Republican Spaces: An Intellectual History of Positivist Urban Sociology in Britain, 1855-1920

Matthew Wilson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

715 Downloads (Pure)


Witnessing the wide-reaching repercussions of the French and Industrial Revolutions, Auguste Comte and his British followers organised a concerted effort to answer ‘the question of modern times,’ the ‘incorporation of the proletariat into modern society’. This dissertation presents the Positivists’ different contributions to urban sociology as a collective response to this dual revolution. They endeavoured to see through the transformation of Western empires into a vast network of city-states or republics. The British Positivists developed an intellectually critical survey practice, and with this empirical evidence, they composed a series of republican planning programmes. With these comprehensive programmes, they aimed to ameliorate the proletariat by realising an alternative to global consumer culture, local environmental degradation and widespread indifference to public life. This dissertation traces the growth of the sociological survey alongside discussions of planning idyllic republican communities. It demonstrates how this Positivist theory and practice informed the rise of modern British town planning and city design.
We will see that from the agitation of the 1830s, the historical and geographical surveys of Comte, and later Richard Congreve, tracked the links between domestic decline, militancy and contrived imperial unions. They devised policies to facilitate pacific international relations. Their intention was to expedite a moral urban revolution led by scientific and industrial institutions. From the 1860s social war between capital and labour, the industrial and social surveys of Frederic Harrison and Charles Booth fortified schemes for national regionalisation. With the opening of local government by the 1890s, the rustic and civic surveys of Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford aimed to bind town and country units into Garden City-states. By the 1920s they had outlined the basis for a ‘higher art of polity-making’ called ‘City Design’. Effectively, this dissertation explores the Positivist roots of the modern British town planning and city design movement.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Claeys, Gregory, Supervisor
  • Beer, Daniel, Advisor
  • Cockram, Gill, Advisor, External person
Award date1 May 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • Positivism
  • urban sociology
  • republicanism
  • town planning
  • City Design
  • Auguste Comte
  • Richard Congreve
  • Frederic Harrison
  • Charles Booth
  • Patrick Geddes
  • Victor Branford

Cite this