivate “sympathy,” or the ability to imagine oneself into the position of others. Unlike the geologist who “may have a heart as hard as the rocks he shivers, and yet succeed . . . an observer of morals and manners will be liable to deception at every turn, if he does not find his way to hearts and minds” (41). Any observer who can cultivate this “untrammeled and unreserved” sympathy can meet Daston's test of aperspectival objectivity, and Martineau's use of fiction was designed specifically to awaken sympathy in the hearts of readers.

In theory, Martineau understood a great deal about methods of observation. In practice, she sometimes fell well short. She was a careful observer of those marginalized by existing institutional structures. For example, she paid great attention to the conditions in which women lived and worked, because “the traveler everywhere finds woman treated as the inferior party in a compact in which both parties have an equal interest. . . . The degree of the degradation of woman is as good a test as the moralist can adopt for ascertaining the state of domestic morals in any country” (174). Similarly, she maintained strong support for the abolition of slavery and was critical of all institutions that perpetuated the injustice. Her vivid full-length 1840 novel, The Hour and the Man: A Historical Romance, begins with a slave uprising in St. Domingo in 1791, and follows Toussaint l'Ouverture as he struggles with lingering loyalty to the royalist cause and leadership of the liberated slaves. It is worth noting that this novel is very different in tone than the moralistic tales that constitute Illustrations of Political Economy. Like the tales, it is very clearly a work of fiction but based on real life and designed, quite explicitly, to encourage support for abolition.

Martineau addressed personal bias, managing (most of the time) to set aside the trappings of religion, for example, to see that there are many ways to achieve similar ends—yet she has much to say about the evils of celibacy among clergy. She did not always escape from her class and personal background. It was clear to her that social evolution would lead to principles very similar to her own, as wisdom grows among the “ignorant and deluded”:

When the Ashantee offers a human sacrifice, it is in order to secure blessings from his gods. . . . When the Georgian planter buys and sells slaves, he goes on the supposition that he is preserving the order and due subordination of society. All these notions are shown by philosophy to be narrow, superficial and mistaken. They have been outgrown by many, and are doubtless destined to be outgrown by all; but acted upon by the ignorant and deluded, they are very different from the wickedness which is perpetrated against better knowledge. (Martineau 1838: 25–26)

The point of all of this is not that she successfully developed and used techniques to achieve aperspectival objectivity, which is impossible in any case, but that she was aware that useful observation required more of the observer than an ear for a good story. It required enough insight into others to recognize their interests and limitations, and enough insight into oneself to imagine the impact that one's own experiences might have on the material observed.

Mayhew and the Particulars of Poverty in London

Where Martineau intentionally created a distance between herself and the society she observed by underplaying the significance of individual people, Mayhew celebrated the individual, the peculiar and unique circumstance of each life, and used the words of memorable, but not necessarily representative, witnesses to capture the essence of a conversation. He focused on the particular rather than the general, with a hope that a well-selected individual story might reveal more about a situation than even a well-constructed table of “averages.” Both Martineau and Mayhew collected numbers and statistics, but used them in very different ways. Martineau gleaned data from rolls and registers that she used to infer generalities about the society she observed, while Mayhew used numbers to immerse the reader in a particular event. He recorded the capital stock of a particular costermonger, the rental price of a barrow in Bethnal Green, and the markup on eels on a Tuesday, but all the incredible detail in his reports has the effect of a photograph, creating a sense of place rather than facilitating the kind of generalizations Martineau sought.

Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor was originally conceived as a series of letters to the Morning Chronicle detailing life in the wake of a cholera outbreak in central London. It was, however, only when Mayhew left the Chronicle that these articles conformed to the shape that would ultimately be collected into three volumes in 1851. In 1861, they were republished together with a fourth volume, coauthored with Bracebridge Hemyng, John Binny, and Andrew Halliday, which gathered and enhanced some of the tables and statistics from the first three volumes and was written in an altogether more analytic style than volumes 1 through 3. The interviews that formed the basis for London Labour and the London Poor were conducted in the 1840s and retailed by Mayhew (and many others, both legally and otherwise) in a variety of forms, including spoken word and lectures. Throughout all his work, Mayhew displayed an acute understanding of his various audiences and the impact of his words.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (1971: 307) has characterized London Labour and the London Poor as “one of the great social documents of Victorian England.” The document had multiple progeny. Chris Louttit (2006) describes its “novelistic aftermath,” while Bryan Green (2002) documents its role as a key ethnographic text. Still others used the work to illustrate particular venues and occupations, such as criminal behavior and sex work (Beier 2005; Erwin 2005; Ghosh 2018). Victorian reformers drew inspiration from its pages, and the mutual influence of Dickens and Mayhew has spawned a lengthy scholarly literature far too nuanced to sort out here (cf. Sucksmith 1969; Mayhew 2012; Wolff 1996; Cotsell 2013; Dunn 1970; Butwin 1976; Champkin 2007; Humpherys 1975; Shannon 2016; Druce 2005).

