British Literature

Book Reviews how to Observe Morals and Manners by Harriet Martineau

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One of the ways to prove the veracity of Harriet Martineau’s methods for how to observe morals and manners would be for the public to note for itself whether her predictions have come to pass. She proves her observatory methods to be accurate by stating that the women of France in the nineteenth century had so much more freedom than anywhere else that she would expect a French woman to be the first to exemplify female capabilities. Her prediction came true in the form of Simone De Beauvoir, who was one of the first twentieth-century feminist intellectuals of international fame.

There are philosophical and moral requisites for the observer for the principles of research and research practices she employs. She must seek the truth.  …“Test the morals and manners of a nation by a reference to the essentials of human happiness” and to “see things as they are” (Martineau 26).

She suggests that “a traveler interprets by his sympathies what he sees” (54). The best mode of travel is to walk. It is beneficial to speak foreign languages and speak to people from the heart.

Martineau recommends the study of things, using “the discourse of persons as a commentary upon them” (73). This can weed out opinion from fact. She divides the observation morals scholastically into three categories: personal, domestic, and social or political. She divides the observation of the morals and manners of a nation into five categories: religion of the people, the prevalent moral notions, the domestic state, their idea of liberty, their progress, actual or in prospect.

 It is recommended that the traveler have an unbiased gaze at what he sees and carry with him a way of restoring his temper and spirits. The best mechanical-writing methods for recording observations are a journal and a notebook. The journal is used for recording information when the traveler is most fresh; the notebook is for recording glimpses that must be described when they happen to ensure accuracy of observation.

What was the greatest surprise was her religious and domestic observations and how they relate to a culture. She explains how an individual can be confined by religious practices and marital expectations. All that it takes is for despotism becoming the natural rule where licentiousness and ascetic religions prevail, coupled with women being “educated to consider marriage the one object in life” (180), to provide an environment where the married couple feels imprisoned. This does not provide a society of happily married individuals.

Martineau identified the components of every society and how to observe them. She explains the mechanics of documentation. Whether a person uses a journal or a laptop makes no difference. Observing the nuts and bolts of any society is a timeless endeavor and always of value. I would use her methods to study other nations or societies. I would use her categories of morals and manners for the study of a nation. In addition, I would use discourse but rely on the observation of things more.

Martineau is content to observe Jews celebrating Passover without engaging in dialogue to understand the meaning of mah nish ta-naw, the beginning of the four questions. It is probable that she observed the holiday in Israel because of the garb she described the child and the adults as wearing. She would have gained greater insight into Jewish thinking if she had employed a guide to converse in Hebrew with those observed.

Janet Malcolm, in her brilliant piece in the New Yorker magazine, Travels with Chekhov, hires a guide from the Hotel Yalta where she is staying in Russia and is able to gain great literary insights into Chekhov’s work. Repeatedly, in Martineau’s work, she states that the Jewish spirit varies all over the world, but is the reader expected to believe this when she describes a ritual without learning its meaning? What precisely does she mean by the Jewish spirit?

 How to Observe Morals and Manners provides a timeless method for conducting social research in any country and a way to understand other cultures that would lead to greater insight into the culture and cultures. Being an observer takes careful preparation and is not a passive pursuit. There is more that can be learned by sympathizing through unbiased interpretation than by taking a tour. The book is an important tool for learning how to talk to people from other countries in a way that leads to discovering what they value.

This book would be helpful to someone who is genuinely interested in learning how nations vary and who would be willing to do social research to discover the differences. Above all, this book is ideal for a person who places his faith in moral power for that person is the person with a strong ability to reason.

Works Cited or Consulted

Malcolm, Janet. “Travels with Chekhov.”  New Yorker Magazine.   New York: Conde Nast,

February 21 and 28, 2000: 238 – 250.

Martineau, Harriet. How to Observe Morals and Manners. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988.    


More about this author: Shirley Lendway