A Salute to the ‘Exegetical Giddens’: Durkheim scholar

Thursday 16th February, 2017

Matt Dawson

This article is part of our Past and present series, in which current scholars look back at earlier works published in the journal.

There is an old joke, once given an outing in The Sociological Review (SR), that there must be more than one Anthony Giddens. How else to explain the publishing phenomenon that is the man? Matt Dawson has chosen two papers by the Giddens who was translator and exegete of the classical sociologists. Émile Durkheim is the subject of both. Dawson shows how the first paper presented a new interpretation of Durkheim’s political sociology, and also how a reputation was at stake – that of Talcott Parsons. In turning back the pages of SR, Dawson brings us to that moment when the tide was turning against the orthodoxies of structural functionalism. Durkheim mattered much because he had been central to Parsons’s synthesis of the classical sociologists and Giddens’s reading of Durkheim was a way of challenging the Parsonian paradigm. In truth what was at stake was a configuration of reputations, Durkheim-Parsons-Giddens. Scholarly reputations are, of course, made and unmade in the pages of academic journals.

As it happens Durkheim published in SR (or at least in its predecessor The Sociological Papers of 1905). In 1918 SR marked his death with a memorial essay and republished the 1905 paper. SR had always hoped that a second paper, long promised, would come from Durkheim but that was not to be. SR editor Victor Branford explained how the circumstances of a deeply committed professional life had intervened. The second Giddens paper is enough to make a book reviews editor weep as Research-Exercise driven academics fail to deliver on their promises but, as we learn, the review need not be so marginal. Durkheim and his circle were serious and inveterate book reviewers and, for them, the review was part and parcel of the research process. In selecting these two articles Dawson invites us to reflect on the historical nature of academic labour. His Past and Present is a fascinating illustration of the worth of Bourdieu’s dictum: ‘Knowing what one is doing when one does science… presupposes knowing how the problems, tools, methods and concepts one uses have been historically formed’ (Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, London: Sage). Bourdieu had Durkheim in mind when he said this.

Nickie Charles and Gordon Fyfe

The SR Archive: Classics

Anthony Giddens, Durkheim as a Review Critic (1970) and Durkheim’s Political Sociology (1971)

Matt Dawson, University of Glasgow

In 1970 and 1971 The Sociological Review published two articles by Anthony Giddens which were part of a significant engagement with the work of Émile Durkheim. The articles, ‘Durkheim as a Review Critic’ published in 1970 and ‘Durkheim’s Political Sociology’ appearing the next year, provided significant reinterpretations of a sociologist who was, at that time, caricatured as a simplistic conservative who had ignored conflict in his abstract general theory. In recovering Giddens’s contribution to Durkheim studies I also highlight the changing emphasis placed on certain forms of academic labour such as translation and book reviewing. I suggest that Giddens’s assessment of Durkheim speaks to the marginalization of the book review within twenty-first century academia. My essay places the two articles in their twentieth-century context and goes on to consider their value and importance for a new generation of sociologists.

Such a task means we inevitably confront the question of reputations. I have already hinted at how Giddens sought to change the reputation of Durkheim common at the time. Of course, Giddens himself went on to develop a reputation as a significant, perhaps even the most significant, sociologist in Britain, partly due to his development of structuration theory (Giddens 1973, 1976, 1984). But, for a whole generation of sociologists, a generation of which I am part, Giddens had a very different reputation. He was the author of a weighty textbook we were encouraged to buy during the first year of our degree; the man who argued, perhaps unconvincingly, that identity had become a reflexive project (Giddens 1991), part of which included the ‘pure relationships’ which emerged off the back of increased gender equality (Giddens 1993); and, of course, he was ‘Blair’s guru’, as the back cover of his The Third Way and its Critics (Giddens 2000) puts it. For a generation who came to our studies at the start of the Iraq war and the most problematic elements of the New Labour project such an association tainted his reputation. The result of this being, at least from where I sit, that Giddens is no longer taken especially seriously in contemporary British sociology.

It is not my goal here to defend these elements of Giddens’s sociological project. Instead I want to present a different part of his intellectual career, one which is increasingly overlooked. To use the term of Gianfranco Poggi (1991: 257) I want to salute ‘the exegetical Giddens’. This Giddens returned to the classics, such as Durkheim, as rich resources and, in doing so, presented an image that differed from the ossified views of them which made up much sociological discussion, especially in Britain (Studholme 1995). Furthermore, I want to suggest that, at least in the English-language context, those of us who appreciate a more subtle and multi-faceted image of Durkheim than was common in the 1950s and 1960s are able to do so thanks, in part, to Anthony Giddens.

