Observation, Epistemology, and Purpose in How to Observe Morals and Manners
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia
In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Victorian writer Harriet Martineau makes an important distinction: traveling a country is not the same as understanding a culture, and seeing is not the same as observing. Contrary to expectations, she writes, “The powers of observation must be trained, and habits of method in arranging the materials presented to the eye must be acquired before the student possesses the requisites for understanding what he contemplates” (1). As Sherlock would say to Watson, the difference between seeing and observing lies in asking the right questions.
Of course, if asking the right questions is important, then it must be possible to ask the wrong questions, to miss the entire point. And for Miss Martineau, there are certainly wrong questions. Somewhat counter-intuitively, only the unstudied tourist focuses on people rather than things. Things– such as the number and type of churches in a town, for instance– reveal more about the universal character of a place than the individual, perhaps eccentric, people that the traveler may meet in a limited slice of society. Of course, as we later find out, these people are still important; however, the observer must not generalize based on specific cases.
Additionally, Martineau assumes, with our friend Sherlock, that while people are subjective, things are– ostensibly– objective. This assumption reveals much about her sociological epistemology, which she reveals in this telling quote: “To test the morals and manners of a nation by a reference to the essentials of human happiness, is to strike at once to the centre, and to see things as they are [emphasis added]” (14). For Martineau, it is possible for the traveler to stand outside of a culture, free from her own biases, to judge and observe its true nature. Yet this assumption is not without its share of humility: the travel writer’s role is to aid in “means of approximation to truth,” and through varying accounts, the “fixed and essential” elements of a culture will be revealed (9).
What does all this observation, in the end, do for the society that is being observed? Perhaps nothing; it is unlikely that American society underwent fundamental changes in principle because of Harriet Martineau’s visit, just as it is unlikely that her unsettling antislavery views caused the Civil War.
However, the observation of another culture opens a window for her readers to examine their own society. When an observer asks, “What is the status of women/the poor/orphans/the insane/the marginalized in [insert country here]?” she cleverly invites comparison. Martineau’s readers are then prompted to assume that surely English society must be as advanced and free as American society (if not more)– if it isn’t, why not, and what needs to be done?
Additionally, observation has the power to effect a fundamental change in the observer. Martineau writes that a traveler has two choices: “…the intellectual accomplishments of the traveller avail him little, and may even bring him back less wise then he went out, — a wanderer from truth, as well as from home, — unless he sees by a light from his heart shining through the eyes of his mind…. Sympathy…cannot but make the traveller a wise man” (238). Through traveling and observing, we gain a little more sight in our cultural blind spots, a little more sympathy for the world around us.
And we march a little farther forward on the journey of a lifetime: learning to know ourselves.
“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
-T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”