My 12 Favourite Living Sociologists by Prof Graham Scambler

On twitter a few months back I ventured a list of ‘top ten’ living sociologists. What I meant of course was my favourites, meaning those who had most impressed or influenced me during my intellectual travels. Without revisiting that list I am in this blog offering for consideration a top twelve that, I guess, bears a close resemblance to my original selections. Ranking them is a step too far so there come ‘in no particular order’. Attached to each is a publication I have personally relished. I hope it goes without saying that I welcome dissent, however irrational or bombastic.

Louis Wacquant is not here as a proxy for his mentor and colleague Pierre Bourdieu. It is not coincidental, however, that he shares the latter’s virtues, at least in my estimation. Chief amongst them is his straddling of what are too often well-patrolled borders between the theoretical and the substantive. Wacquant is a reflexive practitioner. His studies, often of outsiders, from boxers to abandoned Afro-Americans subsisting within a largely subterranean network of informal markets on the outskirts of Chicago, (a) bear testimony to a pragmatic blending of methods beyond the new post-quantitative/qualitative orthodoxy of ‘mixed methods’; (b) at every juncture speak of a genuine dialectic of theory and research; and (c) present a bold case for macro-, meso- or micro-social change. And the publication of choice? It’s Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Urban Marginality(Polity, 2008).

John Goldthorpe may be a surprise inclusion, at least for those familiar with my own efforts. After all, he is best known as an empirically scrupulous neo-Weberian researcher of social mobility in the UK, and am I not a professed neo-Marxist guilty of formulating a vulgar-sounding ‘greedy bastards hypothesis’ in relation to health inequalities? What would he think? But he is surely our premier post-war English sociologist? His contribution extends well beyond his series of studies and reflections on social mobility to encompass theoretical interventions ranging from a critique of ethnomethodology (with which I agreed) to the support of rational choice theory (with which I disagreed). The thoughtfulness, subtlety and clarity of his writing are exemplary. My favourite interjection: On Sociology (2nded, Stanford, 2007).

Eric Ohlin Wright’s appearance may be less surprising. He is probably best known for his – I think telling – neo-Marxist theories and studies of the continuing salience of social class in what I prefer to call ‘high’ rather than ‘late’ modernity (hindsight will adjudicate on the terminology). But he has added another string to his bow: he has proffered and interjected ‘alternative futures’. A number of sociologists have lamented the reluctance of our ‘community’ to enter this domain of non-utopian envisioning of possibilities, what Giddens has called adventures in ‘utopian realism’. Has the need to do so ever been so plain? My own, and my family’s (http//, sense of the case for an action sociologysits well with this emphasis. The chosen work is: Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).

Manual Castells, progenitor of the ‘network society’, is someone I encountered late. Simon Williams was quicker on the draw, accenting his potential for medical sociology in my ‘Contemporary Theorists and Medical Sociology’, published earlier this year. Having dipped into his triad on the network society, I moved more recently onto his network-informed analysis of social movements. Incorporating empirical analyses of activism during the ‘Arab Spring’ via Iceland and assorted city-based occupations to resistance in Spain, his latest book captures much of the present. He portrays it as theory-lite, but I don’t see it that way. It represents a new take-off point for thinking about digital-age social movements: Networks of Outrage and Hope (Polity, 2012).

Emmanuel Wallerstein is the progenitor and principal advocate of the neo-Marxist ‘world systems theory’. I came to his largely historical work because an old friend and colleague from Emory University, Terry Boswell, who died prematurely from, but was in no way a victim of, motor neurone disease, was an enthusiastic convert (he tried to persuade Emory to recruit EW but to no avail). Wallerstein’s theory might seem dated post-1989/91, but he anticipated Marxism beyond the nation-state and points to the future. His work is a reminder that agency and culture alike are structured but not structurally determined, a favourite mantra of mine. Given his productivity and the reach of his historical sociology a choice of text is difficult, but I plump for: The Modern World System Vol.3. The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s (Academic Press, 1989).

Richard Sennett, cosmopolitan sociologist and occasional visitor to LSE, is one of those craftsmen he has himself written so persuasively about. He ploughs his own furrow, opting for topics that have somehow eluded others. Once he has treated them, they remain treated, inspiring colleagues to pick up and work on his themes and insights. He has moved from discourses on the hidden injuries of class to exploring singular concepts like respect and togetherness. He is currently exploring notions of politics and civil society and the creation of public spaces in the twenty-first century. The book I am choosing here has influenced my own thinking, referring as it does to our need to be pro-active and decisive in an era of almost unprecedented uncertainty: The Culture of the New Capitalism (Yale, 2008).

