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Patrick Geddes: founder of
environmental sociology
Maggie Studholme
On the basis of a close reading of two early articles by Patrick Geddes, which form
the basis of his later approach to sociology, it is argued that Geddes should be
reclaimed by sociologists from the geographers and the town planners, as the
founder of a distinctive environmental sociology in Britain at around the turn of the
last century. Certain of Geddes’ arguments are seen to be comparable with those of
Durkheim, in particular, and Marx to a somewhat lesser extent. Moreover, his work
contains a distinctively sociological account of the ‘structuring’ of social (and environmental) reality via the creative agency of human beings actively working in a
variety of environments. Geddes’ naïve optimism may make him as much Utopian
as sociological, but does not invalidate his contribution to the development of a
classical environmental sociology.
Interest in the work of Patrick Geddes continues. Yet in spite of a number of
books and articles dedicated to his life and work, there seems to be no
universal agreement on where he belongs, in an intellectual sense. The titles of
works on Geddes give some indication of the difficulty: Biologist, Town
Planner, Re-Educator, Peace Warrior, proclaims Boardman (1978); Social
Evolutionist and City Planner says Helen Meller (1990); for Robson (1981)
and Mercer (1997) he is both geographer and urban planner, while Welter
(2002) has subtitled his book: ‘Patrick Geddes and the City of Life’, which
seems to hint at an affiliation with Bergsonian vitalism.1 All these appellations
have something in them. It is arguable, however, that Geddes’ true intellectual
home is neither with the geographers, nor with the town planners, or philosophers – but in another academic discipline to which he aspired, but which
rejected him: Sociology. Certainly he developed an early interest in the work
of Comte and Le Play, was a founding member of the Sociological Society of
London, and a candidate for the Martin White chair in Sociology at LSE
(accepted by L.T. Hobhouse in late 1907).
Late in life, Geddes was appointed Professor of Sociology and Civics in a
newly formed department at the University of Bombay, for a fixed five year
The Sociological Review, 55:3 (2007)
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review. Published by
Blackwell Publishing Inc., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, 02148,
Maggie Studholme
term. In spite of this, the breadth of his contribution to sociology is only rarely
acknowledged in Britain by sociologists. This is especially surprising since the
emergence, in the last thirty years or so, of environmental sociology. Indeed, it
has been suggested on at least two separate occasions that Patrick Geddes
deserves to be re-instated as an early founder of environmental sociology
(Martinez-Alier, 1987: 98; Meller, 1990: 312–14). As Robson (1981: 198) suggests, Geddes anticipated what has recently become recognised as essential
in any approach to ‘environmental management’ – the need for a multidisciplinary approach.Yet in so far as he appears in texts devoted to the history
of sociology he is usually presented as having been eccentric (Hawthorn,
1976), amateur (Philip Abrams, 1968), a ‘sociographer’ whose theory made no
impact on sociology (Fletcher, 1971); or with having contributed little beyond
the development of the survey method (which is mainly attributed to Booth
and Rowntree (Mark Abrams, 1951)). A.H. Halsey, who in his recent history of
sociology acknowledges that Geddes might have made a positive contribution
to the development of a sociology in which ‘much greater emphasis might have
been given to environmental forces’ nevertheless fails to devote space to his
work (Halsey, 2004: 48). Moreover, a recent paper (Law, 2005) argues that
Geddes’ sociology is limited in its relevance for contemporary sociology due
partly to his evolutionism, and partly to his ‘apolitical’ concept of ‘sociology as
civics’, as well as castigating Geddes for failing to address the work of his
contemporaries, Simmel, Durkheim and Weber. This is an unfair assessment,
for the following reasons.
First, to say that Geddes ought to have addressed the work of particular
contemporaries is to impose on early 20th Century sociology a degree of
cohesiveness and a shape that it simply did not have. Indeed, the ‘founding
fathers’ of sociology were still some half century away from acquiring that
label. Part of Geddes’ difficulty, as he presented the paper on Civics before the
Sociological Society of London in 1904 (not 1905, as Law suggests), was that he
was embroiled in a fierce debate about how to define sociology – at that time
almost non-existent in Britain. Of the sociologists Law cites, only Durkheim
was formally recognised, internationally, as a professional sociologist. When
Geddes’ spokesman, friend and supporter, Victor Branford, in the very first
article to appear in the Sociological Papers, drew attention to the sociological
work of Simmel, he also cited Tonnies, Tarde, De Roberty, and De Greef
(Branford, 1905). Where are the last of these now? Then again, Weber’s work
was little known in the English speaking world until as late as the 1930s. The
earliest work in English appears to have been a 1933 essay by H.M. Robertson,
although this was not cited even by the LSE academic J.P. Mayer in his own
essay, On Max Weber and German Politics (1943).
Secondly, if commitment to an evolutionary sociology amounts to criteria
for contemporary irrelevance, there are many whom we should now similarly
abandon, including Marx, Durkheim and Weber themselves, since each
retained some commitment to a more or less sophisticated evolutionary
worldview.2 Finally, not only is it not obvious why an apolitical stance should
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
lead to irrelevance, but a strong argument can be made for Geddes as both an
environmentalist per se and as an environmental sociologist.