Mayhew ([1861] 1968, 3:430) was a popular writer who occasionally presented himself as a would-be scientist:

Some persons study the stars, others study the animal kingdom. . . . I am the first who has endeavoured to study a class of my fellow-creatures whom Providence has not placed in so fortunate a position as myself, my desire being to bring the extremes of society together—the poor to the rich, and the rich to the poor. (Applause)

He portrayed himself as a cultural anthropologist—reporting on the facts and experiences of those living with poverty in a particular time and place.

John Van Maanen (1988) has identified four defining features of a realist tale in the history of ethnography: careful neutrality, a documentary style, extensive quotation, and interpretive omniscience. These four elements contribute to the various forms of objectivity noted by Daston. The first three criteria are elements of what Daston has called “mechanical” objectivity, while “interpretive omniscience” is a synonym for aperspectival objectivity. Mayhew implicitly believed that extensive documentation and quotation, together with an attempt at balance, would work toward ontological objectivity.

Mayhew provides extensive quotation with a vengeance, and the documentary style is central to his work. Each interview is illustrated by detailed, and even quirky, descriptions of his subjects, their work, and their homes. Mayhew focused on the arresting gray eyes of the costermonger's daughter, the stained fingers of the young girl selling walnuts, the much-too-worldly presentation of an eight-year-old coster-girl at a penny gaff, and the palpable fatigue of a young mother. We read about the physical challenges of the ingenious toymaker, and smell the inside of the pub where our subject's luck is running bad. There are few details that Mayhew neglects to report. We are treated to dissertations on sewers and horse-drawn omnibuses. He describes, in incredible detail, the market for secondhand clothing, and spends pages on garbage and street dust. We read the words of street ballads and can almost hear the music.

Careful neutrality, however, is not Mayhew's style. He is sympathetic to the trials that his subjects endure, and he often reminds his readers not to judge without careful observation and an attempt to understand the circumstances that might generate particular behaviors. He relishes the unexpected: the innocence he detects under a worldly exterior, the education and wisdom in threadbare circumstances, or the kindness shown by a gruff actor. However, the purpose of Mayhew's work is to change the circumstances in which the poorest live, and he takes it for granted that he understands what needs to be changed.

Mayhew does not shy away from making policy pronouncements. He notes that his experience with “this neglected class” suggests that “if we would really lift them out of the moral mire in which they are wallowing,” a priority is to offer wholesome activities that can compete with the existing concerts and amusements. He describes a Liverpool experiment of furnishing “elevating” music, and argues that people can be attracted to “beauty instead of beastiality [sic],” concluding that “it is our fault to allow them to be as they are and not their's to remain so” ([1861] 1968: vol. 1, “Of the Penny Gaffs”). Similarly, education is central to his planned reforms, and he argues passionately that “the children of the street-folk require tuition, training and advice” to offer an alternative to the behavior and habits of their parents, for whom “passion is the sole rule of action, and where every appetite of our animal nature is indulged” ([1861] 1968: vol. 1, “Of the Coster-Girls”).

It is clear throughout that Mayhew is writing for people who share his own social milieu, encouraging their sympathy and philanthropy alongside the entertainment he is very aware of offering to people who share his background and experiences. He may have tea with a poor mother, or share a beverage with a costermonger, but Mayhew is not a costermonger, and he describes these activities as a sympathetic outsider. However, even as an outsider, his own background, values, and priorities are very much present. More important, he is aware of how he differs from his subjects and does not hesitate to remind his readers. It is when he describes the complex interrelationship between ignorance, behavioral choices, and institutional limitations at the heart of financial transactions involving the poorest that Mayhew's neutrality is stretched to the breaking point. He is outraged by the institutions of inequity: “The iniquities to which the poor are subject are positively monstrous. A halfpenny a day interest on a loan of 2d. is at the rate of 7280 per cent. per annum! ([1861] 1968: vol. 2, “Of the Rag-and-Bottle . . .”).

