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British sociology and public intellectuals: consumer society and imperial decline

The British Journal of Sociology
Volume 57 No 2 June 2006
pages 169-188


The following is the lecture given for the BJS 2005 Public Sociology Debate given at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 11 October 2005

This lecture on the character of British sociology provides a pretext for a more general inquiry into public intellectual life in postwar Britain. The argument put forward falls into several distinctive sections. First, British social science has depended heavily on the migration of intellectuals, especially Jewish intellectuals who were refugees from fascism. Second, intellectual innovation requires massive, disruptive, violent change. Third, British sociology did nevertheless give rise to a distinctive tradition of social criticism in which one can argue there were (typically home-grown) public intellectuals. The main theme of their social criticism was to consider the constraining and divisive impact of social class, race and gender on the enjoyment of expanding social citizenship. Fourth, postwar British sociology came to be dominated by the analysis of an affluent consumer society. Finally, the main failure of British sociology in this postwar period was the absence of any sustained, macro-sociological analysis of the historical decline of Britain as a world power in the twentieth century.

Keywords: Citizenship, class, consumerism, empire, gender, race, welfare state

Bryan S Turner
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore