Lord Giddens: accidental academic who reached the top

Former LSE director on how he overcame academic struggles to become Bill Clinton’s favourite political theorist, and the future for Labour

June 11, 2017
Anthony Giddens
Source: Alamy
Anthony Giddens

He is one of the most influential and prolific social scientists of all time, but Anthony Giddens had no intention of entering academia when he left university.

“I did not set out to be an academic – I would have thought it was well beyond my capacity to do that,” explained Lord Giddens, whose acclaimed textbook Sociology has sold more than a million copies worldwide and was published in its eighth edition earlier this year.

Instead, it was a “chapter of accidents” that led him into academia, where he would become a professor at the University of Cambridge and, in 1997, director of the London School of Economics.

“I was going to be a civil servant until a friend of mine mentioned that there was an assistant lectureship at the University of Leicester, so I applied for it,” Lord Giddens told Times Higher Education in an interview at the House of Lords, which he entered as a Labour peer in 2004.

Working in higher education was, at that stage, a far-fetched notion because he had not excelled at his grammar school in Edmonton, north-west London, which did little to help him reach university, he said.

“I was no good at school, and I got no support from my school; but I got it into my own head that I’d go to university,” Lord Giddens said. “I went to the local library and looked up universities – I couldn’t get into most of them because I didn’t have Latin or know any sciences, but I applied to three universities and, in the end, squeezed into [the University of] Hull, which was a very good experience for me.”

Even when his tutor, the anthropologist Peter Worsley, recommended that he take an MSc at the LSE, Lord Giddens did not see himself entering the ranks of its faculty.

“To be completely honest, I found it a bit hard at the LSE because it was so different from Hull, and I struggled there a bit,” he said.

Lord Giddens established himself as a major voice in sociology at Leicester in the 1960s before applying for an assistant lecturer’s post in Cambridge’s economics faculty in 1969 – another career move that owes much to fortune, he said.

“At any other time or place, I would not have stood a chance of getting it, but sociology was very new then and, although it sounds improbable, there were hardly any applicants for the job.”

Lord Giddens recalled how “sociology was sneered at by quite a few of the established people at that time”, with some senior scholars reserving “academic scorn for a relatively new subject at Cambridge”.

Nonetheless, Lord Giddens is proud of his legacy at Cambridge, where he was instrumental in expanding sociology’s presence thanks to the foundation of the social and political sciences department (now the Faculty of Human, Social, and Political Sciences), which he led until leaving for the LSE.

It was in this role that he found time to write Sociology, dictating his thoughts on Émile Durkheim, Max Weber and other foundational figures of the discipline while pacing around his office.

“I would wander round the room with a recorder in my hand and stacks of books around me and someone would type it up,” he said, adding that he “wonders how I found the time given that I was running the faculty at that point”.

The book, first published in 1988, has been translated into 16 languages. Its eighth edition, co-authored with Philip Sutton, includes a consideration of how sociology might shed light on the digital revolution of social media, gender politics and domestic extremism. The text is the best-selling book from Polity Press, the publishing house that Lord Giddens co-founded in 1985, which now releases about 100 titles a year. “We didn’t have any publishing experience or money,” reflected Lord Giddens, who has published more than 30 books with the Cambridge-based company – becoming, according to a THE analysis in 2009, the fifth most-cited humanities scholar of all time, ahead of Kant, Freud and Marx.

Headhunted by the LSE in 1997, Lord Giddens’ ideas increasingly began to influence the political mainstream, with world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair citing his ideas around a political “third way” as a potential model for socially progressive centre-left governments.

Was it exciting for an academic scorned at Cambridge in his early days to be so central to a worldwide political movement? Lord Giddens, who delivered the 1999 BBC Reith Lectures, is keen to play down his impact despite having shared platforms with Mr Clinton on the theories that paved the way for New Labour and the Labour landslide in the UK’s 1997 general election.

“Contrary to what it says on Wikipedia, I was never an adviser to Tony Blair and had no official role – I couldn’t as head of the LSE – I was simply involved in some of the networks and circles around them,” he said.

“I simply tried my best to contribute my ideas to what an effective centre-left government would look like in contemporary conditions, and that is where the book, The Third Way, came from,” he said, reflecting on how the term suddenly went from “nowhere to everywhere”.

Lord Giddens, who stepped down as LSE director in 2003 and is now an emeritus professor at the institution, is currently writing a book on the effects of technological disruption on society, as well as regularly contributing to House of Lords debates.

He was particularly scathing about the Higher Education and Research Act, passed in April, which he described as a “bizarre mixture of open markets and arcane bureaucracy”, saying it “introduces direct state control over aspects of university life where institutions need to be autonomous, touching especially on key principles of academic freedom”.

However, the mission of the third way, embraced in some respects by France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, remains as important as ever, explained Lord Giddens.

“The task now is to create a left-of-centre philosophy which responds to the extraordinary changes unfolding in the world today – fractured globalisation, the impact of the digital age, the changing nature of work, the continuing shock waves of the global financial crisis, coupled to huge inequalities at the very top, as well as the fight to defend and advance cosmopolitan values,” he said.

“This endeavour is still only in its early stages as left-wing parties across Europe and the US struggle to reinvent themselves, a task made harder with partial replacement of parties with social movements,” Lord Giddens added.

“I think it’s right to say that we must move beyond austerity politics today – I’m at one with Corbynism on that, but to me his position is a back-to-the-future one rather than the new synthesis we really need.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Accidental academic who set pace in profession and politics

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