Twelve Career-Nudging Books for a Sociologist

Lists can be enticing, but risky too. The list is of those 12 books that played a formative role in the development of my own thought, and it so happens that the authors are men. This is open to interrogation of course: my gender, the timing of my babyboomer’s career trajectory, my chosen interests, and so on. But the list stays.

The first book is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I read during a summer break as a schoolboy working in a nursery north of Rustington in Sussex (I was sacked by the supervisor, a former German fighter pilot who spotted me deep in conversation and leaning on a shovel, but managed to talk him round and was subsequently reinstated). If I missed a lot in the 1500 pages, I also picked up an abiding sense of overarching historical and socio-cultural context and something also of the slow unfolding of social processes. It was not until I read Elias on: (a) the ‘civilising process’ (extending to sport, courtesy of Dunning), and (b) ‘The Germans’ that I came across a sociologist who adequately conveyed this. The historian Braudel does so too, although I read him much later. What Tolstoy bequeathed was a sense of what I would now call structural continuity even at times of all-consuming war and transition (as with Napoleon’s fated trek east into Russia). I could not have articulated this in my mid-teens, but memories lingered.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath had a more immediate and brutal impact. It was like a physical assault. I have little patience with those who pretend that only writers of fiction, novelists and poets, can communicate the ‘true meaning’ of social phenomena like poverty. But I was still a sixth-former and yet to encounter the pioneering investigations of Booth, Rowntree and the like, let alone those of sociologists. What Steinbeck did through Tom Joad and his kin’s trek westwards to California was detail the pain, hopelessness and despair that near-absolute poverty can, maybe must, induce (plus the need to organize to resist). Poverty beyond the relative remains in the USA and is threatening to return to Britain in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-9. Sociologists are now in the mix, although we seem for the most part better at documenting than explaining (the likes of Bourdieu, Wacquant and a few others excepted).

I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a first –year undergraduate and, like War and Peace, I absorbed it as if by osmosis. Gadamer writes of the ‘fusion of horizons’ that compliments any encounter, whether face-to-face or with a book, painting or piece of music: encounters change us, if only a little and often in ways beyond our ken. It is a wise analysis. Certainly a number of the books included here changed me in ways I can only begin to interpret retrospectively. What the later Wittgenstein did, of course, was take much of traditional philosophy away from professionals (‘let the fly out of the fly-bottle’). He rehabilitated ordinary everyday language-use, recognising its complexity and subtlety and decrying the academic impulse to tidy it up. I was never tempted either to tidy him up into an idealist or to follow Winch into a philosophical displacement of social scientific enquiry. Wittgenstein remains the only genius I have read to date and a constant reminder of the socially constructed nature of the worlds we inhabit. On Certainty is for me a rival to Philosophical Investigations for inclusion here.

The fourth book is Aron’s Main Currents of Sociological Thought, which Penguin conveniently published in two cheapish volumes in the 1960s. Prior to Giddens, this was the most compelling exposition and critique of the ‘masters’ (female sociologists still being invisible/suppressed). Little did we know at the time that Aron had become a Gaullist ‘reactionary’ and antagonist to Sartre and Merleau Ponty. His books nestled, library-like, by our bedside tables as constantly accessible resources. And he was thorough and good, which is why he makes it onto my formative list.

Schutz’s Phenomenology of the Social World is perhaps a surprising item. I never saw it as an application of the phenomenological philosophy of Brentano or Husserl, but rather as an attempt to deepen, or re-scaffold, the Weberian project. Weber aspired to incorporate subjectivity into an objectively compelling sociology. How can we hope to understand/explain social action in the absence of an empathic taking of the role of the other? Schutz’s analysis proffers a philosophically-informed sociology. It is stunningly rich conceptually: innovation trips over innovation. Underpinning many of them is the distinction between first-order and second-order typologies. The challenge for the sociologist is to discover a second-order (scientific) route to those Wittgensteinian lands we occupy via our first-order classifications. There are multiple worthwhile follow-ups in his volumes of Collected Papers.

I signed up to my Ph.D in 1972, my topic the stigma associated with adult epilepsy, my supervisors Tony Hopkins (neurologist) and George Brown (sociologist and Margot Jeffery’s colleague at Bedford College), and my sociological authority, Erving Goffman. I suspect the first book I read was Goffman’s seminal work on stigma. But that is not my choice here. Somehow or other I moved on to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. If Schutz provided one set of conceptual tools, Goffman set his stall by another. His contribution was the more empirical. In those halcyon days when he could sit in Chicago cafes and observe, think (often a shorthand for theorizing) and invite his students to do likewise have long since passed; but he established the parameters for ‘(symbolic) interactionism’.