Poggi’s claim for there being an ‘exegetical Giddens’ rests mainly on Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (Giddens 1971c) which did much to establish the ‘holy trinity’ of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. This meant that, as Ian Craib (1992: 1) put it, Giddens became ‘the main interpreter of modern social theory’. However, while his exegesis of Marx and Weber has been much commented upon, his work as a Durkheimian has attracted less comment. Poggi (1991: 262) is perhaps exceptional in highlighting that this element of Giddens’s work has had a much more lasting impact than his writings on Marx and Weber. As someone who has written on Durkheim, I wholeheartedly agree with this claim and see these two articles as key parts of the exegetical Giddens’s legacy. Moreover, as I argue below, the articles have something to tell us about continuity and change in sociology, and in academic life more broadly, from Durkheim’s time to our own. This is especially evident when it comes to book reviews, an activity increasingly marginalized in academia.

To begin, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of how Durkheim was thought of prior to the publication of Giddens’s articles in 1970 and 1971. As Giddens notes elsewhere (1972a: 39-48) the dominant image of Durkheim in this period had developed in the writings of Talcott Parsons. The latter, given his hegemonic position within US and European sociology had been able to colonize Durkheim within his conception of ‘structural functionalism’ (Parsons 1949); central to this was the ‘problem of order’. For Parsons, Durkheim’s work reflected social theory’s longstanding interest in the problem of order as exemplified in Thomas Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all’. Parsons argued that Durkheim solved the problem through consensus; the development of consensual values ensured social order and harmony. Parsons’s advocacy of this position meant that the ‘problem of order’ came to be seen as the key concern of classical social theory; Giddens’s argument was that this is a ‘myth’ (Giddens 1972b). It was a problematic myth too, creating an uncritical sociology charged, according to Parsons, with cataloguing ‘civilization and its contents’ (Giddens 1977: 895).

This perspective on Durkheim led to clear political claims. As Giddens suggests, the idea of Durkheim as a ‘consensus’ theorist who ‘emphasized “cohesion” rather than “conflict”, “order” rather than “change”, and “authority” rather than “freedom”’ (1971a: 491) was central to the emerging view that Durkheim’s sociology was fundamentally conservative (Coser 1960: 212). This was taken as a demonstration of ‘how sociology arose in the first instance as a deeply conservative movement’ (Nisbet 1943: 161) and even, according to one commentator, a discipline which produced the ‘scholarly forerunners of fascism’ (Ranulf 1939).

Giddens argued that this view of Durkheim had emerged because Parsons and others had presented him as a structural functionalist who had developed a general theory of consensus, rather than as a historical sociologist attempting to understand processes of change. When Durkheim is viewed in this way the perspective on him differs. One justification for such a reading is, Giddens suggests, the way Durkheim participated as a public intellectual in debates concerning the nature of the French nation. As he notes, the claim that Durkheim’s work is an attempt to restore greatness to French intellectual life by developing a general theory in response to the Prussian victory of 1871 says ‘too much, and too little’ (Giddens 1971a: 479). It says too much since it overlooks how Durkheim was responding to contemporary intellectual currents in France and elsewhere. It says too little since his sociology was an attempt to deal with the long-running social and political problems – the ‘malaise’ as he frequently termed it (Durkheim 1959: 7) – which were the legacy of the Revolution, rather than simply the events of 1871. This was why Durkheim, who suggested sociology should have a ‘constant preoccupation’ with ‘practical questions’ (Durkheim 1982: 160), engaged in public debates. The most significant of these, highlighted by Giddens, was the Dreyfus affair in which Durkheim framed religion, liberty and the future of France through the ideas of individualism developed in The Division of Labour (Giddens 1971a: 481). By encouraging us to see Durkheim’s work as part of historical developments and public debates, Giddens points to what made him such a subtle interpreter of social theory. The exegetical Giddens always advocated the position that theories are developed as responses to particular social and historical questions, rather than as ahistorical attempts at a ‘general theory’. (Craib 1992: 1-4). Indeed, as Giddens (1985: 816) would later claim, ‘all sociological issues have an historical aspect to them’. Unfortunately, as had been the case for Durkheim, a later generation of sociologists tended to abstract their predecessors’ theories from their historical context and treat them as general theories.

