A Sociological Autobiography: 13 – All Change!

By | September 3, 2013

Such was my enjoyment of philosophy at Surrey that I determined to continue my studies. Pat Smart suggested that I apply for the B.Phil at Oxford and garnered the enthusiastic support of Daniel O’Connor at Exeter. In the event – once again – I tripped up in my examinations (it seems, embarrassingly for an academic, that I respond to them as to banana skins); but I was content enough with my upper second, rarer then than now. So I ended up registering for a Ph.D at Birkbeck College. The key figure here was David Hamlyn, Head of Department and, from 1972, editor of Mind. He was a neat and quietly spoken man with several books and numerous articles on epistemology in general and sensation and perception in particular under his belt. He was a philosopher because a post came up in that discipline before one came up in psychology, which explains his fondness for the interface between the two. He shone a clear, naked light on the topics he addressed. For the first few months I sat in on classes in epistemology and metaphysics, presided over by Hamlyn and attended by a newcomer with a penchant for aesthetics, Roger Scruton. Scruton was as sharp and analytic as Hamlyn (his brief introduction to Kant in the Past Masters series is a model of clarity and succinctness). It is a moot point, of course, whether straight thinking, even eloquence, is enough. A.J.Ayer, for example, excelled in ‘straight thinking’, and at a stretch ‘eloquence’, without ever having much to say: he owed it all to others. Isaiah Berlin was the same but more so. But I am not being grudging here: I was impressed.

Pat Smart had told me to make sure that I had Hamlyn as my thesis supervisor, but in the event I blew it by foolishly selecting a topic of no interest to him (or now to me). I wanted to critique, revise and improve upon the ‘identity thesis of mind’. From memory, this asserted that propositions about mental and cerebral events had the same point of reference or denotation.

A new arrival picked up my case. I think we met briefly. I feel doubly bad about forgetting his name now since he was to commit suicide a while later, apparently struggling, Hancock-like, with making sense of the human condition.

I remained for a month’s worth of seminars and tutorials and certainly learned from Hamlyn’s and Scruton’s searching comments on my early paper and tutorial on Brentano and intentionality. David Hamlyn died aged 87, I noticed with sadness, the month before I wrote this.

I loved philosophy but it fell short of paying the family bills. For a while I taught basic and optional philosophy of education courses on the PGCE syllabus at South Bank Polytechnic with Joe McCarney, courses dominated then by the writings of Richard Peters at the Institute of Education. I also taught a number of courses for the Extra-Mural Department of the University of London, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Often I was out and about four evenings a week. However, even in the early 1970s there were no guaranteed jobs even for people who completed their Ph.Ds in philosophy, so I ultimately decided to defer my philosophy Ph.D and apply for research posts in sociology.

The job I landed was with Anthony Hopkins, a young, maverick consultant neurologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School (who was to die, sadly, aged 59, while on a short-list for the Presidency of the Royal College of Physicians). I was to be a research assistant charged with exploring over a three-year period the extent and impact of the stigma associated with epilepsy on people’s lives. The salary was around £1,400 p.a. Hopkins had secured the funding from the British Epilepsy Association and had done so in conjunction with Margot Jefferys’ Medical Sociology Unit at Bedford College. Margot’s colleague, George Brown, Reader in Sociology, had been lined up as the Ph.D supervisor of the appointee. Who needs two Ph.Ds? The one in philosophy lapsed over time and I was from this point on regarded as a sociologist, and, by chance, a medical sociologist. There is a sense in which I was becoming an ‘object-for-others’. I have never entirely let go of philosophy; and I have certainly not for a moment seen myself as a medical sociologist! But sociologist I guess I was and am.

George Brown was as daunting as he was hairy. His academic reputation had already been established through research conducted in long-stay psychiatric hospitals with John Wing. His contributions to life-event studies were well underway, although Social Origins of Depression (co-authored with Tyril Harris) was a few years off. Apart from students taking the celebrated Bedford College M.Sc in medical sociology, I met fellow Ph.D students Mary Boulton, over from Canada, and Suzanna Ginsburg; Ann Oakley and Uta Gerhardt also arrived, the latter as a lecturer supporting George and Margot.

I got on well with George. He was a sophisticated practitioner and an innovative methodologist. I always wished he had allowed himself to diverge more often from the substantive issue of the moment and, like John Goldthorpe, intervened more copiously in the mainstream. One of his few interjections was his provocative critique of grounded theory in Sociology. His thinking could, and should, have caused more ripples. But he remained every bit as focused as his heavy-duty spectacles suggested. I have three other personal observations from those years. First, I rapidly learned to listen carefully to George without feeling obliged to follow any advice he might proffer. Why? Because I was more attentive to him than he was to me, being wrapped up in his own labours. I vividly recall one early dialogue, it must have been early in 1973. ‘Why’, he protested, ‘don’t you have a control group of people without epilepsy?’ When next I returned, having incorporated plans for such a group, he said: ‘why do you need a control group?’ ‘Ah’, I thought, ‘he not only takes his eye off the ball, he can’t remember which ball we’re playing with here’. So there evolved an entirely harmonious relationship: we went quietly and separately about our business unless I needed something.

Second, George did impart a piece of advice that I thereafter unfailingly passed on to my own students. Admittedly it was advice peculiarly pertinent to me and to my situation. ‘Don’t’, he opined, ‘commit to sorting out your philosophical stance or theoretical frame before you collect your data; solve problems as they arise’. Wonderful advice – do convey it others!

And third, I discovered that when push came to shove George would support me, and without holding back. Anthony Hopkins had a sense of hierarchy and differential significance commensurate with his professional socialization. When we together visited a south London general practice in the hope of recruiting the GPs to our community-based study, I overheard him say: ‘my assistant Scambler is outside, can he come in?’ Later, during fieldwork, he calculated that I should be able to accomplish three home-based interviews a day (or maybe per diem): one in each of morning, afternoon and evening, adding up to 15 a week. When I failed to meet this absurd target he expostulated: ‘I don’t know how you’ve got the face to turn up and tell me this!’ Many postgraduates down the years will empathise with the sense of vulnerability and self-doubt this induced. A meeting was called and George backed me to the hilt. You do not forget those moments. To be fair to Anthony though, he was independent-minded, up for learning as well as teaching and he mellowed over time.


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