My studies in sociology began in 1968 at Kingston College of Technology (now Kingston University), from where I graduated in 1971. This was a heady time to enter the social sciences, which were undergoing a major transformation the consequences of which we are still working through. There had been a huge expansion of student intake to sociology, which was beginning to slow down by the early 1970s. New theoretical approaches from the US and, especially, from France and Germany were making themselves felt within a sociological tradition that still owed a great deal to Parsonian structural functionalism. Newly recruited lecturers and their students were embracing these new and radical theoretical perspectives and were increasingly stressing the links between theoretical critique and practical action. It was an exciting time to begin an academic career.
Discussions of education and achievement often stress the importance of hard work,
rational choice, and careful planning. Studies in the sociology of education have
shown the far greater importance of social background and conditions, of opportunity,
and of educational practices. This was certainly true in my case. I did not come
from an academic background but had supportive, and relatively well-
My favourite school subject had always been geography. Its focus on the real world
and its contemporary condition appealed to me more than the abstractions of science
or the literary texts studied in English, and so I applied to study geography at
University. Fate intervened and I performed badly at A-
Having no idea what to do after school, I opted to stay on in the sixth form to try
to improve my A-
It was at this time that I discovered that I actually liked academic work. Free from
the restrictions of formal teaching I found that I could enjoy reading and writing
about things that interested me. I decided to re-
Sociology at Kingston was a life-
It was hard-
I became involved in the BSA as an undergraduate. I joined the Association in 1971 in order to attend its annual conference, which was being held on deviance — the hot topic of the day. At the conference I saw and heard those who, until then, I had only read about in my textbooks: the high point was an evening meeting of a study group, when I sat next to Howard Becker and contributed to the discussion that he led. I can’t remember what I said: it was obviously far less memorable than the occasion itself.
This was great preparation for beginning a research degree. I was accepted for a PhD at the LSE, and I got a permanent lectureship a year later. That was in 1972, just about the last time that it was possible for someone without a PhD and with only a year of research behind them to get any kind of academic job. My job was at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, and I began, at last, to teach the subject that I had been studying. I was determined to try to learn from the negative experiences that I had at school and hoped to emulate those who had inspired me at college.
I have continued to enjoy teaching and researching in sociology. From Strathclyde I moved to Leicester and then to Essex, probably the strongest social science University in the UK and the best department of sociology in the country. Towards the end of my career I decided to take up the offer of a post at the University of Plymouth, hoping that I could contribute to the development of the subject in an institution that was quite different from the more traditional universities in which I had worked. Again, circumstances intervened and the changing context of higher education finance meant that Plymouth sociology experienced contraction rather than growth. Managerial issues at the university, which hit sociology especially hard, led me to resign my emeritus professorship in protest and to give some solidarity to my colleagues who were made redundant or put under huge pressure.
In all that I have done over the years I have tried to recapture something of the
excitement of my student days: the years when I began to enjoy academic study, discovered
sociology, and decided that that was the path I wanted to follow. In studying sociology
I also began to better understand myself and the social world around me. Two of the
first books that I read were Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology (Berger 1963)
and C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (Mills 1959). These gave me a
new insight into my own life and the larger events and conditions that I had read
about in my studies of economics and geography. I became aware that everyday encounters
had an intrinsic connection with larger events of historical significance and that
these are, in turn, both shaped by and shape social structures. I was able, for example,
to reflect on my own educational biography and to see the ways in which my identification
with sociology arose from the specific historical expansion of sociology in the 1960s
and the structural context of a selective, class-
The very idea of social structure was a quite novel object of understanding that I had simply not previously encountered. I came to understand how the things that we and others do are conditioned by factors that operate ‘behind our backs’ and of which we are unaware, but that are, nevertheless, real. I was completely convinced of the need to approach these issues analytically, whether through the work of writers such as Karl Marx in his materialist understanding of economic and class structures or through the more culturally focused arguments of Talcott Parsons. I never accepted the view that Parsons’s work was inherently and inescapably conservative: its analytical stance offered the possibility of a radical structural analysis that could connect directly with the concerns of those who investigated conflict and power. It was the arguments of David Lockwood and then Alvin Gouldner that convinced me of the possibility of linking these ideas together into a compelling framework of social understanding.
I was also attracted by the idea of studying the ‘science of society’, which was
how we unselfconsciously described sociology at the time. Having come into sociology
straight from a very conventional boys’ grammar school I was not aware of any great
discrepancy between everyday practical concerns and academic study. It seemed self-
1968 was, however, a period of unprecedented student radicalism. While those of us
living in the outer suburbs of Greater London had generally thought that the ‘swinging
sixties’ must have been happening elsewhere, the dramatic events of 1968 could not
but affect even the most conventional students at a College of Technology. I became
aware of the importance of the critical perspective offered by sociology, of the
ways in which political differences can shape our perceptions of the world, and of
the ways in which we construct explanations of social differences and inequalities.
