British Sociology Research Paper

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Introduction: The Origins of Victorian Sociology

British sociology had its nineteenth-century origins in three streams of Victorian social thought. First, there was the liberalism of J. S. Mill, who made important contributions to the philosophy of the social sciences and to the analysis of democracy, in which he was much influenced by the study of American society by Alexis de Tocqueville. Second, the emergence of sociology was related to social reformism and town planning in such figures as Patrick Geddes and Charles Booth. Third, its major intellectual figure—Herbert Spencer—was part of a broader intellectual movement of social evolutionism associated with Charles Darwin. Spencer (1884) in The Man versus the State attempted to reconcile the liberalism of the British utilitarians with the evolutionary theories of Darwin. There were also early institutional developments at the London School of Economics (LSE) with the creation of the Martin White chair of sociology that went to the liberal philosopher Leonard T. Hobhouse, and the publication of the first series of The Sociological Review. Geddes and Branford founded the Sociological Society in London at the turn of the century (Mumford 1948). A small group of sociologists—L. T. Hobhouse, Victor Branford, and Morris Ginsberg—developed the subject in the 1930s. Robert McIver held a lectureship in sociology and philosophy at the University of Aberdeen before World War I. Karl Mannheim arrived in 1933 and became influential at the LSE. R. H. Tawney published his classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926 before Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber were translated into English.

Although these developments represented a promising start, British sociology has had an uncertain and weak institutional history. It has been highly dependent on continental social theory, and its great achievements after World War II were closely associated with a large influx of European (specifically Jewish) refugees who found refuge in British universities during and after the ascendancy of German fascism (Turner 1990). The peculiarity of British sociology is that while its professional development has been somewhat slow and uncertain, it has produced a rich, if heterogeneous, body of sociological scholarship. In short, the paradox of British, unlike American, sociology is that it has flourished in marginal, typically parochial, universities, and it has been carried out by people and institutions that have not been overtly connected to mainstream sociology departments. Although sociology has been well represented at the LSE, it has not flourished at Oxford or Cambridge. In contrast, it has enjoyed a distinguished history at provincial universities such as Leicester, Lancaster, Liverpool, Essex, Warwick, and Edinburgh. Leicester appears to have been especially significant, being the academic home of Rosemary Crompton, Eric Dunning, Norbert Elias, Anthony Giddens, John Goldthorpe, Ilya Neustadt, and others (Giddens and Mackenzie 1982). Another example is the success of the sociology of deviance and the York University Deviancy Symposium that attracted such figures as Stan Cohen, Mike Hepworth, Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young. Critical criminology (Taylor, Walton, and Young 1973) flourished in these provincial universities in opposition to the Cambridge criminology center that was largely funded by Home Office grants and whose intellectual orientation was the legacy of Sir Leonard Radzinowicz. The early development of the sociology of religion was closely associated with the University of Leeds, where Bryan Wilson, Roland Robertson, Robert Towler, and Tony Coxon had taught a traditional program, and where Wilson (1967) did his early research on the sociology of sects before leaving for All Souls College, Oxford. Perhaps the most influential social philosopher of the period—Alasdair MacIntyre— had also been a lecturer at Leeds before becoming a professor of sociology at the University of Essex. MacIntyre published Secularization and Moral Change (1967) and Marxism and Christianity (1968) before leaving for the United States to become the Richard Koret Professor of the History of Ideas at Brandeis University. MacIntyre’s blend of philosophical reflection and critical social insight has remained a positive characteristic of British sociology and is currently illustrated by the philosophical and ethical reflections of the Polish-born Zygmunt Bauman, who is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds.

