Many Causes, Many Cases

Peter Hall

  • Confessions of a Reluctant Theorist by W.G. Runciman
    Harvester, 253 pp, £30.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0484 9

To those who first encountered British sociology in the early Seventies, as I did, the discipline seemed infinitely more exciting than its counterpart across the Atlantic. Perhaps exhausted by the unravelling of the Parsonian system, American sociology had retreated from the pursuit of social theory toward the perfection of quantitative technique and the practice of microsociology. Each had its uses, but neither seemed to take up the challenge that the classical sociologists, like Marx, Weber and Durkheim, had posed for the field: namely, to describe the relations that held societies together and to explain the processes whereby these might continue or change.

British sociology, by contrast, was displaying the advantages of backwardness. Perhaps because it was less established and still deeply influenced by analytic philosophy and anthropology, it remained a highly theoretical pursuit, focused on large questions about the nature of society and social change. Perhaps because it was British, issues of power and stratification were central to the enquiry. Methodological debate seemed endemic. Here was a discipline, long-established in America, that still seemed to lack a clear-cut identity in Britain, yet, out of antediluvian debate, was making advances that would influence the course of social science around the world.

In this milieu, W. G. Runciman was a seminal figure, who appeared as puzzling to the uninitiated as the discipline he studied. He was an internationally-known sociologist at a university that apparently had no department of sociology. It was rumoured that Runciman rarely taught. Indeed, he appeared to work for a shipping company, doing sociology in his spare time. His book on Relative Deprivation and Social Justice was a path-breaking effort to apply historical research and survey-data to normative issues, widely cited to show that British sociology was not entirely theoretical. Yet those who searched the card catalogues for Runciman’s other empirical work found instead a serious study of Plato’s later epistemology and Philosophy, Politics and Society, a co-edited series of books that epitomised the hegemony of philosophy over social science in Britain. What was one to make of all this?

Twenty years later, a good deal of the answer can be found in Confessions of a Reluctant Theorist. This is another in the series of selected essays that the entrepreneurial editors at Harvester have been commissioning from distinguished academics. On the whole, they gather together the minor works of those who have written some great ones. The results, as might be expected, are uneven. This particular collection includes everything from a fine synoptic essay on Runciman’s approach to social theory, originally delivered in 1986, to a rather slight political tract entitled ‘Where is the Right of the Left?’, itself so full of confusing semantic distinctions as to constitute prima facie evidence for the impossibility of finding a stable political centre in Britain.

In between are essays on such diverse topics as the origins and end-points of the Greek polis, stratification in Classical Rome, social mobility in Anglo-Saxon England, the consequences of the French Revolution, British industrial relations, and the contradictions of state socialism in Poland. Many seem to constitute preliminary sketches for the second volume of Runciman’s masterwork, A Treatise on Social Theory. Of these, only the slightly dyspeptic review of a book on Roman history is so lacking in wider import that it might better have been dropped. The other essays do not constitute the most systematic expression of Runciman’s approach to sociology – for that the Treatise is indispensable – but they provide a glimpse into the intellectual trajectory of an extraordinarily learned, yet curiously down-to-earth sociological mind.

The book opens with a splendid intellectual autobiography reminiscent of those essays one must write for admission to graduate school.

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