Very Qualified Success, Indeed: The Case of Anthony Giddens and British Sociology

By Fuller, Steve | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Very Qualified Success, Indeed: The Case of Anthony Giddens and British Sociology


Fuller, Steve, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Anthony Giddens as a Symptom of Sociology's Decline

The Gulbenkian Commission on the future of the social sciences has popularized the idea that sociology is a discipline that has outlived its usefulness (Wallerstein 1996). According to this argument, sociology had made sense over the previous 100-150 years, with the ascendancy of Euro-American nation-states increasingly concerned with integrating diverse peoples in terms of various social functions, to which the standard-issue sociology textbook dutifully assigns a chapter apiece. Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons marked high points in this conception of the rise of sociology. However, with the end of the Cold War has come the decline of the "welfare-warfare state" that had kept the forces of global capital in check. The result has been the increasingly indeterminate and permeable boundaries of social life that mark "the postmodern condition."

For example, while topics relating to social deviance -- be it defined in legal or medical terms -- retain their traditional popularity, "deviance" is now put in scare quotes and researchers wince at the "social problems" perspective from which the field arose. After all, deviance presupposes a strong sense of "normativity," which after Michel Foucault has acquired a negative connotation that Durkheim would not have recognized. Moreover, these postmodern sociologists justify their rejection of the norm-deviance binary, not on grounds of political correctness, but simply the increasing practical difficulty of enforcing the distinction. Consequently, historically innocent empirical researchers in "cultural studies" can discover nascent "identity politics" in heretofore "deviant" groups. However, this probably has more to do with the retreat of state power from civil society than any philosophically inspired realization of the inherent perniciousness of binary oppositions.

While this begins to explain the global decline in sociology's disciplinary identity, much more needs to be said to explain the peculiar form it has taken in the United Kingdom, the major nation with probably the weakest institutional tradition in the field. Here sociology remains very popular with students, largely because it is the natural home of cultural and media studies programs that in, say, the US would be housed in departments of literary studies. In this respect, British sociology has turned its disciplinary permeability from a weakness to a strength, effectively rendering itself "the science of the postmodern." Moreover, there is a thriving, albeit publisher-led, sociological book industry in the UK. On the one hand, this means that British sociology journals exert relatively little impact on the field' s global research agenda; on the other, it ensures that sociology is seen by people in other disciplines and countries through the eyes of British teachers.

From this milieu emerges Anthony Giddens, the first Professor of Sociology at Cambridge and now Director of the London School of Economics. As the principal theorist behind the "third way" between capitalism and socialism that enabled Labour to regain control of Parliament in 1997, Giddens is probably the most internationally influential British social scientist since John Maynard Keynes -- ironically another thinker who was often portrayed as offering a "third way" between these very alternatives. However, despite the Cambridge connection, Giddens and Keynes demonstrate rather different paths to influence. Keynes hailed from the social science -- economics -- in which the UK has been an acknowledged world leader. Moreover, his career involved shuttling between Kings College tutorials and Treasury assignments. In contrast, Giddens has always been oriented to pedagogy, be it the large introductory classes he continues to teach at the LSE or the academic publishing empire he founded that is Polity Press.

Seen in world-historic perspective, two features of Giddens' career stand out. …

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