To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Essex Department of Sociology, we are publishing a short blogpost series on books published by members of the Department. The series showcases the diverse and rich research legacy and traces an engaging history of the Department.

Front cover image of book The Best CirclesThe Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and The Season, London: Croom Helm, 1973.
By Leonore Davidoff

Leonore Davidoff was appointed as a part-time Research Officer in the Department of Sociology in 1969 to work on a study of domestic servants that she had planned, having secured funding with Paul Thompson’s help from the Nuffield Foundation. She was then appointed a Lecturer in 1975, becoming a Research Professor in 1991. The Best Circles was her first book. It focuses on the activities of upper and middle-class women in Britain and their engagement in, and maintenance of, what was known as ‘Society’ over the late Victorian period through to the 1950s. In carrying out the research for the book, Davidoff, who had grown up in the United States, was surely helped by the fact that she could bring an outsider’s insights and perceptions into her observations and analysis.

But what was the Society (always with a capital S) that the book examined? It was, she contends: “the system of organising social and domestic life which began to be codified in the 1820s” (p14) with an accompanying calendar of social events, known as the Season. It was also, and more importantly:

“a system of quasi-kinship relations which was used to ‘place’ mobile individuals during the period of structural differentiation fostered by industrialisation and urbanisation.  As such it can be understood as a feature of a community based on common claims to status honour which were in turn based on a certain life-styles” (p15).

Society was a way of regulating access to the aristocratic elite and a means whereby upper and middle-class women, who were not expected to participate in formal employment from which they were largely excluded, instead provided stability in an era of political and social instability through their activities in the domestic and social sphere.

The book examines in some detail the rules and regulations of Society that served as the means by which this was achieved. These included those surrounding presentation at Court, attendance at Court events such as Ascot and Derby, the management of weddings, and the etiquette relating to dinner parties, the leaving of visiting cards, and the making of social calls. In a telling comment Davidoff argues that together they produced “one of the most effective instruments for social control ever devised” (p.36). The precision and attention to detail that are manifest in her examination of these aspects of social protocol is the first notable feature of the book, which also includes a good number of illustrations, many of them early black and white photographs, that illuminate the social life involved over the period.

The second notable feature is the skilful mix of sociology and history. Unlike many academics in the Department of Sociology at the time, Davidoff had had some formal training in sociology, including a research Masters at LSE where she completed a dissertation on women’s paid work. However, she also had a marked interest in social history. She comments that the study “bridges the disciplines of sociology and history” (p15), adding, in what was a typically modest way, that “neither historians nor sociologists may be satisfied” (ibid).

The sociology underpinning the book is especially visible in the way her analysis of Society is located squarely in the then dominant sociological focus on class stratification.  But her focus on the activities of the upper echelons of British society is of particular significance since sociologists had, and still often have, a tendency to concentrate on the powerless, deprived, and poor not those with power. Davidoff, however, rightly realised that if she were to fully understand the place of servants and domestic service, she had also to research the activities of elite groups.  In this she showed a recognition, too often forgotten by sociologists, that a sound understanding of the situation of the powerless requires an examination of the activities of the powerful.

However, history is equally important to the book and the account that Davidoff provides shows very clearly that the patterns of behaviour she was analysing could also only be understood in their historical context: they were a response to particular set of social pressures. Significantly this interest in social history came to be a defining characteristic of her work.

Another feature of the book that can too readily be taken for granted by someone reading it over 50 years after its first publication, is its focus on the activities of women, a focus that had been hardly visible in earlier sociological work.  In its attention to women the book both reflected and contributed to the growing feminism of the era which was just starting to have a marked impact on sociology (Ann Oakley’s influential text, Sex. Gender and Society, was published in 1972 and her study of housework in 1974).

What Leonore Davidoff shows so effectively in this relatively short, but important and pioneering, book is that a set of domestic activities that might be considered frivolous, trivial and of little social significance, like frills on a dress, played a key role in the maintenance of social order. The book is an impressive piece of scholarship.
by Professor Joan Busfield
April 2024