British Sociology

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In a global age, the concept of British sociology poses an interesting question with regard to the viability of national sociologies. Neither academic disciplines nor the subjects studied fit easily into national boundaries. An academic's closest colleague may be in New York or Delhi rather than in Lancaster or Birmingham. Key figures in British sociology, such as Dahrendorf, Westergaard, and Bauman are not British but have spent some or all of their careers working in British institutions (Halsey 1989). As sociologists working in Britain they were well placed to investigate questions related to British society. Then there are the British sociologists who have left Britain to research and teach elsewhere; John Goldthorpe to Sweden and Germany, and John Hall and Michael Mann to the United States, for example. British sociologists have often studied other nations too: Ronald Dore focuses on Japan, David Lane on Russia, and John Torrance on Austria to name a few. With all of these international influences exemplifing the present status of sociology in Britain, how "British" then is British sociology? This entry briefly explores the range of sociology that has developed in Britain from its origins to the present day, and ends by noting possible implications for its future.


The discipline of sociology in Great Britain has a history that stretches back to the early 1900s. Martin White and the London School of Economics (LSE) figure prominently in the development of British sociology. In 1907, White effectively founded the study of sociology in Britain by investing about £1,000 to fund a series of lectures at the LSE, as well as to establish the Sociological Society. The first annual report of the society indicated 408 members distributed throughout Great Britain, and thirty-two overseas. Early members of the society included an interesting variety of prominent public and literary figures, such as H.H. Asquith, Hilaire Belloc, and the Bishop of Stepney; British academics including Bertrand Russell, Graham Wallas, and Beatrice Webb; as well as international academics such as Emile Durkheim and Ferdinand Tonnies, among others. Also in 1907, White gave the University of London £10,000 for a permanent chair in sociology to be located at LSE. White also donated additional funds for lectureships, bursaries, and scholarships in sociology. Because of White's prominence in supporting these early initiatives, Dahrendorf has argued that "it is not too much to say that one man, Martin White, established the discipline of sociology in Britain. . . Moreover, sociology came to life at LSE." (Dahrendorf 1995, p. 103).

Despite this promising start, by 1945 the LSE remained the only university with a department of sociology in Britain. Several reasons have been identified for this late development. Among these was the long-standing opposition to the creation of sociology as a university subject by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which were at the top of the educational establishment in Britain. In addition, two other disciplines had claims on similar social research that predated the emergence of sociology. Anthropology and political economy both focused on social research that suited the interests of Britain at the time. Studies of foreign shores while Britain was still a major empire was of greater interest than social research focused on issues closer to home. Empirically based scholarship on the political economy was preferable to the theoretical emphasis of many sociologists because of its perceived lack of application to the real world. The purported lack of credibility of those promoting the study of sociology, many of whom were either located on the outside or on the margins of academe, did not lend a helping hand to the development of sociology either. But, the most persistent obstacle was the hierarchical social structure of British society that prevented the effective interrogation of its social structures (Albrow 1989).


Following World War II, the fortunes of sociology changed dramatically, in line with the social changes in Britain at this time. In these years there was a general feeling of optimism regarding possible changes in social relationships as well as increasing expectations of education and science to create a better life. In this context the study of sociology represented a commitment to social reorganization. "There was a demand [for sociology]. . . irrespective of what was on offer" (Albrow 1989, p. 202).

Around this same time, Edward Shils moved to London from the University of Chicago. His teaching of classical European sociology has been described "as magnificent a professorial presentation of the social science scenery as could be found in the Western world," and had a great deal to do with shaping and inspiring the first generation of British sociologists (Halsey 1999). This first generation of "career sociologists" in Britain completed their education at the LSE between 1950 and 1952. They included: J.A. Banks, Olive Banks, Michael Banton, Basil Bernstein, Percy Cohen, Norman Dennis, Ralf Dahrendorf, A.H. Halsey, David Lockwood, Cyril Smith, J.H. Smith, Asher Tropp, and John Westergaard. All became prominent sociologists in Britain by the mid-1960s. Members of this cohort have described the sociological analysis they developed as grounded in their own experiences of social inequality and informed by critical reflections on Marx, Parsons, and Popper (Halsey 1985; Dahrendorf 1995). Two of the many publications from members of this group are: David Lockwood's Some Remarks on The Social System, published in 1956, and Dahrendorf's Classand Class Conflict in Industrial Society, published in 1959. Lockwood's paper is notable because it became the most widely read single paper by a British sociologist at the time. Dahrendorf's book, a critical reflection on Marx and Parsons, argued that Weber's ideas were useful in explaining the positive effects of conflict in Great Britain, and was dedicated to this first cohort at the LSE.