This paper, therefore, is a call to reclaim Geddes as the founder of a
distinctive environmental sociology – and not just in Britain. He travelled
widely throughout his life and inspired and influenced many people. Fletcher
(1971: 834) believed that Geddes’ ideas almost certainly ‘stimulated the growth
of’ the classical human ecology of the Chicago school, through his contact with
Charles Zueblin, who published a glowing report on the activities of Geddes’
Edinburgh Summer Schools in the American Journal of Sociology (Zueblin,
1899). In fact, Geddes probably took his own ideas to Chicago, since he gave
a course of lectures there in 1898 (Meller, 1990: 303). This link should not
be overstated, however, since Robert Park, the ‘founder’ of classical human
ecology, did not join the Chicago department until around 1914 (part-time),
well after both Geddes’ lectures and Zueblin’s departure. Moreover, Chicago
sociology was demonstrably social Darwinist in orientation, using biological
and ecological concepts and terminology as metaphors (Miley, 1980: 166;
Gaziano, 1996: 875). Geddes, on the other hand, was not a social Darwinist
(though his position is close to that which Clarke (in her discussion of Darwin’s
reception by French social scientists), has called ‘reform Darwinism’ (Clarke,
1984)); he used ecological concepts not as tropes, but to convey what he saw as
reality. Park was acquainted, however, with the work of Radhakamal Mukerjee
(Mukerjee, 1926; Park, 1926). Mukerjee had met and worked with Geddes in
India, and Geddes had written an introduction to Mukerjee’s Foundations of
Indian Economics (Mukerjee, 1916; Boardman, 1978: 280). His work owed so
much to the influence of the older man that Geddes’ friend and associate Lewis
Mumford complained that in spite of having absorbed so much of the master’s
thought, Mukerjee failed to acknowledge his sources (Novak, 1995: 245, 306).
Thus Geddes’ sociological influence, direct or indirect, was widely spread,
making his invisibility in the history of British sociology all the more remarkable. Moreover, given his influence on Mukerjee, whose work Dunlap and
Catton, the ‘founders’ of the New Environmental Paradigm in sociology, cite as
a neglected early example of environmental sociology (Dunlap and Catton,
1979: 245), Geddes deserves reinstatement as classical ‘environmental’ sociologist as well as ‘environmentalist’ in a fairly modern sense.
Geddes was born in 1854, which makes him of the same generation as
Durkheim (born 1858). Like Durkheim, he evaded his parents’ aspiration to
see their son enter the church, a fact that is often significant in the lives of
classical sociologists, and not only because a lack or loss of deeply held religious conviction was a prerequisite for serious engagement with Darwin’s
theory of evolution, which formed the starting point for many early sociological theories. It is almost impossible to read about Geddes in a way that does
not mix, inextricably, his personal life with his work (see Meller, 1990;
Boardman, 1978; Mairet, 1957). Accounts of his childhood, for example, note
the positive influence of his family position as youngest son of elderly parents
(his retired father had more time to devote to his son’s informal education
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Maggie Studholme
than most parents) combined with the freedom of his rural background, on his
early propensity for botanical studies. This rural and scientific background
contrasted sharply with his experience of the wider world, when he later found
himself in London with time on his hands to observe the city around him. It
was probably this experience, in combination with his early reading of Carlyle,
Ruskin, Spencer and Comte, and (via his teacher, T.H. Huxley), with the work
of the French sociologist Le Play, that sparked his interest in the social as well
as the natural sciences.
From the early 1880s, Geddes made increasing incursions into a nascent
sociology, even while he was employed as a teacher and demonstrator of
botany at Edinburgh. Given his background, not only is it not surprising that
he began from biology, it was also not particularly unusual for a sociologist of
this era to have done so. Durkheim himself, in The Division of Labour,
explained the mechanics of social change in a way that drew directly on
Darwin (Hawkins, 1997: 12; Lukes, 1975: 170; Durkheim, 1933 [1893]: 266). The
success of Darwinian biology in drawing a wide range of diverse subjects
under its theoretical umbrella meant that sociologists of the late nineteenth
century could not avoid engaging with its arguments as they struggled to mark
out their own intellectual territory.
Geddes was a holistic thinker, although the term itself was not coined until
1926, near the end of his life.3 All things biological and social, natural and
cultural, scientific and artistic, theoretical and practical, were, for him, interlinked in basic and essential ways, leading him to transpose the basic biological
triad of environment, function and organism, on to the Le Playist formula,
place, work and family.4 By the early 1920s Geddes defined sociology in terms
of the holistic study of people, affairs and places – a synthetic discipline
composed of anthropology, his own brand of economics, and geography –
whose object was to catch the flux or moving stream of everyday life, the better
to discern its evolutionary direction (Geddes, 1922: 3–4). But Geddes, in
common with the other classical sociologists, was concerned not only with an
understanding of society and social change, but with social amelioration. His
difficulty (or one of them) lay in getting people to understand his vision, which
– though it differed only in certain respects from more conventional worldviews – was incomprehensible to many of his contemporaries. Yet the key to
understanding Geddes’ life’s work, now as well as then, lies in his use of the
concept of environment, worked out in an attempt to redefine economics, as a
subject centred on the two way inter-relationship between people and environments while acknowledging the need for conservation of finite resources.
