Precision gained

Understanding Social Change
November 4, 2005

Here is a book concerned with contemporary social change that has little or nothing to say about leisure, tourism, global warming, new media, the nation state, life in cities, surveillance, transnational relations, the internet, music, migration, sexuality, war, terrorism, ethnic conflict, devolution, identity, globalisation or even culture. One might have thought that these sorts of things represent some of the major transformations of the past 20 years or so, and they have certainly preoccupied a good many sociologists. However, Understanding Social Change presents different priorities, its 12 sober chapters dedicated to matters such as inequality of educational opportunity, stress and autonomy at work and gender and pay differentials. The chapters are even more focused than these terms suggest, addressing questions such as the "puzzling rise in child-bearing outside marriage" and "entrapment in unemployment: motivational deficiency or structural constraint?". The book, one should understand, is a product of a particular type of sociology.

Within the limits of this tradition, Anthony Heath, John Ermisch and Duncan Gallie have produced a fine volume. It brings together very distinguished (and ageing - two died before publication) sociologists to describe and explain the major changes in British society in recent years. It is published to showcase the vitality of British scholarship by the Oxford University Press under the auspices of the British Academy as part of the latter's centenary celebrations. One presumes it is to be taken as indicative of the best of the discipline today.

The book focuses on conditions within Britain. There is a good deal made of the virtues of quantitative sociology, of the search to provide causal accounts of changes, and there is some parading of odds ratios, multivariate analysis and log linear technique. If there is any theory drawn on, it is rational choice, people presumed to be self-interestedly calculative, in spite of their avowals (Ermisch in his chapter theorises choice of intimate partners in this way, spurning immeasurables such as love and romance).

There is also a strong connection with social policy, and the authors rigorously examine the efficacy of welfare policies and practices. Gallie's chapter, on causes of long-term unemployment, illustrates well the strengths of this sort of sociology. He identifies three explanations: motivational deficit; social exclusion due to poverty and isolation; and skills deficits. Gallie marshals impressive quantitative resources to reject the first two accounts. He finds there is no significant difference in the desire to work of those who are employed and of those who are unemployed. He then applies logistic regression analysis to cast doubt on social exclusion arguments; though poverty does undoubtedly make it harder for the unemployed to get back into work, it cannot fully explain it.

Gallie continues to demonstrate that a major factor leading to unemployment entrapment is skills shortages. The unemployed come disproportionately from the poorly skilled, while skills requirements are increasing, making it harder for them to get back into the labour force. The policy recommendations follow: do not lambast the unemployed as work-shy, do not scrimp on welfare payments and increase training opportunities.

This is first-rate welfare state sociology, the sort of "social arithmetic"

long practised at Nuffield College under the direction of A. H. Halsey, and one that carries a strongly reformist political agenda. Critics might draw attention to its close connections with government concerns, as well as its narrow focus on the internal operation of the nation.

A concern of Heath and his fellow editors is not just to identify changes but also to explain them. It is surely hard to imagine anyone wanting to describe change without seeking to explain how things have come to pass.

Understanding Social Change suggests, however, that the royal road to explanation is via carefully honed research questions that are statistically tractable. Careful formulation of research questions is always essential, and it can be extremely valuable to be able to design a project that enables these to be addressed using probabilistic techniques, but I am not convinced it is the privileged way forward. It may be difficult to formulate an empirical test of the precise significance of computer communications in our lives (though empirical measures of their take-up are readily secured), just as the heightened role of media in our everyday lives is awkward to calculate vis-a-vis other developments, but this ought not to be grounds for ignoring these trends. Understanding Social Change turns its back on such unwieldy matters, favouring subjects more amenable to proper social science. It is consonant with their approach that the editors are modest about the contribution of sociology to explanation of change, yet there is conceit in their insistence on the superiority within the discipline of their own favoured quantitative approach. It seems to me that the precision of their method is attended by failure to address some of the most glaring changes we have been going through in recent times.

A headline story from this text is that things have not changed so much as many think. Particularly when it comes to social mobility - relative chances of advancement for those from working-class homes have not improved much. Massive expansion of higher education, and the huge growth of middle-class occupations, have meant that many children from lower positions have advanced. But their relative opportunities of getting ahead have not improved. It is more that those with middle-class backgrounds have been assured of retaining their positions while any excess positions are left open to talents from below. This argument is important, and it is one that odds ratio data highlights.

John Gray's fine chapter demonstrates the failure of comprehensive education to overcome the disadvantages of family background, and another by Richard Breen shows that while opportunities for females have increased enormously, the heavy hand of class remains and is much more consequential than gender. Such analysis does provide food for thought, even if what is offered proves unpalatable. But it also understates the powerful experiences of changes that have taken place over the decades. To be sure, middle-class offspring are pretty certain to be able to enter the professions, but this downplays the fact that such much-expanded jobs still contain very large numbers of people with working-class origins. It also seems insensitive to intangible matters such as a growing sense of individualism, more tolerance of diversity, a decline of formality in relationships... to, as it were, the feel of life today.

It would be churlish to deny that this is an admirable book, but I wish that it had been more plural in its compass. Paul Edwards, for instance, writes illuminatingly about the ambiguities of work today. It is, he observes, more skilled and autonomous, yet it is also more stressful. Some openness here to surveillance scholarship would have been helpful since this emphasises how work now may be routinely and automatically watched even from afar by digital systems. It is presumptuous to suggest this volume is the best of British sociology, since there is no place in this British Academy for luminaries such as John Urry, Anthony Giddens, Stuart Hall or Zygmunt Bauman. Might it have been better for the academy to have invited contributions in an open competition, thereby ensuring that this showcase was not dominated by a closed circle?

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University.

Understanding Social Change

Editor - Anthony Heath, John Ermischand Duncan Gallie
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 364
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 19 726314 3

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