Hobhouse LeonardTrelawny

Hobhouse LeonardTrelawny

(1864-1929) British sociologist, and the leading figure in early British sociology, who is primarily remembered today for his contributions to COMPARATIVE SOCIOLOGY and, especially, to the SOCIOLOGY OF DEVELOPMENT. Hobhouse was a man of rich and varied interests, whose career exemplified a unity of theory and practice. Employment in journalism preceded his appointment to the new Martin White Professorship in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Politically Hobhouse favoured the left, although he was well aware of the implications for personal liberty of a state bureaucratic form of socialism. For Hobhouse, a balance had to be struck between market and plan which enhanced individual freedom. His social philosophy is best expressed in his Elements of Social Justice (1922), a book which, in its conception of the relation between an economically regulating state and personal freedom, still remains relevant to socialist thought.

Apart from his major contributions to sociology, which included the comparative study, Morals in Evolution (1906) and the three-volume Principles of Sociology (1921-24), Hobhouse wrote on animal and social psychology, logic, epistemology, ethics and metaphysics as well as on social philosophy However, the overarching theme of his work was the evolution of mind and society (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY). For Hobhouse, the evolutionary process could be examined at three logically distinct levels: description, explanation and evaluation. Social development itself could be estimated in terms of four biologically orientated criteria:

  1. the increasing efficiency with which a Society is controlled and directed;
  2. a growing expansion in the scale and complexity of social organization;
  3. an extension of social cooperation in realizing human needs;
  4. the enhanced capacity for human fulfilment.

Hobhouse used historical and comparative evidence to suggest a general association between stages of social development and intellectual advance, manifested in the growth of science and technology, and ethical and religious reflection and art. A final concern was to examine development in terms of ethical standards. Here he employed his theory of The Rational Good (1921): development was ethically appropriate to the extent to which it promoted both social harmony and the realization of human capacities and potentialities. Progress was not inevitable, as the outbreak of World War I made clear. Yet, by the 1920s, he was cautiously optimistic that the regulation, efficiency and complexity of industrial societies had indeed been shown to be compatible with individual freedom and mutuality, that progress had been achieved, and that this could be advanced still further by the cooperative, self-conscious efforts of nation states. History will probably find his caution more justifiable than his optimism.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000