Two early papers give the best indication of the subsequent direction of his
thought. The first, ‘On the Classification of Statistics and its Results’, was
presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in instalments between March
and May 1881, followed in 1884 by ‘An Analysis of the Principles of Economics’. They form the basis of his subsequent sociology, and in spite of being his
earliest works are often more lucid than his later writing, which became
increasingly tangled, making his intentions harder to decipher. Thus, although
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
two papers may not be a sufficient basis for the re-incorporation of Geddes’
work into the sociological canon – they are an essential prelude to a proper
understanding of his later work.
The classification of statistics
The 1881 paper was an ambitious attempt, heavily influenced by his reading of
Comte, to devise a system of classification for the increasing number of social
statistics. These needed to be organised and analysed if they were to provide
useful information about ‘the social, moral and intellectual condition of a
people’ (Geddes, 1881: 4). The system he went on to outline was based on a set
of axiomatic statements about societies in their relationship with nature:
First . . . a society obviously exists within certain limits of time and space.
Secondly it consists of a number of living organisms. Thirdly, these modify
surrounding nature, primarily by seizing part of its matter and energy.
Fourthly, they apply this matter and energy to the maintenance of their life,
i.e. the support of their physical functions. . . . A society may be much more
than all this . . . but in any case these four generalisations are obviously
true, neither hypothesis nor metaphysical principle being involved. These
will therefore henceforth be termed sociological axioms. (Geddes, 1881: 12)
These propositions formed the basis of Geddes’ subsequent explanation of the
persistence of social activity through time and space, in terms of the production and consumption of life-sustaining goods.5 A complete set of statistics on
a given society would provide a detailed picture of a particular moment in the
moving flux of history (Geddes, 1881: 8–9) and include detailed information
about people (organisms), their occupations (function) and environment. The
concept of environment was central in Geddes’ approach to sociology. He used
it, in different contexts, to refer to every aspect of human existence – natural,
cultural, and built (and even to the internal environment of the body),
although he was not always careful to specify which sense of the term he was
using at any given moment. Beginning from territory, or physical environment,
Geddes wanted to classify and count the quality and quantity of land, water
and other natural resources, plants, and minerals, and whether (and how) they
were used, wasted, or undisturbed by human agency. Energy was equally
important, so its natural sources (the sun, tidal energy, hot springs and volcanic
energy) should also be logged. Production methods – the use of natural and
human energy to convert resources into goods, efficiently or not, were also to
form part of Geddes’ statistical data (Geddes, 1881: 13).
About people, Geddes wanted to know birth, death, and migration rates,
anthropometric details, and the state of a population’s mental, physical and
social health. He also wanted a catalogue of data on occupations (referred to
as ‘function’). But rather than just counting how many people were employed,
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Maggie Studholme
in what jobs, and what they were paid, Geddes was interested both in the
environmental impact of each occupation, and in the importance of the occupational structure for social relations, which he labelled ‘mutual relations’
(1881: 16, and Tables A, B, C, D in Geddes’ own diagram). The difficulty of
uncovering the nature of something as nebulous as a ‘relation’, which is impossible to observe empirically, led Durkheim to outline and clarify, formally, his
Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Geddes, working more than ten years
before Durkheim coined his now famous exhortation to consider ‘social facts
as things’, proposed to study ‘mutual relations’ via the social functions of work,
categorised not only in terms of the service it provided for other members of
society, but also in energy terms. His complex typology of different occupations uses a terminology that looks very odd from a 21st century perspective,
categorising service(s) provided by people for people as direct/indirect;
cerebral/non-cerebral; aesthetic, intellectual or moral; or coordinating
(Geddes, 1881: 16–17). It is easy to be critical of the details of this schema,
accustomed as we are to understand the concept of ‘class’ in conventional
socio-economic terms, whether we speak of bourgeois and proletariat, middle
and working classes or use some other classificatory system. But this is to miss
the point. Geddes’ complex typology was grounded not in conventional economics, but in an attempt to formulate an environmental economics, or an
energy balance sheet, from which could be read off an appropriate distribution
of goods according to the ‘real’ underlying energy needs of people undertaking different social functions (Geddes, 1881: tables A, B, C, D).
Geddes realised that his scheme was over-ambitious, but he believed passionately that all this data was necessary for practical social amelioration
(Geddes, 1881: 19). He went on to attack the various ‘schools’ of political
economists, excepting only Alfred Marshall and Yves Guyot,6 not only for
ignoring the importance of conservation in their work, but also for being
ignorant of developments in evolutionary theory, psychology and for ignoring
historical fact (Geddes, 1881: 21–4). Geddes insisted that his own scheme
didn’t really represent any new ideas (although it probably owed somewhat
more to Marshall’s Economics of Industry than he admitted) and claimed it
was simply a return to an earlier conception of ‘economy’ as household management. Yet it was by no means immediately clear, how all this information,
once collected, could be collated and made commensurable. Leaving aside the
very big problem of interpretation, it would have needed a very powerful
computer, even by today’s standards, to accommodate all the information
Geddes thought necessary to social analysis. Yet all these statistics would
prove to be necessary to his subsequent account of economics.
The principles of economics: physical
The 1884 paper was long, and was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in three parts. After this, whenever Geddes insisted on the importance
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
of economic analysis in sociology, he had in mind this particular interpretation
of the relations between people and resources and the nature of wealth.
