I joined the London School of Economics in 2012 and am now Martin White Professor (the title traditionally awarded to the most senior professor in the Department). I have been Head of Department between 2013 and 2016. Between 2015 and 2020 I was Director of LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, which hosts the Atlantic Fellows programme, the largest global programme in the world devoted to challenging inequalities
My role at LSE builds on my long standing interests in analysing social stratification and inequality. I have played a major role in the revival of the sociology of social class in recent decades so that it has become once more a central plank of the discipline. My approach has four distinctive elements:-
Firstly, I have a deep concern to recognise the intersectional and cultural dimensions of social inequalities. 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, 1997). 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. In Class Analysis and Social Transformation (2000) I have written about the ‘paradox of class’: that as economic inequality intensifies, so popular awareness of class seems to wane. I am fascinated by the challenge posed by the ‘cultural turn’ in sociology and remain attracted to elements of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology as a means of making sense of these paradoxical situations.
Secondly I insist on understanding inequality spatially. Part of my concern here is to study inequality at the local and urban, as well as national and international levels. My first book, The Dynamics of Working Class Politics: the Labour movement in Preston 1880-1940 (1987) argued that the rise of the Labour Party could only be understood within the context of local labour and housing market dynamics. My later book Globalisation and Belonging (with Gaynor Bagnall and Brian Longhurst, 2005) argued that middle class residents of Manchester in NW England were strongly attached to their local belonging, and hence that globalisation might be congruent with increasing localised attachments. I have pursued these themes with contributions to urban sociology, such as in Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity (with Alan Warde and Kevin Ward, 2003), and in contributions to urban studies journals. My recent work explores the European dimensions of inequality, and I am committed to a strong international programme of research.
Thirdly, I am committed to a strongly historical approach to analysis. This is indebted to my original education in history, and remains a key theme today. I am sceptical of ‘hyperbolic’ or ‘presentist’ 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 (2010) argues that we need to place our understanding of the contemporary in the context of detailed historical research. I have become interested in thinking how we can use concepts of accumulation to better understand the historical forces implicated in the generation of social inequality.
Fourthly, 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. I am also interested in reflecting on the limits of specific methodological repertoires and in searching for new methods. I have applied sequencing methods, social network analysis, and multiple correspondence analysis in my work. 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.
I bring all these interests together to renew interests in class analysis so that they are better attuned to contemporary urgencies, especially associated with the burgeoning fortunes of the super-rich. I have been one of the academic team working on the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, which has been the most popular piece of digital sociology ever (with 9 million hits on the BBC’s ‘class calculator’). Our book Social class in the 21st Century which argues that older models of class which focused on the divide between middle and working class have been eclipsed by an elite class pulling away at the top, and greater fragmentation in the middle levels of the social structure, has been a bestseller. I am now pulling these arguments forward through developing new ways of linking class analysis with the study of elites.
I believe strongly that pursuing intellectual agendas also involves spending time to support fertile and creative intellectual spaces for collaboration. I have been Head of Department at three Universities (Manchester 1999-2001; York 2011-12; LSE 2013-16). I was the founding Director of CRESC - the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (2004-2010) which saw innovative collaborations between anthropologists, historians, media and cultural studies researchers, geographers, sociologists, business researchers. This led to a focus on ‘the social life of methods’ which has come to be a major theme for addressing the performative dimensions of social science methods in recent times. I have also led successful cross-disciplinary bids at Manchester to support research on Cosmopolitan Cultures (RCUK, 2004), and at LSE (Leverhulme, Escalating Inequalities PhD programme).
I also have a strong track record in supporting the discipline. Between 1993 and 2016 I was on the Editorial Board of The Sociological Review, where I was editor between 2001 and 2007, and as Chair of the Editorial Board between 2011 and 2016 oversaw its transition into a fully recognised charity. I have also been a member of the Sociology research evaluation exercises (RAE 2008 and REF 2013).
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 North Carolina, 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 was elected an Academician of the Social Sciences in 2003 and Fellow of the British Academy in 2007.
Research Video: The politics of nationalism and racism in post-Brexit Britain