Individualism, Sociology, and Empire

British sociology and British intellectuals must be considered within the context of the rise and fall of Britain as a capitalist nation and as an imperial power. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Locke laid the foundations for the study of the market as both an efficient mechanism of exchange and the foundation of a free society. To establish political economy, Karl Marx had to struggle intellectually against this legacy—as did Émile Durkheim ([1893] 1960) in The Division of Labor. British social science has been strong in two major areas: economics and social anthropology. The first tradition reflects the strength and depth of British capitalism and the importance of individualism and liberalism as values. The second reflects the legacy of colonial administration, especially in Africa. British sociology does not have the international recognition accorded social anthropology, which can boast Mary Douglas, James Fraser, Ernest Gellner, Max Gluckmann, Sir Edmund Leach, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Peter Worsley. British social anthropology has been dominant in the elite universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, partly because it enjoyed strong connections with imperial expansion. Perhaps the best illustration is the influence of Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen’s (1997) The Northern Tribes of Central Australia in 1899, which played an important role in Émile Durkheim’s ([1912] 1954) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

British social science has clearly produced or nurtured major sociological figures such as Percy Cohen, Ralph Dahrendorf, Anthony Giddens, David Glass, Stuart Hall, A. H. Halsey, Peter Laslett, John Rex, W. G. Runciman, Peter Townsend, Michael Young, and others—but the general social and cultural climate is hostile to intellectuals, and British intellectual life still suffers from the legacy of Thatcherism and its hostility to the “chattering classes.” Despite much criticism of the theory and practice of Third Way politics, there has been a British civil society and public culture that has been shaped by sociologists, specifically in recent years by Giddens. However, in terms of sociology narrowly conceived, British sociologists have acted as a conduit between Continental European and North American intellectual fields. One can think of the ways in which French social theory—Louis Althusser, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Nicos Poulantzas— has been received in Britain, often before academic recognition in France, and then exported to North America (Turner 1990). As a result, it is not clear that there is such a thing as the British tradition. The only exception from the past may have been the exceptional strength of class analysis in British sociology as illustrated in particular by Rosemary Crompton, John Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, Gordon Marshall, and Howard Newby.

In general terms, understanding the question of the intellectual in British life has been best answered by a group of intellectuals around the New Left Review—Perry Anderson, Juliet Mitchell, Tom Nairn, and Robin Blackburn—that provided an enduring diagnosis of British culture. We lack public intellectuals because we lack a vibrant public culture that is shaped by critical social philosophy or critical social theory. The underdevelopment of British social theory is a consequence historically of gradualism, a compromise culture, an aborted and premature revolution, evolutionary thought, and individualism. The Restoration was a compromise that put an end to civil war and set the scene for Locke’s liberal theory of government, tolerance, and social contract. From the perspective of the New Left Review generation, the “origins of the present crisis” (Anderson 1964) rest on the social and political conditions that have produced a political social process of gradualism. The political trauma of the execution of the king and the civil war produced a political and legal settlement that institutionalized social conservatism. Marxist historians have argued that British history has subsequently been based on class compromise and cooperation. This traditionalism is illustrated by the breadth of the Anglican Church, which sought a national compromise as an alternative to sectarian warfare and the scope of the constitutional settlement that retained both the monarchy and the House of Commons.

The weakness of British sociology (and British social theory in general) is associated with the gradualness of the political transition to modern society and the hegemonic nature of possessive individualism. Whereas France had the Revolution, a passion for the concept of social solidarity and a revolutionary transition to modern society, Britain had a precocious revolution in the seventeenth century, beat off French republicanism in the early nineteenth century, and slid ineluctably into industrial capitalism by the middle of the nineteenth century. French Catholicism was more congenial to sociology and public intellectuals than Protestant individualism. If sociology flourishes in response to social and political crisis, this may explain why the vitality of postwar British sociology owed so much to Jewish and other migrants, for example, Bauman, Elias, Gellner, Mannheim, Neustadt, and Sohn-Rethel.

Postwar Developments

We can divide the achievements of twentieth-century sociology into three broad phases representing three different traditions. These are, first, the analysis of social class and citizenship that had its origins in social reformism before and after World War II. The main theme here was the tension between social class and welfare citizenship as illustrated in the sociology of T. H. Marshall. Second, the period of rapid university expansion in the 1960s and onward resulted in innovative intellectual fields, in which the “new universities” played an increasing role. The dominant theme was the rise of an affluent, consumer, postwar society. The late 1960s witnessed perhaps the most interesting period of British sociology—a period of extraordinary growth in university places to cope with the baby boomers, postwar reconstruction, and economic reorganization. Sociology was importantly connected with major international issues such as the Events of 1968, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and Anti-Apartheid. Third, the contemporary phase where there is relatively little intellectual coherence and sociology often finds itself as part of interdisciplinary studies (women’s studies, leisure studies, cultural or sports studies). This phase has been somewhat dominated by cultural studies, resulting at its worst in “decorative sociology,” namely, a sociology with little interest in historical and comparative research, little concern for macrosociological analyses of political institutions, and scant interest in ethical issues (Turner and Rojek 2001). The main exception is the ethical inquiries of Bauman in, for example, Postmodern Ethics (1993).

