Just over 30 years ago, I invented, for fictional purposes, a character who quite wonderfully turned into a long-lasting literary figure. His name was Howard Kirk, he was a radical university lecturer, and he appeared in a satirical novel called The History Man (1975). Howard, the 'history man,' then took on a splendid new lease of life when, after Mrs Thatcher had come to power, he was played by a magnetic and Zapata-moustached Anthony Sher in the BBC-TV dramatization of the story.
I say I invented Howard Kirk, and yet no character ever came my way more naturally. He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus – if, like me, you happened to teach in one of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain, and right across Europe and the USA.
Most people then on campus knew a Howard Kirk. He was the easy-going left-wing lecturer from the Swinging Sixties who had seen it happen, seen it fail, and had to live through what came next: the Sagging Seventies. Always radical, always seductive, always seducing, he was eternally on the side of the students against the fascistic institution that paid his salary, and always against those who were over thirty, even if he was himself 35.
Howard believed in history, progressive history, and where it was inevitably leading us. As he said, if you wanted to understand, you needed to know a little Marx, a little Freud, and a little history. Yet the subject he taught wasn't history at all, but something vastly more 'trendy' (as everyone said then). Howard taught Sociology. And sociology was the most fashionable, radical and popular of all subjects in the academic canon of the day.
In new universities like mine it acquired special place, as one of those inter-locking, inter-disciplinary subjects that allowed us to widen and re-integrate the great map of learning. It united philosophy, political science, anthropology, economics, history, cultural and popular studies, literature and art in a spirit of quasi-scientific objectivity.
It was high theory, the most conceptual of subjects – and yet it was data-based, empirical, very hands on. It was a master subject, offering an over-arching account of all social phenomena, entire historical epochs or ideologies – yet it was fascinated by the topical and the ephemeral. It was a 'value-free' approach to the world – yet it was also political. It stood beyond ideology, yet was a super-ideology.
Sociology had a glorious heyday in the Sixties and then began to fragment and die -- not as a discipline among others, but as the great discipline, the key to all knowledge. In this process it seems I played a part. In an interesting article in the January issue of Prospect, "Return of Sociology," Ian Christie, deputy director of the think-tank Demos, says the turning point was clear.
It was the appearance of The History Man in 1975 that led to the backlash against sociology, when "Bradbury's demolition of his anti-hero's hypocrisies and pretensions was hailed as though he headed up an army relieving a city beseiged by Marxist academics." In fact I had no armies, and even I don't believe novels make that kind of difference. But out went the baby with the bathwater, says Christie, and sociology has not really recovered its authority since.
I would naturally be sorry to feel I alone had done such irremediable damage to a subject I respect and consider a major component of learning. Sociology, I would be among the first to say, is a distinguished, historical, and very European form of study, whose origins go back to the Enlightenment – like much else that is good. It was shaped by great thinkers – Rousseau, Hegel, Comte, Mill, Durkheim, Weber – and, for good or ill, has much to do with human progress and social understanding.
Over the last two centuries, sociology sought to provide a comprehensive account of society, show models of how institutions work, compare ours and other societies. It studied class, race, gender and ideology. It considered how and under what determining influences people thought (sociology of knowledge) and how they believed (the sociology of religion). It explored suicide, alienation, anomie, sport and advertising.
Yet something distinctive did happen to sociology between the 1950s and 1970s. The subject reached its heyday, particularly in Britain and the USA, and then quickly ran off into its decline. What must have become obvious to all parties was this was a sociological phenomenon in itself. Why, then, did sociology achieve such a central role in Britain and the USA in the postwar years, and why did its pretensions collapse later?
One explanation of the rise of sociology to its queen-bee role in the postwar map of learning was given by the left-wing American sociologist C. Wright Mills, author of influential books on the Power Elite and the Military-Industrial complex. In his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, Mills claimed the sociological viewpoint was itself the product of the radical alienation that was one of the consequences of modernity.
"Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps," the book begins. The modern individual came to see the world as "an outsider, a permanent stranger." Individuals cease in the modern mass to feel like individuals; they feel themselves as part of a process, a mob. They struggle to understand the history in which they're trapped, but it is beyond comprehension: "The history that now affects every man is world history."
