Invoking the Scientific Method
What is important about the appeal of William Booth and the many social reformers like him is that the debate became bound by a particular vocabulary and an invocation of a particular method. These ideas formed part of a new category of a normalized and productive society, with a vocabulary that included the words “slavery,” “outcast,” “uncleanness,” “depravity,” “drunkenness,” and “misery.” The method conjured up was the scientific method, with that use of abundant statistics considered to be the mark of many social reports. Shaped by the desire to “describe the condition of the poor” through the use of collected detail, these reports eschewed sensationalism to make a point seem incontrovertible. As Charles Booth, William’s namesake, said when he introduced his huge study called Life and Labour of the People of London, “The materials for sensational stories lie plentifully in every book of our notes; but, even if I had the skill to use my material in this way—I should not wish to use it here.” More important was the creation of an impression of great precision to communicate a perception of disinterestedness, completeness, and authority. By these devices, social reformers and their supporters sought to demonstrate the extent of the “problem” and the “solution” of the Condition of England. Even William Booth, who was both florid and sensational in his oral style, wrote that with the help of other writers he was appealing “neither to hysterical emotionalists nor headlong enthusiasts.” Rather, he said, he sought to “understate” the problem in a spirit of “scientific investigation.” He also called himself “a practical man” who wanted to deal “with sternly prosaic facts.”
Conceptions of the scientific method helped to set the terms of the category of “normalized poor” in England. This is well illustrated by William Booth’s focus on what he called the “submerged tenth,” a total of three million poor, most of whom lived in London. He wanted to examine the living conditions of “the Lost,…the Outcast,…the Disinherited of the world.” This group of people, “by their utmost exertions are unable to attain the regulation allowance of food which the law prescribes as indispensable even for the worst criminals in our gaols.” Booth also proposed that this group of people should be treated at least as well as a London cab horse. Naturally, it was presumed that like prisoners and domestic animals the poor should not only be given a decent diet but should also be trained, watched, and cared for—and enclosed. In this analysis, the condition of prisoners and household animals therefore became the standard for which aid was to be sought for this “outcast” population.
These arguments are important for our purposes because they applied not only to India in general but specifically to the Parakkudis or tenants-at-will and the Padiyals in the Chingleput district, many of whom were paraiyars or untouchable. Individuals, drawn from all levels of society, whether British or Indian, used these and other ideas to develop even further their utopian visions of progress and history.