Skip to main content Accessibility help

My Role and its Duties1

  • Martin Hollis


Recipes for the Good Society used to run, in caricature, something like this:

1. Take about 2000 hoM, sap., analyse each into essence and accidents and discard the accidents.

2. Place essences in a large casserole, add socialising syrup and stew until conflict disappears.

3. Serve with a pinch of salt.



Hide All

My warm thanks are due to Alan Dawe, Bryan Heading and Quentin Skinner for many helpful comments on an earlier draft and discussions of the issues involved.



Hide All

2 Bradley, F. H., ‘My Station and Its Duties’ in his Ethical Studies (Oxford, 1876; O.U.P. paperback, 1962) chap. v.

3 That there are two perspectives is a commonplace of sociology. In a large literature I have found Dawe, Alan, ‘The Two Sociologies’ (British Journal of Sociology, 1970; reprinted in Sociological Perspectives, Penguin in association with the Open University Press, 1971), especially lucid and suggestive. The perspectives are the passive and the active, not to be confused with another celebrated dispute between homo sociologicus and homo psychologicus, which usually occurs within the passive conception and is, in any case, a separate question. Debate between passive and active is also familiar in philosophy, where it usually takes more oblique forms — what the mind itself contributes to the interpretation of experience, for instance, or whether action needs its own canons of explanation. In tracing both conceptions to the Enlightenment, my aim is schematic rather than historical and I am not doubting the influence of later conservative thinkers on the passive conception nor of romantics on the active.

4 For a highly individualistic (and doubtless contentious) interpretation of Mead, see Blumer, Herbert, ‘Sociological Implications of the Thought of G. H. Mead’, American Journal of Sociology (1966).

5 Alan Dawe (loc. cit), approaching sociologically, throws the conceptions into instructive relief by contrasting two kinds of question. A passive conception is typified by the ‘Problem of Order’ (how society integrates the behaviour of its members) and an active conception by the ‘Problem of Control’ (how men manipulate their social context). There is much to interest philosophers in these paradigmatic problems.

6 I owe this point to Malcolm Bradbury. See Bradbury, M., Heading, B. and Hollis, M., ‘The Man and the Mask: A Discussion of Role Theory’ in Role, ed. Jackson, J. A. (Cambridge, 1971).

7 Skinner, Q., ‘The Principles and Practice of Opposition: the Case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole’ in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society 1500–1900, ed. McKendrick, N. (London, 1974). Skinner's interpretation of Bolingbroke is self-confessedly contentious but I borrow it without apology to other historians who might wish to object, since it illustrates the philosophical point, whether it is correct or not. I also have much in mind his admirable essay ‘“Social Meaning” and the Explanation of Social Action’ in Philosophy, Politics and Society, ed. Laslett, P., Runciman, W. G. and Skinner, Q., Fourth Series (Blackwell, 1972).

8 Equally Skinner could appeal to Bolingbroke's role-set to explain why, although all his contemporaries, including Walpole himself, saw themselves as patriots, not all applauded the attack on the ministry. Bolingbroke and his supporters could perhaps be shown to form a group with ‘duties’ and reasons for action of their own.

9 The relation between reasons and motives needs more care than I can give it here. So I am grateful to R. S. Peters for the general strategy of The Concept of Motivation (London, 1958) and for pointing out to me the help to be had from his other writings in following up the case I am presenting here. (See Peters, R. S., Psychology and Ethical Development (London, 1974) chaps 4 and 18.

1 My warm thanks are due to Alan Dawe, Bryan Heading and Quentin Skinner for many helpful comments on an earlier draft and discussions of the issues involved.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed