Figures strut and fret on sociological stage (2 of 2)

July 26, 2012

Jonathan Steinberg is entitled to advocate the revival of biography as a legitimate form of historical writing. As the article's standfirst notes, it is people who make history, even if not in circumstances of their own making. However, he should not judge all the social sciences on the basis of the limitations of his knowledge.

Within the Marxist tradition, for example, there is the Leninist focus on the vanguard party and its leaders, and the Frankfurt School's explorations of the psychology that led individuals to support fascism. More importantly, the Soviet Union's implosion was predictable from the work of Herbert Spencer nearly a century earlier, which showed why centrally planned societies would inevitably succumb in competition with democratic ones.

This analysis became unfashionable because of the way it was used to justify neoliberal politics, but this does not detract from its power. If I were a Chinese sociologist today, for example, I would study Spencer's writing very carefully in thinking about how to manage the transition from a command-and-control society to one based on decentralised and diversified structures.

One of the things Steinberg should have learned from his studies in social science is not to draw sweeping conclusions from biased samples.

Robert Dingwall, Nottingham

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