British sociology was further developed in the next decade by the work of John Rex at the University of Leeds. His work Key Problems in Sociological Theory (1961) became the most popular British sociological theory textbook in the 1960s. Rex used a Weberian action framework in contrast to the functionalist orthodoxy prominent at the time. In addition to Leeds, departments of sociology had been established at the universities of Leicester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, and Hull. In 1967, three important works became available in Britain, Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology, Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, and Schutz's The Phenomenology of the Social World. These books contained an implicit critique of the kind of sociology that had been pursued in Britain up to this time. They emphasized a qualitative analysis of the ways in which social actors create meaning and acquire social positions in the context of language. The growth of the discipline continued throughout this time with nearly every institution of higher education in Britain housing a department of sociology. This led some to make the observation that it was growing with "explosive force" (Heyworth 1965, p.11). Sociology as a discipline was beginning to come into its own in Britain.

By the 1970s, there were many theoretical currents in British sociology; not only were phenomenological and Marxist arguments being pursued, but also the works of Althusser, the French structuralists, the "Frankfurt School," and Habermas and Gramsci. Links between British sociology and European social theory were becoming stronger. In addition there were important empirical studies being done; the best example is the 1972 Oxford Mobility Studies undertaken by a group of sociologists at Nuffield College, Oxford, and greatly influenced by the work of one of their team, John Goldthorpe. Around this same time a dialogue between the debates in social theory and empirical understanding was initiated by Anthony Giddens in his analysis of the founders of sociology, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971). By 1979 he had developed structuration theory to reconcile the previous theoretical debates. Giddens's systematic analysis of modernity is the most extensive and widely disseminated work of any British sociologist to date.

Starting in the 1980s, the emerging theoretical zeitgeist of British sociology was an increasing interest in the study of culture. Cultural studies as developed in the 1960s through the rather different works of Richard Hoggart, E.P. Thompson, and Stuart Hall emphasized the social aspects of culture and led to the specialization in the 1980s and 1990s of the areas of media, feminism, and ethnicity. Cultural analyses were developed as part of an overall analysis of fundamental shifts in modern societies around production, consumption, and social interaction. Influenced by European theories of politics, ideology, and discourse, existing Marxist and functionalist theories were seen as unable to adequately theorize the modern social world.

The work of sociologists based at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies represents an example of this analysis. In 1983, the group consisting of John Solomos, Bob Findlay, Simon Jones, and Paul Gilroy outlined a neo-Marxist approach to racism in a series of articles entitled The Empire Strikes Back. Gilroy's book, which followed the original articles, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, developed these themes and stressed the contest over the meaning of "race" that occurs in the public sphere between different social actors. Gilroy's analysis is an example of the wider move in British sociology away from a Marxist analysis of class conflict toward an emphasis on new social movements, such as the women's movement, youth movements, peace movements, green movements, and others they claimed were not easily reducible to class-based politics. There is, of course, a continuing debate between cultural-studies thinkers and Marxists, such as Robert Miles, who argue that class conflict is still far from dead, and remains a central feature in explaining the production of racism. The diversity and pluralism within sociology in Britain at this time has been described as one of its great strengths (Albrow 1989).


The growth of sociology in Britain was abruptly impeded by a governmental investigation of higher-education research funding in 1981. One recommendation following the investigation was the withdrawal of funding for any new departments of sociology and those seen as "substandard." Sociologists were also limited in their representation on the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), with only two of the ninety-four members from sociology departments. As a reflection of this change in academic focus, the SSRC was renamed the Economic and Social Research Council in 1984. Albrow (1989) argues that no other academic discipline was singled out in this way.

