From lucid to learned to lame

Conversations with Anthony Giddens - New Theories of Discourse - The Sociological Revolution
April 30, 1999

Some people, including this reviewer, think that Anthony Giddens may turn out to be the most important and influential British intellectual of the past 50 years. In the narrower field of sociological analysis, one must reach back into the 19th century to find his equal. Internationally, he ranks comfortably with figures such as Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas and Talcott Parsons.

This is acknowledged, worldwide, except in his own country, where an insularity and petty-minded professionalism leads to excessive carping. To be sure, Giddens is not the most technically accomplished of sociologists - he has not done nearly enough fieldwork to satisfy the empiricists and he has offended several specialists by intruding on their pitch. Some such complaints contain a measure of validity, and it certainly must be disagreeable for the second-rate when a star such as Giddens joins in their kick-about. Nevertheless, the lack of generosity among these domestic critics is petty when set against the virtuosity, sweep and power of Giddens's work. It is easy to find fault, but to fail to acknowledge the overall project, where Giddens presents an innovative and thorough analysis of the world today that is at once academically rigorous and politically germane, is mean-minded. To make a comparison that will not be lost, at least on fans of Tottenham Hotspur, doing down Giddens for his undoubted sociological failings is like suggesting that Paul Gascoigne at his peak was not much of a footballer because he was not the best defensive player in the business.

In addition, Giddens comes from the wrong side of the academic tracks - Edmonton rather than Eton, sociology at Hull rather than classics at Trinity - which may partly explain why Noel Annan (Stowe and King's), in his name-dropping review of postwar British thinkers, Our Age ( 1990), does not once mention Giddens. Conversations with Anthony Giddens , alludes to this when Giddens recalls that, on going to Cambridge as a lecturer, he was one of very few dons who arrived without any Cambridge connections. Cambridge has an astonishing capacity for self-recruitment, with a corollary disparagement of those who are outside the hallowed walls. When outsiders do manage to creep inside, they are likely to be viewed with suspicion. One suspects that it was something of this that lay behind Cambridge's rejection, on nine separate occasions in ten years, of Giddens's application for promotion to readership during the 1980s.

It is possible to recognise four key and cumulative phases in Giddens's work. The first involved engagement with the classical thinkers, in which Giddens came to terms with the likes of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Books he wrote then, notably Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), gave him an undeserved reputation as a mere commentator. In truth, they were clearing the ground for the second phase in which he developed his alternative approach, structuration theory. This got him some recognition as a theorist, but then complaints were raised that his theory was hopelessly abstract, a conceptual edifice without practical application. The third phase, starting in the mid-1980s, took Giddens into substantive analyses of historical and contemporary change. Books such as The Nation State and Violence (1985) and Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) introduced a battery of new concepts, such as reflexive modernisation, globalisation and disembedding, while making us reconsider matters such as the relations between militarism, states and capitalist endeavour.

The fourth and latest phase has seen Giddens's move to the London School of Economics as director, to become apparently the most important intellectual influence on Tony Blair and the major proponent of the "third way". This move into policy and politics is striking in itself and has already shown returns. For a start, most sociologists must be tickled that one of their own is enjoying such access to prime ministerial circles. Moreover, Giddens's applied enterprise, which led to the successful establishment of Polity Press as well as the production of a superb and bumper-sized textbook that has sold more than 400,000 copies, is already having a marked influence on the LSE, though he has been there just two years. The school has, of course, long held a high reputation for social science, but it has attracted a rush of significant thinkers over the past two years, most drawn surely by the presence of Giddens.

Most impressive about this fourth phase is that it is all consonant with Giddens's long-term intellectual work. The third way to him is not some opportunistic shift to gain favour from a new government, or even to advance the LSE's reputation. On the contrary, its chief orientation has been evident in his writing from way back, when he explored matters such as identity, the nation state, social movements, expert systems, life-style politics, reflexivity, environmental concerns and the roles of doubt and anxiety in the present epoch. Conversations with Anthony Giddens , published "in-house" by Polity, is a good way of grasping the long-term concerns of Giddens because it takes one through, in seven interviews with Christopher Pierson, the above-mentioned four phases.

Some years ago Laurie Taylor coined the verb "to Gidden", meaning to write at least one book per year. Now Giddens is running the LSE, even he seems stretched, hence the interview format of this book. If it does show some rough edges as a result, it is also remarkably accessible for the same reason and is the most revealing document so far concerning Giddens's background and career. Moreover, because Pierson is no patsy, he consistently presses Giddens, in particular on his difficulty in stipulating the precise significance of the global triumph of capitalism. Giddens insists that old-style socialism is dead and that globalisation means there is no alternative to the market economy - yet how does this square with his insistence on increased "choice" and the possibilities for political action that are central to third-way policies? Is global capitalism not remarkably constraining of most people's options? Giddens has a reply, but Pierson does not let him off the hook easily, and the book is all the better for such exchanges.

We learn that Giddens has followed Paul Getty's advice for success: "Rise early, work late, and strike oil." His great piece of luck, he says, was to strike oil in his first job, at Leicester, in the form of the brilliant cosmopolitan Norbert Elias. Richard Kilminster would share that admiration, since his book, The Sociological Revolution , is in key respects an elaboration of Elias's figurational sociology. Very scholarly, if a tad repetitious, this work argues effectively for sociology to cast off its inferiority complex as regards philosophy. Indeed, Kilminster argues that sociology was established as a break with philosophy in the 19th century, at a point when the social rootedness of knowledge was preferred over philosophy's concern with abstract, timeless questions. It is this "socio-genetic" approach that Marx foreshadowed but which Elias puts into practice. Kilminster is refreshingly positive about sociology, insisting that there is a broad consensus about the subject and that it may yet become a "fully scientific discipline".

I suspect that Kilminster's heart would sink, as mine did, on reading Jacob Torfing's New Theories of Discourse , not least because it is so unrelentingly abstract and philosophical in the worst sense of that term. It is a long, ponderous and uncritical exposition of the "discourse theory" as developed by Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Žižek. Because Torfing recognises that these three thinkers are "challengingly inaccessible", he sets out to present a "comprehensive and accessible" account of their views. I am afraid he does not succeed. For instance, he defines discourse as "a differential ensemble of signifying sequences in which meaning is constantly renegotiated". I cannot make much sense of that either. The book is over-concerned with minuscule details and gets lost in convoluted language.

What we do get is an inward-looking account of the aftermath of the left's political and economic defeats over the past two decades as played out in some very limited intellectual arenas. The starting-point is May 1968 and subsequent dissatisfaction with the economic determinism of orthodox Marxism and its inadequacies as regards political democracy. Accordingly, we are made to plough through Althusserian Marxism's enthusiasm for "ideology", a Gramscian concern for "hegemony" and then a neo-Gramscian shift to "discourse". We are assured that this is the way forward for pluralistic democracy and much else besides since discourse, true to postmodernism, is all about emphasising contingency, openness and anti-foundationalism. In such a manner, the heroes are Laclau and Mouffe, influenced by Žižek, in that they have mapped the way forward. I am as bemused by such a claim as I am by a book that can so promote relatively minor thinkers and simultaneously ignore the most substantial response to Althusserian Marxism from within the European left, E. P. Thompson's The Poverty of Theory (1978), a book that contains an argument, a politics and a mode of expression totally at odds with New Theories of Discourse .

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Conversations with Anthony Giddens

Author - Anthony Giddens and Christopher Pierson
ISBN - 0 7456 2048 5 and 2049 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 233

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments