Coming Home: Reflections on Essex Sociology

This biographical account was written for a publication marking the 50th Anniversary of the Essex University Department of Sociology. It concerns my career- long encounters with Essex sociology and Essex sociologists. The final version is in Ken Plummer’s Imaginations:Fifty Years of Essex Sociology (Wivenbooks, 2014).

I joined the Essex Department in 1994 and I felt that I was coming home. This was not simply because everybody was so welcoming and friendly towards me. It was because Essex had been at the centre of the discipline throughout my career: it was the intellectual home to which I was returning.


My first encounters with Essex had been while I was an undergraduate student at a London College and had taken place at a distance through my reading of the works of the leading British sociologists who were associated with the Essex Department. These were, at the time, simply individual ‘big names’ who were writing on the major topics covered in my syllabus and I had little idea that they were members of the same Department. I had studied for the London External degree and the breadth and range of the topics covered accorded well with the range of concerns that had been deliberately established at Essex. The compulsory course in ‘Ethics and Social Philosophy’ used Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics (MacIntyre 1967) as its major text and I was inspired by his socio- historical account of ethical positions as discursive engagements within particular cultural traditions. In courses on ‘Social Policy’ and ‘The Social Structure of Modern Britain’ we were introduced to the work of Peter Townsend (1957; 1962), whose conceptualisation of poverty as a socially and historically variable condition helped to articulate the ways in which the ethical concerns of social philosophy shaped practical policies and life experiences.

Wider issues of class and inequality were explored in the ‘Modern Britain’ course and these were pursued through the themes raised in David Lockwood’s Black Coated Worker (1958) and his contribution to The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure (Goldthorpe et al. 1969). We were taught how to understand the dynamics of class reproduction through Dennis Marsden’s brilliant evoking of the grammar school experience in Education and the Working Class (Jackson and Marsden 1962). My studies began in 1968, a time of great radicalism and political upheaval, and the political dimensions of class conflict were inevitably central to what we were taught. Discussions of working- class radicalism, and its limits, were introduced to us through a pioneering article by Mick Mann on ‘The Social Cohesion of Liberal Democracy’ (1970).

One of the most popular options to study at the time was ‘Criminology’, at a time when it was being revolutionised as the ‘Sociology of Deviance’. A central text in the emerging sociology of deviance was Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics(1972), in which he set out an account of the social construction of deviant labels and of the subsequent amplification of deviance through mass media reactions. It was through the course in Criminology that I first met a future member of the Department: a young postgraduate student from the LSE called Ken Plummer was one of our tutors.


The central course in my degree scheme was ‘Theories and Methods of Sociology’ and the main British contributions to sociological theory that we came across, and that had a huge influence on me, were David Lockwood’s two articles on ‘Some Remarks on The Social System’ (1956) and on ‘Social and System Integration’ (1964). His critical but highly supportive review of Parsons’s much- maligned book The Social System (1951) and his elaboration of the parallels between the ‘normative’ and the ‘factual’ structuring of action underpinned the growing concern for the development of a ‘conflict’ perspective, while his elaboration of the systemic underpinnings of individual and collective action directly explored the patterns of struggle, conflict, and change that were central to the political issues raised in Marxist- informed debates.

It was after getting my first job that I became more aware of the Department as a collective entity. I had been lucky enough to get a permanent lectureship after just one year as a PhD student and a short article in a low- circulation journal: this was in 1972, when such things were still possible. The job was, however, at Strathclyde University, where sociology was not thriving. My intellectual needs were partly met by attendance at the staff seminar held at Glasgow University, and it was there that I first met David Lockwood in person. David presented a paper on the relations and forces of intellectual production, an early draft of material that was eventually to appear in his great Solidarity and Schism (1992). Correspondence with David after the seminar helped to develop a lot of ideas in my own mind. It was then that, through sending letters to David at the university address that I began to see it as a place where interesting and important work was being undertaken.


At Strathclyde, I had begun a research project on social stratification in Scotland and in 1973 I was invited by the Edinburgh sociologist Frank Bechhofer to join the SSRC Social Stratification seminar held at Cambridge twice a year. The other participants in the seminar, all holders of grants in the days when social science research was supported by a research council that was still allowed to call itself the Social Science Research Council, included David Lockwood, Mick Mann, and Colin Bell. Others who joined the seminar over the years were Howard Newby, David Rose, Pete Saunders, and, a little later, Gordon Marshall – though I had known Gordon since his days as a postgraduate student through a friendship with one of his former teachers in Stirling. The Seminars were exciting and remarkably productive, though the proceedings were often dominated by John Goldthorpe’s ritual intellectual combat with all- comers on the subject of the measurement of class. Bell and Newby were in the early stages of their research on farmers, published in Property, Paternalism and Power(Newby et al. 1978) and in Howard’s own The Deferential Worker (Newby 1977), and it was partly through the debates in the seminar that the work that was to appear in Social Class in Modern Britain (Rose et al. 1989)was formulated. My own first book on Corporations, Classes, and Capitalism (1979), had been commissioned by Tony Giddens, but his Series Editorship had been taken over by Howard Newby when Tony moved to work with Macmillan. It was Howard who suggested the alliterative title, no doubt suggested by the similar alliteration in his own title for the book on farmers. One feature of my book had been an attempt to use ideas from Bourdieu to understand class reproduction. This had been suggested to me by discussions at the seminar and elsewhere with Jane Marceau, who had then just returned from one of her research visits to France.


