Harriet Martineau: Biography, Works and Contributions

Harriet Martineau: The ‘Mother of Sociology’ and the Forgotten Feminist Sociologist

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876), was the first woman sociologist and is also referred to as the “mother of Sociology” by many of the contemporary sociologists who are bringing back her works into prominence. Hence, although she was a staunch political, social and economical writer and prominent journalist of the Victorian era, it is only recently that she has started gaining recognition. She translated August Comte’s, who is also the founding father of Sociology, ‘Cours de philosophie positive’ into English. It is also believed that Comte started reading Martineau’s translations instead of his original work and went to the extent of translating Martineau’s work into French again.

Early Life:

Harriet Martineau

Image Source: Wikipedia

The most prominent source to know about Martineau’s life is her Autobiography’ which was written in 1855. It was later published posthumously in 1877 together with Maria Chapman’s ‘Memorials of Harriet Martineau’. She was born in a middle-class family with her father as a manufacturer by profession. She was mostly self-educated at home and had a marred childhood laden with feelings of self-doubt and fearfulness. Women were forbidden to study in Universities, but she kept in pace with her male counterparts through “intense, self-directed investigation throughout her life”. She was also diagnosed with hearing impairments and used an ear trumpet during her adulthood.

Since she was raised as a devout Unitarian, her initial works were fervently religious. However, soon she transformed into an atheist and most of her literary works signify that. During this period, she spent her time in London in the company of popular personalities like Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Charlotte Bronte, William Wordsworth, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Malthus, George Elliott and Charles Babbage.

Major Themes

Her contributions to the field of Sociology centres around three major works– A Methodological Treatise (1838), Pre-Civil War America (1837) and her translator of Comte’s work. “Her observations and conversations produced an extremely insightful analysis of the dilemmas of an American slave society” (Hamlin, pp. 2).

Martineau undertook pioneering studies– substantive, theoretical, and methodological studies in what is now called sociology (Hill, 1981, pp. 291). Her writing topics ranged from biographies, education, disability, health, history, legislation, husbandry, manufacturing, mesmerism and occupational health to religion, political economy, philosophy, research techniques, travel, Sociology, slavery and women’s rights. She was a feminist, abolitionist, critic, social scientist and an avowed atheist. Her work, Society in America’ (1837) is the most appreciated among Sociologists in the United States. Here, age documented the subjects of democracy, equality and freedom that Americans claimed to cherish and the extant institutional frameworks. In her work, her role as a feminist also gets highlighted with her focus on the lives of women slaves in America. Contemporary Sociologists use her work to unravel the complexities of the 19th century Victorian England.

Martineau provided the first systematic methodological treatise in Sociology in ‘How to Observe Methods and Manners’ (1838). It is regarded as the first attempt towards “objective observation as a methodology in Sociology”. “Confronting the problem of studying a society as a whole, she creatively attacked problems of bias, generalization, samples, reactivity, interviews, corroboration, and data-recording techniques” (Hill, 1991, pp. 292). Her studies focused on major social institutions like religion, family, arts, popular culture, economy, government and prisons. Much before social thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, it was she who examined forms of religion, social class, domestic relations, forms of suicide, the status of women, criminology and delinquency and interpretation between individuals and the repressive social institutions. Her sociological imaginations were unbounded– they reached from theory to observation, from macro to micro. She is also recognised for her contributions to symbolic interactions and she was one of the first sociologists to elaborate both a method and a methodology for studying social life.

Martineau’s works were largely ignored by patriarchal sociologists (M.R. Hill, 1991)– she was not only forgotten in Sociology but also other domain that she worked in, like journalism, history and literature. Anthony Giddens referred to Martineau as someone who “called on Sociologists to do more than just observe, but also to work to benefit the society”. The complete lack of academic interests in Martineau’s works speaks volumes of women researchers’ position in Sociology. As young social scientists, it is our responsibility to brings scholars like Martineau back to prominence.


  1. Chadda, G. (n.d.). Classical Sociological Theory Profiling Harriet Martineau. Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai.
  2. Hamlin, J. (n.d.) Harriet Martineau: Morals and Manners. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, UMD.
  3. Hill, M.R. (1991). Harriet Martineau (1802–1876). Digital Commons, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Share on:

Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.