Throughout this period, the professional development of British sociology at the national level has been relatively weak. Unlike the social sciences in North America, British sociology has had a debilitated and uneven history of institutional development. The British Sociological Association has not had the controlling influence that has been enjoyed by the American Sociological Association, but in some respects that lack of professional regulation has permitted more experimentation and innovation. In substantive terms, the period from 1945 has been characterized by the decline of social class analysis and the growth of concern for postwar affluence as illustrated by research into consumer behavior, leisure activities, and sport. There has been a wave of publications in the 1990s illustrating this shift from the sociology of social class to the sociology of consumption (Featherstone 1991) and lifestyle (Shields 1992).

Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender

Postwar British sociology, from Keynesian postwar reconstruction to the 1968 generation, was dominated by the exploration of the tensions between social class and welfare citizenship. T. H. Marshall’s study analyzed the rise of citizenship rights in three stages: legal, political, and social. British sociology can be seen as the study of how and why universal social rights were frustrated by social stratification along three dimensions: class, race, and gender.

There is an argument to be made that John Maynard Keynes was perhaps the most influential sociologist of his period, and he clearly had a major impact both on postwar economic and social policy and on social theory (such as the nature of money and consumption). Perhaps the core British tradition was originally organized around the study of the promise and limitations of the welfare reform of capitalism and the tensions between social inequality and the egalitarian impulse of citizenship. However, this tradition was domestic in its interests, and comparative sociology was not a particular strength. T. H. Marshall’s (1950) Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays and Richard Titmuss’s (1962) Income Distribution and Social Change were classical contributions to this approach. These sociological studies of citizenship were preceded by an early tradition of social history and historical sociology of inequality in the work, for example, of G. D. H. Cole and R. H. Tawney. At a somewhat later date, W. G. Runciman’s (1966) Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, A. H. Halsey’s (1957) Social Class and Educational Opportunity, and Ralph Dahrendorf’s (1959) Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial Society made important contributions to the understanding of macroprocesses of inequality. The field of welfare policy, educational reform, and income redistribution came to be championed by a long list of distinguished British sociologists: David Glass, A. H. Halsey, Peter Laslett, Gordon Marshall, W. G. Runciman, Alan Scott, Peter Townsend, and John Westergaard.

British sociology was influenced by its connections to the Labour Party and social reformism. An important tradition of British empirical sociology examined the social and cultural circumstances of the working class in such classics as Coal Is Our Life (Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter 1962). One consistent theme of postwar sociology, especially through the influence of Marxism, was the issue of the absence of a revolutionary working-class movement. Why was the British working class passive? This question produced a rich crop of sociological responses, including Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial Society (Dahrendorf 1959), Consciousness and Action in the Western Working Class (Mann 1973), and Learning to Labour (Willis 1977). The Dominant Ideology Thesis (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 1980) was critical of the idea that there was “a dominant ideology” in capitalist society and argued instead that the apparent complacency of the working class had to be explained by the material conditions of their lifeworld, not by liberal ideology. To understand their political acquiescence, we need to look not toward ideologies or forms of consciousness but to how the everyday needs of mere survival exert a dull compulsion over the lives of ordinary people. Everyday life does not require a coherent ideological legitimacy; it does not “require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity” (Berger and Luckmann 1967:37).