The research in which I was most directly engaged involved studies of economic elites through investigations into interlocking directorships. Much research in the area was impressionistic and relied on informal techniques to map supposed power structures. I struggled to find more systematic and quantitative methods to help with the analysis and it was Essex sociologists who, contrary to the stereotype often held of them, provided some key insights. A key broker was Tony Coxon, who had just moved from Edinburgh to Cardiff and would later move on to Essex. Tony had employed multidimensional scaling in his own studies of occupational cognition, which he had reported at the Stratification Seminar, and he put me in touch with the mathematical works of Pat Doreian (1970) and Peter Abell (1971). Through their books and papers I later discovered the work of Ron Atkin (1981) in the Essex Mathematics Department. This engagement with formal modelling continued through my move from Strathclyde to Leicester and became a major element in the production of my book on Social Network Analysis (originally 1991). It was at this time that I first visited Essex, to give a paper in the Departmental seminar and when Harold Wolpe quizzically interrogated me on what it all signified. Later developments in this research on elites involved comparative work on Russia and Eastern Europe that I undertook with David Lane, then at Cambridge, and led to some involvement in the East- West study coordinated by George Kolankiewicz.


The other area in which I had direct contact with Essex sociologists was through my work in the philosophy of science. I had discovered Roy Bhaskar’s realist approach to science when it first appeared in the mid- 1970s and had tried to work through its relevance for sociology. One of the key sources in helping to work this out was Ted Benton’s Philosophical Foundations of the Three Sociologies (1977). His characterisation of the contrast between structural and interpretative approaches and of the ways in which a realist understanding could reconcile these seemed, to me, to form an important link between David Lockwood’s earlier arguments on system and social integration and the later arguments of Giddens, Archer, and others on the apparent opposition of ‘structure and agency’. This continued to be an important basis for my theoretical work and was apparent in my book on Sociological Theory.


Essex sociology was, therefore, central to my intellectual development prior to my own time in the Department. It was also, of course, central to the development of the discipline in Britain. During the 1950s and 1960s, the key departments in the development of sociology had been those at the LSE and at Leicester. The LSE had, perhaps, peaked in the early 1950s, but the two Departments jointly provided many of the recruits to the new sociology Departments that were being set up in the 1960s. Amongst these new Departments, Essex rapidly took the lead. As others have shown, there was a deliberate decision to concentrate resources in the University among a small number of large social- science units, and the Department of Sociology rapidly became the largest in the country. The educational vision of the founders of the University and Department also involved a broad conception of the subject that included cognate disciplines (most particularly history, philosophy, and social policy) and a wide range of specialisms. It was this dynamic set up that underpinned the work of the people who have influenced me in my work. I was, of course, far from the only person to be influenced in this way.


The Department also had a major influence on the wider discipline through the movement of staff into Departments of Sociology (and into other subjects) at other universities. The Department was, however, remarkably stable in its composition. After all, for anyone lucky enough to be appointed at Essex, there was nowhere else for them to move to that would be the slightest bit as exciting. Those who did move, however, carried the Essex inheritance with them and made major contributions both nationally and globally. Much of this influence was through the cohorts of graduate students who passed through the Department. Essex was one of the first Departments to recruit large numbers of postgraduates and, especially, to recruit on a global scale. The recruitment of international students may have been stimulated by financial motives, but sociology staff at Essex quickly recognised the intellectual benefits from having such diverse cohorts of students. New and different sociological traditions were constantly brought into the Department, and the evolving Essex approach was ‘exported’ along with the new doctoral graduates. The annual Graduate conference—which began in 1986 at the height of the round of deep cuts that the discipline then faced—became a crucial element in the social and intellectual cohesion of the Department.


The slowdown in staff recruitment that occurred because of the cuts of the 1980s meant that there was little mobility within the profession and membership of the Essex Department became more static. Paradoxically, this gave it a great strength in perpetuating a coherent tradition within which, as Alasdair MacIntyre might have remarked, constructive controversy and debate could take place. This was the basis for the openness of the Department to new areas and intellectual interests. Although it had long been organised around a core of intellectual concerns around the exploration of class and stratification, it began to develop equally thriving traditions in the study of sexuality, health, and crime. I had first been invited to apply for a post at Essex at the height of the stratification phase, but was unable to make the move for family reasons. When I did move, these new areas were all thriving. Despite my own lack of work in these areas, the prospect of engaging with diverse traditions was exciting, as I had always been open to influences from ostensibly different areas from my own.

My initial reaction on ‘coming home’ in 1994 was one of anxiety: I wondered whether I would be able to live up to it and become properly a part of something that had been so important throughout my career. In my first week I attended the regular staff- student seminar with large numbers of exceptionally well- informed postgraduate students from many different countries, and I wondered if I could live up to the rigour and enthusiasm that they brought to the seminar. The high intellectual level of both students and staff was, however, combined with great warmth and collegiality. I was welcomed home and soon began to feel a proper part of the family. The new and diverse interests I found in the Department helped to significantly re- orient my own interests in the subject by broadening the way I looked at things and stimulating a greater interest in the diversity of sociological traditions and also in the history of sociology in Britain. This was apparent in two companion books that I produced on sociological theory—Social Theory: Central Issues in Sociology (2005) and Conceptualising the Social World (2011), the latter appearing shortly after I left—and in my study of British sociology (Scott and Bromley 2013). It was with much sadness that I left the Department, moving for a pre- retirement resettlement in the south west, but I knew that the Department would remain my intellectual home, as it had been in the days before I moved there. Home is not only where the heart is, it is where the spirit is. And the spirit of Essex sociology is what keeps me intellectually alive.



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