The Institute of Sociology came into being as a result of the merger of the Le Play House organisation and the Sociological Society, with the objects “To promote the study of Sociology and the sociological study of human communities; to encourage the use of such studies in education; and to advance the application of such studies to urban and rural development.” (Constitution of the Institute of Sociology, AF). As the first Annual Report (VB211) said, “a single organisation appeals to the public with more force, simplifies contacts with members and enquirers, and makes infinitely easier the co-operation with other bodies”. Its constitution provided for a President, who should hold office for not more than three years in succession, an unspecified number of Vice Presidents and a Council of up to twenty five elected members, with the powers to co-opt the same number. Day to day organisation was to be in the hands of an Executive of eight, three of whom were to be appointed by the Trustees, whose role remained largely unaltered from the Constitution of the Sociological Society. No formal membership figures are given, but a rough calculation from the subscription income produces a figure of about #435 for the first year ( a figure which is, incidentally, never exceeded during the ensuing 25 years (VB211). A note in the 1930 Annual Report reports 50 new members during the first year, and that, “the whole standard of enquiries seems to have risen steadily, and indicates that the Institute has now an assured status as a centre of information.”
Activity during the first year or so was fairly extensive, covering meetings, foreign field trips, survey work in Britain and the organisation of schools and conferences, as well as publishing a revitalised Sociological Review and a large number of pamphlets. The early 1930s were also the period when Alexander Farquharson wrote most extensively, on the nature of the social survey and its role in community organisation. Although never a prolific writer, Farquharson’s articles on survey work, published in pamphlets, a variety of social service journals and the Sociological Review form the basis for a discussion of the nature of Le Play House survey which is free from Geddes’s flowery metaphor and Branford’s obscure mysticism. The papers are discussed in Section 6.4 below.
Structure and Organisation
The Institute of Sociology took its structure from the structure that Farquharson had built up during the 10 years of running Le Play House. It was formally run by a Council, which appears to have met about four times a year during the years when the Institute was functioning most effectively (the first half of the 1930s). Thereafter, consistent minutes do not exist, and those that do indicate that meetings were less regular, less well attended and did not follow any set pattern. The most consistent members during the first few years were Farquharson, Eleanor Spear, Amy Holman, Christopher Fagg, and Maud Jeffrey – after 1933, Dorothea Farquharson (who was married to Alexander in December 1933) played an increasingly prominent role, and Alfred Waldegrave, Eileen Thomas, Rosemary Pennethorne, John Dugdale and for a while, T H Marshall appeared regularly.
There is clear evidence that the organisation was severely hit by the recession in the early 1930s, quite apart from the problems surrounding Branford’s will. Between 1924 and 1933, Eleanor Spear served as Secretary to the Sociological Society, Le Play House and the Institute of Sociology. In December 1932, as a consequence of the economic situation, discussion of staff reductions at the Executive (VB209 2.12.32) lead to suggestions of a need for a cut in salary expenditure. Spear offered to take a 25% cut in salary, or resignation, the latter of which was accepted amicably, although she remained a full time employee of the Institute until March 1933, and worked for two months during the summer as well. Her association with Le Play House remained close, and she continued to work for the Institute on occasions, in research and in the library during 1935 to 1936, while working full time in social work for much of this period. She also served as Secretary to the South East Union of Scientific Societies until 1942. However, there is evidence in correspondence between Farquharson and Dorothea Price, particularly during the late 1920s that Spear was a difficult person to work with, and that her relationships with Le Play House were tied up in the same incestuous circles which led to the Le Play Society split, and antagonism between Margaret Tatton, Farquharson and several other women involved with the organisation.
