Peckham Experiment 3 Basic Technique

The power of science lies in the knowledge it gives enabling Man to bring his actions one by one into conformity with natural law. It is, for example, through a knowledge of, and strict con­formity with the laws of aero-dynamics, that he has won the freedom of the air. Already biological studies have removed him from a position in which—considering himself born of a supernatural act of creation—Man singled himself out from the rest of creation, believing himself subject to some ‘higher law’ to which implicit obedience was also ‘blind’. The work of Darwin cut the strings of this puppet-like suspension above the stage of the rest of creation. Now we recognise Man as but one of the species undergoing evolution in cosmos.

This release has brought with it the realisation that Man also is subject to natural law ; it has freed the biologist to make search for the laws that govern his living with the same confi­dence that the physicist set out in search, with such success, for the laws that govern matter and motion. Observation and experiment are the method of procedure. Are we in a position to carry knowledge of Man’s living a stage further?

From the two preceding chapters we have seen that the living organism is inseparable from its environment; we have seen also that to observe organismal function in the most discretionate form we must study Man:—homo sapiens. From observation of the autonomic or involuntary activity of the organism, certain processes carried on with consistency arrest attention. Making use of these as clues, can we design an experiment in which through the conscious or ‘voluntary’ life of the family, the operation of similar or identical principles underlying its functional action could be revealed ? It is with this purpose before us that as human biologists, we set out.

For such a study there are certain pre-requisites :—

  1. The  ‘unit’ of living material for study must be ‘the family’ in its biological setting.
  2. Dealing as we propose to do with volitional action, the experimental circumstances created must be such that the unit under observation is free to act voluntarily rather than in conformity with any pre-determined con­duct, in pursuit of any ideal or in response to any external discipline.
  3. The environment must contain a maximum diversity, so that there may be adequate chances for the unit under observation to exercise its volition, and for its biological potentialities to become explicit in the ordinary circumstances of living.
  4. There must be at least a minimum aggregate of units to  provide  the  requisite  social  contacts  permitting diversity of action by the family, as well as providing statistical data for the scientist.
  5. The units must be in a position to assimilate, as part of their natural environment, the technical organisation of the scientists undertaking the observations.

The material for study is to consist of families. The ‘family’ we refer to arises with the mating of two specifically diverse individuals, developing as a ‘unity’ into a functional organisation. Thus it is not the family of the geneticist with which we are concerned — that hereditary entity represented by the genealogical tree ; nor is it the social entity derived from the same source and often consolidated by little else than the tenacity of convention or inheritable possessions.The laws governing the biological needs of the family being as yet unknown, the family as a functional organisation receives but scant consideration. As a social aggregate it is, perhaps, legally recognised as an entity only by the tax collector, the public assistance officer and the relieving officer. In modern social organisation we are. accustomed to take account only of the individual, about whom all the activities of daily life regarded as important are designed to revolve — e.g. industry, economics. politics, sickness and welfare administration ; and also education. Even a matter so closely connected with family life as housing is in most cases determined, not by the necessities and the potentialities of the family as an organism, but solely by the applicant’s ability to pay the rent. The mere fact, therefore, of basing any organisation on the family-organism as a unit, implies a new and unique orientation in modern society.

It is to experiment with the family in this sense that we are concerned in this book. What families are we then to select for the purpose?

In order that any studies made shall have general validity, the families collected must be as representative as possible of the general populace. But the nature of the proposed study imposes many conditions upon us in making our choice. As we have already seen, organism and environment are inseparable. So it is families in their natural habitat or everyday setting in which they grow up and live their ordinary lives, that have to be sought for study. Nor is it families in isolation, one taken from here and another picked from there, that can form the selected group, for they must be so aggregated that they may act in mutual synthesis with each other.