Giddens’s vision of Durkheim’s political sociology is one whose subtlety rested on combining ‘the division of labour…the conception of moral authority and individual freedom’ (Giddens 1971a: 513). In doing so Durkheim broke new sociological ground in suggesting occupational specialization may require new forms of occupational rather than geographical representation, hence his advocacy of the corporations (Giddens 1971a: 489). Furthermore, Durkheim’s awareness of how individual freedom was secured by moral regulation led him to conclusions not otherwise considered by sociologists, including the banning of inheritance (Giddens 1971a: 511). By highlighting these issues, Giddens did Durkheim a great service. Opposed to the image of the fundamentally conservative Durkheim, Giddens notes the way Durkheim was inspired by, and commentated on, debates concerning theories of socialism. This was partly due to personal connections – most notably Marcel Mauss – but was more fundamentally intellectual. As Giddens explains, socialism, like the sociology Durkheim wanted to practise, was for the latter a response to the ‘malaise’ of contemporary society. This was why Durkheim’s alternatives, such as the corporations, had ‘definite affinities with the solidarism of the Radical Socialists’ (Giddens 1971a:487). This picture of Durkheim, as a political sociologist who was informed about socialism and concerned with questions of justice appropriate to emerging forms of organic solidarity, is fundamental to how he is viewed today (Stedman Jones 2001). In addition, with the benefit of hindsight, Giddens’s emphasis on this aspect of Durkheim’s thought is indicative of a general shift in the 1960s away from the dominance of more conservative or liberal interpretations of sociology’s project and history.

Reading this article today there are two conclusions Giddens draws which are particularly noteworthy, one which seems outdated, another which is extremely prescient. To begin with the outdated conclusion. Despite very carefully sketching Durkheim’s engagement with forms of socialism, Giddens sees him as unproblematically embodying ‘liberal republicanism’, albeit in a ‘revitalised’ form (Giddens 1971a:513). This is a conclusion which now would be questioned, by those, such as myself, who claim that Durkheim is politically closer to a form of guild or libertarian socialism (Dawson 2013). Part of the reason for Giddens’s conclusion is perhaps due to his emphasis on the nature of Durkheim’s public sociology. As he notes, Durkheim ‘always kept aloof from the cuisine politique; he had little feeling for, or interest in, the practical problems of politics’ and thus ‘never affiliated himself directly to any political party’ (Giddens 1971a: 482-83). There is truth in this claim, Durkheim did not join a party and suggested that sociology should instead ‘liberate us from all parties’ (Durkheim 1982: 161). However, as further scholarship into Durkheim’s life has been published, including two major biographies (Lukes 1973, Fournier 2013), if anything Durkheim’s connection to socialist circles has become even clearer. While the question of ‘Durkheim’s politics’ is still a matter of debate, the debate is more open than it was in 1971, partly due to Giddens’s questioning of the conservative consensus.

This leads me to the conclusion which would prove prescient given the development of Durkheim studies and Giddens’s own work. The article ends with a ‘critical evaluation’ of Durkheim’s political sociology; among the criticisms offered one concerns the ‘uneasy tension between theory and practice’ (Giddens 1971a: 508). In short, Durkheim’s discussion of what is or will be the case is often shaped by what he believes should or ought to be the case. For example ‘the development and strengthening of the occupational associations is due to occur because this is demanded by the “normal” functioning of the division of labour’; the banning of inheritance is justified not due to a wider moral imperative but rather due to this same ‘normal’ division of labour; and the state should exercise less power not due to a broader good but since Durkheim defines it as only the ‘social brain’ (Giddens 1971a: 506-10). Elsewhere, Giddens talks of Durkheim’s work as ‘bluntly polemical’ (Giddens 1971b: 217) and, in doing so, he highlights the key criticism which can be made of Durkheim once we acknowledge the socialist influence on his political sociology: what he claims will happen is what he individually thinks should happen. Giddens sees this as a result of Durkheim’s unwillingness to engage with questions of political legitimacy, leading to his failure to consider the need for ‘radical transformation of the existing system of political power’ (Giddens 1971a: 513). This is something which, before his turn to The Third Way, Giddens was to find in the work of Marx combined with a vision of ‘libertarian socialism’ (Giddens 1981: 175) 1.