Economics, he believed could be seen to have three analytically separable but
inter-related levels – physical, biological and psychological.7 Beginning from
the ‘physical’ level, he argued that economics began from producers and
consumers, understood as self-maintaining machines, fuelled by energy from
their surrounding environment (Geddes, 1884: 11–12). The first job of economics (which would draw on the sorts of statistics he had outlined in his earlier
paper) should be to calculate, for any given moment in time, how much energy
was needed to ‘run’ human beings engaged in different activities, and the
amount of energy available for this, from all sources, both natural and manmade (Geddes, 1884: 12–13). Geddes referred to resources and energy in their
natural condition as ‘potential product’, to the apparatus of production
(capital) as ‘mediate product’, and to finished goods as ‘ultimate products’,
which could themselves be further subdivided into ‘transient’ and ‘permanent’
products, on the basis that the former (like food and clothing) were quickly
used up, while the latter (like buildings, furniture or ‘art’) had more durable
qualities (Geddes, 1884: 21; see also 1881: 14). He believed that if energy was
used as the unit of measurement it would also be possible to work out how
much fuel (food for the workers as well as coal for machines) was wasted by
inefficient production methods. This would highlight the fact that often more
energy was wasted in production than was contained in the finished product,
he said, showing just how inefficient manufacturing processes were (Geddes,
1884: 17). But this was precisely Geddes’ point: conventional economics did
not take this sort of inefficiency into account, so that a profit – measured in
terms of monetary ‘value’, was made so long as the cost of production at any
stage did not exceed the total quantity of finished goods. Geddes argued,
however, that such profit was actually ‘the interest paid by Nature upon the
matter and energy expended upon her during the processes of production’
(Geddes, 1884: 18). His refusal of monetary calculation at this stage allowed
him to focus on what Marx only partially grasped. For Marx, the owners of
capital derived their profit from the surplus value of the labour expended by
the worker in production. Yet to the extent that the exchange value of an item
is produced by the energy expended in human labour, which, according to
Geddes, had to be considered in the same terms as the rest of the natural
world, but which is not generally calculated as part of the cost of production,
the surplus appropriated by the capitalist can be equated with the increased
quantity of resources (and especially food) required to keep the worker
working beyond the time required to reproduce the necessities of his own life.
Geddes argued that if the quantity of finished goods per unit time (as manhour, man-day or man-year) were calculated, it would be possible to work out
the amount of wealth collectively owned by the community, and consequently
the details of appropriate distribution (Geddes, 1884: 18). Although Geddes
did not discuss this in any detail – it is likely that such a distribution would
have reversed the usual order of things, with most resources being allocated to
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Maggie Studholme
those who expended most energy in their jobs. Ambitiously, Geddes also
suggested that this energy calculation be made for all historical periods, to
include the total collective production of the entire human race – which he
proposed to refer to as its ‘synergy’. This would highlight the importance of
conservation, by showing the vast quantities of resources and energy used up
by human activity (Geddes, 1884: 19).
Dividing up goods into necessities, comforts and luxuries (‘supernecessaries’), and suggesting that the purpose of luxury goods was to stimulate
consumers’ senses – ‘gustatory, visual and tactile’,8 Geddes then argued that in
civilised societies much production served an ‘aesthetic subfunction’. Yet, if
conservation was of key importance, some types of consumption were more
desirable than others. Here, rather than attempting to minimise all production
in order to conserve resources, Geddes believed that the maximisation of
permanent goods was a better alternative (Geddes, 1884: 21). This implied that
it would be better to concentrate on producing beautiful buildings and works
of art to stimulate the sense organs than to waste resources on the production
of luxury food and clothing, which might have the same effect but which did
not last long. Beyond this, conservation demanded a reorganisation of production in the interests of efficiency, including waste reduction, the minimisation
of friction in transport, and the simplification of trade (1884: 23). Such good
housekeeping would increase the social stock of ‘Real Wealth’, which consisted of the total environmental conditions of living; in the aesthetic and
cultural value of the man-made environment, as well as in its utility as nutrition or shelter; and in clean air, good light and pure water. Given the appalling
environmental conditions in many urban areas during this period, what is
surprising is perhaps not that Geddes should calculate wealth in this way, but
the refusal of so many others to do so, a point he reiterated in later writings
(for example, 1888: 295–6).
The principles of economics: biological
But human beings were not just machines for the production and consumption
of goods. Geddes’ biological principles of economics now defined people as
(intelligent, sentient, moral) animals (Geddes, 1884: 24). From the statistical
table he had earlier proposed (and very much in line with wider contemporary
concerns about the condition of the masses), he now focussed on both qualitative and quantitative issues of population: health, efficiency and education as
well as structure (‘racial’ and other physical characteristics). In particular, he
wanted to explore the relationship between social activity in environment(s)
and evolution or social progress.
Complex functional differentiation, or a high division of labour, in contemporary societies was the result of evolution. Individual organisms, whether
ants, bees or human beings were ‘modified’ by occupation, heredity, and environment. Although, Geddes suggested, the social advantages of the co448
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
operative division of labour were obvious, there might be disadvantages in
biological terms, since the demands of a particular job might affect an individual’s physical health and longevity in either positive or negative ways.
When such ‘modifications’ became hereditary, the degenerative impact of
particular occupations could be passed on (Geddes, 1884: 26–7). This proposition seems indicative of a misunderstanding of the mechanism of evolution.