This period was rich in important contributions that challenged the complacency of a society that had been told by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that “you have never had it so good” and that the Conservative election success of October 1959 demonstrated a victory of the middle classes and a rejection of class conflict. This rich tradition of empirical work on class was associated with several major intellectual debates. These included the debate around Basil Bernstein’s notions of restricted and elaborate codes of language and the impact of these codes in school settings (Bernstein 1971). There were important analyses of the nature of British politics and how to analyze them. In the famous confrontation between Ralph Miliband (1969) and Nicos Poulantzas (1969) in relation to the state and social class, Miliband defended the argument that there was a dominant class in British society rather than a cluster of separate elites, while Poulantzas dismissed Miliband’s thesis by arguing that the state was an objective structure that could not be understood through empirical studies of the personal ties of ruling-class families (Urry and Wakeford 1973). Another important debate concerned the process of embourgeoisement and the incorporation of the working class. Perhaps the most influential study of this process was by John Goldthorpe et al. (1969) in The Affluent Worker, which demonstrated many changes in traditional working-class attitudes but rejected the view that the working class was joining the middle class. Workers in new industries no longer adhered to traditional working-class images of a divided and conflictual society.

The sociological analysis of social class was also important as a setting for the emergence of the sociology of citizenship that produced a long debate with the legacy of Marshall. His liberal theory of citizenship is one answer to the problem of individual rights and social inequality. Social rights expanded through three stages: the growth of legal rights in the seventeenth century produced habeas corpus, jurysystem,andruleoflaw;politicalrightsinthenineteenth century resulted in the parliamentary system; and social rights in the twentieth century were associated with welfare state. Marshall argued that citizenship was a status position that compensated for or ameliorated the class inequalities that arise from a capitalist market. Marshall’s view of the welfare state and citizenship can be regarded as the sociological dimension of social Keynesianism.

Michael Mann (1987) criticized Marshall’s theory for its Anglo-centric and evolutionary qualities. Marshall’s theory is an account of the liberal model of the institutionalization of class conflict. Mann identified several other viable forms in addition to Marshall’s liberal model: reformist, authoritarian monarchist, fascist, and authoritarian socialist. Mann’s alternative theory concentrates on the role of the ruling classes (dominant economic groups, military and political elites) and argues that social change is orchestrated by ruling classes and that radical change is probably only possible when the ruling classes are divided or fragmented. Sociology tends to exaggerate the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and at the same time neglects the impact of geopolitics and victory in world wars in explanations of social change. Despite these criticisms of Marshall, his study of citizenship remains influential in contemporary British sociology (Turner 1986, 1993; Turner and Hamilton 1994).

In the United States, sociology has been very closely associated with policy issues relating to race, ethnicity, and migration. Sociology was concerned with the stratification of ethnic groups in urban society. Class analysis and inequality were major sociological themes in postwar European sociology, where Marxist sociology was influential in the 1970s. But class as the key concept of sociology has declined. Class is more likely to be seen as simply one component of stratification alongside gender, ethnicity, and race. More important, the decline of Marxism has meant that sociologists have over the last 10 years at least had relatively little to say about poverty, income levels, or economics—namely, the “base” of society—and a great deal to say about the superstructure. The cultural has flourished while the social has been abandoned or merely subsumed under the notion of culture.

Race and Race Relations

Race and ethnicity were seen, as a consequence of postwar migration, to be a check on the enjoyment of citizenship. In the historical context of nineteenth-century liberalism and laissez-faire economics, there were almost no laws regulating refugees, and the official attitude was one of apathy and indifference. Postwar migration was largely economic and from the Commonwealth. The 1948 Nationality Act recognized the right of Commonwealth citizens to freely enter and work in Britain. The Act was overtly generous because it assumed an outflow, not influx, of Commonwealth citizens. By 1971 there were 300,000 Caribbean migrants who, for Conservative leaders like Enoch Powell, created a racial crisis. Powell’s 1968 “river of blood” speech, however, found little active overt political support, apart from the 1971 Immigration Act that introduced work permits without a right of residency. The pragmatic reluctance of postwar British governments to become involved in colonial wars (after the Suez crisis) meant that overtly racist politics were unpopular. Harold Macmillan’s African winds-of-change speech made Powellite visions of a white-dominated Commonwealth anachronistic. However, racism was an important feature of British life, and a considerable research effort went into understanding its social roots.

