A Sociological Autobiography: 56 – An Inaugural Lecture, 2002

By | October 28, 2015

I had always assumed that being awarded a chair heralded the opportunity to give an inaugural lecture, but apparently this is not so. Nor does every body invited want to give one. I was quite keen though. But who to ask if they wanted to attend? I settled on a composite gathering, comprising my immediate family, a few old friends, colleagues who had supported or accompanied me through my career thus far, and a few academic others. Anyone I had missed off my list could come, and a few did. I cannot now recall how many joined me at 5.30pm on Thursday 25 April 2002 in Cruciform LT 1 in the basement of UCL’s Cruciform Building in Gower Street. Certainly 100+, which was a relief. George Brown and John Hinton were there, as were many of those who meant and mean most to me.

The title of the lecture was ‘The Jigsaw Model: Towards a Composite Picture of Health in Society’. I wrote the lecture out, but did not read it (I had learned something over the preceding years). With the script in front of me now I note that it extended to 57 pages! I will not précis it here. Instead, I will comment on it.

My opening sentences were:

‘it is a matter of surprise to come across enduring themes through almost thirty years of seemingly disparate work, empirical and theoretical. Revisiting for the purposes of this lecture miscellaneous jottings, lecture and seminar preparations and unpublished flotsam and jetsam, as well as more formal contributions, I uncovered an unsuspected sense of continuity.’

I put my finger on two themes in particular. The first was a strong and insistent objection to – ‘and the hint of an attempt to work through or overcome’ – the artificial separation of the nuts and bolts of empirical research and the task of theorizing about the social world into two discrete and for some almost incommensurable discourses. And the second was a sense of the failure on the part of the sociological community, following the demise of structural-functionalism, to take one component of the agency/structure dyad, namely structure, seriously enough.

I proceeded to adumbrate what I called the ‘social structures proposition’. This claimed that one of the core challenges facing sociology is ‘the empirical and theoretical discernment and willful promulgation of how it is that the social structures comprising our society prompt us to think and behave as we do.’ My lecture, I announced, would ‘explicate, defend and explore’ this hypothesis. And so, I like to think even now, it did.

Explicating the social structures proposition, I drew on John Searle to argue that rational action presupposes freedom of will; on Maggie Archer to argue that agency’s scope is exercised through the situational logics set by structural conditioning; on Roy Bhaskar to argue that, independently of the rationality of our actions, the sequelae are rarely predictable; and on nobody in particular to argue that in financial capitalism agency has increasingly been informed by a cultural ‘fragmentation of self’ (with the result that people are ‘less committed to commitment than they were’).

I then introduced what I called the ‘jigsaw model’. I retain an attachment to this despite the fact that I have rarely deployed it since (it surfaces in only a few papers in the ‘noughties). Models are not theories, I maintained; rather they are heuristic devices. My jigsaw model embraced three aspects. The first was a ‘best guess’ at an overall picture of the disconcertingly complex and dynamic social world we inhabit. The second was a series of models, expressed in terms of ‘logics’, ‘relations’ and ‘figurations’, each constituting a piece of the jigsaw. And the third was a process of dialectical reasoning by means of which the sense of the overall picture informs the application of models, and the application of models informs the sense of the overall picture.

So how to define logics, relations and figurations? I illustrated them as follows. The economy has its logics, most significantly arising from production (that is, the prevailing logic of capital accumulation). This logic requires, orders and/or establishes the parameters for a set of relations. The most significant relations arising out of the logic of accumulation are relations of class. These relations are expressed in a set of networks or figurations. Figurations may be defined as spatio-temporal interdependency chains or networks. They may arise at the global level as well as at those of the nation-state and the local.

Nowadays I would be inclined to refer to the concept of ‘totality’ enshrined within Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism.

I went on to deploy the jigsaw model in three contexts: health inequalities; the politics of the ‘third way’; and the ongoing reforms of the NHS. For each, I referred predominantly to two sets of logics, relations and figurations. The first involved the economic sub-system. As alluded to, the logic here was that of the regime of capital accumulation. This logic requires/orders/establishes relations of class. The figuration was that of the British nation-state. The second involved the sub-system of the state. The logic here was that of the mode of regulation. This logic requires/orders/establishes relations of command. Once again, I focused on the figuration of the nation-state. I argued that relations of class were ‘categorical’ (that is, of primary importance) and those of command ‘derivative’ (that is, of class) across my three substantive areas of concern.

I was introducing what I now refer to as financial capitalism’s class/command dynamic. A mere fraction of Britain’s ‘capitalist executive’ class (‘greedy bastards’ one and all) were purchasing from a ‘receptive’ state power elite (at the time, under the aegis of Giddens’ and New Labour’s third-way) policies that privileged its members’ accumulation of capital over population health, wellbeing and health care.

Future fragments will articulate this class/command dynamic in more and more accessible detail. For me, it remains the most compelling generative mechanism underpinning social change in financial capitalism.

How did I conclude? Well, with yet another trio of remarks. I spoke, first, of the continuing threat of what Habermas in the mid-1970s presciently called a ‘legitimation crisis’: would the state’s power elite eventually be called to account as material, social and health inequalities grew? Second, I affirmed a shift in the public-private mix in health care most detectable in 2002 in the growth of PFIs so beloved of New Labour. And third, I challenged fellow-sociologists: why, I asked, were we neglecting class even as its objective salience was biting deeper? I wrote:

‘my contention is that while real relations of class, qua social structures, continue to underlie and inform the class habitus, there is a novel, postmodern propensity towards (added: a Sartrian) seriality. In short, it is a feature of the putative postmodern self that consciousness is fragmented and that cognition tends to lack the coherence and constancy of stance demanded of it by the modern, which of course diminishes the potential for groups to become (Sartre again) fused or pledged.’

I closed with a tribute to Annette and my lovely daughters. There is nothing I have achieved that Annette could not have accomplished (as any 2nd-wave feminist would anticipate), though I am of the opinion that her 25 years tutoring Open University as well as London’s medical students, not to mention her research and publications, of more substance. Sasha sorted my PowerPoint with a technical expertise that I have yet to and now never will rival.

Much of my lecture was lost, I am sure, on the Dean (Mike Spyer), who had no idea who I was but introduced me and then had to sit through it.

As we departed to a UCL bar, Mike Wadsworth commented to me: ‘I really enjoyed that, can I come to your next one?’ Bemused, I asked: ‘what do you mean?’ ‘Well, you’ll obviously be sacked from UCL now! I was left to interpret his grin. Lovely man who dealt with me kindly during my first ever paper, at MedSoc!


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