However, since Mendelian genetics had yet to be rediscovered, and Darwin
himself did not understand exactly how evolutionary changes occurred, this is
hardly surprising (Mayr, 1991: 33–4; Jones, 1980: 78). In fact, the suggestion that
occupational ‘environment’ might have an effect on general health and longevity, and that this might affect offspring, before or after birth – which was
what Geddes would subsequently argue (Thomson and Geddes, 1911: 118
and 201), may not be confused at all. That there is continual interpenetration
between organisms and their environments at a biological level, each actively
changing the other, has recently been reiterated by the biologist Steven Rose
(1997: 140). This is an important point. Unlike some among his sociological
contemporaries (including Durkheim as well as Hobhouse, who would later
become his rival at the Sociological Society), Geddes refused to refute the
importance of heredity in evolution. But his was not a single factor theory.
Even in 1884 Geddes distinguished between ‘functional environment’, or occupation, and ‘ancestral environment’, meaning heredity, as well as between
‘social’ or cultural environment and ‘natural’ environment. In the natural
environment, he thought, the most important factors were food, air quality and
light (Geddes, 1884: 27). Human animals might suffer either as a result of the
deprivation of food, light, clean water and air, or from excessive consumption
(of food), in combination with too little physical exertion. Geddes moralised –
along lines with which we are all too familiar today, that degeneration through
over-consumption and too little exercise was the most debilitating, bringing
about ‘that far more insidious and thorough degeneration seen in the life
history of myriads of parasites’ (Geddes, 1884: 28).
For ‘progress’ or ‘evolution’ rather than ‘degeneration’ (or mere maintenance) to occur, not only were adequate supplies of food, clean air, and water
necessary, but also ‘more and more complex conditions of the environment’.
Though Geddes did not explicitly define which of his various senses of environment he had in mind here, he was speaking of social or cultural, rather than
natural, environment. Again, Geddes here exhibited his normative bias. Real
wealth consisted in the totality of environmental conditions, and not in material or monetary riches.9 He insisted on the ‘evolutionary’ importance of a
complex environment as an organic ‘need’ (Geddes, 1884: 28–9). The importance of the ‘aesthetic’ element in production, on which Geddes had placed
much importance in his discussion of physical principles, turned out to be that
the human senses need stimulus in order to ‘evolve’.
It is instructive to compare this assertion with Durkheim’s (1893) discussion, in The Division of Labour, about how new needs are created by the
division of labour because people had to work harder when resources were
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Maggie Studholme
scarce, since they were in conflict with others doing the same thing. In the
process, more energy was expended (there is a ‘great depletion of forces’) so
that more energy was then required to replace it (‘reparation must be proportionate to expenditure’). However, it was the nervous system that was most
overworked during this process, and it was as a result of this ‘exercise’ that the
capacity of the brain increased. ‘That is how’ Durkheim claimed, ‘without
having desired it, humanity is found apt to receive a more intense and more
varied culture’ (Durkheim, 1893 [1933]: 272–3).
These accounts of ‘mental’ evolution are very similar. But there is one
crucially important difference. Where Durkheim makes much of the ‘conflict’
over resources as the factor which ‘mechanically’ engenders mental evolution,
Geddes emphasises the active, creative production of a more and more
complex environment to stimulate the human intellect, and thus bring about
social evolution (Geddes, 1884: 29). The purpose of production should, therefore, be the deliberate modification of all sorts of environments in order to
fulfil human needs. In the process people themselves would be shaped by their
environments, their occupations, and (directly or indirectly) by one another.
Production should be seen not as the production of monetary wealth but of
particular environmental conditions suitable for particular sorts of social life.
Environments or occupations that proved to be unhealthy must be altered or,
in extreme cases, given up altogether, in the interests of social progress. Thus
any environment (natural, built or cultural) that was lacking in good food,
light, air, and water or any productive occupation that polluted or degraded
them, should be changed or abandoned altogether in the interests of social
‘health’ (Geddes, 1884: 31) Anticipating Veblen’s similar argument by more
than ten years, Geddes commented that the current ‘industrial anarchy’ was
the result of the misconceived notion that the purpose of production was
‘ “wealth” in its very variable proportions of maintenance, power over others,
[and] personal immunity from function’ (Geddes, 1884: 29; Veblen, 1899).
The principles of economics: psychological
From people as machines, and people as intelligent, social, evolving animals,
Geddes now shifted his focus to consider the structure of human wants and
desires (Geddes, 1884: 34). More than individual egoistic ‘wants’, Geddes was
thinking of social needs, the satisfaction of which demanded not only sympathy, altruism and cooperation, but an awareness of the social advantages of
cooperative behaviour. Though he phrased it differently, Geddes was trying to
formulate something similar to Durkheim’s idea of the conscience collective as
the basis for social solidarity. Any society with a degree of complexity of the
division of labour needed a shared underlying morality, but contemporary
social problems indicated that material development was outrunning moral
development. Progress towards the physical and biological ideal of synergy
in production, therefore, demanded the development of a moral ideal of
© 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review
Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
maximum altruism (Geddes, 1884: 36). Geddes had no difficulty postulating
the centrality of altruism and co-operation rather than self-interested competition as the motor of social evolution. While it may not have been fashionable,
at a time when both Spencer and Darwin were arguing for the centrality of
competition, Geddes simply referred (often casually, in fleeting references), to
social insects and animals that demonstrated co-operative behaviour, to make
his point (see for example, Geddes, 1881: 12; 1884: 11).