Yet Mayhew is not ignorant of the role that personal choices can play in allowing poverty to persist, and he is sometimes exasperated by its persistence. In volume 1, “Of the Providence and Improvidence of Costermongers,” he recounts a story that illustrates the role that financial ignorance can play in worsening the circumstances of the poor. He acknowledges the price that “drink or gaming” can play, but argues that even without such vices a costermonger might suffer when they lack trust in basic institutions and fall prey to various conspiracy theories about the way in which the financial world works. For example, it was common practice for a costermonger to rent a barrow, and to pay many times over for that barrow in weekly rental rates. Mayhew acknowledges that a lack of capital that would allow the purchase of the barrow might be a problem, but he suggests that the bigger problem is one of ignorance and mistrust. If one were to suggest to costers that they might put their money in a bank and save to buy a barrow, they would refuse because they believed that “all banks and public institutions [are] connected with government, and the taxes, and the police.” Similarly, suggesting to the same people, assuming they had money to spare, that investment in the “three per cents” might be helpful would “provoke a snappish remark . . . that there was some cheatery at the bottom.” Even if they could be made to understand what a return of 3 percent per annum meant, they would be “indignant at the robbery of giving only 7½d. for the use of 1l. for a whole year!” ([1861] 1968: vol. 1, “Of the Providence and Improvidence of Costermongers”).

Mayhew, like Martineau, is outspoken about the relationship between moral degradation mediated by alcohol. He describes the role that bad weather and cholera, both of which might prevent a coster from pursuing regular outdoor work, play in encouraging drink and gaming. Spending time in the beer hall, costers might gamble away their stock money “if the cards or the luck runs” bad, forcing them to borrow at usurious rates to feed their families and buy stock to begin again ([1861] 1968: vol. 1, “Of the Costermongers in Bad Weather and during the Cholera”). This, of course, has negative consequences on family life, and Mayhew, like Martineau, recognizes the disproportionate impact that alcohol might have on women and children. The wife, he claims, is considered “an inexpensive servant”:

When the man is in one of his drunken fits—which sometimes last two or three days continuously—she must by her sole exertions find food for herself and him too. To live in peace with him, there must be no murmuring, no tiring under work, no fancied cause for jealousy—for if there be, she is either beaten into submission or cast adrift to begin life again—as another's leavings. ([1861] 1968: vol. 1, “Of the Coster-Girls”)

Mayhew is very clearly writing as an outsider for people like himself, explaining to a degree the behavior of his subjects but not at all averse to judging the behavior he describes.

At the same time, he is sympathetic and keen to shine a light on evidence of resilience, hard work, and personal bravery. Writing of a seller of penny toys and mousetraps forced to rely on the contributions of his daughter after an injury, Mayhew recounts the evidence of ingenuity in their small cottage, describing, among other things, a large thaumatrope, or disk with painted figures that seem to move when the disk revolves. He notes that this was made by the disabled man for a street acquaintance whom he was anxious to help. Mayhew noted that the young son goes to school regularly, and describes the man's light reading material (Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's plays). Fearful, perhaps, that his story would be doubted, Mayhew claims that the story can be corroborated by a surgeon who introduced him to his “ingenious and heroic patient,” much as Martineau pointed to the authority of the Poor Law Commissioners to validate her tales ([1861] 1968: vol. 3, “The Penny Mouse-Trap Maker”).

Mayhew clearly empathizes with his witnesses, acknowledges their challenges, yet criticizes their shortcomings of character while acknowledging how these behaviors were inculcated in childhood. He proposes ways to address aspects of their deprivation through philanthropy and (less often) legislation, and cheers for the hidden heroes who transcend their circumstances. These are, however, the actions of a novelist or newspaperman, a storyteller who does not try to maintain an academic distance or attempt to ensure impartiality beyond encouraging the reader to believe his story. London Labour and the London Poor is far from a dry textbook or government report; it is written as a documentary and reads like a novel; the little girl selling lucifer matches or the overworked mother serving sugared tea and bread in her clean and tiny room alongside her disabled child would have been as comfortable in Dickens's novels (where they also appeared) as they were in Mayhew's report.

