Then and now: Laurie Taylor assesses how one field has evolved

September 7, 2007

I still have nightmares about the first sociology seminar I took in the late Sixties at York University. It wasn't that I was ill-prepared. Quite the contrary. My nervousness about the occasion meant that I'd spent weeks reading up on the social psychology of alienation. I'd read dozens of the latest articles on the various types of alienation and mastered all the significant statistics.

I even looked the part. Although my eyesight was fine, I'd adopted a large pair of heavy spectacles, which I thought gave me the sort of intellectual gravitas required for the occasion and, as a small nod towards bohemianism, taken to chain-smoking San Toy cheroots. Not exactly full-blown Left Bank Sartre but a reasonable nod in that direction for a Tuesday morning in North Yorkshire.

I can still name all six members of that group: Walton, Roxburgh, Madison, Woodruff, Ash and O'Neill. It was Walton, Paul Walton, who started the nightmare. No sooner had I begun to outline the social psychological parameters of alienation than he interrupted to ask why I'd omitted to mention the Marxist meaning of the term. Didn't I know that Marx had originally adopted the term from Hegel and that it was a central feature of his analysis of capitalism? I relit my cheroot to gain a few valuable seconds and explained that while there certainly were historical antecedents to the contemporary work I was describing, for the purposes of this seminar I'd decided to concentrate upon the more limited empirical use of the term.

But, said Walton, wasn't that a perfect example of how contemporary sociology emptied radical concepts of meaning? Roxburgh (I'm still fairly sure it was Roxburgh) agreed but thought that Walton's analysis might be too influenced by what he called "the SLL (Socialist Labour League) line". What was surely needed to understand alienation was a proper regard for the distinction between the philosophical alienation of early Marx and his later analysis of the alienation engendered by commodity fetishism.

By this time, the students had taken over the seminar. My experimental findings and questionnaire results were exposed as mere mystifications, dangerous distractions from the real business of sociology: the discovery of the best means for overthrowing the capitalist state and all its workings.

What I had discovered, of course, and found replicated in other seminar groups (although never to the same extent) was that a significant number of the more mature students who'd enrolled for sociology in the late Sixties regarded it as an extension of their existing political practice. Within a couple of years, their chance would come to emulate the students of the Sorbonne and Berkeley. Instead of disrupting bourgeois seminars they would attempt to take on the whole bourgeois university and even endeavour, following Marcuse's lead, to turn it into a "red base" from which society could be transformed.

Nowadays I doubt if my seminar on the operationalisation of alienation would raise an eyebrow, let alone a red flag. Sociology has become thoroughly respectable: a proper grown-up discipline in which radical politics is more likely to feature as a second-year option than an immediate necessity. If only my nightmares were as readily dispelled.

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