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).


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- off, parents. My entry into an academic career, however, was also a matter of drift in which I rather blindly took advantage of the opportunities available to me. I had never been especially academic at school and never had any idea of what I wanted to do in life. My first steps towards academic study arose simply from my interests in the various subjects available to me at school.

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- level. I got a tolerable pass in geography, failed French, and scraped a pass in mathematics. The pass in mathematics remains a matter of surprise to me. The course was divided into two papers. One was in ‘pure mathematics’ (in which I achieved a princely 18 per cent in the mocks) and the other was in ‘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. This is, perhaps, why I have never felt daunted by mathematics and eventually made some contributions to social network analysis. A continuing concern has been to summarise and explain mathematical procedures rather than simply to ‘do’ the mathematics.

Having no idea what to do after school, I opted to stay on in the sixth form to try to improve my A- levels. I decided to retake geography, but felt there was no chance of improving in my other subjects. Through geography I had become aware of economics and so decided to study it, although it was a subject that my school did not teach. 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 the lead guitarist in Queen! Anyway, the school did not teach economics and had given up on me, so it allowed me to try to teach myself the subject.

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- apply for a degree and, having been rejected by universities, I tried the local college at Kingston. 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 and to my surprise they accepted me.

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, sociology of religion, and industrial sociology.

It was hard- going, but all the parts fitted together well and I acquired a good, rounded knowledge of sociology. The degree would not, perhaps, be regarded as so ‘rounded’ these days, as it was before the important changes of the 1970s that introduced feminist theories and an awareness of gender. It gave nevertheless a comprehensive and wide- ranging approach to sociology. The limited opportunities for specialisation and choice of options meant that students were given a view of how societies had to be seen as wholes that are greater than their parts and that the various parts fit together into particular patterns of integration and contradiction. This orientation has always remained with me and is something that I later emphasised in my presidential address to the BSA (Scott 2005) and in my book Conceptualising the Social World (Scott 2011). It has also given me a continuing interest in all aspects of the subject and a desire to read beyond my particular specialisms. This is partly a matter of sheer interest and enjoyment, but it has also had consequences for my work. I have often found that reading and discussing work in other areas can generate insights for my work and that those working in other areas face similar theoretical and methodological issues from which I can learn.

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- based educational system. My professional identity was a product of both my generation and my circumstances.

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- evidently possible to study the social world as objectively as any other phenomenon. The idea that a ‘scientific’ understanding of the social world could be achieved and could produce a true account of events did not seem at all problematic. Parsons and Marx seemed to provide concepts that could be used to provide the kinds of objective explanatory accounts that I had found—or thought that I had found—in economics and the illuminating empirical descriptions that I had found in regional geography.

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- relatedness and socially bound character of sociological knowledge had to be combined with the rational discourse and methods stressed by the advocates of social ‘science’.

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- profile departure of some men from the association in the face of what they saw as a concerted feminist ‘attack’ and politicisation of the subject. Intellectually and professionally there was to be no turning back.

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- voting, middle- class family. Sociology had given me the analytical tools that I needed to explore the issues with which I and my family had been particularly concerned.

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- modified version of Auguste Comte’s view that sociology is the most general of the social sciences and that other social sciences can be seen as, in many respects, sub- divisions of sociology. In my Presidential address to the BSA Conference (Scott 2005) I sought to defend the holistic character of sociology without denying the importance of interdisciplinary work: which might better be seen as ‘inter- specialism’ work. Different social scientists might work from differing standpoints and with different concepts, but they are to be seen as engaged in a common intellectual endeavour of social understanding. No one theoretical standpoint is likely to provide all the answers to sociologically interesting questions. There should be no false claims to completion or to the exclusive priority of one’s own preferred approach. Nor should there be any denigration of the theoretical perspectives of others. We are involved in a common intellectual endeavour that must involve mutual respect and tolerance and a willingness to discuss and debate theoretical differences, rather than to resort to arguments by fiat.

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- rated by members and non- members alike. I have spent a great part of the latter half of my career as a member of its Executive or Council and I have been editor of its newsletter Network, General Secretary, Treasurer, Chairperson, and President. Through the BSA I have been able to participate in other activities central to the discipline. These have included a committee on the ‘benchmarking’; of sociology degree schemes, the Teaching Quality Assessment exercise, The Research Assessment Exercise, and the Research Excellence Framework. In all these roles I have sought to apply my view of the subject as a holistic yet diverse intellectual activity and to defend its character in the face of its critics. It was great to feel that peer recognition of this work led in 2013 to the award of a CBE ‘for services to Social Science’.

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- term appointments. My only advice to those now entering the profession would be to follow your personal preferences as best you can and not to aim at immediate fame and fortune. These may arise—though perhaps not the fortune—as a result of the unintended consequences of your actions as you negotiate your way through the particular structure of opportunities that you encounter. It is impossible to know whether our actions will lead to the long- term goals that we pursue and we cannot predict the future. That is both a key insight of sociology and one of its greatest limitations. Both the insight and the limitation are to be embraced.



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 Sociological Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.