London Labour and the London Poor, however, did have a greater purpose that speaks to the fourth of Van Maanen's characteristics of a realist tale, which he called “interpretive omniscience” and Daston called “aperspectival objectivity.” This purpose does not become clear until volume 4, and it is important to remember that volume 4 is a coauthored work with a very different tone than the first three volumes. Although the entire four-volume document is packaged as an investigation into “those who work, those who cannot work and those who do not work,” it was only with the creation of volume 4 that this was codified. Volume 4 examines nonworkers, and especially “those who will not work,” otherwise known as the “Dangerous Classes.” It begins with a thirty-eight-page introduction designed to “inspire hope and confidence in those who would shudder and lose heart,” which describes the various agencies active in London dedicated to the suppression of crime and vice.

“Interpretive Omniscience” is the voice of the academic researcher; it is what distinguishes a textbook from a newspaper account, privileging theory and downplaying personal detail in the interest of identifying ideal types. A reader might well question whether Mayhew himself was responsible for the changed tone of volume 4, or whether it was introduced by his coauthors. In any event, it was published in 1861, almost thirty years after Martineau began writing, and twenty since Mayhew began collecting his interviews. During that period, social science, ethnography, and, especially, concepts of objectivity were evolving. Volume 4 is the product of a different period.

There is a secondary literature that conflates all four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor and attributes to Mayhew a methodological sophistication that is hard to find in the first three volumes. For example, Green (2002) makes the claim that Mayhew's analysis implicitly embodies Adam Smith's impartial spectator. Green cites David Marshall, who seems to have a definite character in mind. Among other things, he attributes gender to the impartial spectator:

He (and he is clearly masculine) is alternatively characterized as ideal observer, an ordinary innocent bystander, the voice of the people, an omniscient deity, the normative values of society, a relativistic social code, absolute standards, the personification of conscience, the internalization of social repression, the superego, and simply a hypothetical abstract third person. (Marshall 1984: 592; quoted in Green 2002: 15)

Gender aside, in the context of ethnography this is equivalent to Daston's notion of aperspectival objectivity that attempts to get beyond personal or group biases. Other scholars also found in Mayhew evidence of interpretive omniscience, including Julian Champkin's (2007) identification of Mayhew as the “statistical Dickens” and the attempts by Andrew Tolson (1990) or Laurel Richardson and Ernest Lockridge (1998) to find antecedents of ethnography in London Labour and the London Poor. However, all these arguments, including most specifically Green, focus disproportionately on the coauthored volume 4, which did not appear until 1861.

Volumes 1–3 privilege the surprising details that force a reader to recognize the humanity and, as a consequence, the “reality” of the subjects (even if a cynical reader might suspect the occasional telling detail to be constructed by the observer). Volumes 1–3 are the work of a newspaperman. We read of the elevated literary tastes of the disabled toymaker in volume 3, the touching innocence of the profiled coster-girl in volume 1 (even as we read of the much-too-worldly eight-year-old girl who frequents the penny gaffs in the same volume), and the scenes of domestic comfort and clean and tidy coster-children described in volume 1.

Volume 4, by contrast, profiles a social system peopled by “those who will work, those who cannot work, those who will not work [among whom, interestingly enough, the authors include sex workers and criminals who seem to work quite a lot] and those who need not work.” They subdivide those who cannot work into those who are provided for (such as the incarcerated and those in hospitals) and those who are not provided for. This latter category is divided among those who cannot work for want of power (such as the young, the old, and the disabled), for want of means (such as those without tools or clothes), and for want of employment (due to business stagnation, mechanization, a change in fashion, an off-season, or the loss of character associated either with criminalized behavior or with dismissal by a master without a reference). Those who need not work are the holders of annuities, the recipients of rents or dividends, those who hold sinecures, and “wives and children.” Volume 4 also supplements and categorizes the statistical material in volumes 1–3. In these earlier volumes, numbers were collected and presented almost as artlessly as the anecdotes were relayed, with little direction to the reader about why they might be important or even interesting.

The tidy little model at the outset of volume 4 puts all the many pages of the first three volumes into order and transforms the mass of incommensurate detail into an easily understood system, although Green (2002: 106) acknowledges that “the fifteen-page compendium collapses under the weight of its Byzantine elaborations and ad hoc inventions, such as to sometimes seem like a satire on classification.” I respectfully disagree. The “Byzantine elaborations” are the property of the first three volumes solely authored by Mayhew, in which he invites the random, the marginal, and the distinctive into his text, much as a novelist strays from a central theme to create the illusion of richness. Following meandering paths rather than staying to a paved road is, after all, the characteristic of the newspaperman or novelist. The social scientist or philosopher, on the other hand, is keen to pave the roads. The coauthored volume 4 transforms the random data of the first three volumes into the shape of an analytic treatise, and turns the journalist into a sociologist.

