The European/North Atlantic ‘Social Question’: the technicization and pluralization of social reform

The nineteenth century was the century of the emergence of the social modernity, and social problems – of the appearance of experts in the social field, of complex notions regarding “social milieu” and social welfare. Social assistance and social medicine models gradually replaced the liberal solution of philanthropy. Urban and rural worlds were redefined as ample domains where “social problems” appear and are resolved, where tensions and conflicts are taken care of by applying social expertise, by social sciences and scientists. The tension between the singular “social problem” (the inequality between the rich and the poor, between those protected by propriety and “the working and suffering working classes”) and the plural “social problems” became acute at the end of the nineteenth century. Experts of the ”social”, who were educated in Europe and America between 1885 and 1915, could easier claim a practicable field of analysis and intervention when they could approach it outside the great political fracture between the rich and the poor. At the end of the nineteenth century, surfeit and distrust towards the great (abandoned) projects of Enlightenment and Romanticism were growing rapidly. Discussing the “social problem”, in singular, implied the existence of a master-plan for the entire industrial, modern world and society and seemed unrealistic in a diverse and difficult to control world.


  • Case H (2016) The “Social Question”, 1820-1920. In Modern Intellectual History, 13(3), 747-775;
  • Topalov C (2004) Raconter ou compter? L’enquête de Charles Booth sur L’Est End de Londres (1866-1889), Mil neuf cent. Revue d’histoire intellectuelle, 1, 22, p. 107-132.


  • Topalov, C. (ed.) 1999 Laboratoires du nouveau siècle. La nébuleuse réformatrice et ses réseaux en France, 1880-1914, Paris: Editions de L’EHESS.