First female classic sociologist Harriet Martineau’s work How to observe Morals and Manners is a refreshing read in the 21st century. Neglected by major 19th and 20th century sociologists, it survived relatively dequoted. Can this work make a leap forward in time? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this early method when studying social realities? Let’s dive into the early days of social science and find a remarkable usable list of Requisites for Social Science Travellers.

This essay* time-translates Martineau’s list of philosophical, moral and mechanical requisites and explores its empirical visual and travel style qualities. I have this urgent need to share this remarkable early 19th century list! The fascinating question to me is: are there enduring universal principles? Can a tool box for social research be adapted to a wide range of circumstances? Everything will be digital and different and networked and big data and so on. This makes this fundamental question extremely relevant: which routines possess longlasting and extensive knowledge powers?! Let’s travel.

Introduction to the book ‘How to observe Morals and Manners’ (1838)

Harriet Martineau’s early sociological work ‘How to observe Morals and Manners’ (short How to observe) reflects on a new subject for science, the Science of Morals and Manners, now known as social science and sociology. The book was published in 1838 in a series on observation and the first publication was about Geology (1835). In the advertisement accompanying that series, its aim was described as “a series of hints for travellers and students, calling their attention to the points necessary for inquiry or observation in the different branches of Geology, Natural History, Agriculture, the Fine Arts, General Statistics, and Social Manners.” (De la Bèche, 1835: Appendix:249).

How to observe was first written as a chapter in 1834 by the 32-year old Harriet Martineau on a sailing vessel, the United States, that was sailing from Liverpool to New York. She had already earned quite a bit of money writing a successful popular series in the British Illustrations of Political Economy. Characteristic for those days, she, as a woman, could not attend university. So, supported by her brother James, she organized her own intellectual productions and interdisciplinary surroundings. From an early 21st century perspective, Harriet Martineau is an ‘embedded sociologist’, or a sociologist not employed in academia (Nyseth et al 2011).

How to observe was then published in 1838, the same year Auguste Comte first publicly used the word ‘sociologie‘ in his Cours de philosophie positive (Vol. 4, 1838). It is one of my favourite publications in early sociology. Why? The answer can be relatively straightforward: after reading How to observe one wants to do sociology. It reads as a refreshing invitation to observe everyday social realities. For anyone with a keen interest in a different historical telling of sociology and its observational methods, the book deserves more attention than it has been given. The book has, so far, remained unknown, or unloved, by sociology students. I suppose many authors, periods or themes – from inequality to groups, digital developments and humans in space – have been more attractive to my students. Why would reading a Victorian writer be useful?

An open observational mind for social phenomena

I would like to put forward the argument that, apart from its refreshing invitation, How to observe contains a different start of early sociology, with (1) a better integration of isolated input from the Arts and Humanities (2) an open observational mind for a science of social phenomena and not of social problems and (3) an interesting toolbox for researchers. Enthusiasm for Martineau can arise, for example, simply from sentences in How to Observe, and I have quoted her in my sociology course description:

In the footsteps of social traveller Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), we (…) become students of society. Studying society is about finding facts you can touch and measure, about observing Things and about finding human comments on things (Discourse)” (based on Martineau 1838:73).

Clearly Harriet Martineau cannot be the answer to a kaleidoscope of omissions in the state of the sociology. But How to observe may be a good start. What are the strengths and weaknesses of her early ‘sociological’ publication? Does it contain a way of thinking that unlocks a different historical telling of the discipline sociology? These are the exploratory questions to be answered in the complete paper. In this essayblogpost I present one of the strengths of Martineau’s How to observe: her List of Requisites. These requisites, act as a toolbox, function as an early social research design, as a first sociology-avant-la-lettre.

Knowledge production

One of the most important points Martineau makes in How to observe is that there is no difference between ordinary people and readers, between travellers and the scientist. The traveller is imperfect. Imperfect is a word she likes to use; it is of a modesty often forgotten in the science of today, or not admitted. Martineau writes: “We cannot suddenly make ourselves a great deal better than we have been (…) but we may put a check upon our spirit of prejudice, and carry with us restoratives of temper and spirits which may be of essential service to us in our task” (ibid. 1838:52). She is not optimistic about the qualities of the testimony of some individuals and calls ‘it a hopeless enterprise, beginning at the wrong end’. A traveller is one in many, and “has no security that those he meets are a sample of the whole.” there is no security it “is a sample of the whole” (ibid. 1838:227) and “unless a traveller interprets by his sympathies what he sees, he cannot but misunderstand the greater part of that which comes under his observation” (ibid. 1838:54).

Martineau is more than doubtful about the knowledge production of the individual.

