Early Influences

Early Influences: first published 28th April 2009 jimsresearchnotes.wordpress.com

My undergraduate years 1961-1964 were in the Sociology Department at Leicester University. Its Head of Department was Ilya Neustadt. His Obituary by Anthony Giddens in The Independent 19 February 1993 gives a good idea of the vibrant department Neustadt assembled, with many staff being influential on my thinking – my personal tutor Richard K. Brown and others like Martin Albrow and Percy Cohen, and of course Ilya Neustadt who taught theory.

But the two who were truly formative at Leicester were Norbert Elias and Anthony Giddens. Elias developed what he later came to call figurational studies in his legacy of the Norbert Elias Foundation, and Giddens went on to develop structuration theory. In different ways their separate grappling with the relationship between agency and structure formed one of the major influences on my research.

But after reading Kuhn (1962) I could never reconcile myself to Elias’ evolutionary civilizing perspective (later translated as The Civilizing Process). A cyclical view of history and social change has since then been a major influence on my thinking.

From Leicester I did a Master’s degree by research at Sheffield University. It was there I got to know Teodor Shanin. There is a much more detailed biography in The Guardian 10 Sept 2002 when he became the recipient of the OBE (Order of the British Empire). He wanted me to learn Russian so I could use his material on Russian peasants, and I spent a year studying the language at evening classed in Aberystwyth, UC Wales, my first lecturing post. I continued with classes when moving to Aberdeen but it was here that I began to write about Germany: see the About me page. Teodor did the research himself and in effect established peasant studies as a new branch of social science.

The Aberdeen school of Symbolic Interaction

In 1967 I moved to a Sociology lectureship at Aberdeen University and joined another vibrant department, this one put together by Raymond Illsley. It was here I first came into contact with colleagues fired by symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology and phenomenology. This interview with Mildred Blaxter captures the atmosphere of that time.(1)

There was also a medical sociology research unit based at the hospital some way from the Department at Kings College, and although there was synergy between the two institutions, and medical sociology expanded very rapidly, it was quite small until the 1970s when Raymond Illsley, himself a medical sociologist, obtained an Social Science Research Council Programme Grant to develop the medical sociology ideas that were taking root there, and a number of sociologists moved from the department to the Unit. Aberdeen interactionists played a key role in establishing interactionist studies in British medical sociology, as the history of BSA MedSoc shows.

Randall Collins on intellectual creativity

Collins (1987, 1998) explains well the dynamics of intellectual creativity or the lack of it. Already in Collins (1981) he was working on developing a macro sociology based on micro foundations, using the work of Garfinkel (1967) Cicourel (1973) and Goffman (1967).(2)

Collins (1987 p. 49) examines German idealist philosophy in two phases – the first being a 40 year period between 1780 and 1820, followed by a second generation “an aftermath of elaborations and disciples dominating in the 1820s and fading in the 1830s and 40s” (p.49). In Collins’ monumental study of 1998 he extends his theory to a global analysis of major schools of thought.

Collins (1987) distinguishes 3 different dimensions, each ranging from positive to negative, at the micro level, (1) cultural capital from previous encounters, (2) a charge of emotional energy, and (3) personal market opportunities. Collins (1998) develops these ideas further, basing his macrosociology theory of intellectual innovation on an extension of Erving Goffman’s (1967) concept of interaction ritual in Collins’ concept of interaction ritual chains

Interaction Ritual Chains writ small

I believe the same patterns can be distinguished in many modest settings on a much smaller and far less significant scale than major schools of thought such as Collins describes. Giddens wrote of Ilya Neustadt’s “extraordinary impact upon the development of sociology in Britain” in his obituary of Neustadt, which also generated a wave of second-generation “pupil” studies. In Aberdeen interactionist sociology the even shorter period of intense activity – perhaps a decade – had a similar effect. Aberdeen interactionist medical sociology has been more successful than its mother department in creating a significant number of second generation researchers, which is especially noticeable in the journal The Sociology of Health and Illness, both in the composition of its editorial board and international advisers, and in the articles it publishes.(3)

The influence on my research can be summarised as from Leicester a lasting interest in sociological theory and the micro-macro distinction and from Aberdeen symbolic interactionism and social constructionism.


(1) The work of Aberdeen sociologists will figure in later research notes (an early example is Ian Carter’s rural sociology in 17 December 2009 research note).

(2) I used these authors (among others) in my doctoral dissertation “An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology” (Kemeny, 1976) and developed the idea of “encounters” leading to “episodes of interaction” repeated in an iteration process to create a Straussian Negotiated Order in a primitive version of what Collins later would call “interaction ritual chains”.

(3) This is perhaps due to the combination of the SSRC Medical Sociology Programme Grant and the Thatcher cutbacks. The rise, expansion, intergenerational transmission and eventual fall of these minor schools would make a fascinating article-length study.


Cicourel, Aaron (1973)

Cognitive Sociology Penguin, Baltimore

Collins, Randall (1981)

“On the microfoundations of macrosociology” American Journal of Sociology (March) Vol. 86 No. 5 pp. 984-1014

Collins, Randall (1987)

“Micro-Macro Theory of Intellectual Creativity: the case of German Idealist philosophy” Sociological Theory Vol. 5 (Spring) pp.47-69

Collins, Randall (1998)

The Sociology of Philosophies: a global theory of intellectual change Harvard University Press

Garfinkel, Harold (1967)

Studies in Ethnomethodology Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs

Goffman, Erving (1967)

Interaction Ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior Doubleday

Kemeny, Jim (1976)

An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology Doctoral Dissertation, Sociology Monograph No. 10, Gothenburg University

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962)

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions University of Chicago Press

1 Response to Early Influences

  1. gerryhiles says:

    In terms of academic achievements, you leave me in the dust … nearly all of my amateur academic studies have had to be fitted in around a wide variety of mainly manual work, but we finish up on much the same page anyway.

    I have read Goffman and innumerable others, but Plato, Hume, Kant and Descartes have been my main influences, along with Carl Jung and too manly others to mention.

    I did have a year, 1979, when I went to a university to ‘formalize’ my amateur studies in psychology, politics, philosophy and anthropology, but it was all pretty juvenile, so I gave up.

    I daresay that you and I could have a long discussion face to face, but it is hopeless here

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