One of Farquharson’s paramount concerns was that sociology in general, and the Institute in particular should be respectable and responsible, and it is partly for this reason that he was concerned to secure prestigious figureheads as presidents of the organisation. Following the deaths of Victor Branford and Patrick Geddes, who were the first Presidents of the Institute, (probably more as a courtesy in the case of Geddes), the title went from 1931 to 1934 to Robert Randolph Marrett, professor of Anthropology at Oxford and described as ‘one of the last armchair anthropologists’ and ‘an office bound don’, part of the ‘real establishment of British Anthropology’ (Kuper 1975:20-35). Marrett became actively involved in the work of the Institute during the years of his Presidency, leading a field trip to his native Jersey in 1932. Marrett’s interest in sociology was sporadic, but genuine – he wrote of admiring the ‘missionary ardour’ of Branford, but added ‘I always wondered whether they were right in pinning their faith so exclusively on the method of Le Play’ (Marrett 1941:262). Nonetheless, he admired the concrete practicality of the Institute’s foreign field trip programme, as well as attempting (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Institute to take more seriously his interests in population, anthropometry and race. However, Farquharson complimented him as ‘the ideal president for a difficult transitional period’ (VB300), and his relationship with the Institute remained cordial until his death in 1943.
Marrett was succeeded by Sir Ernest Barker, the Cambridge historian, appointed to a Chair in Political Science in 1927 with Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation money, which would also have provided a Chair in Sociology had the University Regents been prepared to accept the discipline, which they were not (Howarth 1978; Bulmer 1981a). There is no evidence that Barker, despite his connections with the Institute did anything to attempt to alter this state of affairs. Nonetheless, Barker had been a member of the Sociological Society, and a founder member of the Institute – Farquharson’s letter to him in January 1935, offering him the Presidency promised that ‘your acceptance … would help extraordinarily the plan upon which I have set my heart; namely, the establishment of this Institute in a thoroughly stable and influential position during the next few years.’ Despite modestly defining himself as ‘a bleating lamb among the lions of sociology’, Barker accepted the post, and remained a friend and confidant of the Farquharson’s until Alexander’s death in 1954 (Barker 1960) – one of the last surviving photographs of Farquharson, from March 1953 shows him and Dorothea with Sir Edward and Lady Barker at Ledbury.
Following Barker, the historian George Gooch was elected President, and remained in post for ten years, from 1938 to 1948 on account of the War. But by this time, the Institute was already in decline, and the task of a President was to keep it afloat by lending a spurious academic legitimacy, rather than seeking to secure it influence in new and higher places. Gooch appears to have been loyal but colourless, and his relationship with Farquharson was not significant to the extent of any substantial surviving correspondence.
The role of Dorothea Price, who married Alexander Farquharson in December 1933 became increasingly prominent during the 1930s. After the war, from her position as Honorary Organiser of Field Studies she became effectively joint Secretary of the Institute, taking over the role of protector of its traditions (such as the Branford heritage) following Alexander’s death in February 1954. Dorothea first came into contact with Le Play House while a lecturer at Leeds City Teacher Training College in the early 1920s. She was born the same year as Alexander, 1882 in or near Ross on Wye, where her father was a Congregational Church minister. Her family, interesting in its own right consisted of five brothers and Dorothea – her brothers Egbert (Bret) and Hereward were both travellers, the former working in India, Africa and South America at various times, and the latter becoming a Professor of English at Ann Arbor University in Detroit. The American descendants of the Price family maintain a detailed family history, which I have unfortunately been unable to trace (Copner 1982). Nonetheless, it is perhaps too trite to suggest that Dorothea’s involvement with Le Play House, which came increasingly to be through participation in and later organisation of foreign field trips should be simply in line with the proclivities of the rest of her family. The first record of her presence at a Le Play House function was at the High Wycombe School of Civics in 1921; and from 1925 she and Alexander engaged in increasingly intimate correspondence. Dorothea both went on and then led a number of field trips for Le Play House Educational Tours, the Foreign Work Committee and later of course the Institute of Sociology, and in the process became more intimately involved with sociology, Le Play House and Alexander Farquharson. Their correspondence through the late 1920s and early 1930s, preserved in the archives at Keele provides a valuable commentary on affairs at Le Play House during its most active and energetic years.
