ABSTRACT

By 1856 Le Play the technologist had become Le Play the social scientist; he himself never used the word ‘sociologist’, being suspicious of Comte. His technical writings had been abandoned, and his first social studies published. He had resigned his professorship, and been appointed to the Conseil d’Etat. He had left the School of Mines and was in the process of forming a ‘School’ of social research. We have already said that his life divides into two. But to overemphasise the significance of this change is to miss the significance of his life. At all times Le Play was both engineer and social scientist; this point cannot be laboured too much. In the first half of his life he was primarily a technologist, but studied the social implications of technical decisions. In the second half of his life he looked at society through the eyes of an engineer. He fought, we have already noted, the same battle on both fields – the subject must develop through empirical study and not reasoning a priori. How closely linked were the engineer and the sociologist is well illustrated by an incident reported by one of Le Play’s biographers, Charles de Ribbe. 1 This latter lived in the Rhone valley, scene of a major flood disaster in 1856. The following year he came to Paris armed with a detailed collection of facts about the deforestation of the Alps and the contribution this had made to the flood. He was recommended to see Le Play as a likely ally. He describes how the conversation changed from trees to foresters, and he found himself subjected to a searching enquiry about the way of life and family customs of the inhabitants of Provence. He found later in the conversation that his host was also very knowledgeable about forests. His parting words were: ‘It is not just a question of reconstructing the forests, it is a question also of remaking men and families.’