As Giddens notes this ‘uneasy tension’ between theory and practice is hardly limited to Durkheim and is one that sociologists continue to grapple with today. Indeed, it is something Giddens himself grappled with in his own later normative and public work. While I cannot cover this debate in full, there are two elements which bear on Giddens as a Durkheimian. Firstly, much as Giddens once criticized Durkheim, others have criticized Giddens for taking a normative picture of what he wants to see as an empirical description of what is happening, most notably with regard to inequality (e.g. Rustin 1995). Secondly, in a defence of his increased role as a public intellectual Giddens (2007) spoke of how the role requires straddling two different worlds. The academic world requires ‘obtuse books on social theory’ while being a public intellectual requires people ‘who can communicate ideas to a wider audience and are prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of academic talk in order to do that’ (Giddens 2007:124). In many ways, Giddens and Durkheim show the alternative strategies here. Durkheim maintained his place in the academic world and kept his distance from the socialist party politics of the time. While his public interventions were hardly ‘obtuse’, it would be fair to say he maintained his writing and argumentative style. Giddens, on the other hand, adopted the opposite strategy. As Castree (2010) has noted in a piece for The Sociological Review, post-1994 Giddens became in effect no longer a ‘sociologist’ but a ‘public/policy intellectual’, with the results for his writing style, and academic renown, which one would expect. While it is difficult to gauge the extent to which Durkheim’s role as a public intellectual influenced Giddens’s own choices, it is certainly true that for Giddens success as a public intellectual required partaking in the cuisine politique, whatever the cost to academic esteem.

This brings us to ‘Durkheim as a Review Critic’. As Giddens notes, Durkheim wrote a volume of book reviews which would be inconceivable in the current climate. This included ‘well over a hundred reviews of substantial length’ just in L’Année Sociologique (Giddens 1970: 184). Given that L’Année was established in 1898, and that Durkheim had been active as a book reviewer prior to this and continued to review books for other journals while it was in publication (Fournier 2013), it is likely that Durkheim’s reviews count into the hundreds. Why did Durkheim undertake such labours? There was certainly a strategic element involved: Durkheim was interested in establishing sociology in France along the lines of his perspective rather than the competing ones of Tarde and Van Geddup (Thomassen 2016). In this task L’Année allowed the Durkheimian ‘school’ to present its own view and offer criticisms of competing perspectives; this is part of the explanation for what has been referred to as ‘the Durkheimian cult of reviews’ (Karady 1983: 87).

However, this is only a partial explanation since, as Giddens notes, Durkheim used book reviews for the ‘elucidation of his own theories’ (Giddens 1970: 171) and, in doing so, was engaging in a form of scholarly communication. Ideas which we would now see as fundamentally ‘Durkheimian’, such as the ‘conscience collective’, the use of organic metaphors, the need for moral regulation of economic activity and how individualism is a result of social development emerge first in book reviews as engagements with the ideas of others (Giddens 1970: 172-77). Furthermore, Durkheim’s main engagement with key writers such as Marx, Tönnies and Simmel occurred via the book review (Giddens 1970: 178-85). Part of this scholarly communication, which might strike us as surprising and problematic today, was the fact that Durkheim would review his own books, most notably while reviewing other texts on similar topics. As Giddens (1970: 186) indicates, when the goal of a review is to create debate on a topic, stating one’s own views and then engaging with a differing perspective was an effective means of achieving this.

Reading ‘Durkheim as a Review Critic’ today one is reminded of how much the conditions of academic labour have changed. In particular, it highlights the decreased significance attached to book reviews as a form of academic labour. Beer (2016) recently set out to defend the book review from what he saw as its increasingly marginal place in academic life. He suggests this marginality is due to the increased pressure of time in academic life and the demand to spend such time on ‘outputs’ which ‘count’. In turn, Beer wishes to defend the book review on two grounds. First, as an ‘innately collaborative and community based activity’ in which knowledge is built collectively and, secondly, as a potential ‘very minor form of resistance’ which emphasizes these collective elements over the individualized pressures of contemporary academia.