Le Play Society split
During the first year of the existence of the Institute, relationships between the Foreign Fieldwork Committee and the rest of Le Play House continued to deteriorate. The Foreign Fieldwork Committee remained resolutely detached from the mainstream of Le Play House, as did the Students Committee, although this was partly due to the fact that most students associated with Le Play House were at residential teacher training colleges some distance from London (Council Minutes 17.7.30 VB211); It was reported to Council twice in 1930 that despite a generally healthy level of recruitment, “no new members had come through foreign work.” The Foreign Fieldwork Committee’s report to Council was minuted as not being “sufficiently informative financially”, and it was noted that non-IOS members were not being charged extra for going on foreign tours. As a result, Council decided in December 1930 that “the attempt to treat it (the Foreign Fieldwork Committee) as a semi-independent body in the past has been a source of friction and misunderstanding”, and that while there was “no proposal or discussion of secession”, Farquharson suggested that their occupancy of a substantial part of Le Play House should perhaps be reviewed. In October 1931 the two organisations parted company by mutual agreement, the secession being agreed unanimously by Council. A letter to ‘members and friends’, signed by the Chairman of the Institute’s Council, A J Waldegrave stated that, “The termination of this agreement had been under discussion for about a year, when the national crisis introduced a fresh element into the situation by making foreign travel impossible.” It was agreed to lend the Institute’s collection of survey materials to the former members of the Committee, and that it might at some stage become a gift to any new body competent to make use of it.
Members of the Foreign Fieldwork Committee however, at the instigation of C B Fawcett, Professor of Geography at University College London and with a certain measure of support from Geddes immediately formed a separate organisation which they chose to call the Le Play Society (Beaver 1962; Russell 1960). Geddes had presented a paper to the Institute’s Council in October 1931, at which the disagreement between his and Farquharson’s notion of the nature of sociology and the survey (see Section 5.4 above) seems to have resurfaced (2.10.31 : VB211). In any case, it seems that Geddes was sufficiently disenchanted with the state of things at Le Play House to explore the possibility that another body, more firmly rooted in geography and biology might be a better vehicle for the propagation of his ideas. Both Beaver and Russell suggest that the split occurred in 1930, and that it was primarily a difference of opinion over the nature of fieldwork; although there were disagreements as outlined above, there is little evidence that methodological or theoretical disputes within Le Play House prior to the secession were the prime cause. Rather, the circumstantial evidence that exists suggests that the major causes of the dispute lay in personal and professional jealousy between Farquharson, Margaret Tatton, Dorothea Price and Eleanor Spear. However, the Foreign Fieldwork Committee was continuing to draw into its orbit (although not into membership of the Institute of Sociology) an increasing number of young geographers; (for example, one of the last field trips organised by Margaret Tatton for Le Play House (to Finland in August 1930) was led by Dudley Stamp), and their interests were in precisely the kind of biological, ecological and ultimately Le Playian aspects which Farquharson was anxious to relegate to a more minor role.
The actual threat that the formation of the Le Play Society posed to the continued existence of Le Play House and the Institute of Sociology , or even its involvement in foreign fieldwork was considerably less serious than was suggested by Farquharson’s response, coloured as it undoubtedly was by personal antagonism and also by the belief that the Le Play Society was in some way intent on challenging the interpretation of Branford’s will. However, the immediate problem was sorted out reasonably cleanly without the need to resort to law. The Institute’s most serious loss was nonetheless Patrick Geddes, who, although he had remained relatively apart from the affairs of Le Play House for most of the time, remained a powerful and enormously influential figure. He saw himself as a mediator between the two factions, writing to his son, “At first Farquharson etc. furious threatening even the law – but I adjusted and reconciled them – at solicitors yesterday – and hope for doubling sociological action accordingly, since each is now free to spread surveys and tours at home and abroad” (Boardman 1978:423). In fact, the Institute secured a written statement from all former members of the Foreign Fieldwork Committee in January 1932, confirming that there was “no corporate continuity or connection” between the Committee and the Le Play Society, and that they had no claim to any of the property of the Institute Personal bitterness remained, and the two organisations had virtually no contact with each other thereafter, even though both were engaged in very similar activity for the next twenty years. Dorothea Price wrote in 1933, “It is enough to make Le Play turn in his grave to have these unsociological joyriders dubbed Le Play” – and somewhat more elliptically referred to the British Union of Fascists as “the Le Play Society of Fascism”.(AF 102). The Le Play Society attracted most, although not all of the geographers away from the Institute, and continued in existence until 1960 ( Russell 1960; Beaver 1962). It produced reports and material very similar to that produced by the Institute, although it is now somewhat scattered; some is at Keele, some at Nottingham but a considerable amount is probably lost.