In the Division of Labour, Durkheim would postulate the existence of three
abnormal forms of the division of labour which signalled an unhealthy or
pathological social condition (1933 [1893]: 353–95). In his insistence that
‘material’ had outrun ‘moral’ evolution, Geddes anticipated Durkheim’s discussion of the ‘anomic’ division of labour, in which the extreme rapidity of
economic specialisation outpaced regulative or ‘moral’ change. Durkheim
suggested that this left individuals bereft of any notion of how their own
specialised function contributed to the maintenance of the whole, and was thus
disintegrative. Among his proffered solutions was the suggestion that some
way be found to ensure that ‘the worker, far from remaining bent over his task,
does not lose sight of those co-operating with him, but acts upon them and is
acted upon by them (Durkheim, 1933 [1893]: 372). Geddes’ solution of moral
evolution towards maximum altruism is similar, even if couched in very different terminology, and carrying a distinct tinge of ‘inevitability’. Biological
evidence showed, he argued, that species-maintaining behaviours such as
co-operation would always triumph over those, such as the ‘iron law of competition’, which maintained only individuals (Geddes, 1884: 36).
Geddes went on to suggest that the active modification of the social or
cultural environment should be added to that of the natural and physical
environment, in the interests of social amelioration, which needed welldeveloped minds as well as healthy bodies. In this way Geddes made education
– the production of an environment stimulating for the mind, a key force for
social progress (1884: 37–8). Thus did Geddes neatly tie together his physical,
biological and psychological aspects of economics as parts of an argument for
social amelioration through environmental regeneration and education. It is
necessary to note, however, that Geddes had strong views about the contemporary education system, and these became more strident as he aged. Much
later, in 1919, he would claim that what was called knowledge was often no
more than suitably diluted ‘upper class culture’, and as such had been ‘moderately successful in orienting the minds of “the Populace” to the existing
social order’ (Geddes and Branford, 1919: xviii). Moreover, he abhorred the
contemporary trend for clearly delineating the boundaries of each academic
discipline, which led, he claimed to the construction of ‘Thought Cages’ (1915:
68). Social progress demanded the discovery of new relations between different aspects of things, leading to a new synthesis. Universities, as ‘trustees of the
social inheritance’ should not only be more accessible for all, but practical
local knowledge should be recognised as of equal value to abstract academic
or technical knowledge (Geddes and Branford, 1919: xxv; Geddes and
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Maggie Studholme
Thomson, 1931: 1387). Many of his ideas about formal education, in fact, were
so far opposed to contemporary trends and beliefs (and actively insulting to
those who worked within, rather than outside the system) that they probably
hindered rather than helped, both the immediate reception of his work, and his
academic career in the longer term.
Meanwhile, in 1884, Geddes suggested that his economic analysis, already
complex, still needed the addition of a ‘sociological’ analysis and synthesis, for
which his economic analysis provided the necessary background (Geddes,
1884: 38). Anticipating criticism, Geddes denied building his argument around
his personal ethical principles (of efficiency in production, the conservation of
resources, and co-operation and sympathy between people), but insisted on
the scientific evidence in favour of these. Moreover, ethics was not an isolated
science but involved a generalisation of the findings of the other sciences
(Geddes, 1884: 40). As he had argued in 1881, most actions have both an
economic and a moral or ethical aspect. Only where what was ethically right or
good coincided with logically derived scientific postulates ought that course of
action to be adopted, otherwise we might find ourselves drawn into such
ethically dubious activities as cannibalism (on the basis that utilising all available sources of matter and energy is efficient). Ultimately, he believed, science
and ethics would reinforce one another (Geddes, 1881: 27–30).
The theory of civics
Geddes’ conception of sociology as ‘Civics’ (Geddes, 1905, 1906) was firmly
grounded in this earlier work. It was here that he developed his idea of the
‘region’, which, although (perhaps deliberately) spatially vague, was consistent
with his insistence on treating environment, function and organism (EFO)
together. Natural and cultural environments differed from place to place, so
that it was futile to propose a single national or global solution to social and
environmental problems. Each solution must be tailored to the needs of a
particular place – its topography, geology, climate, and the culture of its people.