The next consideration to be taken into account is that the public from wherever selected will inevitably consist of a mixture, some of whom are sick and hence, whether wittingly or unwittingly, obeying the laws of pathology. We shall not look for health among the sick; it is the presumably healthy moiety that alone can serve for this enquiry. But since we have no means of knowing in advance which these are, and still less of effecting a natural separation of them from the pathological, at the outset it will be essential to choose our sample with some care, selecting to the best of our extremely limited knowledge the most healthy, as well as representative cross-section of the populace. This entails the avoidance of any group drawn from a social-problem class, in which disability, whatever its origin, hampers the expression of potentiality; the unemployed, the unemployable whether rich or poor whose tendency to flock together is common knowledge. Choice must lie rather with a sturdy sample of society; families not taken from the all too pleasant backwaters nor from the stagnant verges of the stream of life; families neither too heavily laden nor too lightly freighted, but those who are in fact good swimmers in midstream. It is also important that the sample of society chosen should not be composed of an aggregate of families selected for any purpose—e.g. all very young families which the biologist might well be tempted to select—for, by ourselves collecting and bringing them into association, we should by external suasion be causing their segregation, imposing our own bias upon them and disturbing such social relationships as they had formed; we should in fact be taking them out of their natural habitat. Nor would it be satisfactory to recruit families on the basis of some idea or ideal: e.g. the Church, enthusiasm for music, for politics or sport or any other single interest, because, as we shall see later, we require diversity of every sort in the sample of the populace chosen.

Then, again, the nature of the approach that we propose to make to the families will also effect the selection to be made. The usual method for the collection of data and information by any student or investigator of sociological problems is by invasion of the intimate environment of the individuals to be studied. The biologist is not in a position to proceed in this fashion. He, requiring equipment and instruments under his direct control and manipulation, must extend an open invitation to families to come to him, bringing with them their own environment.

We need to be in a position to observe the family in action. The three main spheres, of activity of the adult populace are: industry in the case of the man and the unmarried adults of both sexes; the house in the case of the married woman; and leisure, common to all. The first of these is not orientated in relation to the family; the second is a sphere which, being of a specific nature, from the biological point of view cannot be invaded with impunity. Neither industry nor the domestic hearth, therefore, can provide the required material. So, in the first instance, it will be to the leisure of the populace that the biologist must turn.

The laboratory of the biologist will have to be within the field of the leisure of the family and must be so constituted as to make continuously available all those things people naturally do in their leisure hours. Besides affording a focus for the spread of knowledge, it must contain all the essential means through which the family may make the social contacts from which, action naturally proceeds—such as sport, games, dancing, reading, music, drama, etc.: and these must be available in as great a diversity as practicable.

Apart from such diversity of material factors, the environment of the families under study must also contain a diversity of biological factors. To achieve this, the first necessity is a sufficiently large aggregate of families—probably not less than 2,000 families—in order to permit of an adequate cultural admixture. But an adequate cultural admixture cannot be derived from those closely segregated into one class, one wage level or from those working in one close industrial preserve. No new housing estate consisting of families of one social stratum, no-area in which the working members of the families operate in one single industry, and no group representing one level of culture, would yield suitable material.

This requirement of diversity, however, is not fulfilled merely by the cultural variety of the families that are to be assembled. The necessary biological diversity will also be derived from the variety of action appropriate to every stage of development, so that varying stages of individual maturity also form a necessary component of the diversity of the environment. The fact of assembling families, of itself provides this type of diversity. An aggregate of families gives automatically both a vertical and a horizontal grouping of every stage of development. Furthermore, all factors contributing to diversity in the environment, whether objects or actions, must avail in continuity, so affording the possibility for all members of each family to make frequent and repeated contacts with each new experience as it becomes pertinent to their own development. By this means the organism will be enabled to exercise its growing power to digest new material at every step. So continuity in the association of families chosen is another necessity for their development.

Only a more or less closed geographical zone can provide families between whom contact would be likely to be maintained in continuity. Hence we are compelled to make the site of our operations a local one.

The circumstances created must enable contact to occur spontaneously in some social meeting place where families meet naturally and in freedom in their leisure hours; some place where a sufficient number of families can foregather in a social milieu and interact one upon another while making use of any chances for action present in the environment. So the situation we have to envisage is one in which families under observation may find at hand material of many sorts—things, people and their actions– as and when they evince a desire and/or ability to use them; i.e. to enter into a relation of mutual synthesis with them.