To “that eyes, ears, and memory are enough for morals” (ibid. 1838:14), writes Martineau, is not enough; it is too individual and too personal, and would it not “reveal probably more the mind of the observer than of the observed?” (ibid. 1838:16) According to Martineau, we need a skilled Science of Morals and Manners. These skills are summarized in the requisites throughout How to observe. For a good report, the traveller needs analytical power and focus, a method and a sense of what is relevant and going on in society. In other words, the traveller wears special glasses and he/she observes social reality through these glasses. This strategy needs emphasizing in terms of its use in education: the Science of Morals and Manners hopes for a different observation, more and better through its use of requisites. In short: social science needs vision and skills.

Harriet Martineau’s How to observe starts from the traveller’s perspective and then structures the experiences of traveller’s in requisites: moral, philosophical and mechanical requisites. These are identified and summarized in the following list. The bullet list formatting allows the list to functions as a toolbox for a researcher, showing the strength of the contents of How to observe.

And now the List!

Harriet Martineau’s List of 15 Requisites for Social Science Travellers**

Philosophical Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

1. a certainty of what he/she wants to know (analytical power and concentrative thought, focus)

2. principles to serve as a rallying point and test of his/her observations

3. a method that promises any useful results

4. a definite notion on the origin of human feelings of right and wrong (a moral conviction)

5. a sense of the relation between virtues and vices and general influences (knowledge of general trends and how they work out).

Moral Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

6. sympathy to find his/her way to hearts and minds

7. to not allow him/herself to be perplexed or disgusted by seeing the great ends of human association

8. to think about the dangers of attracting spirits like his/her own. And be warned that the traveller should not find everything amazing or terrific, mysterious picturesque or classical

9. to be aware that we suddenly make ourselves a great deal better than we have been, for such an object as observing morals and manners

10. no feelings of discouragement, as long as s/he desires to be useful rather than shining.

Mechanical Requisites: the Traveller (=researcher) needs:

11. a means of transport where one meets people and has the advantage of being able to approach people and places gradually

12. to distinguish between language in literature and daily language

13. to keep a diary/journal

14. to be aware that a set of queries is better than an individual report

  1. to stand on the highest pinnacle to obtain an accurate general view in contemplating a society as well as a city.

Edited and condensed from: How to Observe Morals and Manners by Harriet Martineau 1838:2-70.


History of sociology perspective and citizen science

My second exploratory question was: Does How to observe contain a way of thinking that unlocks a different historical telling of the discipline of sociology? From a history of sociology perspective, the most important storyline is the methodological and epistemological storyline. The Traveller is a flat character, but in the end, this Traveller – later known as researcher – is the crucial person, but not better than the reader. Put more strongly: the reader can be the Traveller, can be the researcher. This position allows a different historical telling. It takes us forward in time and brings us to citizen science, i.e. science done by citizens. Currently, citizen’s science implies participation in particular in the phase of data collection (De Moor 2019). How to observe goes further and reads as an invitation to participate in the broader arena of scientific-rational thinking. Following back in history these traces of citizen’s participation in research could be worthwhile.

The arguments for including Harriet Martineau’s Traveller’s perspective in this reconstruction of social science history are good. Her 19th century encouragement has opened opportunities for a broad community of researchers. With a little modesty added to the ‘unique individual’, as stated in Requisite 10 in the tool box list: “no one observer or recorder ought to feel discouragement, as long as he desires to be useful rather than shining” (Martineau 1838:20-21).


*  Ellie Smolenaars 2020 ‘Harriet Martineau: 15 Requisites for Social Science Traveller’.  Social Research & Journalism. Essay. 4th February 2020. This essay is part of the rewritten version of the paper The Imperfect Social Traveller: Martineau’s 15 Requisites for Social Science Research, presented at the Martineau Society Annual Conference 2018 – July 24th – 27th London. Dr Williams’s Library, London. I would like to thank participants of the conference, and Anne Wegner, for their valuable comments!

** the capital T. in Traveller is mine, not Martineau’s. In this paper the traveller becomes a Traveller, an inviting metaphor for the role of researcher.



Comte, Auguste. “The positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte.”, In three Volumes. Vol. 3. Freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau, George Bell and Sons, 1896.

De la Bèche, Henry Thomas. “How to Observe Geology.” Charles Knight, The complete advertisement is reprinted in Appendix II:248-250 in: Martineau 1838, 1836.

Martineau, Harriet. “How to Observe Morals and Manners.”, With an introduction and analytical index by Michael R. Hill, Transaction Publishers, 1838 (1989).

Moor, Tine de. “Citizen-science-society: wetenschap met burgers.” Presentation Symposium ‘Ja, ik wil!’, Stadsarchief Amsterdam, 29 maart 2019.

Nyseth, Hollie et al.”Embedded Sociologists.”, in: Contexts, vol. 10 nr. 2, 2011, pp. 44–50.