Kōrero: Social sciences

Whārangi 1. Forerunners of the social sciences

Ngā whakaahua

Social sciences are scientific studies of human society and behaviour. They include sociology, psychology, social anthropology, human geography, demography (the study of human population statistics), political science and education. Some aspects of economics might also be considered social science.

New name for a new science

In 1859 the editor of the Nelson Examiner wrote, ‘Our own mother country still remains, par excellence, the country of associations – political, scientific, social, moral, and religious … Of late years this national propensity has shown itself especially in the pursuit of social questions, and a new name has been coined to express them, sociology, or an inquiry into all the circumstances which affect the well-being of man, considered as a social animal, physically and morally.’1

Social-science pioneers

New Zealand’s social sciences were not formally established until the 20th century, but there were many pioneering studies. Pākehā explorers, missionaries, traders, surveyors and settlers wrote accounts of Māori society and behaviour. These were generally observations, individual interviews and collections of artefacts. Ethnology was discussed at philosophical institutes and was the focus of the Polynesian Society, established in 1892.

In the 1850s Arthur Saunders Thomson, an army surgeon, studied the illness and death rates among British soldiers stationed in New Zealand. He expanded these studies to investigate Māori disease rates and living conditions. Thomson’s statistical analysis was an attempt to apply scientific methods to the study of human populations. He included some of this material in his Story of New Zealand (1859). Later history books also included material on New Zealand’s social system, in particular William Pember Reeves’s Long white cloud (1898).

The increase in the number of welfare and health professionals in the late 19th century led to an increase in social research. Civil servants promoting social research included:

  • Edward Tregear, Labour Department secretary
  • Duncan MacGregor, inspector general of hospitals
  • George Hogben at the Department of Education
  • Grace Neill, an inspector of factories and of hospitals.

During the 1890s and 1900s New Zealand was the focus of studies by overseas visitors, including Beatrice and Sydney Webb from Britain, Henry Demarest Lloyd from the USA and Frenchmen Albert Métin and André Siegfried.

An early work of sociology

Perhaps the earliest New Zealand book to use the term ‘sociology’ was James Pope’s The state: rudiments of New Zealand sociology, published in 1887. Pope wrote the book for senior pupils of native schools (an early system of primary schools for Māori) although it was suggested it might have been more suitable for university undergraduates. The state was more of a civics textbook, describing the rights and duties of citizens, than a study of how New Zealand society worked.

Government data collection

In 1840 the new colonial government began collecting population statistics with the compilation of ‘blue books’. They contained figures on population, trade and government expenditure. From 1851 there was a regular census of the Pākehā population, and in 1857–58 a census of the Māori population. From 1874 there was a regular census of the Māori population. Through the century both the powers of the state and the services it provided expanded, making it necessary for the state to collect more social information.

During the 1870s the state began to collect economic data on exports, imports, bankruptcies, unions and industrial disputes. From 1893 official information from statistics was collected in government yearbooks including occasional articles on issues such as birth, death and marriage rates, adoption, divorce, education and crime. The Department of Labour, set up in 1891, became responsible for collecting industrial and employment statistics. In 1915 the government statistician published a report on the cost of living from 1891 to 1914. Specially appointed bodies such as the 1890 Royal Commission on Sweating (work in poor conditions for low pay), the 1912 Education Commission and the 1918 report of the Board of Trade into the coal industry investigated particular aspects of New Zealand society.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Nelson Examiner, 26 January 1859, p. 2. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Clayworth, 'Social sciences - Forerunners of the social sciences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/social-sciences/page-1 (accessed 14 November 2019)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 30 Jun 2015