The death of Victor Branford on June 24 1930, while not critical for the continuation of the Institute or Le Play House was important in that it removed the figurehead, whose contacts in the financial and political world were important in securing for sociology recognition in areas where it would otherwise have been unknown. However, partly as a consequence of Branford’s death the first half of the 1930s were for the Institute a fairly optimistic time, despite the world economic crisis. Branford had apparently left a large bequest to the Institute on his death, for the furtherance of his particular brand of sociology, and this included the continuation of the Sociological Review, and the publication of a number of his writings. The total value of his estate was never clearly established, but was estimated by Farquharson in 1937 to be #20,000 (VB242), the greater part of which, after provision for relatives was to be left the Institute. The authenticity of his handwritten will was not in doubt, but as Farquharson wrote, “it was couched in obscure terms, and was interlocked with the will of his wife who had died in 1926, also leaving an obscurely worded will.” (AF – Edyr, Roche and De La Vega, Buenos Aires 13.1.37, VB242) Both wills were referred the Chancery Division; Victor Branford’s was accepted late in 1932, and Sybella’s two years later. The problem however was that much of Branford’s fortune was tied up in investments abroad, particularly in South America, where he had had numerous financial interests – and many of his investments in Britain were in projects which were more sound socially and morally than financially. There was great confidence that money would be forthcoming – Dorothea wrote to Alexander Farquharson in June 1930 (on hearing the news of Branford’s will)
“Glad – so very glad – all was well; but I hadn’t the glimmering of an idea that it was so wonderfully good. It means possibilities now of carrying out the cherished hopes for Le Play House – hopes that had to lie up and wait … without much sign of fulfilment. It really is a great thing to have done – this last decision of VB’s … giving finally his blessing to all the efforts made. I really think it the most blessed piece of news I’ve ever had. That after so many checks, disappointments, rivalries that spoilt things, opposition that baffled, dark days when funds had almost gone – and you knew the very darkest days when there seemed nobody to keep things going but yourself – after all this, a blessed sign that you might be given the chance of making Le Play House what it should be”.(30.6.30:AF 98) LS2 CI LL70
In fact, the legal complications surrounding Branford’s finances proved to be much more intractable that either Farquharson or the Branford family could have imagined. In June 1932, Farquharson reported to the Council that in order to obtain the substantial inheritance which Branford had bequeathed to the continuance of Le Play House and its particular brand of sociology, it was necessary for the Institute to change from a registered charity to an incorporated body. He added that the actual value of Branford’s funds in Britain was about £6000, which would produce an income of about £650 a year, of which £400 would go to the Institute. An additional consequence of incorporation would be that the need for Trustees would be obviated, and this concurred with advice from Counsel early in 1931 to the effect that the present Trust was legally invalid. The position of the Trustees had been in question since the death of Sybella Branford in 1926 and the demise of the Sociological Society – however, while their role in relation to the status of decisions made by any of the constituent bodies of Le Play House was relatively unimportant, their role in the administration of Branford’s complex estates was more significant. Despite assurances from all surviving Trustees named in Sybella Branford’s will that they had no desire to interfere in the administration of the Victor Branford Trust, and despite the incorporation of the Institute into a company limited by guarantee in December 1932, any real income from Branford’s estate continued to prove elusive.
Farquharson and Harold Gurney, the two executors of Branford’s will began on a long and ultimately fruitless correspondence with South American banks and lawyers early in 1933. Branford had many investments in South America, including holdings in Government Stock, gold mining companies, timber companies and his main interest, the Paraguayan Railways. The Bank of London and South America, which was handling much of Branford’s estate insisted on a number of complicated requirements, among them the marriage certificate of Branford’s parents, which Farquharson was unable to provide, his mother having died in 1871. The Bank of London and South America’s Argentinean lawyer died in July 1934, shortly after Branford’s London lawyer had also died, which, coupled with the self-confessed sloth of South American Courts and the financial and political vagaries of affairs in Argentina during that period led an ever decreasing likelihood of money being forthcoming. Eventually, a cable to Farquharson from the Bank in September 1936 read simply, “Death duties claimed absorb total funds”. Despite further correspondence, no significant amounts of money were recovered, and a file of over 500 letters (VB45 / VB242) is testimony to the frustration felt by the Institute.