Martineau and Mayhew on Objectivity

Martineau and Mayhew are responsible for some of the greatest sociological works of nineteenth-century England and, despite their marked differences in personality and style, engaged with many of the same concepts in their advocacy for social reform. Both focused on ethnology, observing and reporting on the urban poor as expert witnesses. Both gathered data, Martineau from routinely collected population records and rolls supplemented with ingenious attempts to glean evidence from the study of institutions and artifacts, and Mayhew from the direct reports of subjects living in the circumstances on which he reported. Both were gifted storytellers, sliding easily between fiction and documentation and exploiting their gifts for narrative to expand the capacity of their readers to sympathize with those living very different kinds of lives from their own.

Martineau published a record of her methodological choices in the prefaces to her various works and, especially, in How to Observe Morals and Manners that leaves little doubt that she consciously engaged in an attempt to bring an objectivity to her work that went beyond simple impartiality. She employed a series of empirical devices to remove the specific perspective of the observer from the report, including resort to the law of large numbers, the call for multiple observers when direct interviews are used, and the intentional distancing of the expert witness from reliance on the direct reports of embedded subjects whenever feasible. She triangulated evidence from different kinds of sources, validating the reports of expert witnesses with conclusions drawn from the observation of “things” such as public ceremonies or records. If she was occasionally less than successful at eliminating from her writings the vestiges of a very strongly held belief that nineteenth-century Britain had advanced far beyond some other cultures that would, no doubt, catch up in time, there is little doubt that she was far more conscious of the challenges embodied in the observation of human societies than were some of her contemporaries.

Mayhew is more of a puzzle. His methods are implicit rather than explicit, and appear very different in the coauthored volume 4, published in 1861, than in volumes 1–3, written much earlier. Although he, too, wrote copious prefaces, they had a very different purpose from those of Martineau. Mayhew's prefaces teased readers with the stories he was about to recount, urging the audience to read on. The prefaces celebrated his own access and accomplishment, alluding to his status as a “scientist” who observed people in less fortunate circumstances than his own in the same way that others observed the stars. It is telling that his model of science is astronomy. Martineau distinguished between the methods appropriate to a geologist and an ethnologist, suggesting that the social scientist had to listen critically to the reports of subjects, questioning their interpretation and motivation. While perspective might matter to the geologist, it is unlikely that the rocks would intentionally mislead the geologist. And yet Mayhew was hardly naive. He instinctively brought a distance to his subjects, questioning their interpretation of events and experiences. In practice, he was at least as critical an observer as Martineau. In the first three volumes, however, he did not leave a record of his methods.

In volume 4, however, the storytelling of the first three volumes is subordinated to a theoretical scheme. This active use of theory is, itself, a distancing technique that downplays the uniqueness of individual subjects, transforming them into illustrations of ideal types. Some of the statistics scattered throughout the first three volumes are gathered and organized in a way that highlights the importance of the data and leads a reader to particular conclusions. Volume 4 actually incorporates some of the techniques that Martineau called for in 1838 and used throughout her writing. Did Mayhew's methodological expertise grow over the previous two decades, or was the structure of volume 4 the gift of his coauthors? Or was, as some of the secondary literature suggests, this refined methodology actually implicit throughout the entire four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor? It seems likely that volume 4 was, in fact, a later attempt to impose order that may have been influenced by the rapidly evolving social scientific knowledge of the mid-nineteenth century.

Despite their very different personalities, contributions, and styles, Harriet Martineau and Henry Mayhew, together, contributed to the ways in which social scientists would come to understand scientific objectivity over the subsequent century and a half. Martineau might have been pleased that two writers, with such distinct perspectives, accomplished more than either might have done alone.

I would like to thank the participants in the 2022 HOPE conference, especially Tiago Mata, and I am very grateful to the referees.

Note

1.

Jane Marcet did this to a small extent, but her chief contribution was a textbook that used the trope of a young student (Caroline) interacting with a governess (Mrs. B.). However, she did write a series of “tales” for a working-class audience in the context of rural rebellion, but she did not pursue the form to the extent of Martineau. See Marcet 2009.

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