Anomic, archaic, enigmatic

LSE on Social Science
June 20, 1997

A new leader generates the hitherto elusive feel-good factor. His predecessor has stepped down, having failed to rally a divided collection of colleagues over some of the key issues affecting their future. I am, of course, referring to Anthony Giddens's arrival as the director of the London School of Economics.

To many, the LSE remains an enigma. An institution of undoubted international excellence in the social sciences, it has gone through alarming periods when it tended to live off, rather than earn, its global reputation. At times it seems positively to thrive on its unruly, even anarchic character, much as it takes a perverse pride in its shabby Houghton Street premises.

As an institution it knows what it does not like, but is less sure of what it wants. It is a famously difficult place for students to come to terms with, not helped by the historically poor facilities for graduate students and the widely scattered residential preferences of its staff, each of which has contributed to the not altogether unwarranted perception among many students that the staff are somewhat uninterested in their welfare. Giddens is more likely than many recent directors to recognise an anomic collective mentality when he sees it.

And yet those who survive their experience are undoubtedly imbued with a kind of wry affection for the old place. Quality will always tell in the end. As successive research assessment exercises have attested, the LSE remains one of the UK's two or three institutions of world rank in the social sciences.

The LSE's reputation is founded less on that old canard of political radicalism than its ability over several generations to develop outstanding theoretical analysis and apply it to inform political policy-making. The tradition continues in areas that range as widely as employment policy (Richard Layard), public services (Julian Le Grand) and student finance (Nicholas Barr and John Barnes). As we enter a period of politics when government may be prepared once more to be informed by research, rather than seeking to ignore it, the LSE's time has probably come again. At least the prime minister recognises that there is such a thing as society.

Helen Sasson and Derek Diamond's volume emanates from the LSE's celebration of its centenary in 1995, pre-Giddens. For the most part, the 15 contributions are not technical in character, as is appropriate for an audience comprising, one suspects, mainly of alumni. The result is, inevitably, something of a pot-pourri. Some of the more distinguished contributors visibly do little more than go through the motions. None, apart from some obliquely worded code from John Ashworth, then director, addresses the future challenges of the LSE itself, nor even the place of the social sciences in the UK. Perhaps the shadow of Ralf Dahrendorf's centenary history of the LSE, published in 1995, loomed too close to them.

All the more credit then to Eileen Barker for providing a witty tour de force that springs from the alternative history of the LSE - the centennial cabaret, now immortalised on CD. Her contribution, "You don't get Marxists in fundamentalist boots", marries the best traditions of LSE social anthropology with the insights of Erving Goffman to offer a wicked dissection of contemporary intellectual subcultures and political life-styles. This includes comments on clothes and even underwear, which this reviewer is unable to verify empirically. As a serious contribution, it stays only just the right side of self-parody, but I loved it. Was it, in fact, a metaphor for the LSE itself? Presumably only those present at her lecture will know.

The remaining contributors take a much more serious minded approach, though thankfully one which is neither self-indulgent nor self-congratulatory. In their various ways, Layard, Anthony Smith, Le Grand and Peter Self remind us of the extraordinarily fertile ground which the LSE has offered British social science over the last two decades, even when the prevailing political climate has been largely unsympathetic.

This climate may now change. But the much-needed resources will not flow to the social sciences unless there is a convincing demonstration of both world-class quality and social relevance in tackling the manifest problems observable around us. The LSE will be pivotal in this process. Its reputation outside the UK is unsurpassed. Evaluations among opinion-makers at home have always been more ambivalent. It was a tragedy that Ashworth's ambition to take the School to County Hall was not realised, but the LSE responded in the best possible manner. It now has a social scientist of international reputation at the helm. It can look to the next century with genuine confidence - if it can throw off its anomic tendencies and actively promote the crucial role of social science in the modern world.

Howard Newby is vice chancellor, University of Southampton.

LSE on Social Science

Editor - Helen Sasson and Derek Diamond
ISBN - 0 7530 0763 0
Publisher - London School of Economics
Price - £15.00
Pages - 258

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