The story of Durkheim as told by Giddens indicates that these comments are partially correct. It was not the case that Durkheim had more free time in general than your average contemporary academic. As Fournier (2013: 359, 417-18, 573-76) notes, the pressures of academic life led to Durkheim working seven days a week. His letters are full of complaints concerning the burdens of marking and administration which led him to worry that he would have to give up L’Année. In that respect, he had much in common with the contemporary academic. What is certainly different is that, when ‘outputs’ are considered in terms of their ‘REF-ability’, the research time available to academics is directed away from book reviews. This has the effect of chipping away at the collective basis of knowledge production by seeing intellectual insight as individually produced by ‘outstanding’ researchers. Much of the so-called ‘new sociology of ideas’ has focused on ‘knowledge making practices’ in which ideas develop in a collective process by actors responding to their social world (Camic, Gross and Lamont 2011). In that respect Giddens’s article is timely by highlighting that it was in book reviews, a form of scholarly debate and exchange, that Durkheim initially developed what are now seen as ‘his’ ideas. This reminds us that, as the exegetical Giddens would always emphasize, ideas are not the ahistorical insights of outstanding individuals but always emerge from a collective debate. This is a debate which, in Durkheim’s case, was carried out significantly via the book review. Giddens continued this tradition by publishing a significant number of book reviews, some in The Sociological Review and two of which I have already cited as indicating ‘his’ ideas (Giddens 1977, 1985). In this sense Beer is correct that by reducing their esteem in academia we are removing one of the key ways in which knowledge is collectively produced. It is perhaps one of the marks of the changes in academia that it is hard to think of a twenty-first century Giddens writing an article on a contemporary major theorist based solely on their book reviews.

Furthermore, for Giddens to make the contributions discussed above he had to engage in another activity increasingly marginalized in contemporary academia: translation. This was especially the case for Durkheim’s book reviews, the majority of which are still unavailable in English. This enabled Giddens to summarize arguments previously unavailable to English speakers and it led also to his editing two volumes of Durkheim’s writings. One is the frequently cited Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings (Giddens 1972a). All entries in this text were freshly translated by Giddens and, in addition to extracts from books not then available in English, it included sections from 21 articles, the majority of which were book reviews. The second was a volume entitled Durkheim on Politics and the State (Giddens 1986). This remains the only volume bringing together Durkheim’s writings on this topic and, again, included new translations from Giddens and W.D. Halls of both book reviews and interviews. These acts of translation help to provide a collective resource for the next generation of sociologists. Those of us unable to read French have access to the translations made by Giddens and upon which he drew in presenting his vision of Durkheim in The Sociological Review. Again, much like the book review, the collective value of translation could be said to be undermined by the individualized pressures of contemporary academic life. Acts of translation, and, to a lesser extent, the editing of volumes, is academic labour which, while a central part of the exegetical Giddens’s legacy, is denigrated in the push for ‘innovative’ individual outputs. It is, however, the work we cannot do without.

So, the value of returning to these two articles lies in two areas. Firstly, they opened a new discussion on the value and intent of Durkheim’s theory. From now on, scholars could find in Durkheim a radical critic of capitalist society rather than the simplistic exponent of ‘consensus theory’ put forward by Parsons. This has potentially, for better or worse, aided Durkheim’s continued renown with the increased emphasis on ‘critical’ sociology. Secondly, they indicate the continuities and changing conditions of academic life in areas such as the place of public intellectuals, academic time, translation and the role of book reviews.

Anthony Giddens published his first article in The Sociological Review (Giddens 1960) and continued to publish articles and book reviews in the journal on a variety of topics. But it is these two articles, from 1970 and 1971, which not only demonstrate a valuable contribution to our understanding of Durkheim and the nature of academic life but also encourage us to remember a different Giddens. As I mentioned earlier, Giddens’s reputation has largely been settled as either ‘Blair’s Guru’, the theorist of reflexive modernization or, perhaps in advanced undergraduate and postgraduate social theory classes, the theorist of structuration 2. This reputation, while well-earned, does the exegetical Giddens great disservice. This exegetical Giddens would perhaps be less well credited in the metrics of contemporary academic life but, in the round, I would suggest his service to the academy and to sociology is Giddens’s most significant legacy.


1 - Others, following Giddens’s intervention, have come to different conclusions on the question of the connection between Durkheim’s values and analysis. To take only contributions to The Sociological Review, Levitas (2010: 536-37) argues it reflects the unacknowledged utopian element common to much social theory. Meanwhile, Sirianni (1984) in a groundbreaking analysis, suggests it indicates how Durkheim’s whole sociology is a normative project for, to use Durkheim’s term, ‘a mission of justice’.

2 - Though, not having researched this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Giddens eclipsed by Bourdieu and Archer on any ‘structure and agency’ topics.


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This article is part of our Past and present series, in which current scholars look back at earlier works published in the journal.

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