Sociology in Cambridge
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.
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:
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.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
 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).
 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.
 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).
Vol. 8 No. 21 · 4 December 1986
SIR: We, the undersigned, as graduate students in sociology in Cambridge, have some points of difference with Geoffrey Hawthorn’s stylisation of the current position of the social sciences in this university (LRB, 6 November). We had always taken the view that the presence of both Anthony Giddens and Geoffrey Hawthorn in the same department, with their distinct emphases and styles of writing and teaching, was evidence of vitality rather than stagnation. We have some confidence that Anthony Giddens would share this opinion.
Graham McCann, James Slevim, Marion Smith, Richard Sparks
Social and Political Sciences Committee, University of Cambridge
SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn has done much to grace your pages and illumine our thoughts. Indeed, even though he contends that present-day theory predisposes him and like-minded sociologists to post-Enlightenment desperation, in the London Review at least he has been a source of both lucidity and hope, master-symbols of the Encyclopedia both. I turn back often and gratefully to his expositions of Habermas and others, and was delighted to retrieve his strong and elegant rebuttal of Michael Stewart’s tirade against the miners in 1985 from your latest anthology.
Honi soit qui mal y pense. It might seem indelicate even to the rudeness club in the SCR to take Hawthorn to task for the article about his boss, had he not exhibited himself as so robustly uninhibited about attaching his complaints on the work of Tony Giddens to the fact that Giddens has got the professorship which he, Hawthorn, thought sufficiently worth professing to put in for. To conclude after the disappointment that the subject isn’t there anyway and that the chap in the chair can’t do it and covers up the fact by, variously, ‘portentousness’, ‘solemnity’, ‘desperate abstraction’ and other swearwords has a decidedly grapey taste to it, and might surely be thought of as a lapse from politeness not without precedence in your editorial policy. When, however, Hawthorn goes on to conclude that ‘undifferentiated sociology’ has disappeared with Habermas off the end of the Indian rope trick, then impoliteness has dissolved into impolitics, or even immorality. If it wasn’t for his needing the money to support the calm refusal of theory in Clare Hall, or a more conventional indolence in Positano, he might wonder what that great sociologist so mordantly italicised by Hawthorn as ‘the middle Sartre’ might have to say about bad faith in this matter.
Conventionality, furthermore, is a pat charge always apt to blow up in your face. Nothing, nothing at all, could be more conventionally Cambridge than to take a few columns in the trade journal to bawl out the boss. Nothing, indeed, looks more like old corruption, the Conservative Thing itself, than to miscall a prodigal writer when writing comes costively to you. For anybody in practical politics, let alone practical reasoning, Giddens – like Habermas – is incontestably a help. Unless, for instance, we take to heart the theoretic connections of nuclear and other even less jolly forms of violence to the present and protean structures of the nation states, peacefulness as opposed to immobility will escape us to the point of apocalypse then. Unless communicative action in some more than contingent relation to truth and virtue is imaginable, then the disunited nations might as well scramble the translation machines.
No doubt sociology is not a redemptive science. No doubt the view from nowhere, or from the Clare Fellows’ Garden, is all very large and fine. No doubt this and not doubt that. Collingwood, watching the lies and murder of l’entre deux guerres, wrote that what the world (let alone Cambridge) needed as a matter of certainly desperate urgency was ‘a science of human affairs’. It would be good if someone of Hawthorn’s great gifts and intelligence got over his huff and took his own ecumenical risks on behalf of ensuring that there will be a future.
School of Education, University of Bristol
SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn’s piece is very puzzling. After several readings, all I’ve been able to get out of it is the following: 1. Contemporary social theory faces a number of difficulties. (This bit is quite interesting.) 2. Anthony Giddens represents contemporary social theory. 3. Anthony Giddens was recently appointed to the chair of Sociology at Cambridge. 4. There should not be a chair of sociology at Cambridge. Of these propositions, No 3 is indubitable, while No 1 may well be true. (Hawthorn does at least make a case, despite an odd lapse in column three when for a time he seems to confuse Sociology with socialism.) No 2 is more arguable, however. A review of Giddens as Giddens, rather than Giddens as social theory personified, would have been more appropriate in LRB. Proposition 4, however, is very odd indeed. Non sequitur, for one thing. If a syllogism were intended, the glaringly missing term is of course social theory’s relation to sociology. At best, the former is only part of the latter, As Hawthorn well knows, a great deal of sociological work goes on, not independently of theory (we’ve been through that one), but certainly at some remove from grand theory and its fads and fashions. Shouldn’t there be a chair for any of that, either? Surely sociology has enough enemies in high places already, without Hawthorn adding his twopenn’orth from within.
The only way I can make sense of Hawthorn’s piece is by way of an implicit sub-text. My guess would be that he doesn’t like Giddens, period. If so, it is naughty of him to dress up an ad hominem opinion as an attack on our discipline and its institutionalisation. To reiterate: a review of Giddens, however hostile, would be another matter and perfectly acceptable.
Department of Sociology, University of Leeds
Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986
SIR: I understand Aidan Foster-Carter’s puzzle (Letters, 4 December). Perhaps I ran too many arguments too closely together. There is, as Foster-Carter says, a distance between social theory and much of what’s done as ‘sociology’. Nevertheless, the two enterprises have shared the conviction that there are distinctively social explanations of the goings-on that interest us; and however plausible this may once have been, I don’t believe that, now, it is. It’s not conceptually refined enough, and even if it were, it wouldn’t fit the modern world. The social theorists, no one of whom represents the others, but some of whom are more indicative than others, inadvertently make this clear: they tend to be dogmatic, or to confuse the social with the blandly total, or to retreat to the economic, or to the independently political, or to some other sort of thing. Likewise, the old ambition of a ‘social ethics’ now demands a grasp of arguments – in moral philosophy, for instance, and political theory – which sociologists have hitherto thought they could avoid. (Isn’t it revealing that Habermas and Rawls have leapt back over social theory altogether to start again with Kant?) This is my main reason for believing that now to separate sociology off still further is an intellectual and academic mistake.
Twenty years ago, this was not so clear. Twenty years ago, however, and for less principled reasons, Cambridge equivocated. It agreed only to a holding company of several human sciences. Now, it has declined to take advantage of the openness – by advancing to some analogue, for instance, of its Natural Sciences Tripos, or of arrangements at Oxford – and foreclosed. The ironies are obvious.
Fred Inglis, in the same issue, is wrong to think that I’ve only just discovered these views. I’ve been boring my colleagues for years with my case – a principled case and a practical one – for a looser, wider and, as he would put it, more ‘ecumenical’ conception of the human sciences in Cambridge. The electors to the chair may have known that and – other considerations apart – agreed that it was not appropriate. This would not have been irrational, and I am not in a huff.
SIR: In an otherwise insightful and graceful essay in your issue of 6 November, Geoffrey Hawthorn implies that the search for lawfulness in human behavior is nostalgic. I fail to understand, however, why a small group of philosophers and social scientists became churlish when they learned that because language necessarily distorts the coherence of events we call reality there can be no certainty in description. Rather than accommodate to that insight, as physicists did after Heisenberg, they have thrown a tantrum declaring that all we have is language. I doubt that they would celebrate as wise an observer who, on a November morning, being unable to decide if what was falling was rain or snow, suddenly declared that the sun was shining. Physical scientists took Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty and went on to build new and better theory. In sad contrast, a group of sociologists and philosophers have declared that if they cannot have it all they wish to claim nothing.
Department of Psychology, Harvard University