In the theory of civics, Geddes’ main development of the EFO triad was the
addition of the idea that individual and social consciousness – as ideas and
ideals, values, beliefs and desires – was a product of the total environment
(natural, built and cultural). Thoughts and dreams, as products of different
everyday ‘experiences’ at the level of place, work and folk (or EFO), translated into the creative human ‘action’ that continually re-modelled and modified the surrounding physical and cultural environment. History was a process
of continuous human activity in environment, leading to the discovery or
development of knowledge, (feelings, sense and experience), to thoughts
(emotion, ideation, imagery), and via human institutions (specifically, the
‘cloister’ or university) to further actions. Although his various attempts to
represent this idea graphically were unsuccessful (only partly due to their
increasing complexity), this is not an especially difficult idea. As Marx put it ‘it
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Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the
contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’ (Marx, cited in
Giddens, 1971: 41). Geddes’ concept of the development of consciousness as
ideas, senses, feelings, emotions etc. into knowledge via interaction with environments of all kinds, leading to further action, simply makes this an explicitly
ongoing process, something that Marx would not have denied. That Geddes’
diagrammatic representations were idealistic, showing ‘what ought to be’
rather than ‘what is’ could not have helped his cause in the eyes of his
contemporaries (see Geddes, 1906, 1922; Geddes and Thomson, 1931). Reality,
as he had already indicated with his reference to ‘industrial anarchy’, was very
different from the ideal embodied in the theory.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is this unintelligibility, not just in his diagrams, but also, increasingly in his writing, that accounts for Geddes’ omission from the history of academic sociology? Certainly Meller (1990: 2)
draws attention to the fact that his ideas are not accessible, though Abrams,
even while making a similarly negative assessment, suggested that Geddes’
work was worthy of closer consideration than it had at that date received
(Abrams, 1968: 114–20, 152). Since then, of course, Geddes has received
much attention, but little that amounts to direct engagement with it as sociology. In his own lifetime, Geddes’ intellectual fortune (like his finances)
seemed to wane as much as it waxed, and by the end of 1907 sociology had
gained an institutional foothold in the British university system that left both
he and his supporters outside it. The story of Hobhouse’s appointment to the
Martin White chair, and Geddes’ exclusion, is a complex one, and in spite of
a number of historical accounts, has yet to be fully explored (but see
Halliday, 1968; Mitchell, 1968; Owen, 1974; Hawthorn, 1976; Boardman, 1978;
Collini, 1979; Abrams, 1985; Bulmer, 1985; Meller, 1990). Whatever the
reasons, however, Geddes’ lack of either presence or support at LSE, for a
long time the only place in Britain where sociology was offered at degree
level (Fincham, 1975), is significant, since as Edward Shils astutely pointed
out, institutions ‘create a resonant and echoing intellectual environment. The
sociological ideas which undergo institutionalisation are thereby given a
greater weight in the competition of interpretations of social reality’ (Shils,
1971: 762).
That institutionalisation can function in this way is evidenced by Fuller’s
(2006) account of the ‘hidden biological past of classical social theory’, which,
along with an account of more familiar classical theorists, devotes space to the
work of another of LSE’s sociological pioneers, Edward Westermarck, while
making not a single reference to Geddes himself. Moreover, while applauding
Hobhouse for creating a sociology in which social progress requires the transcendence or reversal of ‘evolutionary tendencies’ (Fuller, 2006: 60), Fuller
fails to see that the more narrow conceptualisation of ‘environment’ as social
and moral that emerged in the idea of orthogenic evolution (Hobhouse, 1901),
largely excluded sociological consideration of the ways in which people,
however distinctive their ‘human’ nature, necessarily interact with and depend
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Maggie Studholme
on the external, physical world. Like Hobhouse, Geddes began from biology.
Unlike him, he did not feel compelled to do away with it entirely in the
interests of creating an intellectual domain called sociology. His work, between
1881 and 1905, begins from the assumption that people are tied to the natural
world in the same way as all other animals. Its novelty, as classical sociology, is
that while it at no point refutes the deep interconnections of humanity with
nature, or the role of biological heredity, it simultaneously engages with what
is distinctively ‘human’ about human society – in particular the importance
of human creativity, and of cultural and intellectual ‘inheritance’ not just via
education, but also ‘environment’ (in all of the many senses in which he
defined it).
Meanwhile, Geddes’ invisibility in the history of sociology has meant that
others re-thinking the sociological canon in an attempt to re-conceptualise
the relationship between humanity and (the rest of) the natural world, have
been forced back on the re-interpretation of a mere handful of thinkers.
Notably, since Catton and Dunlap (1976) called for a New Ecological Paradigm (NEP), aspects of the work of Marx, Durkheim and Weber have all
been claimed as examples of an early sociological awareness of the importance of the natural environment (see for example, Buttel, 1986; Benton,
1989; Dickens, 1992). Although these re-interpretations are valuable in their
own right, it is especially interesting to see themes raised by Geddes reappear in, for example, Dickens’s (2004) textbook Society and Nature. Unconsciously echoing Geddes’ insistence on the environment–labour-society
interaction, the book is subtitled ‘changing our environment, changing ourselves’. Moreover, Dickens unwittingly sets out a broadly similar schematic
division of the field into the physical, biological and psychological. Whole
chapters are devoted to the transformation of the ‘external’ environment
through work, as well as to its commodification (physical); to human consumption and to the ‘internal’ biological environment of the body (biological); and to our changing psychic (psychological) structures. To be sure, the
terms of his argument are very different from those of Geddes, writing as
he is some hundred years or more into the future not just of societyenvironment interaction, but of sociological theorising itself.10 However, in
spite of the century that separates them, Geddes and Dickens represent a
strand of sociological thought that embraces a realist understanding of the
extent to which the sociological project of ‘human dominion over nature
without . . . dominion over each other’ ought not to proceed on a purely
‘constructivist’ basis (Fuller, 2006: 1, 204).
This paper has had to be selective in its presentation of Geddes’ early work.