The study of race relations in Britain is closely associated with the career of John Rex. Born in South Africa, he held a number of professorial chairs in Great Britain. These included Professor of Social Theory and Institutions at the University of Durham (1964–1970), Chair of Sociology at the University at Warwick, Research Professor in Ethnic Relations at the University of Aston, Birmingham, and subsequently Professor of Ethnic Relations in the University of Warwick. As an influential interpreter of Max Weber’s conflict sociology, he was critical of functionalism, because it could not develop an adequate theory of social action. Rex (1981) used Weber’s sociology to understand race and ethnicity as features of the unequal distribution of power and resources in society. The result of this research was Social Conflict: A Conceptual and Theoretical Analysis. His work on the study of racial conflict was influential and wide ranging. With Robert Moore, he developed the concept of “housing classes” in his study of unequal access to mortgages, housing allocation, and ethnic divisions in Birmingham in Race Community and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook (Rex and Moore 1967). A number of influential publications on sociological theory and race followed: Race Colonialism and the City (1973b), Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1970), Race and Ethnicity (1986), and (with Sally Tomlinson) Colonial Immigrants in a British City (1979).

Although Rex was seen as a critical social theorist, a number of younger sociologists emerged as a second generation whose conceptual framework and interests were far removed from the British academic establishment. Stuart Hall was closely associated with the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, and he drew on a range of social and cultural theories to explore the underclass of poor white and black youth in British cities. Hall and his colleagues examined various types of cultural resistance to the hegemonic culture such as punk subcultures (Hall and Jefferson 1976). Hall also, through a number of influential essays, became a public critic of the politics and policies of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative governments (Hall and Jacques 1983). Another influential critic of British society was Paul Gilroy (1987) whose There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack accused British intellectuals and politicians of not taking race seriously. The question of racism and the sociology of race remain unresolved and bitter issues in British culture and were made even more contentious by the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the police investigations, the legal treatment of the offenders, and the subsequent Report of Sir William Macpherson in February 1999. Gilroy himself left Britain to take up a chair of sociology and African studies at Yale University in the United States. Hall and Gilroy can be regarded as contemporary representatives of a tradition of a black British intelligentsia that had its foundations in the work of radical writers such as C. L. R. James, who first came to London from Trinidad in 1932 (Worcester 1996).


In the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream sociology, for example, the study of social class, had somewhat neglected feminist theory and gender. The debate about how to measure social class taking into account the class position of “unemployed” housewives is a classic example. Gender was thus examined in British sociology originally under the umbrella of the sociology of marriage and the family. Peter Wilmott and Michael Young (1960) undertook important studies of working-class family life in the east end of London, for example, in Family and Class in a London Suburb, to examine to what degree familial connections and working-class community were breaking down under the impact of urban development. British sociology has been significantly influenced by the work of Ann Oakley (1974). This tradition is now regarded as uninteresting, conservative, and out of date. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist analysis and criticism assumed a more radical dimension. Through the influence of Michele Barratt (1992) and Juliet Mitchell (1966), feminist sociologists came to engage more productively with the legacies of Marxism and Michel Foucault, and also with a range of largely French feminists. Feminist thought eventually fragmented into materialist, socialist, and postmodern versions (Lovell 2000). There was also considerable conflict between gender studies, women’s studies, lesbian studies, and gay studies. Feminism gave rise to a rich theoretical legacy perhaps best illustrated by the work of Judith Butler. These debates over gender, sex, and sexuality were heavily influenced by social constructionism through the general claim that anatomy is not destiny. The dominance of gender studies, lesbian studies, and Queer Theory has often meant, ironically, that the traditional sociology of the family and marriage has been somewhat neglected or even condemned as ideologically biased. Sociologists have explored gay and lesbian culture, especially within the framework of symbolic interactionism (Plummer 2000), and to some degree, an older tradition represented by the work of Laslett, Wilmott, and Young went into decay.