Despite a certain amount of financial juggling, the problems involved in realising any Branford assets took so long that by the time some money did start to appear in the late 1930s, the Institute was already fairly heavily in debt. In only one year (1939) did the Branford income reach the amounts hoped for – and by then wartime problems were taking over. With the exception of a few years in the mid 1930s, the Institute was in severe financial difficulties for the whole of its existence, showing a deficit for every year of its published accounts (1930 – 1950).
However, the problems involved in realising anything from Branford’s will were short-lived compared with the problems of fulfilling another requirement of that will, namely that his unpublished works should be published, and that all his works should be edited and kept in print. In July 1934, the psychologist Pryns Hopkins, who had been investigating the Branford Papers wrote to Waldegrave (Chairman of the Council) suggesting that publication take the form of an extended biography, probably edited by Farquharson which would cover the main points of Branford’s philosophy and would include contributions by Lewis Mumford and academic colleagues from the Sociological Society and the Institute. Assurance was obtained from relatives of Patrick Geddes that they would have no objection to the inclusion of extracts from the extensive Geddes-Branford correspondence in such a volume, and Farquharson wrote to Mumford asking him to participate in the project. Mumford agreed to do part of the work during a visit to London in 1935, but in the event proved to have too little time available to achieve anything substantial. However, by 1936, Hopkins had planned a detailed word budget for the volume, which would include about 60,000 words of Branford’s unpublished papers.
Yet despite his endeavours, and the earnest wishes of almost all those involved with the Institute that Branford’s papers be edited and published, nothing happened. A detailed list of Branford’s papers was produced prior to the move to Malvern in 1940, but it is likely that some papers were lost during the war, and the project to publish them all never materialised seriously again. Dorothea Farquharson, writing in 1955 (VB1) suggested that the cause lay mainly in the threat of war and the uncertainty over the future of Le Play House in London. However, Geoffrey Salter-Davies, wrote to Farquharson in 1942, “only yourself would have the knowledge and the sympathy, and, so far as I know, only myself the sympathy without the knowledge to undertake the work.” The choice was between publishing everything unedited, which would have been prohibitively expensive (and probably counterproductive), or producing an abbreviated collection, which would not have fulfilled the obligations in Branford’s will. Davies concluded by placing the blame on Branford himself, accusing him of “brilliance marred by incoherence, an inability to write precise English and a certain intellectual laziness which … has been the main defect of all the sociologists in our particular group” (GSD-AF 9.2.42 VB1).
The Social Survey in Britain
It was in the late 1920s that the Government first began to show an interest in social research, although the interest was sporadic and lukewarm until the Second World War compared with the USA, where a Social Science Research Council had been established in 1923, albeit a private concern financed by Rockefeller Foundation money (Fisher 1980; Bulmer 1980). There is evidence that Le Play House attempted to get some money from this source, (a handwritten document by Farquharson from 1927, “Appeal to the Laura Spelman Trust” exists in the Archives (VB114), but there is no record of a formal application having been made. It is perhaps significant that this coincides with the paper to a Le Play House meeting on the Local community Research Committee of Chicago by Vivien Palmer, and the latter’s article in the Sociological Review. Nonetheless, earlier in the decade formal applications for funding had been sent to the Carnegie Trust, noting that “Under the Town Planning Act 1919, it is obligatory on every urban Authority for an area having more than 20,000 inhabitants to prepare before 1923 … a town development scheme for all vacant land within their area.”, and adding “It is now recognised that any plans for systematic urban development should be based upon as complete as possible a civic survey of the area in question.” A note from Mrs Fraser Davies to members of the Sociological Society (28.7.21 VB98) notes that the application had been received too late for consideration – but Le Play House did nonetheless participate in a large number of urban and civic surveys during the late 1920s and early 1930s in connection with the widespread interest in town planning and community development that existed during the inter-war years.
