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Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree

(1871—1954) sociologist and businessman


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(1871–1954)

A company director and chairman (1923–41) of Rowntree (the chocolate manufacturer) in York, Seebohm Rown-tree was also a social reformer, philanthropist, and social researcher, with strong interests in industrial and labour management and in poverty. He is best-known to sociologists for his detailed empirical studies of poverty in York.

His reforming spirit owed much to his Quaker origins and the strong influence of his father's ideas. He joined the family business when aged 18 and became the company's first Labour Director, implementing a range of reforms: an eight-hour day in 1896, a pension scheme in 1906, a five-day (44-hour) working week and works councils in 1919, a psychology department in 1922, and profit-sharing the following year. These changes were founded on Rowntree's concerns for the needs of workers, whose improved welfare was, he believed, also likely to promote industrial efficiency—a philosophy of scientific management elaborated in books such as Human Needs of Labour (1918).

Inspired by Charles Booth's studies of poverty in London, Rowntree decided to assess the extent of poverty in York, carrying out his first survey in 1897–8. Poverty: A Study of Town Life appeared in 1901. Rowntree adopted a subsistence definition of poverty, attempting to measure the resources necessary for maintaining physical efficiency. He distinguished primary poverty (where resources were insufficient to maintain efficiency) and secondary poverty (where earnings were sufficient but were spent on other things)—a distinction he subsequently accepted was problematic. The first study showed some 15 per cent of respondents were living in primary poverty. His subsequent studies in 1936 and 1950 employed somewhat modified measures and showed some reduction in poverty.

Subjects: Sociology — Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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