Moreover, the environment must be and continue to be sufficiently fluid to enable those factors to be made use of, not necessarily in the conventional and accepted way, but according to the growing needs and capacity of each family as it develops. Merely to provide a glut prior to the appearance of any evidence that it is utilisable by the family, would be to provide an environment in which the inept might well wilt—like the axolotl taken out of its pond before metamorphosis is imminent. Nutriment for the family in the absence of the power to utilise it is as good as useless. It is with the power of family utilisation that our experiment is concerned.

So, it is not merely with the physiological competence of the machine that we shall be concerned in human biology. It is with the mutual synthesis of the family and its environment including experience of every type—physical, mental and social. In all these spheres environmental diversity must be attained, for unless the environment does contain that which will afford appropriate nutriment for the next stage in development of functional action—for example a bicycle to a child ready to explore his faculty for balancing ; association with adult society to an adolescent reaching maturity— development must proceed unbalanced, or be arrested. Not that a bicycle, even were it always available, is at all times an opportunity to any child ; it is converted into an opportunity at the moment when capacity for the achievement of balance through bicycling has reached a critical phase in the development of that particular child. So, too, with adult society to developing adolescents —each acquires importance for them in due season. It is the relation of the circumstance to the individual’s state of development—its topicality to him—that converts chance into opportunity.

We have seen that in educating the foetal and infant learner in the power to utilise new experience, the parents under autonomic guidance proceed by the method of familiar nurture to pass him by gentle stages from a closely specific and familiar situation to one of a wider specificity within the sphere of parental function. To see whether, conditions being favourable, this same process will be carried on naturally throughout parenthood, circumstances must be secured in which ever-widening experience of all varieties may pass through the parental mill for the feeding and rearing of the child. So, as he approaches adult stature we may hope to see him reach his full and specific individual maturity, before himself forming a new family-nucleus. It is in fact a slow method we must envisage in preparing families for biological study ; there is no short cut to the evolution of human function.

We now come to a very crucial question:—how can such an unfamiliar and objective factor as a scientist and observer be introduced into any social milieu without instantly shattering its spontaneity? The answer seems to lie in the possibility that the scientist himself and his technicians should become one of the accepted groups forming the cultural diversity in the environment. Fortunately, as biologists concerned with function we shall not necessarily be called upon to make investigations into the genealogy of the family, to look into the pretexts for its social prestige, to examine its credit or make other studies distasteful to its members. This clears away at the outset many difficulties of approach which beset other workers on human material, laying them open to criticism as intruders or even as busybodies—e.g. the eugenist, the social worker, the economist, the psychologist, the clinician, the preventive therapist.

The biologist in this experiment, being a person requiring as his technical instruments the appurtenances for every sort of activity for the leisure hours of the family, has at once a mutual basis for association with the public that is his chosen material. We can begin to visualise the situation to be created; it is one in which both biologist and families share the appurtenances of leisure. And here we must hasten to say that such a relationship will imply a special discipline in the observer. He must learn to rid himself of all preferences, of all preconceptions as to how and when and why things should be done. The attitude of complete impartiality so admirably acquired by the doctor dealing with physical and psychological disorder in the consulting; room, must be extended by the practising biologist to social disorder and unsocial behaviour in the family. All these pathological conditions, which he will inevitably meet in his daily work, must be met without prejudice—and not merely in the confines of the consulting room, but in the circumstances of everyday life. It is clear that for this no commonly accepted social—or medical—training and no short probation will suffice.

Through the use of the same material, each for his own individual purposes, the scientist and the families that are to constitute the object of his study acquire a mutual point of contact in experience. Nevertheless there is an important difference be­tween them, for while the biologist is educated to evaluate the actions of the individual, the individual is not yet educated to evaluate the actions of the biologist. With this point we shall deal later.

The scientist’s purpose in approaching families is to be in a position to make a biological assessment of their functional action. This will involve:—

  1. Observations of the actions of the individual and of the family as a whole in response to the flux in their environment.
  2. A study of the changes that ensue thereon in the environment itself.
  3. Physiological studies of each individual  and of the family who are thus acting on the environment.

