Frédéric le Play
Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play
11 April 1806
La Rivière-Saint-Sauveur, France
|Died||5 April 1882 (aged 75)|
|Institution||École Polytechnique, Écoles des mines|
|Field||Economics, political economy, sociology, epistemology, engineering|
|Influences||Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald|
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The son of a custom-house official, Le Play was educated at the École Polytechnique and the École des Mines. In 1834, he was appointed chairman of the permanent committee of mining statistics. In 1840, he became engineer-in-chief and professor of metallurgy at the École des Mines, where he became inspector in 1848.
For nearly a quarter of a century Le Play travelled around Europe, collecting a vast amount of material bearing on the social and economic condition of the working classes. In 1855, he published Les Ouvriers Européens, a series of 36 monographs on the budgets of typical families selected from a wide range of industries. This work was crowned with the Montyon prize conferred by the Académie des Sciences. In 1856, Le Play founded the Société internationale des études pratiques d'économie sociale, which has devoted its energies principally to forwarding social studies on the lines laid down by its founder. The journal of the society, La Réforme Sociale, founded in 1881, is published fortnightly.
Napoleon III, who held him in high esteem, entrusted him with the organization of the Exhibition of 1855, and appointed him counsellor of state, commissioner general of the Exhibition of 1867, senator of the empire and Grand Officer of the Légion d'honneur.
Initially an atheist, Le Play gradually became convinced of the need for religion. In 1864, he published an essay defending Christianity against Darwinism and Scepticism. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1879, three years before his death. Blum (2004) included Le Play in his anthology of French counter-revolutionary thinkers.
Le Play's work was further developed by his many disciples: Adolphe Focillon (1823-1890), Émile Cheysson (1836-1910), Alexis Delaire (1836-1915), Henri de Tourville (1842-1903), Claudio Jannet (1844-1894), Edmond Demolins (1852-1907) , Paul de Rousiers (1857-1934), Gabriel Olphe-Galliard (1870-1947), the Belgian Victor Brants (1854-1917) and the Canadian Léon Gérin.
After an eclipse between the 1940s and the 1960s Le Play's methods resurfaced when the "history of the family" became a new field of interest in social science. In Britain, Peter Laslett who worked within the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure used le Play's methods at the end of the 1960s to study family structures from census and property transmission data, describing particularly the nuclear family structure which Le Play had not worked on.
At about the same time in France, legal history academics working on customary law were the first to re-apply Le Play's methods in scientific research. In the early 1970s, a growing number of ethnologists and historians joined this trend, especially those within the historical anthropology school: André Burguière, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. In a 1989 book which became a reference in its field, ethnologist Georges Augustins reshaped Le Play's family types classification.
Some sociologists rediscovered Le Play's work as well from the late 1960s on, overcoming the general opinion that Le Play's views were just overly conservative, particularly Paul Lazarsfeld, Antoine Savoye and Bernard Kalaora.
At the end of the 1970s historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd, a disciple of both Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Peter Laslett, was struck by the geographical similarity between the area of prevalence of the communitarian family system (patriarcal family in Le Play's words) and the regions where communism had become dominant in the 20th century. He reprocessed Le Play's study of family structures and published a number of widely publicised books establishing a link between traditional family structures and the great ideological and society movements in European history (religious and political choices, economic development, ...).
In English translation
Statue of Frédéric Le Play, by André-Joseph Allar, at the Jardin du Luxembourg (Paris, 1906).
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