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History and Sociology in Britain. A Review Article

  • Craig Calhoun (a1)
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I should like to thank Martin Bulmer of the London School of Economics for his comments on an earlier version of this article, which does not cover works published since 1984.

1 See Smith Dennis's recent review article, “Norbert Elias—Established or Outsider?Sociological Review, 52:2 (1984), 367–89. Smith himself is one of several younger British sociologists originally trained in history. J. A. Banks should also be mentioned as a senior British sociologist who has done noteworthy historical work (see Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning among the Victorian Middle Class (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954); and Marxist Sociology in Action (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1980).

2 No doubt the geographic remoteness of these studies has contributed to their compartmentalization. A large number focus on peasants; see, e.g., Shanin T., The Awkward Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

3 Except for Elias, none of Abrams's major exemplars of historical sociology is a British sociologist; American sociologists and British historians loom large in his account. Similarly, Skocpol T., ed., Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), a very helpful recent survey of major lines of work in the field, finds no British sociologist worthy of attention, though it shows how the work of several British historians and both Continental and American scholars has contributed to the emerging research tradition.

4 See Barnes J., “Professionalism in British Sociology,” in Abrams et al. , Practice and Progress.

5 See Sklair L.'s review of “Sociologies and Marxisms: The Odd Couples,” in Abrams et al. , Practice and Progress. As Abrams himself notes, “it is difficult now to appreciate just how remote from one another sociology and Marxism were until the 1960s. (“The Collapse of British Sociology?” in ibid., 65).

6 See Stacey M., “The Division of Labour Revisited or Overcoming the Two Adams,” in Abrams et al. , Practice and Progress.

7 Carr E. H., What Is History? (London: Macmillan, 1961).

8 See Burke P., Sociology and History (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980), 2327.

9 Especially at Oxford and Cambridge, politics departments have played something of a similar older-sibling role, sheltering an immature sociology (providing jobs for some sociologists when there were no sociology departments) but inhibiting the formation of an autonomous identity for the younger discipline. See Heath A. and Edmondson R., “Oxbridge Sociology: The Development of Centres of Excellence?” in Abrams et al. . Practice and Progress.

10 John Urry argues that this presumed failing is in fact sociology's central virtue. See “Sociology as a Parasite: Some Vices and Virtues,” in Abrams et al. , Practice and Progress, 2538.

11 This partial slander is perhaps developed most famously in Bradbury Malcolm's novel The History Man (1975; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976). See also the venomous, if largely uninformed, comments of Elton G. R. in his Cambridge inaugural lectures: The History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), where the invective is extended to the social sciences en masse.

12 Anderson P., “Components of the National Culture,” New Left Review, no. 53 (1969), 7; Hickox M. S., “The Problem of Early English Sociology,” The Sociological Review, 32:1 (1984), 117. It is arguable, of course, that neither did American sociology, though it developed a thriving profession on the shoulders of lesser giants.

13 It is interesting to compare the role of the New Left Review during the 1960s and 1970s, when it set itself the task of bringing the British Left into a European Marxist discourse.

14 P. Abell remarks on the “calamitous” state of postgraduate sociological studies in Britain, where, in his opinion, an enormous disproportion of Ph.D. students is distracted “into the second-order activity of criticising established theorists/ methodologists rather than trying to solve empirical problems for themselves” (“Whither Sociological Methodology?” in Abrams et al, Practice and Progress, esp. 123–24). The critiques, I think it is in the vein of Abell's argument to say, tend to be of epistemological premises and abstract concepts, not of substantive empirical analyses, a more frequently productive enterprise.

15 “The Social Construction of ‘Positivism’ and Its Significance in British Sociology, 1950– 80,” in Abrams et al., Practice and Progress.

16 The phrase is borrowed from the title of the article by M. Cain and J. Finch. See also those by C. T. Husbands (“The Anti-Quantitative Bias in Postwar British Sociology”), P. Abell, and J. Platt.

17 British sociology never rivaled American, it should be said, in production of purely trivial and theoretically irrelevant research. But understanding “large” as a matter of analytic scale, not profundity, one notes that ethnomethodology (though of American origin) and related broadly phenomenological approaches found a place nearer the center of Britain's sociological stage. They have been complemented by an active, often philosophically oriented, tradition of research on language. See Phillipson M., “Sociological Practice and Language,” in Abrams et al. , Practice and Progress.

18 Mills C. Wright, The Sociological Imagination (London: Macmillan, 1959). See also the argument for “middle range theory” developed by Mills's Columbia colleague Merton Robert K.: Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1968).