Mills proposes the 'sociological imagination' as a form of what we would call, in another hideous word culled from the wreckage, 'empowerment.' He was offering, in a sense, a form of Marxism without a manifesto, a social critique in the form of a science, a view of history where history already is powered with a well-guided sense of where it's supposed to go.
Mills was right: his age had turned to the sociological viewpoint. It was the time of the embracing cultural analysis, the handy social textbook. Postwar society was different from pre-war, and required new reporting. In Britain, at this time, Richard Hoggart was publishing The Uses of Literacy, Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution, the New Left analyzing such forces of social change as youth culture, sport, pop music.
In the Fifties USA popular sociology flourished, as if the New World was being discovered anew. In the early 1950s David Riesman had published his remarkable study The Lonely Crowd, identifying a quite changed American identity in the age of urban mass society. Other key studies – such as Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders – portrayed Americans as docile, in the hands of commercial manipulators, deceived by their own leaders, driven to conformity and social consent.
The 'sociological' reading of postwar society came after the massive crisis of world war and the growth of a new era of ideological conflict, the Cold War. The mid-century crisis left earlier political thought discredited: Fascism disgraced, Marxist theory in a state of Stalinist stupefaction. Ideology itself was challenged, yet the intellectual apparatus of ideology – the study of society, class and politics – was in demand.
All over Europe, old societies were being reconstructed with new political orders. Old balances of power and borders of empire had collapsed. Newly emergent post-colonial societies were multiplying, some fledgling democracies, some various forms of peoples' republic. Above all, a new social order based on commodified mass capitalism was evolving in conflict with an opposite order, and the world was being rapidly transformed by economic and ideological forces that were constantly in conflict.
The Sixties Revolution was itself a confused radical paradox: Marxist utopian dreams were somehow to be financed by endless bourgeois wealth. It was never consistent, and both succeeded and failed. The great sociological syntheses of the 1950s and 1960s lost their inclusiveness and certainty. Society ceased to be the great wonderland and became, simply, the mess we're in.
Popular radical sociology was an episode. It gave us much, not least the enquiring, relativistic spirit in which we now perceive our 'membership' in society. Despite the many claims it made, it did little to deepen or enrich the sense of society or social existence. The atomized, random, value-free, self-creating, hedonistic self of the Nineties is just as much the product of all that radical sociology as it is of some Thatcherite distrust of the very idea of society.
Like most Enlightenment projects, the great enterprise became lost in its own ironies. The idea that our cultural understanding needed to spread democratically from elite to popular culture has turned, in the hands of the media makers and programme controllers, into the great Nineties dumbing down. The ideological scepticism of the 1960s about the institution of the bourgeois family has given us the aimless modern household and the erosion of the ethical and self-responsible individual. In short, the radical, Marxizing, counter-cultural sociology of the 60s has largely provided much of the ideological and moral framework of postmodern consumer capitalism.
Ian Christie suggests the time is ripe for a return to sociology, and proposes that the 'defeat' of the 1970s is being reversed. I hope he's right. It is one of the paradoxes of our time that a society that is heavy with social self-description and self-documentation is so bad at defining the larger level of its moral, familial and community dilemmas.
In a number of recent books – he mentions Conversations with Anthony Giddens – Christie sees a return to serious debate about the nature and the workings of society. Yet he also notes we do not yet have the enquivalent among contemporary sociologists to a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Jay Gould, the large thinking figures who construct a significant relationship with theory and practice for an entire discipline.
As Christie sees, if sociology is to make its return, it will have to swim outside the think-tanks, and recover some of that grand intellectual energy that delighted us thirty years ago – when the likes of David Riesman, Talcott Parsons, Richard Titmuss and Jurgen Habermass could make us understand the power and wonder of the idea of society, the mysteriousness of history.
Howard Kirk was a rogue of rogues, but at least he believed that. No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair. He would be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure. But at least Howard believed – even if it was chiefly for his own advantage – in all the things that still do matter. He believed in history, society, philosophy, ideas, human progress, mental discovery, all that's left of the Enlightenment Project.
As for his recent books, The Prospects for the ECU, Or How Europe Got Rich has done well this Christmas, and so has his Brief History of Football. The history men are not often sociologists these days. As for me, the ones I read are the Linda Colleys, the Norman Davies, or the new theorists in genetics or earth science. The fact remains that, if Ian Christie can find the published evidence that can persuade me, I shall be as delighted to hail the revival of sociology as I was sad to attend its fall.