Subject to change

June 14, 1996

A. H. Halsey is a sociologist and a social phenomenon. He began life on a London council estate and rose to become a professor at Oxford. But has his subject enjoyed a similar progression?

Then... Sociology was finding a bracing but invigorating climate in provincial England in the later 1950s. Meanwhile, however, a visiting professor at Cambridge from Harvard in 1955-56, George Homans, remarked on the continuing hostility of the older metropolitan culture towards the subject. "My friends in Cambridge are apt to say to me: 'You used to be a historian. What did you get into that for?' But when I ask: 'Why, what's the matter with sociology?' the replies tend to trail off: 'Well you know old boy, it isn't quiteIWell?' and heads shake. One feels the lack of a phrase, at once comprehensive and precise, like the one sometimes overheard at American cocktail parties: 'She isn't quite our class, dear'."

Homans was cautiously cheerful about a British future for sociology. "In spite of all objections, a great and increasing amount of sociology is being done in Britain. But it tends to be done in research institutions, not as part of a regular research programme; or, if in universities, then in London and the provinces, not in Oxford or Cambridge; or if in Oxford and Cambridge, not in the name of sociology. There is a professorship of race relations at Oxford and one of industrial relations at Cambridge, possibly on the theory that if one accepts part of a subject one escapes the rest, plus the name of the whole. That is, the British will do sociology, but will withhold, in a carefully graded fashion, like negative knighthoods, recognition that they are doing it."

There was ambivalence and anxiety about the social and personal implications of attained ambition to become a career sociologist. Reviewing the contemporary novelists of the day who were "setting out to show the vitality and humanity of provincial life - particularly Mr William Cooper, Mr Kingsley Amis and Mr John Wain", Edward Shils asked, "do not their heroes, on different levels of talent, find their appropriate salvation in Oxford or London?" This was a dilemma for the sociological aspirants. It was not so much that we wanted a totally different culture from that of the metropolitan class. But we did want to widen its compass, to give it more catholic sympathies, to include both its provincial and international sources and, above all, to have an acknowledged and equal right to participate in that which our experience of grammar school, the Nissen hut and the London School of Economics had shown us to be our birthright and our competence.

On the narrower issues of institutional opportunity, when a vacant assistant lectureship at the LSE was announced in 1951, our suspicions expressed themselves in ready acceptance of the rumour that Morris Ginsberg had remarked that "they can't be any good or they wouldn't be here". Perhaps the moment of highest resentment was reached in 1959 when, in the course of reviewing C. Wright Mills' Sociological Imagination for the Universities and Left Review, I wrote: "The social and academic status of sociology was dramatised by a recent decision of the fellows of King's College, Cambridge. These gentlemen proposed to elect a research fellow in the subject from among the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, ie a first degree in sociology automatically disqualifies its holder from consideration. The fellows of King's have since reduced their restrictions to include any male member of any university in the United Kingdom. But similar attitudes fortify some of the Oxbridge expatriates in the arts faculties of the modern universities. This sad band, victim of English academic apartheid, turns from the menace to its traditional position, which comes from the expansion of the technologies and applied sciences and condemns the social studies. Future recruitment is fraught with uncertainty. Educational selection through the schools directs the most able students towards Oxbridge, or if to Redbrick, to the science faculties: and there is much in the content of English secondary and higher education to induce trained incapacity for the exercise of the sociological imagination."

But this was perhaps too pessimistic. The conquest of Cambridge and Oxford was in fact already in train and rapidly completed in the 1960s. Sociology was introduced into the Cambridge economics tripos in 1961, and into Oxford PPE in 1962. I was even given a chair in the 1970s, though it was still not called sociology - a label that had to await my successor in 1990, who turned out ironically not to be one. Anthony Giddens was elected to the Cambridge chair of sociology in the 1980s.

A more confident professionalism was in any case developing in the 1950s, and America played a part more important even than the English and Scottish provinces. The young British sociologists began to be invited westwards and were welcomed into the flourishing and expanding world of American sociology.

In America we met the New York sociologists. Bell, Lipset, Glazer, Moynihan, Coleman and Trow were rising stars, anglophile and academically adventurous, but culturally unthreatening because deaf to the subtleties of English status snobbery. They possessed intellectual excellence without social condescension. Their fathers had been subjected to quota but theirs was ethnic, not class, resentment: and they were already learning to be grateful to the America of expanding opportunity. Experience of them was to set free a new sense of Englishness which the pretensions of the metropolitan class had stifled. We became grateful to America and returned to England with twice the patriotism if half the salary.

...And Now

Today sociology and its neighbouring subjects are in a disarray of both theories and methods. Factions fight for dominance and the sociological empire has no capital. It retreats in disorder, though it leaves indelible marks on the territories of social history, linguistics, political sciences, and social anthropology which briefly it threatened to annex.

The critical sociology of the Frankfurt school has systematically undermined rational academic contributions to social reform. Piecemeal social engineering was anathema to the new neo-Marxist and the "new right" radicals. Positivism in the sense of patient counting of heads became a term of abuse, relieving students of the obligation to read the books so labelled, or to learn the methods which are indispensable to professional competence. Epistemological nihilism and moral relativism removed respectability from all but the permanent and totally committed opponents, and paradoxically the proponents, of capitalist society.

To survive the blandishments of governmental bureaucracy and the assaults of the newer radicalism was the travail of the 1970s and 1980s for a beleaguered minority in the sprawling profession they had done so much to create. Some retreated into inactivity or administrative busy-work. Others went on with their research and teaching, persisting in their belief in the possibility of exploring social facts "as things". As my friend Norman Dennis has put it: "When confronted with things, therefore, every effort must be made to remove the influence of one's own desires about what the facts ought to show if the world were benign and just. Science is a set of procedures which, over a range of activities and practitioners, has been shown to have been effective in diminishing subjectivity. It is impossible to diminish subjectivity to zero anywhere. It is extremely difficult to get it below a very high level in the study of social affairs. Some researchers pretend to follow the protocols of science but do not. There are difficult topics and dishonest men. To say that a social science, to use Weber's term, is value-free is never to describe what has been achieved. It only indicates the direction of endeavour."

Sociology is no longer one subject. Those who define it as cumulative and explanatory in its aspirations with due (but not slavish) respect for natural science models and attempts at quantification and comparison have one credible answer. Similarly, those who assimilate the subject to the arts as intellectual history and theoretical interpretation have a related, but different, and also credible, solution. Graduate studies in the social sciences are consequently riven, and the battle for graduate student allegiance is also the struggle for an academic succession which will define the nature and significance of the social sciences for the future.

The tendencies of the late 1960s and early 1970s towards the use of the campus either as a base for direct political action, or in the 1980s as a protection for worlds of private knowledge in which excellence is merely a function of fashion and amnesia a virtue, were equally inimical to the idea of sociology as an academic discipline. These tendencies have receded in the 1990s, but the powerful rise of the more strident forms of feminism, deconstructionism, and post-modernism all continue to illustrate the underlying issue. The limits within which value commitment can be allied to objective methods of study remain to torment the post-war British sociologists as it did their predecessors, and as it will their successors.

These are edited extracts from A. H. Halsey's autobiography, No Discouragement, to be published by Macmillan in the autumn.

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