However, formal government interest in social research of this kind did not emerge until some time later. The prime mover was Sir George Catlin, who was pressing for the establishment of a British Social Science Research Council as early as 1931 (Catlin 1931) because, “it was clear in about 1929 that there was going to be more social legislation deeply affecting the way of living in the community”, and especially due to his experience of the problems surrounding the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in the USA (Catlin 1942). Largely at Catlin’s instigation, and with the assistance of Sir Josiah Stamp, the Sir Halley Stewart Trust was persuaded to sponsor an investigation into the nature and extent of existing social research in Britain, with a view to making recommendations about the future direction it should take. The investigation was administered by the British Institute of Social Service under Sir Percy Alden, and Farquharson was appointed as secretary to the Committee on secondment from Le Play House for (initially) a fee of #100 (Le Play House Executive Minutes 12.6.29 VB216). Other members of the Committee included Ginsberg, Carr-Saunders and Mess. A preliminary report was produced by Farquharson in 1931, recommending the establishment of a Clearing House for Social Science research, with the addendum by Catlin calling for a full Social Science Research Council; a longer final report was presented in 1934, written by A F Wells, which contained a detailed and categorised analysis of all surveys carried out in Britain since Booth. Wells later produced a book based on the work (Wells 1935).
The report was not however acted upon. Catlin wrote, “for (various) reasons, the … scheme proved abortive. Largely owing to Lord Stamp’s activity, the Institute of Economic and Social Research was established to do valuable work (but) the other scheme (for a full SSRC – DE) died. The humanists were not very sympathetic, and there was some confusion between the fields of social research and social service, and also doubt about whether only economics was mature enough to be regarded as a science” (1942:89). Government interest in sponsoring social research did not revive until the outbreak of war, and even then only in conditions of ludicrous secrecy (Moss 1983).
From 1934 onwards there was a marked decline in both Le Play House and Alexander Farquharson’s active participation in survey work in Britain, although both remained in constant demand for advice and assistance with surveys instigated and carried out by social service organisations. The 1938 Annual Report refers to the “constant demand for help by suggestion and advice on survey methods from organisations such as Rotary Clubs, Townswomen’s’ Guilds, Training Colleges, Schools and also from individual workers” (VB173); evidence that the emphasis in Le Play House activity was moving more towards the field of education, a trend which was to continue even during the last few years of its existence.
Farquharson’s concept of the Survey
Alexander Farquharson’s writings on sociology are not extensive, and indeed his collected published works would barely fill a single volume. He was essentially an ‘activist’, although not of course in the contemporary political sense of the word, but one who believed fervently that sociology had to be an active discipline – in this respect, the comparisons between the Regional Survey Movement a personified by its two greatest protagonists Alexander Farquharson and Patrick Geddes bears many similarities to that other great active school of sociology in Chicago. Farquharson was also a great teacher, and the testimony of many who knew him (Mumford, Jahoda, Hill, Copner) bears this out. However, he did write a number of pamphlets and short articles, mainly between the late 1920s and the early 1930s, at the time when the Institute was in the process of being established, and at a time when the Government, in the shape of George Caitlin’s commission was actively pursuing the idea of some kind of Social Science Research Council, about the nature and purpose of the survey, and about the different types of survey.
Farquharson’s first published work in this field was ‘An Introduction to Regional Surveys’, written jointly with Sybella Branford and discussed in Section 5.4 above. In the years following its publication, Farquharson became increasingly involved in practical survey work for voluntary social service organisations, and with his realisation of the potential for the use of Le Playian and Geddesian techniques in this growing area came disenchantment with the manner in which Branford and Geddes had presented their ideas. In 1929, in an address to a conference at Le Play House he said, “our movement has suffered in the past from the widespread idea that we were exclusively or almost exclusively concerned with Regional Surveys of a rural type; surveys that were unintelligible to urbanised people.” (Farquharson 1930a:70) and in a series of articles and pamphlets published in 1930 (Farquharson 1930b:1930c:1930d), he set out more clearly the relationship between the survey, now more often referred to as the Community Survey rather than the Regional Survey, and social work. Several clear points emerge
1. the conduct of a survey should be a participatory exercise, involving the subjects of the research as well as the researcher. “A local community survey can be – should be – a survey of the community, by the community, for the community … the value of a local social survey depends largely upon the share taken in it by the citizens of the locality” (Farquharson 1930d:3). Farquharson was a firm believer in the value of sociology as self-help, and as an activity which would always be essentially amateur.