Governmental scrutiny of sociology programs and departments has become an integral part of British higher education. It is, however, not because it continues to be singled out for special treatment as it was in previous decades but rather it is part of the larger process of fiscal accountability and quality assurance instituted by the government. The first two Research Assessment Exercises (RAE) were conducted in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Each RAE rated every department of every subject on its research output. In 1996, sociology at the universities of Essex and Lancaster received 5* (the highest rank) ratings, while close behind were the universities of Loughborough, Manchester, Oxford, Surrey, Warwick, and Edinburgh, and the college of Goldsmiths, with ratings of 5 each (RAE 1996). Most important about the ratings is that the British government ". . . funding bodies use the ratings to inform the distribution of grants for research to HEIs" (higher education institutions) (RAE 1996). It has been reported that, "Some 20 percent of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England is a reward for research excellence, as a measured by the "research assessment exercise" (Wolf 1999). In fact, these funds are extremely important to the day-to-day running of departments and in some cases make them viable or not.

If research was to be assessed, then teaching could not be far behind. The Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) exercise was instituted in 1993 with various subjects coming up for review in each country of Britain over an eight-year period. In England, sociology was reviewed between 1995 and 1996. At the time of TQA there were approximately 20,000 students studying sociology in eighty-one institutions of higher education in England alone. The Overview Report of all departments reviewed in England noted that, "The overall picture that emerges from the assessment process of the quality of education in sociology is a positive one. . . . On the other hand there is little room for complacency." It was further noted that, "The majority of institutions use a suitable range and variety of teaching, learning and assessment methods. The assessors found considerable evidence of innovative approaches to teaching, which encouraged and enthused students (HEFCE 1996, p. 14).

Funding does not follow from high TQA scores. Instead, high-scoring departments can bid for money from the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. In sociology five consortium projects were funded to a total of over £1,000,000. The five projects publish a regular newsletter and there are plans to launch an online journal for teaching in 2000 (Middleton 1999).


As British sociology enters a global age it is challenged with the ironies and complexities of understanding the current state of modernity that includes the increasing interconnectedness of the world as a whole, the increasing choices each individual has, and the resilience of national identities as evidenced by the increasing number of nations that emerge year after year. Each of these issues has been the subject of research by British sociologists in the past decade. The 1990s saw an "explosion" of interest in studies of culture informed by debates around the high-modern or postmodern condition, albeit influenced by the works of the French sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault (Swingewood 1998). Both the study of nations and trends toward globalization find British sociology in the lead as well. Ernest Gellner (1983) and Anthony Smith (1986) have claimed the territory of nations and nationalism. At the same time, Anthony Giddens (1990), Roland Robertson (British by birth) (1992), Leslie Sklair (1995), and Martin Albrow (1996) have advanced theories of globalization. Emerging from work on globalization is the sociology of human rights. Two examples include: Anthony Woodiwiss's (1998) work on the compatibilities between Asian values and human rights discourses, and Kevin Bales's (1999) study of economic globalization and the development of modern slavery. These seem to highlight some important issues to be debated within sociology (worldwide) in this millennium.

The first century of British sociology saw its ups and downs. At times it was a popular subject to study and at other times it faced significant threats to its existence. Probably there was no threat more dramatic than the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's declaration that, "There is no such thing as society." However, despite the attacks and the loss of funding, sociology as a discipline has managed not only to survive but is poised to lead policy making in Britain. Currently there are increasing numbers of Members of Parliament and Lords who have a sociology background and there are nearly a dozen Vice Chancellors of universities who are sociologists. "Indeed, the subject somehow seems in tune with the times. With a government that not only accepts, but explicitly seeks to understand, and manage society, it is surely no coincidence that Tony Blair's favourite academic, Anthony Giddens. . . is another sociologist-cum-VC (or Director as the position is called at the London School of Economics)" (Brown 1999, p. iii). The reference here is to Giddens's latest contribution to British sociology, his book entitled The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (1998). In many ways sociology has come full circle, with LSE academics once again playing an important role in its resurgence. Despite all attempts to deny its value, sociology in Britain can once again try to fulfill the claim made a century ago and an ocean away, that "Sociology has a foremost place in the thought of modern men [and women]" (Small 1895, p.1).


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