Anthony Giddens and me

Sue Hemmings revisits the economics text books of her 1970s student days, re-reading them from a 21st century perspective.

I first came across Anthony Giddens when I was an undergraduate at the University of Bath, some time in what a six year old of my acquaintance insists were ‘the olden days’.

It’s interesting the way in which we parcel up time — periodising both our personal biographies and societies as a whole. For me, time and place stand for whole webs of social and cultural connections. The Bath years — when Ian Dury and the Blockheads were asserting that sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock and roll were all your brain and body needed and pleasant as they all were I found that actually studying for my degree also gave another kind of pleasure and freedom.

So I came to Giddens at some point in late, high or possibly reflexive modernity; mature capitalism, the zenith of the post-war settlement or the apogee and its collapse. Which is another way of saying that I was lucky, as the first from a ‘respectable working class’ family which had maybe just clawed its way into the ‘lower middle class’ to benefit from a welfare sate which had educated me for free, and was now sending me off to University with no thought of paying fees and with a grant which, topped up by £50 a term by my parents, was just enough with a little bit of waitressing and office temping through the holidays to get by.

My first Giddens was The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies and the second Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: an analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Weber. For my generation of sociologists these are the Big Three, the trinity of my discipline’s foundational myth. The short introductory account would go that Marx offers us the historical, determinist account, man (yes, I do mean man) as product of his social conditions, subject of and to a history not of our own making; Durkheim the proto –functionalist concerned not with subjective experience but with the thing-like quality of social facts enduring and predictable regardless of which individuals occupy them; Weber who in the early years of the century struggled with the concerns of structure and meaning whilst, we were told, locked in a debate with Marx’s ghost — but then in the mid 70s who wasn’t.

The books have moved from house to house with me but probably haven’t been used for over a decade. Looking today at books which proceed from Marx’s contribution is like visiting another time, a time before post-structuralism, post-modernism and the cultural turn. Equally striking though is the extent to which some very contemporary concerns figure — the narrative of sociology’s development as a modernist account of modernity, debates around structure and agency , the future of social democracy, structuration and the critique of totalising thought are all here.

Both books deal with the interpretation, reinterpretation, misunderstanding, appropriation and misappropriation of ideas from an earlier time. Reading them again today I am very aware of how books can change over time. On the one hand I am taken back to an original reading from a different time and place whilst on the other very aware of how differently I am viewing them through older eyes in the context of a changed social world.


Sue Hemmings is a social science staff tutor at The Open University. This article was previously published in November 2007 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.