Novel status and statistics

A History of Sociology in Britain
November 5, 2004

A historical survey gives pioneers of UK social sciences deserved recognition, but Frank Webster finds it uneven and anxious when it turns to the present

Until the early 1960s, the story of sociology in Britain was the story of the London School of Economics. There was then a decade of rapid national expansion in the discipline, followed by crisis and a squeeze on resources, after which came a partial recovery that brought with it the fragmentation that we see today. A. H. Halsey's history is a commendable enterprise - not least because memories are short and unreliable; the part played by the LSE and pioneers such as L. T. Hobhouse, Patrick Geddes and Morris Ginsberg deserves to be remembered. That one of today's most respected sociologists has undertaken this history makes for a double celebration.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first, Halsey observes that sociology in Britain was torn from the start between literature and science - between Balzac and Dickens on the one side and the social statisticians and eugenicists on the other. Halsey conceives this as a tension between interpretation (subjectivity) and explanation (objectivity) that has continued until today, when the division is between cultural studies and sociology. I find these oppositions as unconvincing as the supposed continuities. Though there have long been fierce differences, they cannot be reduced to such binaries.

Part two presents the narrative, setting out major features of the period before 1950; the contributions of post-Second World War sociologists; the years of expansion to 1967; the late Sixties revolt; and the mixed stories since 1976. This section is the strongest part of the book, and Halsey handles the earlier years especially well. It is good to have the contributions of T. H. Marshall and Barbara Wootton assessed, and Halsey effectively shows that Phillip Abrams's claim that Britain was slow to develop sociology because there were alternative routes to influence is an oversimplification.

Halsey's account of the postwar sociologists - almost all servicemen from modest origins - is gripping. This is a story of provincials committed to reform by doing rigorous social science. Halsey and his peers at the LSE pioneered a policy-oriented "social arithmetic" that was suspicious of communism but intensely interested in politics, to which they contributed by finding out the facts of how we lived.

His contribution towards discrediting grammar schools was an important factor in the changeover to the comprehensive system. Karl Popper, an enormous influence then and for much longer at the LSE, had a great effect on this feet-on-the-ground sociology, determined to reject historicism and abstract theory yet make a real difference to people's lives. How fortunate that these talented investigators should come to maturity in the early 1960s, fill new chairs across the country, and be exhilarated by the inventiveness of the greatest practical "sociologist" of the 20th century, Michael Young. Oxbridge dragged its feet with regard to sociology, but even there it became established, Halsey himself taking the chair at Oxford University.

The problem was 1968 and all that. Perry Anderson, a historian of prodigious and precocious learning with a penchant for theory, may be Halsey's bête noire . Anderson's journal New Left Review took the lead in dismissing British thought, sociology included, as narrow-minded. He stirred dissent and insisted on the pertinence of continental theorists.

European Marxisant writers became obligatory reading for sociology students in the early 1970s. Halsey, clearly discomfited by this revolt, devotes only eight pages to it, compared with 20-plus pages for earlier periods.

Thereafter, it is evident that Halsey is deeply unhappy with sociology. He states baldly that "sociology is in peril in the 21st century". Its expansion, after hard times under Margaret Thatcher, resulted in more break-ups into incompatible camps - interactionists, feminists, constructivists - along with specialisations such as sexualities and queer studies. Worse still, Halsey detects in postmodernism the spectre of relativism, the return of excessive subjectivism and the antithesis of science. (It is regrettable that nowhere does he engage with any postmodern sociology.) One senses that, for him, estimable work in sociology is mostly of the sort produced at Nuffield College, Oxford, where hypotheses are formulated and carefully tested, using sophisticated statistical analysis.

But one may agree that relativism is unacceptable, that attacks on "positivism" were bone-headed, and that sociology must be an empirical discipline or it is nothing, without rejecting the pluralism that characterises the subject today. Manuel Castells' encyclopedic survey of the network society, John Goldthorpe's long-term scrutiny of mobility patterns, Zygmunt Bauman's perceptive accounts of postmodernity, Krishan Kumar's rich studies of utopianism, and John Urry's investigations of mobilities should each find an admired place in contemporary sociology.

This makes it a discipline with permeable borders, but its openness is a source of vitality and imagination. Sociology must have methodological rigour, solid argumentation and a reliable evidence base, but these are not prerogatives of one school.

Part three is an empirical survey of the professoriate in sociology in 2001. Halsey sent questionnaires out to several hundred professors of sociology, whose names he took from the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook .

(He added other details from memory and, curiously, includes a clutch of professors of social policy.) On this basis he produces some fascinating materials on their origins, as well as their mentors and models in the discipline. But one must object that his survey is not at all the "near census" that he claims. A lengthy list of omissions quickly came to my mind: eminent media sociologist Jeremy Tunstall (City University), influential cultural sociologist Mike Featherstone (Teesside/ Nottingham Trent universities), social theorist Paul Hirst (Birkbeck College), distinguished sociologists of science Donald McKenzie (Edinburgh University) and Andrew Webster (York University), business sociologist Richard Scase (Kent University), leading Foucauldian Nikolas Rose (LSE), sociolinguist Norman Fairclough (Lancaster University), as well as fine feminist sociology professors such as Pam Abbott, Miriam David and Joan Chandler. The failure to include people such as these must cast serious doubts on the validity of Halsey's findings.

One looks in vain for a conclusion to this book. Instead, part four offers nine essays (one written by Halsey himself). I am not altogether clear why the authors were selected, though all are undeniably eminent and most give interesting personal reflections. In particular, Colin Crouch is insightful on the self-marginalisation of British sociology, its manifest failure to develop economic sociology and the urgency for it to engage with interdisciplinarity.

A History of Sociology in Britain is a valiant first attempt at preserving memory. This is an achievement, because without records much gets forgotten; I worked at Birmingham between 1999-2002, but had not realised that Halsey had worked there some years before.

This history is strongest on the early decades. As we come closer to the present, Halsey loses his sure touch, makes several howlers (and is disappointingly rude about one of Britain's finest sociologists, now pre-eminent at the Higher Education Funding Council for England), and allows his distastes to show through as prejudice. He is conscious of his ignorance regarding recent sociology, so it is brave of him to continue to the end. His book is the first step towards a full history of British sociology. It is to be welcomed even by those who will find it controversial and even irritating.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University.

A History of Sociology in Britain: Science, Literature, and Society

Author - A. H. Halsey
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 9
Price - £50.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 19 926660 3 and 926661 1

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