Zygmunt Bauman, prolific Polish émigré who came to rest at Leeds, is less known for his early work than for his profuse comments on our ‘postmodern’ present. For a while I felt he conflated a sociology of the postmodern, which was required post-1970s, with a postmodern sociology, which would have sounded the discipline’s death knell; but he righted himself. If his recent sequence of books around the notion of ‘liquid modernity’ has perhaps been too slick and speedy, they nevertheless remain replete with insights (and telling concepts). It is to one of his earlier prize-winning volumes that I turn for an exemplar however: Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell, 1989)is a theoretically elegant, sophisticated and harrowing study of the holocaust as a twentieth-century culmination of Weber’s societal rationalization.

Margaret Archer is less widely known than others on my list, her main contributions being to the sociology of education and the critical realist theorization of the present. She owes much to Roy Bhaskar but shows a striking independence of mind. Like Goldthorpe she straddles the domains of theory and empirical research. It is her later series of books and articles – on the relations between structure and agency and on types of reflexivity – that I have found particularly illuminating. She lends substance to Bhaskar’s ‘transformational theory of social action’ via her account of ‘internal conversations’. It is something of a toss up, but largely because I have made most use of it I mention here her penultimate book:Making our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility (Cambridge University Press, 2007).            

Michael Mann is another historical sociologist committed to the ‘big picture’. Born British, he has since found a home at UCLA. He provides a frame for the understanding of the slow unfolding of types of social formation and settlement. He will remembered, no doubt, for his multi-volume tracing of human sociability; but in between this sequence he has published theoretically fine-tuned books on the post-9/11 American ‘war on terror’, fascism and ethnic cleansing. My selection is: The Sources of Social Power. Volume 2. The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 (Cambridge, 1993).

Bob Jessop probably owes his inclusion on my list to his continuing commitment to get to the bottom of the modern state. Beginning with Marx, he has systematically and methodically drawn on the inspiration of Gramsci and Poulantzas to fashion an all-inclusive strategic-relational theory of contemporary capitalist and non-capitalist states. In a conceptually strong series of books, interspersed with many articles, the evolution of his thought has been exposed. Very few stones have been left unturned. He also gave an excellent half-day workshop for our UCL Sociology Network earlier this year. Unsurprisingly I am citing here his latest offering: State Power: A Strategic-Relational Approach (Polity, 2007).

Goran Therborn would I suspect be on many colleagues’ short-list. He is yet another with a remarkable facility for finding and theorizing history’s patterns. His accounts of European modernity and of the Western family impress with their reach as well as their depth of learning: they are anchored in the minutiae of ordinary people’s day-to-day circumstances and decision-making. My choice of book is his The World: A Beginner’s Guide (Polity, 2011), a title that seems to have inspired rather than daunted him. It is worth recalling, however, that there is continuity through his output, the early radicalism of his seminal excursus on ideology surviving into his later more magisterial efforts.

Jurgen Habermas is quintessentially Germanic in his capacity for synthesis. His output is extraordinary, much of it as philosophical as it is sociological. His ‘theory of communicative action’ was condensed into two mammoth volumes and probably represents the culmination of his sociological work. But there was much more before and has been much more after. Of late he has been preoccupied with discourse ethics, constitutional law and Europe’s post-nationalist future. It has taken him a long way from his Frankfurt School and neo-Marxist roots; too far in my view. Admiring of his opus on communicative action as I am, it is to his early work I have retreated for a favourite contribution. It could have been hisHabilitation thesis on the public sphere; but I have opted instead for the peculiarly prescient and topical Legitimation Crisis (Heinemann, 1975). It retains its bite after the global financial crisis of 2008-9.

Graham Scambler is a professor of Sociology at University College London. This article was originally posted on Graham’s blog. You can follow Graham on twitter here.  

Categories: Higher Education

1 reply »

  1. How about Robert Bullard, the father of Environmental Sociology and founder of the Environmental Justice Resource Center? His books are valuable tools for activists and lawyers.

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