19 Smelser Neil, Social Change and the Industrial Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968).

20 See Skocpol T. and Somers M., “The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22:2 (04 1980), 174–97; and Skocpol T., “Emergent Agendas and Recurrent Strategies in Historical Sociology,” in Vision and Method, Skocpol , ed., on this “illustrative” use of history in sociological theory building.

21 Bellah Robert N., Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1957); Eisenstadt S. N., The Political Systems of Empires (Glencoe, I11.: The Free Press, 1963); Dore R. P., Education in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), is a distinguished British contribution to this literature.

22 Asked whether historical research might not contain answers to some of the questions he and Hindess Barry were raising at the time (Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), Paul Hirst once told an Oxford seminar that history was only so much story-telling, good for bedtime reading and as well written by Jean Plaidy as by the professors. To their credit, Hindess and Hirst soon abandoned most of the Althusserian orthodoxy they had helped to popularize in Britain.

23 Fogel R. W. and Engerman S. L.: Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (New York: Little, Brown, 1974); Tilly C., Tilly L., and Tilly R., The Rebellious Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).

24 The Cambridge historical demography group is a major exception. Alan Macfarlane, one of its younger members, also notably crosses the boundary I have artificially constructed between anthropological and statistical approaches.

25 Cohn Bernard, “History and Anthropology: The State of Play,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22:2 (04 1980), 198221.

26 See Selbourne D., “On the Methods of the History Workshop,” History Workshop, 9 (1980). Even where the value of theory was remembered, many of the new social historians in Britain had a much more antipathetic relationship to sociology than did their American counterparts. See Jones G. S., “From Historical Sociology to Theoretical History,” British Journal of Sociology, 27:3 (1976), 295305; Samuel R. and Jones G. S., “Sociology and History,” History Workshop (1976); and, for an extreme case, Thompson E. P., “Anthropology and the Discipline of Historical Context,” Midland History, 1:3 (1972), 4155.

27 Giddens Anthony, Central Problems in Social Theory (London: Macmillan, 1979); see also Abrams Philip, Historical Sociology, xvii.

28 Giddens , Central Problems in Social Theory, 230.

29 Braudel Fernand, On History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), 69.

30 Jones , “From Historical Sociology to Theoretical History,” 295–305. Hobsbawm Eric makes a somewhat similar argument, though with more optimism, in “From Social History to the History of Society,” in Essays in Social History, Flinn M. W. and Smout T. C., eds. (1971; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 122.

31 Abrams never cites The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Primitive Classifications, The Moral Education, or even Suicide—all of which, in varying ways, approach the issues of subjectivity, if not always as the world of individuals. His treatment of Durkheim is still more subtle than Tilly's use of the great French sociologist as a stand-in for 1950s and 1960s functionalism—and only in caricature at that. See “Useless Durkheim,” in Tilly 's As Sociology Meets History (New York: Academic Press, 1981). Difficulties with Durkheim seem to be one of the ideological legacies of historical sociology's roots in reaction against functionalism and modernization theory. See also Ragin C. and Zaret D., “Theory and Method in Comparative Research: Two Strategies,” Social Forces, 61:3 (1983), 731–54; Ragin and Zaret divide sociology more or less completely into a Durkheimian majority and a Weberian minority, with the latter including all of the “good guys” of historical sociology. As Skocpol objects, that claims commonality for some very diverse lines of work, and dismisses a great many of the longstanding central concerns of sociology (“Emergent Agendas,” 360–61).

32 Skocpol and Somers , “Uses of Comparative History”; Weber Max, Economy and Society (1921; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

33 Though note Skocpol and Somers' argument for a cycle in which historical research is used first inductively to construct or expand and then later in various fashions to test or illustrate abstract theories (“Uses of Comparative History”).

34 Even a theorist who attempts to base his work on formalization and abstraction as completely as Blau Peter in Inequality and Heterogeneity (New York: Free Press, 1977) must induce the substantive definition of the “parameters” of his theory, either explicitly or implicitly, from empirical research or experiential hunches. Of course, sociologists do attempt explanation rather than description, and use deduction rather than induction more than do historians. The difference, however, is one of degree, not categorical distinction.

35 Weber , Economy and Society, I, 1920.

36 Cf. Skocpol T.'s (Stales and Social Revolutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 39) and Abrams 's (Historical Sociology, 187–89) suggestions that it can.

37 There are also differences within each discipline as great as those between them, as Bulmer M. (“Sociology and History: Some Recent TrendsSociology 8:1 (1974), 138–50) and others have observed.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
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