Monday, April 13, 2009

Harriet Martineau (June 12, 1802 – June 27, 1876)


Her childhood

Harriet Martineau was born on June 12, 1802 in Norwich. She was born in a family of eight children and she was the sixth child. Her father Thomas Martineau was a textile manufacturer in Norwich and her mother Elizabeth Rankin Martineau was a daughter of a sugar-refiner of the new castle. Harriet Martineau’s childhood was not a happy one. She was raised by a foster mother and neglected by her mother. She was deaf since childhood and suffered frequently from health problems. Harriet was never able to smell and taste. She suffered from digestion problems during her childhood. She was a nervous, fearful child and felt isolated by her family. She often felt that her mother and siblings did not like her and felt singled out for criticism. She felt isolated and believed that her mother did not give her all the care she needed. Harriet described her mother as a domestic tyrant and believed that her tyrannies stemmed from her perceived social inadequacies.

During her childhood, Harriet had a very strong passion for justice just to herself and other oppressed people. She felt incapacitated to fully express herself due to her physical disability. During her childhood, she did not go to school because education was for the boys. However, she was taught at home by her older brother and sisters. Therefore, she was exposed to subjects taught to only males. University education was for the boys at the time, but Harriet maintained a regime of intense, self directed investigation throughout her life. Harriet advocated for fairness and justice and wanted all children, boys and girls to be treated and educated equally.

During her early youth, religion was the source of her happiness. Her parents were Unitarians, who passed on the trait to Harriet. Harriet’s theology was of a mild type, lacking a hell, a personal devil and a theory of original sin. She did not fear God, while she feared almost all human beings, and her devotion was thus a source of great joy and little misery. Her religious sentiments were increased by the ministerial influence of the great Unitarian preacher, the Rev. Dr. Carpenter, while at Bristol Boarding school. Dr. Carpenter taught her to interest herself in mental and moral philosophy.

She was inspired by the books of Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Thompson and Milton. She was also greatly inspired by the works of Thomas Malthus. By the age of 15, Harriet had started becoming a political economist. She thought in sociological and political manner. At the age of 16, she increasingly became deaf but devised ways to handle her physical disability. She described her condition as ‘very noticeable, very inconvenient, and excessively painful. Harriet’s great influence started during the time of her youth at the age of 18 when her inability to hear continued.


When her father died in 1825, her family went into economic decline. Martineau got involved in several activities to sustain herself. She got involved in popular journalism, mainly focusing on political economy. Her Illustrations of political Economy were her first successes (1832-1934). In the Illustrations, she described the works of Thomas Malthus, James Mill, David Ricardo, and Adam Smith. Sell of these writings earned her a lot of money which she used to move to London in 1832 (Hoecker-Drysdale 1992).

Martineau also published writings on ‘Morals of Slavery’ in the United States. She strongly criticized slavery and considered it a waste of capital and labor. It was a violation of human freedom and constrained slaves from doing what they desired. She argued that ‘social virtues’ cannot prevail in injustice society. She advocated for justice for the colored people, women and children. She advocated for immediate rather than gradual emancipation. She rejected her youthful laissez-faire economic philosophy and strongly urged governmental action to end chattel slavery, wage slavery, and class oppression (Fladeland 1982:73-74).

She wrote a letter to the deaf, published in 1844, appealing to people who suffered like herself to be patient and persevere in all depriving condition which loss of sense brings. She encouraged them to consider first the convenience and happiness of others instead on their own.


Hoecker-Drysdale, S. (1992). Harriet Martineau: First Woman Sociologist New York: Berg.

Fladeland, Betty, '"Our Cause Being One and the Same": Abolitionists and Chartism', in Slavery and British Society, 1776-1846, ed. James Walvin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), pp. 69-99

Her writings

In 1834 Harriet began a two year study and visit of the United States. She reported her findings in Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). These empirical studies emerged at the same time as her foundational treatise on sociological data collection, How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838). This book articulated the principles and methods of empirical social research.

Society in America is her most widely known work to sociologists in the U.S. She addressed the issues of methodological strategy confronted with ethnocentrism. She compared valued moral principles and observable social patterns, illustrating insightfully the distinctions between rhetoric and reality.

Her writings in How to Observe Morals and Manners offered a positivist solution to the correspondence problem between inter-subjectivity, verifiable observables, and unobservable theoretical issues.

Before Marx, Engels or Weber, Martineau examined social class, religion, suicide, national character, domestic relations, women's status, criminology, and interrelations between institutions and individuals.

In 1848, after her trip to the Mid-East and the publication of her work: Eastern Life Past and Present, Harriet openly embraced atheism. She lost much of the support in her family, especially her younger brother James, a known cleric at the time. She also received a cold reception in the populous but was supported by her circle of literary friends.

In 1851 Harriet translated Comte's Cours de philosophie positive into English, facilitating the introduction of positivism into American thought.

Important writings of Martineau
1. Deerbrook, 3 vols (London: Edward Moxon, 1839).
2. Eastern Life: Present and Past, 3 vols (London: Edward Moxon, 1848)
3. Harriet Martineau¹s Autobiography, 2 vols, ed Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co, 1877)
4. Illustrations of Political Economy, 9 vols (London: Charles Fox, 1832-34)
5. The Martyr Age of the United States (Boston: Weeks, Jordan, 1839)
6. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste ComteS, 2 vols (London: Chapman 1853)
7. Retrospect of Western Travel, 3 vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838)
8. Society in America, 3 vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1837), rpr. ed Seymour Martin Lipset, (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961)
9. Harriet Martineau: Writings on Slavery and the American Civil War ed. Deborah Anna Logan (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002)


Her later life

In 1839 Martineau became chronically ill and, by 1855 she was unable to leave her house. During this time, British slavery and apprenticeship had ended, and Harriet was determined to end slavery in the United Stated. She did not allow the illness to hinder her fight to end slavery in the United States. In 1857, despite her ill condition, she continued doing fancy work to earn money for the American abolitionists. Her last piece of embroidery fetched 100 dollars for “the cause” in America. She died after years of illness in1876, and had written her obituary, nearly twenty years before

There is no thorough bibliography of Martineau's reviews and journal articles. During her life, she wrote over 1500 columns, undertook pioneering methodological studies in what is now called sociology. She was forgotten, in sociology, literature, history, and journalism due to the male academic system (Hill 294-295). She is acknowledged as the "founding mother of sociology."


Hill, M. R. n.d Women In Sociology "Harriet Martineau" p. 289-297

Friday, January 23, 2009