The rise of modern man

May 28, 2004

'Third-way' sociologist Anthony Giddens has striven to connect society and politics in a changed world through his work, not least in his bestselling textbook. Michael North reports

In an analysis of modernity written in 1994, Anthony Giddens wrote: "The future, open to numerous 'scenarios', becomes of compelling interest." Today, having stepped down as director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, aged 66, Giddens' own future is of great interest to the many who admire him as a sociologist and as one of the more influential public intellectuals of recent times.

They will be pleased to hear that he does not intend to disappear from view. "I'm still interested in the same things I was always interested in: what the hell is going on in the world and how you make sense of it," Giddens says. Despite his formidable CV, listing 35 books (including a bestselling textbook), Giddens is down to earth and easy to talk to. He is also disarmingly frank about himself and his work, saying:

"I'm not very talented, just disciplined" and "I still don't understand why the LSE appointed me."

When I ask if his prolific writing, on top of his research and teaching, left time for things such as family, he cuts in: "Have sex, you mean? Yeah, I've had time to do things like that." Then he proudly tells me about his two daughters and their achievements.

For Giddens himself, a career as an academic was not an early ambition - he was the first person in his family to go to university. Looking back, he regrets not being "more proactive about being a sociologist rather than just drifting into it". Having taken a first in sociology and psychology at Hull University - "the only place I could get into" - he spent most of the 1960s lecturing at Leicester University. Then he hit his stride as a writer.

His first book, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), heralded a decade in which Giddens reassessed the classics of sociology before developing a new paradigm, structuration theory, which interwove the approaches of thinkers such as Durkheim and Husserl. It concludes that social structures - traditions, institutions, moral codes - not only determine the acts of individuals but can change when individuals start to ignore these structures, replace them or reproduce them differently.

In the 1990s, Giddens moved on to analyse the modern world of intersecting lifestyles and cultures in The Consequences of Modernity and other books.

He observed that private relationships were becoming more dependent on negotiation and the reaching of democratic solutions, in contrast to traditional norms; and that politics must reflect this by moving beyond left and right towards a third way - the phrase with which Giddens is most closely associated. This led to The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (1998). It is said to have influenced new Labour, but Giddens plays down his connection with Tony Blair: "I'm not an adviser to anybody, nor have I ever wanted to be."

The breadth of his work and his reconnection of academic sociology to the questions facing modern government has led to high academic recognition: a chair in sociology at Cambridge University and honorary degrees from universities across the globe. But his work is also the target of scepticism. Geoffrey Evans, a professor of sociology at Oxford University, says of Giddens: "He has certainly been prolific. However, while those who view sociology as a branch of cultural studies or the history of ideas find his work influential, many sociologists who are engaged in empirical research into contemporary societies find it irrelevant or obfuscatory."

Giddens has often been described as a one-man publishing machine, especially since he set up a publishing company in 1985 with fellow academics John Thompson and David Held. Giddens is proud of Polity Press, which now publishes about 80 humanities titles a year. "We wanted to do translations and try to connect the English-speaking world in the social sciences with continental traditions. I think we've done that quite effectively." But Polity has not made him rich: "Academic publishing is a low-margin business. Most books won't sell more than a few thousand copies." He says it has taken more than 30 years for his first book, which is still in print, to sell about 100,000 copies.

In writing and publishing textbooks, however, Giddens has had considerable success - mainly with Sociology (1984), an undergraduate text that has sold "about a million copies" and is scheduled for its fifth edition. "This textbook was important to Polity - and one of the reasons I wrote it was for Polity - because a successful textbook can drive the rest of the organisation."

Giddens recalls his feelings towards the writing: "I'd spent most of my life writing books for an academic audience, and I used to make those more obscure than they needed to be because that sort of brought you esteem for your scholarship. I thought, why not provide a book that makes things seem easier than they look?" He completed two versions, for the UK and the US, during a year when he was head of faculty at Cambridge. "I can't imagine sitting down and writing the first words of a 300,000-word textbook now.

You sometimes surprise yourself with the things you can do," he says, a shade wistfully.

Sociology included a groundbreaking section on globalisation. "This was only 20 years ago, but it didn't even figure in the academic lexicon. I don't think you'll find a single sociological concept that has entered the popular consciousness in that kind of way," Giddens says. Globalisation still engrosses him. He regards global terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism "as an expression of globalisation... al-Qaeda uses the mechanisms of globalisation - modern means of communication - to respond to some of the core aspects of that process. It's like a kind of malign non-governmental organisation, and the aim is to displace the West from the Middle East."

Giddens seems more interested in global geopolitics than in domestic politics. "An amazing thing was the way this Third Way book got a global response. It was translated into about 35 languages. It is still very alive in Latin America, China and any other country where they are trying to find a new political philosophy that can respond to the global market but still defend classical values of involvement, equality and participation."

Though he says British debate about third-way politics is "not particularly profound", Giddens is pleased that his ideas have taken hold. "There can't be many academics who have had the privilege of playing a part in trying to drive a policy programme forward." He is not disillusioned by the Blair government's brand of social democracy: "If new Labour gets in power for a third term, I think there will be a lot of improvement in public services that will be visible, and the country will be more of a social democratic country, which is what I want."

In the introduction to Polity's Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity , sociologist Martin O'Brien describes Giddens' work as "a limbering-up period for tackling the big political questions that suffuse both the everyday and institutional organisation of modern societies". Having addressed big questions in academic works, Giddens says he wants to write more for a more general audience. He has in mind a "ridiculously ambitious thing called 'The Global List', which will deal with world problems and how to resolve them". Then he adds: "I'd like to try to write a decent book if I could."

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