A Biographical Journey

This short account of education and early career was prepared for a section of ‘biographical journeys’ into sociology on the British Sociological Association’s website.

I was never very academic at school and had little idea of what I wanted to do in life. My favourite subject had always been geography, which seemed to have something to do with the real world, and I applied to study this at University. Fate intervened and I performed badly at A- level. I got a tolerable pass in Geography, failed French, and scraped a pass in Mathematics. The pass in Mathematics remains a surprise. The course was divided into Pure Mathematics (in which I achieved a princely 18 per cent in the mocks) and Statistics (in which I got 92 per cent). Averaging out of these two must have got me my pass. The only reason I got 92 per cent in Statistics was that they gave us the formulas on a printed sheet, so it was just a matter of adding up and multiplying.

Having no idea what to do, I stayed on in the sixth form to improve my A- levels. I decided to retake Geography, but felt there was no chance of improving on the others. Through Geography I had become aware of Economics and so decided to study that, although the school didn’t teach it. I went to a very traditional Grammar School that praised such pupils as Brian May, who had gone on to study astronomy at Imperial College - I’m not sure how the school felt when he gave it all up to become lead guitarist in Queen! Anyway, the school did not teach Economics and had given up on me, so it allowed me to teach myself the subject.

This was when 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- apply to do a degree and I tried the local college (Kingston College of Technology – later Kingston Polytechnic and now Kingston University). Browsing through their courses in Economics I came across a sheet listing a degree in ‘Sociology’, which I had never heard of (It wasn’t then an A- level subject). Sociology seemed to combine the bits of Geography and Economics that I liked, so I applied for it. To my surprise, they accepted me: they must have been desperate!

Sociology at Kingston was a life- changing experience. I encountered great and committed teachers who opened- up whole new areas and I rapidly decided that this was how I wanted to spend my life. The degree was very wide- ranging. An external degree of London University, it included courses on Theory and Methods, Comparative Social Institutions, and Modern Britain, together with courses in Ethics and Social Philosophy, Economics, Statistics, and Social Policy. During the second year we added options in such subjects as Political Sociology, Criminology, Religion, and Industrial Sociology. It was hard- going, but all the parts fitted together well and I acquired a good, rounded knowledge of Sociology. It would, perhaps, not be regarded as ‘rounded’ these days, as it was before the important changes of the 1970s that introduced feminist theories and an awareness of gender.

As an undergraduate I became involved in the BSA. I joined in 1971 in order to attend the annual conference 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 the 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 a great preparation for beginning a research degree. I was accepted to study for a PhD at the LSE, and I got a permanent lectureship a year later. That was in 1972, just about the last time 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. I finished my career at Plymouth, working as Pro Vice- Chancellor to prepare for the Research Assessment. 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 direction I wanted to follow.