Come all ye control freaks, egomaniacs and anoraks

July 23, 2004

As Prospect magazine publishes its list of the UK's greatest public intellectuals, Sean Coughlan asks why we are so obsessed with the top 100 of just about everything.

What's the latest top 100 list? The richest people? The most influential band? The best romantic movie moments? The best goals? The 100 most irritating lists? The 100 clearest examples of mates picking mates in the 100 most irritating lists?

The latest example of list-mania is the publication of the top 100 public intellectuals in the magazine Prospect . And these 100 great brains have this week been whittled down to five in a Big Brother -style public vote. Who are the top five public intellectuals? You decide.

But why are we so obsessed with lists? And what will this pop-chart process do to our public intellectuals, listed in an A to Z from Tariq Ali and Martin Amis through to Robert Winston and Jeanette Winterson?

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, says that list-making is a convenient journalistic shorthand and a way of sparking debate.

And he warns that even though everyone knows these lists are subjective, there will still be plenty of people privately unhappy to have been excluded.

"Intellectuals have egos, and this will cause resentment. A lot of people will secretly want to be on such a list," he says.

But he says that publishing such a list raises the bigger issue of why intellectuals, as a group, make so little impact on public life. He adds that lauding a few already high-profile individuals in this league-table style will do little to raise the collective status of intellectuals.

Furedi's other concern about drawing up an intellectual A-list is that it takes its lead from celebrity culture. And, he says, this raises a number of dilemmas for academics.

They might dislike reducing complex ideas to a 15-second sound bite, but what else do you do "if the only way to get influence is to take on the style of a talking head"?

There are other concerns that such a list, churning out the same old television-friendly names, will send the message that public life and intellectual debate is limited to the old stagers who crop up everywhere else.

It's a bit like the "Boat Race effect", where from the media coverage you would imagine that there are only two universities that have boat crews.

But Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University and author of a forthcoming book The Intellectual , defends the list.

He argues that it is a good idea because it draws attention to intellectual life in the UK, and he says that this will be a spur to debate about what constitutes a public intellectual.

He is also more optimistic about the wellbeing of academic life in Britain, saying that it is the most intellectualised country in the English-speaking world, where thinkers can still command a relatively high profile.

Big thinkers can crop up on programmes such as Newsnight , he says, in a way that would never happen in mainstream media in the US.

"It's important for intellectuals to reach out to the wider culture," he says. And he rejects accusations that putting intellectuals in the limelight will mean diluting the seriousness of their message.

The list has been criticised for including few women - only 12 out of the 100 great minds - and Fuller says that there is something distinctly male about such lists.

These big-hitting thinkers at the top of the pecking order are the silverback gorillas of the intellectual world, the alpha academics beating their chests around their territory.

Lists hold a particular fascination for anoraks of all kinds - whether it's trainspotting, football league tables or card-indexed CDs - and there's no escaping the preponderance of males in the anorak community.

Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology at Lancaster University, agrees that academics and intellectuals need to connect more effectively with the wider society.

But he warns that good communicators, who become familiar faces on television, should not expect an easy ride from their academic colleagues.

And that these public intellectuals could face a great deal of private sniping.

"Academics are highly competitive, even though we pretend that we're not," he says. And when an academic begins to make a name on television, he says that it can be open season, with all kinds of whispering about the quality of the academic's work.

But Cooper also casts doubt on the benefits of applying the top ten treatment to the nation's intellectual life. And he says that such a project wouldn't have been carried out before the 1980s, and that its roots lie in the Thatcher years.

This is a byproduct of the performance-table culture, he says, a cousin of league tables for schools, universities and hospitals. And he says such tables' ancestry can be traced back further to the "bottom-line" fixation of the US, where newspapers carry weekly lists of how much movies are earning, rather than whether they are any good.

We're now so familiar with lists that it's part of our "national psyche", he adds.

On one level, Cooper says, there is something appealing about lists because they help people make sense of choices and give them information in an accessible form. But the bad news is that lists are deeply subjective and that people are unlikely to understand how they were determined.

Cooper is also critical of the unimaginative way that such top 100 lists tend to favour already-established names and rarely dig out talented people who have been overlooked.

There is something about list-making that brings out a conservative and rather conformist tendencies, he says. "Most of these lists are rather tired and retrospective. They tend to pull out the expected names."

But there's no doubting the public appetite for lists. You can hardly pick up the paper or switch on the television without seeing someone else's top ten - and these parlour games then spin off to produce their own headlines, as people argue about the choices.

Martin Conway, professor of psychology at Durham University, says that drawing up lists is an effort to take control - and that the process can bring its own comfort factor.

When life is complicated and there are too many things we don't understand, a list can feel like a reassuringly simple way to take control. Even tidying up our computer desktop, so that all the files are in the right folders, can make us feel a little better, he says.

Making lists is a very human activity, he says, helping us to understand the patterns in life around us. Ordering information into lists has underpinned many major endeavours - think of the Domesday Book or the classification of species.

Do lists give us a feelgood factor by giving us a sense of control? Or are they marketing ploys that we shouldn't take seriously? Write down your top 100 answers.

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