The stern liberal

Citizens, Family and Reform
May 9, 1997

Stein Ringen concludes his 1992 inaugural lecture (which is reproduced here) as professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Oxford, with the words: "my remarks have been eminently old-fashioned". Here, then, is a collection of down-to-earth and somewhat quirky musings written in a fresh and slightly unorthodox style. He believes social scientists "are the custodians of the (sic) methodology which is best suited for the job of establishing how things are and what can be done". By this he does not mean that social scientists should be in the business of changing the world; rather that they are able to interpret the world by providing information and analysis.

Unlike many of his peers, Ringen is not afraid to state his own values. Democracy can only be as good as its citizens allow it to be. Citizens had better be responsible or, one feels, he will give them a metaphorical smack. Ringen may be stern, but, like an old-fashioned public schoolmaster, he wants the boys to view him affectionately. "I wish to recapture the excellent liberal notions of equality of opportunity and freedom of choice from the libertarian rascals", he announces. In his postscript on political philosophy, Ringen clarifies his own brand of libertarian philosophy. Citizens can do what they like to make themselves happy, as long as they do not harm others. The state should ensure that citizens have the means to exercise choice. That involves distributing wealth to make choice a universal option. Citizens must cooperate with community and "Community is social guidance for wisdom in choice". This sounds a bit mystical to me: more like the bishop than the schoolmaster.

Part one of the book is about wellbeing - focusing on persons, families and children; part two, about reform, focuses on class, income and the civic spirit. Ringen writes in the tradition of a welfare economist, carrying on, in a modified form, the Manchester Liberal School as exemplified by the text, Social Economics, by Walter Hagenbuch published some 40 years ago.

However, it is Amartya Sen and other contemporary economists whom Ringen is more ready to follow and he develops the point that people need both the resources to get what is available and also to have the opportunities in their own environment to match the resources that they have. The need for both resources and opportunities is the core of what he calls the "capability approach". The main empirical illustration of Ringen's style of analysis relates to children. Unsurprisingly, families with children have a lower standard of living than their parents. Relatively, children have fared badly between 1976 and 1986 and this is meticulously documented.

When he moves to reform, Ringen's analysis becomes slippery. Should income inequality be modified? Well, says Ringen, it depends. If it should be (which he claims is not his concern) then certainly it could be. Not a very helpful conclusion.

Skilled observers of Oxford academic politics will be intrigued to read Ringen on class. Students of social mobility may be disheartened to read that "mobility tables probably do not have all that much of substance to tell us about how people actually move or are treated on their way through life towards their social destinations''. Well, of course not: compilers of social mobility tables do not make that claim, but Ringen provides a gem of a footnote, swiping at what he euphemistically calls "the literature'' but actually lobbing a few grenades from Green College, where he is based, into Nuffield College, which is the main plant for the production of mobility tables in Britain.

Ringen's discussion of the sociological processes involved in social mobility - what he calls treatment - provides ammunition for warriors in the contemporary sociological class war. If there were a full sociology degree at Oxford, students might enjoy stirring up some vigorous engagements, were all the protagonists there to teach them. However, given existing strategic alignments, Ringen surely recognises that he throws his grenades with no hope of causing damage.

This is an engagingly written book which may well puzzle outsiders who might expect to find more about the achievements of Oxford sociology and social policy. Sociological references are strangely absent. There is no mention of Janet Finch, Diana Gittins, Chris Harris or any other contemporary sociologists of the family. Social economics comes over more strongly than social policy: in his own discussion of children Ringen ignores his own championing of "treatment'', adopting instead a rather narrow statistical approach which he appears elsewhere to deplore. This is a strange book which may not be of much direct help to students, but indirectly does say much about the sociology of Oxford sociology.

Ray Pahl is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Kent at Canterbury, and visiting professor, University of Essex.

Citizens, Family and Reform

Author - Stein Ringen
ISBN - 0 19 829082 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 190

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