C. Wright Mills authored more than one influential work. I imbibed his counsel on the sociological imagination but it was The Power Elite that most affected me. It was not to bear any fruit for a number of years (see my ‘class/command dynamic’ and ‘greedy bastards hypothesis’ in relation to health inequalities), but this is frequently the way with the planting of seeds. The Power Elite opened my eyes to power. I regard many of the subsequent critiques of C. Wright Mills’ research as either crass or suspect. Empirically inconclusive? Theoretically non-decisive: class versus elite theory? Bollocks: he did far more than add grit to the sociological mill. The lessons have yet to be fully absorbed by twenty-first-century sociology. Some of my own work represents a modest return on his in-your-face-Marxism (plus, he did ride his motor bike into his department).

Freidson’s Profession of Medicine was my toll-gate. I remember sharing a taxi and conversing with him and Margot Jefferys en route to a fledgling annual ‘MedSoc’ conference in York. His US-Sorokin award-winning book theorized what had become my sub-discipline. It represented a coming together of conflict theory and interactionism. Not just the sequelae of labelling, but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of labelling. Here was an account of the rise and ramifications of western biomedicine that incorporated a critique of the Parsonian structural-functionalist orthodoxy of the day and in 1970 gave shape and content to what for many of us in the UK was a new sub-discipline.

Roy Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science was, I suggest, more radical than is commonly thought. Like Popper before him he has remained on the margins of professional philosophical discourse. I read him in the mid-1970s and was impressed enough to invite a medical student intercalating a B.Sc in Sociology to précis his book for a seminar (which he did brilliantly, leading to a six-hour seminar concluded in ‘The Green Man’). Bhaskar rescued ontology from epistemology and rehabilitated it. His ‘Possibility of Naturalism’ extended his philosophy to the social sciences, but for me it was his initial offering that sparked a new train of thought. It took two decades for me to experiment with sociological analyses – on health and sport – informed by critical realism.  I am fortunate enough now to see and talk to him regularly.

The late Frankfurt critical theory of Jurgen Habermas has taken a number of forms. The ideas that influenced me most – the lifeworld/system dichotomy and the notion of the colonisation of the former by the latter – were synthesised in his two-volume Theory of Communicative Action. Ironically, this conceptual frame informed by thinking before Bhaskar’s philosophy took root. I will explore Habermas’ theories in detail in other blogs so can be brief here. But the comprehensiveness of his synthesis is remarkable: on offer are critical expositions of all the major sociologists on a spectrum from Parsons/Luhmann’s systems theory to Mead’s interactionism; and they are readable in their own right. A corollary: Habermas is not as original as some, Foucault for example, his excellence resting in his novel revisiting of others’ work (I can’t resist adding that Mead published next to nothing in his lifetime: what a loser).

Weight of the World is more than a gripping title. What Bourdieu (and his team) accomplished was an amalgam or dialectic of theory and research of the kind I would aspire to if I had the time, energy and nous. What I love is the book’s very construction. Maybe it’s a homage to Wittgenstein, but it suits my temperament to ‘mix up’ authorship, reflection, theory, documentary statistics and hands-on research. Potential collaborators, please apply. This is a long book catching, Steinbeck-like, the desperation of Algerian-Parisian abandonment. It’s eloquence makes you want to weep at times. This is the alpha and omega of sociological research, the highest common denominator of evidence-in-the-face-of (or evidence-informed) policy.

I have read Margaret Archer’s critical realist-oriented sociology for a while. An educational sociologist as well as a theorist, I encountered her (with effect, Gadamer again) via Bhaskar. Over the last year or two I have explicitly picked up on her notion of types of reflexivity to address what I regard as a neglected issue within the sociology of health inequalities: a credible sociological grasp of the role(s) of agency. It was her 2007 book on Making Our Way Through the World that set me off. So far, I have published two of a planned trilogy of contributions (a chapter in my ‘Contemporary Theorists and Medical Sociology’ and a paper in ‘Sociology’, just published online). The third is being drafted even as I blog.

This is a very personal list. I recall reading Lewis on conventions: it could all have been so different (not any-old-how, but different). I am sure there is a sociology of texts-for-careers on offer here. Who reads what, why and to what effect? This is in itself a classed, gendered, ethnic and age-related problematic. As ever, any and all comments are welcome.

 

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