Sociology in Cambridge

Geoffrey Hawthorn

Cambridge has re-appointed to its chair of sociology. The chair is still not established, and will have to be argued for again when it’s vacated. The argument for filling it at least once more was conservative: there has been a professor since 1970, there was a department of social and political sciences and a degree which included the subject, and these had to have a head. The consequence of filling it is conservative too. It is a determination to try to establish sociology by separating it still further from the subjects that are close to it. But this curricular victory will be intellectually empty. Sociologists have certainly abandoned the pretension to a scientific ethic which long made them so suspicious to others. Having done so, it is not clear that, left to themselves, they have left themselves much to say.

It was Henry Sidgwick who best exposed the pretension. And it was Sidgwick who, from well beyond the grave, did as much as anyone to keep the subject out of Cambridge. Yet he was not an obvious enemy. In the 1860s he had lectured on philosophy and political theory in the Moral Sciences Tripos. In order to extend the teaching of politics, he had helped J.R. Seeley and Alfred Marshall start another Tripos in History. Having caught sight of Comte ‘through Mill’s spectacles’, he had all the while been contemplating ‘a complete revision of human relations, political, moral and economic, in the light of science’. His ambition was grand and his sympathies were systematic. ‘Principles will soon be everything,’ he had declared in 1865, ‘and tradition nothing.’ And he was awesomely conscientious. ‘Take notice that I have parted from Mill and Comte – not without tears and wailings and cuttings of the hair.’ Though he had concluded that sociological theory would not do, he had not done so in haste or out of a simple longing for the ineffable virtues of the past.

Sidgwick delivered his conclusions to the British Association in the summer of 1885. He agreed that ‘if we could ascertain from the past history of human society the fundamental laws of social evolution as a whole, so that we could actually forecast the main features of the future state,’ then, of course, ‘the science which gave this foresight would be of the highest value.’ ‘What has to be proved,’ however, ‘is that this supremely important knowledge is within our grasp; that the sociology which professes this prevision is really an established science.’ As it is, he said, ‘guidance, truly, is here enough and to spare: but how is the bewildered statesman to select his guidance when his sociological doctors exhibit this portentous disagreement?’ Politics and morality could not be reduced to this. ‘Our Association’, he insisted, must ‘take no step calculated to foster delusions of this kind’. And for another seventy-five years, neither it nor Cambridge did.[1]

But sociology has now arrived. And theoretically, it has softened. The sociologists no longer propose social laws. They almost all agree that there are no non-trivial ones to be had. And even if there were, it is clearer now than it was a hundred years ago, when men were still mesmerised by pre-determination, that we can reject and invent them. Anthony Giddens, the new professor at Cambridge, has recast this more modest view into what he calls a sociological theory of ‘structuration’. Structuration is ‘the structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure’; duality of structure is ‘structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organises’: that’s to say, if one wishes to say it like this, ‘the structural properties of social systems do not exist outside of action but are chronically implicated in its production and reproduction.’ They are not immutable.

The sociologists are also now disinclined to guide. Giddens again explains:[2]

Every analysis of existing conditions of social life, because it is ‘historical’, i.e. concerned with the temporality of institutions in their reproduction by human actors, generates an understanding of their potential transformation. This is a logical point, not one that specifies what a given course of action or programme can actually achieve. All social analysis, put another way, is implicitly social critique and also has transformative implications for whatever it describes. These provide the ‘grounding’ of critical theory, but do not in and of themselves indicate how immanent possibilities in a given set of circumstances can be actualised, or what connection that actualisation might bear to more inclusive goals.

All, it seems, is open. Only portentousness remains – which, after all, is merely a matter of taste. And since it cannot now be claimed, as Sidgwick did in 1899, that ‘there is no elementary manual of English manufacture by which a student may learn to pass an examination in sociology with the least possible trouble,’ we might as well relax: the extravagant ambition has gone, the subject is domesticated, and its adherents may safely graze.

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[1] The arguments in Cambridge in the later 19th century have been recovered by Stefan Collini in That Noble Science of Politics by Collini, Donald Winch and John Burrow, reviewed here by Peter Clarke (LRB, 1 February 1984). A history of the later comparable moves and non-moves in Oxford, Norman Chester’s Economics, Politics and Social Studies in Oxford, 1900-85 (Macmillan, 203 pp., £27.50, 10 July, 0 333 40837 3) does not include sociology in its introductory conspectus of ‘social studies’ and mentions it only in two short paragraphs in the main text. A picture of the moves made elsewhere, especially at the LSE, can be put together from Essays on the History of British Sociological Research, edited by Martin Bulmer (Cambridge, 257 pp., £25, 1985, 0 521 25477 9).

[2] The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Polity, 402 pp., £19.50, 1984, 0 7456 0006 9; The Nation Slate and Violence: Vol. II of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, Polity, 399 pp., £19.50, 14 November 1985, 0 7456 0031 X.

[3] This line of argument is developed and much of the pervasive perplexity unravelled in the three remarkable volumes of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Politics, Social Theory, False Necessity and Plasticity into Power, to be published later this year by Cambridge. Unger’s Passion, in which he discusses the Modernist view of the self, was reviewed by Paul Seabright (LRB, 4 July 1985).