Sociology has finally made it to Oxford. Helen Hague meets Anthony Heath, who is set to put the subject at the centre of the university and the heart of policy
Oxford University finally set up a department of sociology at the end of the last millennium. Not a moment too soon it seems. Within months, Oxford was under fire for excluding students from working-class backgrounds, and the head of the new department, Anthony Heath, was applying his research expertise to track how state and public school applicants fare in the race for an undergraduate place.
The two-year project was sanctioned before Laura Spence's failure to get a place to read medicine at Magdalen College became a cause célèbre . But with figures showing that just half of undergraduates at Oxford come from state schools and with social inclusion a government priority, its findings should resonate far beyond High Table.
Heath is well placed to lead such research: he is a fellow of the British Academy and Nuffield College, and he is renowned for his work on social mobility, opportunity and the effect of schools on life chances. He has intellectual integrity, keen analytical skills and the respect of his peers. And he argues with passion that the "brute facts of class inequality are not going away, however much politicians would like us to think we are a classless society". His study of how gender, ethnicity and class affect educational attainment, soon to be published in the Oxford Educational Review , found that class inequalities clearly outweigh those of sex.
Heath's evidence-based approach - analysing databases, using statistical analysis, taking the long view - is grounded in the Nuffield tradition followed by academics such as John Goldthorpe, professor of sociology at the college, who has conducted a large-scale examination of job mobility, A. H. Halsey, who got the first chair in sociology at Nuffield, and David Butler, Nuffield emeritus fellow, who has been responsible for influential studies of parliamentary elections.
This government is particularly keen on evidence-based policies. And academics in Oxford's sociology department, adept at applying statistics from databases to real-world problems, are in a good position to help. Policies must be piloted and researched before they are implemented, Heath argues. "No one would dream of launching a new drug without properly researched and evaluated pilots. But governments can bring in policies based on conviction." Without pilots, he says, conviction comes down to hunch and prejudice.
Heath's department will provide a focus for sociology throughout Oxford, raising the discipline's profile and moving it into the mainstream. Although undergraduates will still be unable to enrol for single-honours courses, those studying politics, philosophy and economics or human sciences will benefit from its expertise and teaching.
Its establishment will benefit not just Oxford but social sciences across Britain, leading practitioners say. Ian Forbes, chair of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, says: "Heath has a distinguished record in advancing social science research in a distinctive and important way, extending the range of the discipline. He has an interdisciplinary capacity that will allow people outside sociology to connect with the department." Another sociology professor praises Heath for refusing simply to follow the fashion - "he thinks and sees what the data can be made to speak and applies his methods scrupulously and creatively".
Heath wants the department to build on the strengths of the Oxford tradition while also responding to real-world changes, addressing such issues as ethnicity and nationalism, the underclass and social exclusion and organised crime and corruption.
Take education. Given recent high-profile resignations of a clutch of superheads from rebranded failing inner-city schools, Heath suggests a bold strategy - cutting class sizes to the same as those at Eton and carrying out rigorous monitoring. For him, education policy, unlike family values, is the one area where government intervention can make a real difference to life chances.
Heath is also well known for his work on the relationship between class and party voting preferences. He co-directs the Centre for Elections and Social Trends, which has tracked the past four general elections and is now run jointly by his department in Oxford and the National Centre for Social Research in London. He would like to test surveys that consistently show voters would pay higher taxes in return for more being spent on local schools and hospitals, as happened recently in Milton Keynes.
Social scientists should have the courage to be politically incorrect, Heath says - some may feel his finding that class is more important than ethnic origins or gender in its impact on achieving qualifications has run this risk already. They should also "tackle questions the government would rather not ask".
He suggests that the Economic and Social Research Council or the Leverhulme Trust should fund a national academic survey to ask those awkward questions government surveys miss. "In understanding British society of the 21st century, class analysis has to be combined with vigorous and reputable work on gender and ethnic inequalities, asking uncomfortable questions."
For example, Heath's earlier work on ethnicity identified the "ethnic penalty", which showed that non-whites suffer in the labour market. A recent re-analysis of government data from the Labour Force Survey showed that for more qualified people, the ethnic penalty was diminishing - but was worsening at the lower end of the jobs market. Heath would like to explore whether ethnic minority disadvantage in the jobs market can be explained by social class, but there are no data available.
Oxford's sociology department is on the second floor of a former warehouse, across a mews from Nuffield, which was recently dubbed "a high-powered social studies research institute masquerading as an Oxford college" by Gordon Marshall, head of the ESRC, who is on secondment from Nuffield.
There is no brass plaque announcing the department's belated arrival in Oxford - just an A4 sheet stuck on the door telling callers to ring the top bell. The first floor houses the Mongolian Wok Bar. But these unflashy surroundings suit Heath's style. While his work on the relationship between class and voting preferences is acclaimed - a book on the rise of new Labour is with the printers - you will not see him popping up regularly on Newsnight . He is genial and self-effacing - a scholarship boy from Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, the second of three sons who all went to Cambridge, with encouraging non-graduate parents. He says research consistently shows the importance of parental interest in how children perform - it certainly worked for the Heath brothers.
Heath sees sociology as "just part of a wider social science". Whether writing about politics, education or ethnicity, he approaches his subjects with the "same logic of inquiry in collecting and analysing data". No fan of grandiose theorising, he chortles when asked to define Anthony Giddens's third way.
"The third way," says Heath, enunciating the three syllables as if laying them out on a slab for scrutiny. "I have no real idea what the third way is. I've read books on the third way. I've read politicians' speeches on the third way. But I still don't know what it is. There are some things I might imagine could be regarded as the third way, then that turns out to be something rather old, of the sort that the liberal party has long been advocating. So if one means by the third way a sort of liberal approach that accepts the free market but advocates decentralisation - more power to local bodies and local people - it is possible that the third way is simply a restatement of those old liberal ideas."
Heath, aloof from the cut and thrust of party politics, is a rigorous empiricist stating a classic liberal position, relishing "an intellectual free market" where competing approaches get scrutinised. "We don't want state planning," he says. "Intellectual development is unpredictable, and I wouldn't want to rule out any avenues."
If he ever tires of exploring these avenues, Heath could always market his alternative tour of the city. Instead of quads, spires and choral evensong, this expert in probing social inequalities would point out where the workhouse once stood in Cowley, and the site of the notorious Cutteslowe walls, put up by a property developer in the 1950s to stop council-house tenants walking through a private estate in North Oxford - a story chronicled by eminent Oxford sociologist Peter Collinson. And, of course, he would not forget the bicycle repair shop in Longwall run by the young William Morris (late Lord Nuffield) before he made cars and the fortune that allowed Nuffield College to carry out social research.