Modern Sociology

Cultural Studies

Stuart Hall was not only a tireless critic of Thatcherism and racism but played a major contribution through the Open University to establishing sociology and the study of race relations as a theoretically significant area, and sustained an important tradition of cultural studies from the Birmingham School. Cultural studies in Britain emerged partly out of academic debates in departments of English literature in terms of the established canon. The Uses of Literacy (Hoggart 1957) and Culture and Society (Williams 1958) were major contributions to the study not only of culture but also of British society. The theme of the first two texts was the loss of working-class community, the rise of consumer culture, and the dominance of middleclass individualism. Both authors lamented the erosion of the cooperative tradition of working-class autonomy and the transformation of the culture of northern cities like Leeds and Bradford by television and consumerism. Both Hoggart and Williams were grammar school boys who had risen from the working class to positions of influence in English literature and cultural studies. Williams’s (1989) personal sense of alienation from Cambridge in What I Came to Say was a common experience of socially mobile academics.

Contemporary cultural studies in Britain has flourished and has to some extent overshadowed sociology departments. Whereas cultural studies has attracted large numbers of undergraduates and postgraduates to influential departments such as Goldsmiths College and Nottingham Trent University, sociology student numbers at university level have stagnated since the heyday of the 1960s. Cultural sociology has not developed significantly to compete with film studies and cultural studies. It is not clear yet, however, that there is anything that one can identify as a distinctive body of cultural theory as such, and cultural studies methodology is a relatively tame version of qualitative sociological methods. These weak theoretical foundations, inadequate methodologies, and limited political horizons have led to the accusation that the cultural turn is merely a “decorative sociology” (Rojek and Turner 2000).

Social Theory

Postwar British sociology was heavily dependent on continental social philosophy, much of which was inspired by the legacy of Marxism. This period was marked by the influence of Althusser and Poulantzas. There was a corresponding hostility to American sociology that was mistakenly seen to be represented by Talcott Parsons. The myth that Parsons’s Marshall lectures at Cambridge University in 1953 delayed the development of academic sociology is difficult to erase, at least among Cambridge academics. The lectures, which eventually formed the first three chapters of Economy and Society (Parsons and Smelser 1956), were probably too ambitious at the time to gain support from either economists or sociologists. Whereas Parsons was either neglected or maligned, C. Wright Mills, and later Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), were influential, and The Social Construction of Reality was employed as a critical weapon of political analysis.

An intellectually exciting sociology is not just the study of relevant contemporary problems; it has to make a more enduring contribution to the development of sociological theory or sociological methods. In the case of John Rex, his publications on sociological theory included Key Problems in Sociological Theory (1961), Discovering Sociology (1973a), Approaches to Sociology (1974a), and Sociology and the Demystification of the Modern World (1974b). There is an important relationship between his empirical work on class and race and his employment of Max Weber’s sociology to criticize the legacy of structural functionalism, especially the legacy of Parsons in Key Problems in Sociological Theory (1961)—one of the most influential theory books in the 1960s. The other influential theory book at the time was Percy Cohen’s (1968) Modern Social Theory. However, Alan Dawe (1970), whose career at Leeds University was originally supported by Rex, was an influential teacher, and his article on “the two sociologies” played a significant role in shaping how younger sociologists saw the connection between political action and sociological theories of action.

The contribution of Anthony Giddens has been central for a number of decades. His early work involved the (re)interpretation of the classics, for example, in Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), and he developed new ways of thinking about the traditional “agency and structure” debate in The Constitution of Society (1984). He was an early contributor to debates about postmodernism and globalization in his The Consequences of Modernity (1990). With the departure of John Major’s Conservative government, Giddens played a role in shaping the emergence of New Labour in his The Third Way (1998). Giddens has had many critics, and his interest in social theory has not been associated with specific empirical research interests (Loyal 2003), but he has been an important spokesman for sociology in Britain. Giddens’s eclecticism in social theory construction reflects the fact that British sociology has been distinctive at the university level in terms of its openness to foreign sociologists and to external intellectual trends. Much of British social theory can therefore be said to have been a reflection on Continental social philosophy. Giddens in a sense is no exception in that he has been influenced by European hermeneutics and more recently by the sociology of Ulrich Beck in the study of risk society (Beck 1992). Giddens’s intellectual impact is partly a consequence of the role he has played with John Thompson and David Held in the development of Polity Press as a major publisher of modern social theory.

