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Measuring Society: social sciences and social problems in twentieth-century Britain

Module Convenor: Andrew Burchell


Student feedback and support hours: Monday, 12:00-13:00, FAB3.69 (or e-mail for an appointment)

Seminar: Monday, 14:00-16:00, FAB1.06

If the years 1900-2000 were ones in which ‘ordinary’ Britons were subject to greater scrutiny by researchers interested in 'social' phenomena, what did this mean for everyday life and perceptions of self and nation? How did such research techniques work to measure - but equally to construct, interact with and influence the perception of - key social 'problems' and challenges in this period? And how did sociology influence popular culture, politics and representations of what was ‘normal’ or 'ordinary'? Students taking this module will engage with these questions, and also ask how the historical data generated by the social sciences (defined broadly and eclectically) can be useful to historians in trying to make sense of life in the past.

This module includes three weeks of a negotiated curriculum. You will work with other students on the module to choose topics that interest you to form part of the module syllabus (see the ‘Syllabus’ link above for more details of this and a general overview of the module).


In the last decade, archived materials from twentieth-century British social-scientific studies (both mainstream and more eccentric) have begun to receive serious scholarly attention from historians: both as sources to complement the study of social, cultural, economic and political change and to rethink the scope of the 'social' itself. This module will introduce you to some of the currents and thinking in Britain's social-scientific disciplines from c.1900 to the 1990s. You will explore the origins of these disciplines, their original source material, and the growing body of historical scholarship that has recently emerged from 'reusing' twentieth-century social-scientific sources.

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a detailed knowledge of some of the key social-scientific movements in twentieth-century Britain.
  • Analyse and evaluate the contributions made by historical and interdisciplinary scholarship on social problems and social sciences in Britain.
  • Analyse primary source material to generate new ideas and interpretations.
  • Act with limited supervision to research topics in the social history of twentieth-century Britain.
  • Communicate the findings of independent research, adapting it to the needs of diverse audiences.

Cartoon mocking social scientists, 1977. Alludes to failure of 'high rise' housing and accuses architects of exhibiting the same 'arrogance' and 'psuedo-scientific' approach as social scientists. (Views of the cartoonist, not the module convenor!)

Cartoon by 'Hellman', New Society, 6 October 1977, p. 32.

Front cover of 'Britain by Mass Observation' (1939). A Penguin-branded dustjacket with orange and cream stripes. Text in centre reads: 'Mass-Observation, a movement started early in 1937 by two young men and now embracing some two thousand voluntary observers all over the country, exists to study everyday behaviour in Britain-- The Science of Ourselves'.

Crowds at Enfield Lido, 1934. Black and white photograph depicts crowds of people around an open-air swimming pool. Some sunbathers/swimmers are oblivious to the camera, while others notice it and stare back.

Images: (Top) Front dustjacket of Britain by Mass-Observation (Penguin, 1939). (Below) Crowds at Enfield Lido, 1934 (from Timothy Wilcox, A Day in the Sun: outdoor pursuits in art in the 1930s [Nottingham: Djanogly Art Gallery, 2006]).