British sociology was shaped in the nineteenth century by three conflicting sources: political economy, ameliorism, and social evolution.
British sociologists saw the market economy as a positive force, a source of order, harmony, and integration in society. The task of the sociologist was not to criticize society but to gather data on the laws by which it operated. The goal was to provide the government with the facts it needed to understand the way the system worked and direct its workings wisely. By the mid-nineteenth century this belief manifested itself in the tendency to aggregate individually reported statistical data to form a collective portrait of British society. Statistical data soon pointed British sociologists toward some of the failings of a market economy, notably poverty, but left them without adequate theories of society to explain them.
Ameloirism is the desire to solve social problems by reforming individuals. Because the British sociologists could not trace the source of problems such as poverty to the society as a whole, then the source had to lie within individuals themselves.
A number of British thinkers were attracted to the evolutionary theories of Auguste Comte. Most prominent among these was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who believed that society was growing progressively better and therefore should be left alone. He adopted the view that social institutions adapted progressively and positively to their social environments. He also accepted the Darwinian view that natural selection occurred in the social world. Among Spencer’s more outrageous ideas was the argument that unfit societies should be permitted to die off, allowing for the adaptive upgrading of the world as a whole. Clearly, such ideas did not sit well with the reformism of the ameliorists.