Sociology of the Body

Medical sociology has been an important subfield of British sociology, and Inequalities in Health (Townsend and Davidson 1982) was an influential indictment of health and health services in Britain and demonstrated many failures of the National Health Service. The notion of “medical sociology” was replaced by “sociology of health and illness,” because it was assumed that medical sociology had become merely a servant of the medical profession. The journal Sociology of Health and Illness subsequently became one of the most creative journals in the field.

Out of this innovative sociology of health and illness, the sociology of the body emerged at the beginning of the 1980s (Turner 1984). Sociological studies were interested in the consequences of consumerism on the body, gender differences, body piercing, cosmetic surgery, sport, and aging (Featherstone, Hepworth, and Turner 1991). The journal Body & Society was founded in 1995. Once more the influence of continental social theory was particularly marked, especially in the work of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Another related development in British sociology was the study of the emotions, as illustrated by Jack Barbalet’s (1998) Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure. A new conceptual language emerged out of Bourdieu’s pioneering work on practice, body, and social capital, namely, practice, embodiment, hexis, and habitus. Bourdieu’s (1984) Distinction was a key text.

Conclusion: Sociology and the Affluent Society

In the period from 1945 to 1968, British sociology was primarily concerned with postwar reconstruction. This involved the study of the implementation of the Keynesian economic policies and the welfare state. This phase concluded with the first Thatcher administration of 1979–1983. British sociology then became, somewhat implicitly, the study of the rise of consumer society and the decline of the old collectivist values that lay behind the Labour Party and the welfare state. Thatcherism ushered in a new era of individualism, deregulation, and entrepreneurial values celebrating mobility and personal affluence. New Labour and Third Way politics have represented the attempt of the Labour Party to modernize itself and to adjust to the new consumerism. T. H. Marshall was the theorist of the first wave of British sociology and Anthony Giddens of the second.

Postwar British sociology spans the final collapse of the British Empire and the decline of Britain as a major world power. These conditions produced important generational differences and a specific consciousness that existed over and above specifically gender or class differences (Edmunds and Turner 2002). These postwar generations experienced the Cold War and came to maturity under conditions of increasing affluence, the decline of trade unionism, and the erosion of social class as the most important marker of identity. While these generations were always threatened by disasters, they have been lived under conditions of (relative) peace. Military conscription, rationing of essential household items, and barrack room drill had come to an end. Internationally Aden, Suez, Kenya, and the Malaysian emergency were military episodes that marked the decline of British imperial power. The Suez crisis in 1956 demonstrated that Britain could no longer operate as a great power without American approval, and Britain subsequently withdrew from further significant colonial adventures (including Mrs. Thatcher’s defense of British interests in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War in 1982). The pragmatism of Harold Macmillan, whose foreign policies allowed Britain to avoid the colonial confrontations that dominated France, Portugal, and Belgium in the postwar period, made the decline of Britain less painful than other European colonial powers. In short, British sociology has to be understood in terms of the rise and decline of the baby boomers. Their political activism was associated with CND and anti-apartheid movements, but their maturity was experience in the context of affluence, leisure, and the consumer boom.

There is, however, a new mood in British society in which the future looks insecure and the international role of Britain uncertain. The Iraq war and the London bombings in July 2005 confirmed that the sentiments announced by Macmillan—you have never had it so good—had come to an end. This mood of uncertainty explains the popularity of Ulrich Beck’s (1992) Risk Society, and the negative aftermath of terrorist attacks in London will raise difficult questions about the failures of British race relations policy and multiculturalism especially with respect to its Muslim population. Britain has been relatively successful in providing its Muslim community with opportunities to achieve social inclusion (Ameli and Merali 2004), but it is unlikely that civil peace could be sustained in the face of determined, sustained terrorist attacks over a longer period. These social conflicts will make the sociological study of new wars and civil violence a more prominent feature of British sociology and political science (Hirst 2001).

The sociology of insecurity and terrorism will become the next areas of growth for sociological research and theory in Britain, but insecurity will also include biological risk and the globalization of new infectious diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza. The question of the body and society will also include the management of cloning and genetic modifications. These are new conditions that demand public intellectuals and a relevant sociology for the twenty-first century.


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