The Research Project Europe 1815-1914

P.O. Box 24
Unioninkatu 40
FI-00014 University of Helsinki



Property and Poverty: Perspectives on the Nineteenth-Century Social Question

Organised by Thomas Hopkins, University of Helsinki.

Points of Departure and Outline

There is a rich body of literature on what Karl Polanyi labeled the ‘Great Transformation’ of the nineteenth century that informs us that central to the social and political changes Europe underwent was the decoupling of the economic and the social spheres.  An integrated socio-economic system, in which the values of social life were reinforced in the main by the prevalent modes of economic production and exchange gave way to a world in which the two were set in opposition, and in which society would have to struggle to maintain itself in the face of the inequalities opened up by the expansion of manufacturing industry.  At the conceptual level, the story appears even clearer. It was during the century, 1750-1850 that the conceptual distinction between society and economy first emerged, the one furnishing material for the rise of ‘social science’ and philanthropic social inquiry; the other becoming the mainstay of political economy, and its successor science, economics.  The nineteenth century saw political conflict come to be sharply orientated towards social divisions; our political systems, ideologically and institutionally, are marked by the legacy of these conflicts to this day.

How are we to understand this sense of conceptual dislocation?  Marxist scholarship took it as a reflection of underlying social conflicts, but as a number of scholars have argued, we should be wary of treating political or ideological languages as simply derivative of social tensions (Sewell, Stedman Jones).  It is tempting to frame the contestation between the economic and social as part of a three-way conceptual tussle with the political.  The recasting of European politics around the idea of the modern bourgeois liberal republic, and its constitutional monarchist variant, created a dilemma: how was political liberty/equality to be reconciled with rampant social inequality?  This was the heart of what became known as the nineteenth century’s ‘social question’.  The welfare state in its social democratic and Christian democratic manifestations may be taken as one twentieth-century attempt to resolve this question; Fascism and Communism in their different ways represented others.  What, however, was the nineteenth century’s answer?

This working group would attempt to tackle the emergence of the conceptual split between the economic and the social to give a more realistic picture of nineteenth-century political thought in its interactions with the transformation of the global economy and the transformation of European societies.  How should we understand this in relation to older ways of thinking about the state, markets, social relations and law?  How can we integrate these questions into an attempt to understand nineteenth-century Europe in a global context, incorporating the experience of empire?  The aim must be conceptual history that is attentive to recent debates in economic history and in the ever-broadening canvas that is social history.

Download statement (pdf)