The French sociologist and economist Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882) had widespread influence through having been one of the first to develop and use the social-survey method of investigation.
On April 11, 1806, P. G. F. Le Play, was born at La Rivière, Saint-Sauveur (Calvados). He was graduated with honors from the École des Mines in 1840, subsequently was appointed to a professorship in metallurgy there, and served as coeditor of the Annales des mines. He was invited to visit various nations to study conditions and reorganize their mining industries. During the course of these extensive travels he kept careful notes on the conditions of workers and their family life. In 1848 he resigned his professorship to devote full time to social science studies and the development, refining, and publicizing of his theory of social reform.
Le Play's first important work, European Workers (6 vols., 1855), was a collection of monographs on the moral life and material conditions of 36 working-class families which he had studied in various parts of Europe from 1829 to 1855. To continue studies in this area and to spread his ideas for social reform, he founded the Société des études Pratiques d'économie Sociale in 1856.
In 1862 Le Play published a methodological guide to instruct his collaborators in uniform methods of observing families. In 1864, at the suggestion of Napoleon III, he published a two-volume extract from European Workers under the title Social Reform in France (rev. ed., 3 vols., 1887), which dealt with religion, poverty, family groups, private enterprise, and government. The work was to a great extent responsible for his prominent reputation in government and academic circles. Again at the request of Napoleon III, he published The Organization of Work (1870) and The Organization of the Family (1871), works which expanded sections of Social Reform in France concerning industrial organization and the family. The two-volume Constitution of England (1875) portrayed the English systems of education and legislation as virtually ideal. A grandiose synthesis of his ideas appeared in The Essential Constitution of Humanity (1881), a program for the organization of the world.
Le Play was also quite active in practical affairs. In 1871 he organized local and autonomous groups under the title Unions for Social Peace, the purpose of which was to act in conformity with the principles of Social Reform in France and to propagate his ideas. The unions were quite successful, drawing a large number of adherents, including many from the academic milieu. A review, Social Reform, was founded in 1881 as their official organ and to carry on their work.
As a pioneer in establishing the methodology of the social-survey analysis in all of these various works, Le Play utilized the device of the family budget for the purpose of determining standards of living. He came to the conclusion that working-class families have so meager an economic existence that all their social organization and habits are bound up with the family budget, especially when the budget is dependent upon wage labor, which in turn is dependent upon the amount of labor available, that is, the geographical location of the family home. Through his studies of the family under variegated geographical conditions, he was a pioneer in the use of the comparative method in sociology.
In social philosophy he was much influenced by what he understood as traditional Christian moral principles. In opposition to the ideology of the French Revolution, he stressed duty and obedience to authority as the bases of a sound economic and social organization. He viewed private property, in contrast to communal ownership, as the foundation of the modern state; thus he argued for primogeniture and the patriarchal family. Opposing both socialism and laissez-faire as solutions to the labor problems that arose from the industrial revolution, he advocated instead voluntary cooperation between employers and workers to safeguard religion, property, and the family. It was the moral duty of the upper classes to emancipate the oppressed workers. The English system of administration, he felt, was superior to the stifling French bureaucracy because it rested on a spirit of self-government. The all-powerful French system, in contrast, destroyed local and provincial independence.
In government Le Play advocated a kind of mixed system, with democracy being natural for the local community, aristocracy for the province, and monarchy with the support of parliament for the entire state. Church leaders should not exercise political power but should lead the people back to Christian ideals through moral suasion. In educational reform he advocated practical programs to prepare students for later employment.
Le Play died on April 5, 1882. He continued to exert an important influence, both academically and practically, through his various disciples, the review, and the organizations he founded, and materially influenced the development of sociology not only in France but in Great Britain and the United States.
Le Play's thought is discussed in a number of works, some of which contain biographical sketches: Pitirim Sorokin, Contemporary Social Theories (1928); Floyd Nelson House, The Development of Sociology (1936); Carle C. Zimmerman and Merle E. Frampton, Family and Society (1937), a synopsis and elaboration of European Workers; Harry Elmer Barnes and Howard Becker, Social Thought from Lore to Science (2 vols., 1938; 3d ed. rev., 3 vols., 1961); Emory S. Bogardus, The Development of Social Thought (1940; 4th ed. 1960); and Harry Elmer Barnes, An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948).