Mike Savage is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. In this new series of academic inspiration essays, Mike talks us through some of the books to have had the biggest impact on the way he sees the world.
Looking back, I can identify two key books in my intellectual and academic formation as a student and budding sociologist. The first was The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) by the Canadian political theorist C.B. MacPherson. The second was Work, Society, and Politics (1980) by the Irish-British social historian Patrick Joyce. These make strange bedfellows. The first is a work of abstract political theory, a Marxist critique of Hobbes and Locke, and the second a detailed archival social history of Victorian Blackburn in North West England. MacPherson was an established Professor of Political Economy at Toronto when his book was published, whereas Joyce was a junior Lecturer in History at the University of Manchester. Having said this, both these authors have an LSE connection: MacPherson studied for an LSE MSc in Economics in the 1930s and Joyce was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology in the early 2000s.
Both books were hugely important in their day, but they have not become canonical. I doubt that students read them much today. The point I want to suggest is that since iconic books come with a baggage, this might make them difficult to read and appreciate freshly by new generations of students. The books which have a decisive impact and make an indelible personal impression often come unanticipated and unfeted. Let me reflect on this in my case.
I was a diligent pupil at a good comprehensive school in the London suburbs in the early 1970s, but I was never fundamentally ‘turned on’ by scholarly study. I could write fluently, but my reading was functional and pragmatic. I was regarded as one of the stronger pupils but in fact my performance was not outstanding. I was rejected by four of the five universities I applied for, and my A level results were mediocre. I was fortunate enough to get a place to study History at the University of York, which had one of the most lively Departments in the country. During my first year, in 1977, I fell in with an intellectually engaged group of students and began to enjoy talking about history, and increasingly, politics. My own political inclinations at this point were a kind of respectable suburban liberalism. I joined the Young Liberals, and with my friends gloried in existentialist philosophy whose advocacy of individual freedoms in all their manifold glory seemed entirely of a piece with this. Yet as my first year progressed I became increasingly aware of Marxist critiques of such views, which I vigorously refuted in my essays on the grounds that they were deterministic and crude. I remember my tutor asking me why I spent so much time criticising Marxism, a position he was surprised that I thought worth engaging with.
A turning point was reached when I took an option on 17th century history and had to write an essay on Hobbes and Locke. I found both of these tedious, but following up a side reference to MacPherson’s book I found his critique absolutely riveting. Famously, he argued that the liberal individualism of Hobbes and Locke was dependent on a ‘possessive’ underpinning which could only be premised on the unacknowledged primacy of capitalist property relations. With this deft move, the presuppositions of my own naïve thinking seemed to dissolve. After some initial consternation, I then experienced the exhilaration which comes when you can see obvious common sense – in this case the primacy of the individual – in fundamentally new and unexpected ways. After reading MacPherson, the world seemed different. As I entered my second year I began to devour Marxist and left-leaning books. I was part of an earnest reading group which even managed to work through Volume 3 of Capital. The highlight of my visits to London from York was a trip to Collets bookshop on Charing Cross Road. But I was not sectarian. I also remember being gripped by Foucault’s Order of Things in the wonderful Tavistock edition of the day. But none of this might have happened without the more urbane and genteel political theory of MacPherson to open the door.
I read Joyce’s book shortly after it was published in 1980, only two years after reading MacPherson. Much had changed. The dog days of the last years of social democratic government in Britain had given way to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979. Absolutely passionate about the study of history I nonetheless found my Masters’ degree at Lancaster in Modern Social History uninspiring. I felt I was expected to defer to the eminent professors, rather than think independently building on my undergraduate studies. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on to study for a doctorate (though in honesty, I had little idea of what else I could do, especially in the depths of the early 1980s recession). In this context, reading Joyce’s book shortly after it was published was a revelation. His was a detailed study of class relations in the unglamorous Lancashire town of Blackburn in the mid and later 19th century. Blackburn was interesting because of the high levels of working class support for the Conservative Party (an issue which seemed rather important in 1980). What Joyce opened my eyes to was the fascination of unravelling the messy empirical which complicates and challenges theoretical orthodoxy. Here were a group of exploited, downtrodden proletarians, who nonetheless willingly, even enthusiastically, voted their bourgeois millowners into parliament on a regular basis. The centre piece of Joyce’s study was painstaking research on Victorian poll books which demonstrated precisely this. Joyce then offered a cornucopia of possible reasons for this situation: the patriarchal structure of the workplace which allowed male workers to identify with their bosses, the nature of the labour process which eroded worker independence, the character of local neighbourhoods dominated by the millowners’ urban fabric, and the politics of ritual and display. Suddenly, I fundamentally saw the point of primary research as unravelling the messy social world in all its vagaries, and I wanted to do this myself. My Masters dissertation turned into a critique of Joyce’s arguments based on findings from the neighbouring town of Preston – another bastion of working class Toryism. I learnt the pleasure of working in archives and the sense of excitement when unexpected accounts could be used to challenge theoretical orthodoxy. It was at this moment too that I turned decisively to sociology which I thought was more open to the complex interplay between theoretical and empirical research than seemed to be possible in history.
I never met C.B. MacPherson, who died in 1987, and nor would I have known what to have said to him if I had. From 1995 to 2010, however, I was a colleague of Patrick Joyce’s when we both worked together at the University of Manchester, where we collaborated in the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) of which I was a Director. Earlier this year, drawing on his research in CRESC, he published The State of Freedom: a social history of the British state since 1980, a wonderful account of the history of the British state from a lens directed at the Post Office, the private schools, and Oxbridge, and inspired by his reading of Foucault, anthropology, sociology and science studies. Who knows? Perhaps it will inspire today a few Masters students uncertain what to do with their lives?