I joined the LSE in 2012. After my BA in History at the University of York, and my MA (in Modern Social History) and PhD (in Sociology) at Lancaster, I spent much of the 1980s in temporary posts as Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Universities of Lancaster, Sussex and Surrey. My first permanent job was when I was appointed Lecturer at the University of Keele in 1989, and after a brief spell at Chapel Hill (North Carolina), I became Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester in 1995. I spent 15 rewarding years at Manchester where I was Head of Department (1999-2001) and founding Director of CRESC - the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (2004-2010). I moved to the University of York in 2010, where I was interim Head of Department, and where I continue as Visiting Professor.
I have long standing interests in social stratification and inequality, and I am especially keen in the future to develop sociological analyses of the rich and powerful. I am steeped in the ‘great tradition’ of British class analysis with its concerns with class formation and politics, and my doctorate, which became my first book (The Dynamics of Working Class Politics, 1987) was a study of popular mobilisation in Preston in the North West of England. As a post doctoral Fellow at Sussex in the mid 1980s, I became fascinated by the rapid growth of professional and managerial workers in the South East of England, and I subjected these proliferating middle classes to critical analysis in my co-authored book Property, Bureaucracy and Culture: middle class formation in contemporary Britain (with James Barlow, Tony Fielding, and Peter Dickens, 1992). The overlaps and intersections between class and gender inequality is a longstanding interest, and a study of changing career pathways in banks, nursing and local authority employment led to Gender, Careers and Organisations (with Susan Halford and Anne Witz) in 1987. This was followed by a manifesto arguing for the need for a more culturally sensitive and historically attuned approach to social stratification in Class Analysis and Social Transformation (2000).
I am sceptical of ‘hyperbolic’ sociology, such as claims that we have moved into some kind of new ‘epoch’ of social life. My book Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method argues that we need to place our understanding of the contemporary in the context of detailed historical research. A concern with specificity – both historical and spatial – underpins my work. I see spatiality as fundamental to social relations and view the dialogue between geography and sociology as hugely exciting. My contributions to urban sociology are crystallised in my book with Alan Warde and Kevin Ward Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity (2nd edition 2002).
I am fascinated by the challenge posed by the ‘cultural turn’ to sociology, and over the past ten years have become pre-occupied with developing methods which allow us to better do justice to the cultural dimensions of social life. I am associated with the resurgence of the sociology of class and culture over the past decade, and with Tony Bennett, Elizabeth Silva and Alan Warde directed the most comprehensive study of cultural capital and taste ever conducted in the UK, which was published in 2008 as Culture, Class, Distinction. This has attracted considerable international interest and influenced numerous studies on the cultural aspects of inequality. A major part of my concerns is with the ‘paradox of class’: that as economic inequality intensifies, so popular awareness of class seems to wane. I am especially interested in how the privileged identify themselves and legitimate their social advantages, and hence how freely chosen lifestyles are marked with the imprint of class. My book Globalisation and Belonging (with Gaynor Bagnall and Brian Longhurst, 2005), a study of middle class residents of Manchester in NE England argued that we can identify ‘the spatialisation of class’, whereby belonging to place becomes a more salient signifier of social position. My interests in culture are tied into the elaboration of repertoires to avoid sociological reductionism and I see an awareness of the cultural as important in part for exposing the limits of positivistic sociology. My experience in CRESC, with its remarkable interdisciplinary range bringing together anthropology, cultural and media studies, history, political science and business studies has proved formative here.
I see rigorous research methods as fundamental to sociological inquiry, and I am especially interested in using innovative and mixed methods which do not only seek to generalise but which also instead render the specific in telling ways. I have applied sequencing methods, social network analysis, and multiple correspondence analysis in my work. My work (with Fiona Devine) for the BBC on their Great British Class Survey has produced the largest ever survey of class ever conducted in the UK, with 161,000 responses to their web survey. My paper with Roger Burrows proclaiming ‘The coming crisis of empirical sociology’ in 2007 earned me a degree of notoriety because of its claim that sociology could no longer rely on its tried and trusted repertoire of sample surveys and qualitative interviews in an increasingly digitalised world – but in fact I am also an inveterate user of such methods. My book Identities and Social Change: the politics of method champions a new interest in the historical analysis of social science archived data and has attracted considerable interest from historians as well as sociologists.
Although most of my empirical research has been based in the UK (and more particularly, in the north of England), I have increasingly sought to place this in broader comparative perspective. I have benefitted from insights gained from global scholars – and I wish to extend these in my work at the LSE. I have published with colleagues originating from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, and supervised PhD students from Chile, China, France, Germany, Iran, Hong Kong, Portugal, Taiwan and Turkey, as well as the UK. I have been senior Fulbright Scholar (at Chapel Hill) and visiting Professor at Sciences-Po in France, and at Bergen in Norway. My research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the European Union; the Equality and Human Rights Commission; and the Leverhulme Trust. I have been editor of The Sociological Review (2001-2007), was elected an Academician of the Social Sciences in 2003 and Fellow of the British Academy in 2007.