This awareness lay behind my attraction to the sociology of deviance, where Howard
Becker was developing the idea of the inescapable need to identify with top dogs
or underdogs according to your values and political standpoint. I moved towards a
position in which the value-
It was some years before a gendered perspective on this became apparent. However,
it was the papers presented at the 1974 conference on ‘Social Divisions and Society’,
held in Aberdeen, that launched a massively important intellectual debate that opened
the eyes of many men to the importance of gender as a social division. It also had
implications for the BSA, whose meetings were marked by disputes over the role of
women in the sociological profession and led to the high-
For me personally, the importance of the social standpoint taken on knowledge and the implications of this for perspectival yet objective knowledge was something that figured centrally in my thought thereafter. I was able to develop this in a book on Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research (Letherby et al. 2013), written with Gayle Letherby and Malcolm Williams in the form of a ‘trialogue’. We aimed to show that situated subjectivity and rational objectivity were two sides of the same complex process. Sociological understanding involves the melded appreciation of how one's own embodied and embedded standpoint must be combined with the equally partial perspectives of others and subjected to critical appraisal in order to achieve a more comprehensive—and so more objective—account of the world.
My own research in sociology was largely focused on issues of class and power related
to economic and political development. I studied ‘elites’ and upper classes, initially
in the context of Scottish society and the challenge posed by the development of
the North Sea oil industry, and later for Britain as a whole and its relationship
to elites in the United States, continental Europe, and the Far East. The key outcomes
of this work were my initial book Corporations, Classes and Capitalism (Scott 1979)
and its later revision Corporate Business and Capitalist Classes (Scott 1997), together
with Who Rules Britain? (Scott 1991a) and more general contributions to social stratification
(Scott 1996) and power (Scott 2001). The research was also the basis on which I developed
a number of contributions to research methodology (Scott 1990; 1991b). This area
of research interest reflected my upbringing in a Labour-
My orientation towards whole societies and the fact that I worked on the interdisciplinary
boundaries with economics and political science led me to examine the disciplinary
boundaries that exist within the social sciences. I came to accept a much-
I have always seen an involvement in the British Sociological Association as an integral
aspect of my commitment to the sociological profession. While there is an understandable
tendency, reinforced by institutional pressure, to identify with one’s specialism,
this should not be at the expense of identification with the discipline as a whole.
All sociologists should be members of the Association and should contribute to its
work on behalf of the discipline. The work done by the Association is often invisible
and so is unfairly under-
There is little of importance that I would change in my career. Of course, there are many things that I would prefer not to have happened: principally the cuts in sociology in the 1980s and subsequently that led to many departmental closures and job losses. I have been fortunate in avoiding the disasters faced by many colleagues. However, sociology teaches the importance of recognising the unintended consequences of action. If anything could have been changed, what other, unanticipated and undesirable changes might then have happened? In terms of my own discovery of this exciting subject and the ways in which my knowledge and understanding of it have unfolded during my career I would want to change nothing at all.
It is important to be very careful about offering advice to others. One’s own experiences—reflecting
one’s a particular history and structural circumstances—are rarely a satisfactory
guide for those entering the profession at a different time and under different circumstances.
I was fortunate to gain a first permanent job in 1972, having completed only one
year of my PhD, and no such opportunities are available today. An established post
comes—if at all—only after the completion of a PhD, the production of a number of
publications, and a series of temporary and short-
Berger, P. L. (1963) Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
Letherby, G., Scott, J. and Williams, M. (2013) Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research, London: Sage.
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Scott, J. (1979) Corporations, Classes and Capitalism, 1st edn London: Hutchinson.
Scott, J.(1990) A Matter of Record: Documentary Sources in Social Research, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scott, J. (1991a) Who Rules Britain?, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scott, J. (1991b) Social Network Analysis, London: Sage.
Scott, J. (1996) Stratification and Power: Structures of Class, Status and Command, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scott, J. (1997) Corporate Business and Capitalist Classes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scott, J. (2001) Power, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scott, J. (2005) 'Sociology and Its Others: Reflections on Disciplinary Specialisation and Fragmentation', Sociological Research Online, 10, 1.
Scott, J. (2011) Conceptualising the Social World. Principles of Socilogical Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Drift, Opportunity, and Commitment: The Shaping of a Professional Career
This biographical piece covers the whole of my career and was prepared for a publication on careers and identities, expanding on the argument of my Biographical Journey. The final version appeared in Sociologists' Tales. Contemporary narratives on sociological thought and practice , edited by Katherine Twamley, Mark Doidge, Andrea Scott (Policy Press, 2015).