Can the knowledge that the biologist gains from this source become of use to the families? Knowledge of every kind is one of the most important factors contributing to the development of the individual and hence to diversity in the environment. How often, especially among skilled wage earners, one comes across the highly sensitive, alert and intelligent man who, because deprived throughout the course of his life of general knowledge pertinent to his own special interests, remains inarticulate and unable to implement his gifts in any sphere beyond that of his circumscribed intimate and personal one. Diffusibility of knowledge throughout the environment in which the families are to move is essential if the full expression of their potentiality is to become explicit in action. Facts pertaining to experience of every sort that the family is in course of digesting give the context and the full flavour of consciousness to their experience. So knowledge must be at hand and readily communicable from family to family. This condition can only occur in an integrated society where it can impinge upon the family organism in all the various phases of development and in all the vicissitudes of fate and fortune.

In an association of families such as we are looking for, there will be three possible sources of knowledge continuously available; the subjective knowledge that the individual may derive from his own actions ; the objective knowledge derivable from his interaction with other individuals and families ; and the special knowledge derivable from the biologist’s three spheres of observation already mentioned. Not the items of this special knowledge, but its significance to themselves is something each family would like to have and be able to use. Can the biologist when acquiring his facts return them in any form utilisable by the families for their own use? This will demand the development of a new technique and much patience, but it should be possible and to the mutual advantage of observer and family alike.

What a strange laboratory it will be that fulfils all the needs we have postulated ; that will use human families as its material for study; that will enable the spontaneous evolution of a freer and more diverse environment for those families; that will make possible the development of latent potentialities of the family as a whole; that by the nature of its constitution, will permit of the familiar nurture of the child throughout its development up till adolescence; and that will afford the spontaneous association of biologist and family, as well as of family and family in their daily coming and going. It cannot be any sheltered or secluded spot in which parts or fragments of the family organism can be isolated, dissected and analysed. It must be an open field upon which every influence may play free as the changing winds, upon people of all ages and all sorts, the observers themselves being of the company and functioning in unity with the whole.

What a task for any architect to plan a building intelligently and usefully for the general purposes of family leisure, the building to carry a mixed cargo of all ages, both sexes and of all interests —and not in any haphazard way, but designed to meet the needs of families as they grow; and besides this to afford an observatory in which all action unfolds before the eye of the scientist moving about the building.

The scene of action, intimate and popular, will be very different from any laboratory hitherto in use, so that, to the casual visitor, its real purpose may escape recognition. This is in fact what did happen to the first laboratory of this sort, the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, which has often been mistaken for a Welfare or Medical Institution, or confused with the polyclinics for the treatment of disease miscalled ‘Health Centres’. [The Pioneer Health Centre was established in 1926. All subsequent ‘Health Centres’ known to us have been in the nature of Polyclinics, in which are assembled not only Maternity and Child Welfare Services but also many provisions made by the Local Authority for the care of the sick. Thus the presumably healthy mother and her new-born child are deliberately aggregated in the same building, for instance, as children recovering from the extraction of tonsils, with those attending clinics for the tuberculous and not uncommonly those suffering from venereal disease. The fact of the mothers and infants entering by aseparate door does not expunge the psychological implications of assembling the (presumed) healthy among the sick.[ See also the Draft Interim Report of the Medical Planning Commission (B.M.J., June 20th, 1942, p. 749) in which it is proposed that the pregnant mother and her child, both presumed to be healthy, are to attend a ‘Health’ Centre which is still in effect a ‘surgery’ largely concerned with the treatment of the ambulatory sick.]

Board Games

More often it has been taken for a Social Club of a rather elaborate design, or even for a pure recreational or amusement centre for the frustrated and the bored. Only as it has developed and as its intentions have become explicit through action, has it finally come to be widely known as “the Peckham Experiment”—a new venture in the science of human biology.


Lest the reader should imagine that this book is an abstruse dry as dust record of scientific experiment, we open the chapters describing what has been accomplished with a pictorial presentation of family life in the Centre. [The photographs have been inserted in the text where it seemed most appropriate]

The first thing that struck most visitors was what they usually described as the ‘atmosphere of the place’, commenting on the forthrightness of the members—adults and children alike; and, with surprise, on the absence of any self-consciousness in the people gathered there.