For reasons of space, I have had to avoid getting bogged down in some of his
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Patrick Geddes: founder of environmental sociology
more controversial, difficult, or wrong-headed arguments (but see, for just one
example, the section on population in the 1884 paper on Economics). When he
is reclaimed for sociology, there will be plenty of time for everyone to engage
in the most stringent critique. Nevertheless, I hope to have avoided the hagiography that Law finds in most treatments of his work (Law, 2005: 1.1), while
considering it in its own terms, as a contribution to the making of sociology
before sociology was properly made. In many ways, it is a brilliant anticipation
of much more recent approaches to sociology, with its wide ranging interdisciplinary focus, and its insistence on examining the relationship between
people and their environments – not just social and cultural, but also physical,
as in the idea of ‘territory’ or region, and natural (via his concern with the
resources of matter and energy). In all Geddes’ work there is a wealth of social
critique, and a concern with social improvement which is entirely in keeping
with the Classical sociological orientation of Durkheim and Marx. For
Durkheim, indeed, sociology was to be the discipline, par excellence – best
fitted to engage in diagnosis and treatment of societal ills (Durkheim, 1893).
That Geddes’ social critique was grounded in an environmentalist concern
with conserving resources and improving contemporary urban environments
for people, rather than in (what has become) the conventional critique of
contemporary political economy as a justification for the exploitation of the
masses (as for Marx), or in a refutation of Spencer’s utilitarian sociology (as it
was for Durkheim), does not invalidate it as part of a classical tradition.
Rather, Geddes’ passionate championship of an actively created environment
(built, social, cultural and moral or educational) as a solution for social problems shared much in common with the work of his contemporaries. The
institutionalisation of their more narrow treatment of human ‘environments’
as social (or moral or cultural), while excluding the natural did not turn out to
be quite right.
Moreover, although its terminology may be unfamiliar, Geddes offers us a
distinctively sociological account of the ‘structuring’ of social (and environmental) reality via the creative agency of human beings (variously interpreted as machines, animals, or consciously desiring, sensate, intelligent
beings), actively working in all their different environments, not only
exchanging matter and energy in the process of producing the material
things necessary for survival, but also producing and using ideas and theories
in a deliberate attempt to improve the conditions of their existence. Even
power, as the ‘transformative capacity’ of knowledgeable agents is implied,
although Geddes naively did not consider the extent to which the use and
abuse of institutional power might adversely affect the possibilities for
achievement of his vision. Perhaps the most damning criticism is just this:
Geddes paints a ridiculously optimistic picture of what he believed could be
achieved by people working together co-operatively to shape their own
worlds. He even put these beliefs to the test through actual social practice,
living with his wife on the top floor of an Edinburgh tenement, leading
other residents to begin much necessary renovations by his own example
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Maggie Studholme
(Boardman, 1978: 86–9). No doubt this makes him, as Law has claimed,
‘Utopian’ (Law, 2005: 2.2). Is this sufficient reason for sociologists now to
reject his contribution? In any case, to accept Geddes as a (not to say the)
founder of environmental sociology is not necessarily to accept his work
wholesale. In the final analysis, he was both Utopian and sociologist. And as
Levitas (2005) points out, sociologists could do worse than to emulate the
utopian method when it comes to envisioning sustainable futures. This
involves the imaginary reconstitution of society on the basis of a holistic
look at all our ‘systems of production, consumption and distribution – and
the structures of desires and wants that accompany them’. If we do not
address, as ‘sociologists and citizens,’ the Environmental problems we have
ourselves created, ‘our very silences will shape not utopian but dystopian
futures’ (Levitas, 2005: 19, 21).
University of Bristol
1 Welter notes that Geddes and Bergson were acquainted and shared many ideas in common
(2002: 20).
2 Marx had his stage theory of history and a belief in the inevitability of the transition to
socialism; Durkheim used volume and density as triggers for social evolution and used
mechanical and organic solidarity to distinguish between pre modern and modern societies.
Weber’s approach was more sophisticated, but still carried traces of a belief in the inevitability
of progress in spite of contingent historical factors, especially in his ‘ideal typical’ representations of, for example, authority and social action.
3 The term holism was coined by J.C. Smuts, in Holism and Evolution (1926). Both Boardman
(1978) and Kitchen (1975) record Geddes’ approval of this book.
4 The influence of Le Playist sociology should not be overstated. Geddes was equally influenced
by Comte’s work, from which the Le Playists wished to dissociate themselves.
5 Geddes may have taken his axioms largely from the German ‘social energeticist’ Wilhelm
Ostwald. Compare Sorokin’s (1956 [1928]: 20–22) account of Ostwald’s work with Geddes’
sociological axioms.
6 The publications to which Geddes referred here are Marshall’s (1879) Economics of Industry
and Guyot’s (1881) La Science, Economique.
7 Geddes’ view was similar to that of others engaged in attempting to revise economics, including Frederick Soddy, Stanley Jevons and Wilhem Ostwald (Martinez Alier, 1987).
8 Welter (2002: 15) says that Geddes included only permanent products into the category of
super- necessaries, or luxuries. However, his reference to the gustatory senses in 1884 probably
indicates that some food (a transient product) should be classified as super-necessary. This
point is important, if only because, for all his moralising about over consumption, Geddes was
not advocating a wholly Spartan diet, only a wholesome one.
9 It could be argued of course that the latter can be used to purchase the former. Again, this is
to miss Geddes point. In any case, as Beck (1992) has amply demonstrated, even riches cannot
purchase immunity from environmental risk.
10 In particular, Dickens engages with the Risk society thesis popularised by Beck (1992) and
Giddens (1990).
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