2. the survey should lead to greater community cooperation, and to better citizenship – “each organisation finds its part to play when a view of the whole field has been obtained showing in detail the extent and character of the problems to be tackled and the work already being done.” (Farquharson 1930d:6)
3. the outcome of a survey should be practical – “we want to know in order to do” (Farquharson 1930a:6) and “it should not be forgotten that the best written survey report will be largely ineffective unless it includes some simple, clear and definite suggestions for future action.” (Farqhuarson 1930d:13).
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Auguste Comte International Institute of Sociology
Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (19 January 1798 – 5 September 1857), better known as Auguste Comte [oɡyst kɔ̃t], was a French philosopher. He was a founder of the discipline of sociology and of the doctrine of positivism. He may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.
Strongly influenced by the Utopian socialist Henri Saint-Simon, Comte developed the positive philosophy in an attempt to remedy the social malaise of the French Revolution, calling for a new social doctrine based on the sciences. Comte was a major influence on 19th-century thought, impacting the work of social thinkers such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and George Eliot. His concept of sociologie and social evolutionism, though now outdated, set the tone for early social theorists andanthropologists such as Harriet Martineau and Herbert Spencer, evolving into modern academic sociology presented by Émile Durkheim as practical and objectivesocial research.
Comte’s social theories culminated in the “Religion of Humanity“, which was influential to the development of religious humanist and secular humanist organizations in the 19th century. Comte likewise coined the word altruisme (altruism).
Comte was born in Montpellier, Hérault, in southern France on 19 January 1798. After attending the Lycée Joffre and then the University of Montpellier, Comte was admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris. The École Polytechnique was notable for its adherence to the French ideals of republicanism and progress. The École closed in 1816 for reorganization, however, and Comte continued his studies at the medical school at Montpellier. When the École Polytechnique reopened, he did not request readmission.
Following his return to Montpellier, Comte soon came to see unbridgeable differences with his Catholic and Monarchist family and set off again for Paris, earning money by small jobs. In August 1817, he became a student and secretary to Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, who brought Comte into contact with intellectual society and greatly influenced his thought therefrom. During that time Comte published his first essays in the various publications headed by Saint-Simon,L’Industrie, Le Politique, and L’Organisateur (Charles Dunoyer and Charles Comte‘s Le Censeur Européen), although he would not publish under his own name until 1819′s “La séparation générale entre les opinions et les désirs” (“The general separation of opinions and desires”). In 1824, Comte left Saint-Simon, again because of unbridgeable differences. Comte published a Plan de travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (1822) (Plan of scientific studies necessary for the reorganization of society). But he failed to get an academic post. His day-to-day life depended on sponsors and financial help from friends. Debates rage as to how much Comte appropriated the work of Saint-Simon.
Comte married Caroline Massin, but divorced in 1842. In 1826, he was taken to a mental health hospital, but left without being cured – only stabilized by French alienist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol – so that he could work again on his plan (he would later attempt suicide in 1827 by jumping off the Pont des Arts). In the time between this and their divorce, he published the six volumes of his Cours.
Comte developed a close friendship with John Stuart Mill. From 1844, he had a platonic relationship with Clotilde de Vaux. After her death in 1846 this love became quasi-religious, and Comte, working closely with Mill (who was refining his own such system) developed a new “Religion of Humanity“. John Kells Ingram, an adherent of Comte, visited him in Paris in 1855.
He published four volumes of Système de politique positive (1851–1854). His final work, the first volume of “La Synthèse Subjective” (“The Subjective Synthesis”), was published in 1856.
Comte died in Paris on 5 September 1857 from stomach cancer and was buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, surrounded by cenotaphs in memory of his mother, Rosalie Boyer, and of Clotilde de Vaux. His apartment from 1841–1857 is now conserved as the Maison d’Auguste Comte and is located at 10 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, in Paris’ 6th arrondissement.
Our Institute Proud to bear the Name of this Advocate of Sociology