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What the lost tradition of classical British social theory can teach us about the dangers of charismatic leadership

In the conclusion to their Envisioning Sociology, John Scott and Ray Bromley reflect on how the project of Patrick Geddes and the sociologists around him came to be forgotten, in spite of the influence they exercised in their own time. This lost tradition of classical British social theory was an energetic and multifaceted engagement with the changing world around them, drawn together in a powerful vision of a sociological movement which sought to reconstruct this world.

How this project failed and how they came to be forgotten within the discipline is a complex story. But one particularly interesting aspect is how the intellectual charisma of Geddes himself might have contributed to this, imbuing the emergent movement with characteristics which lent it dynamism in its own time but failed to equip it to reproduce itself in subsequent generations. From 4554-4569:

The circle was organized around Patrick Geddes as its inspirational and charismatic leader. This was clearly one of its strengths, as it provided the core set of ideas that went largely unchallenged among his followers. This structure was also, however, a source of weakness. Geddes’s charisma as a teacher attracted those who were seeking an answer to fundamental questions. His synoptic vision and the apparent completion of his theoretical system tended to ensure that his followers were immediately and absolutely committed to furthering his work. They believed they had discovered “the truth” and so felt an almost religious obligation to bring this truth to those who had not yet encountered it. They became disciples with a commitment to proselytize on behalf of the master and to take his words to the ignorant masses. As convinced believers, they felt that it was necessary only to bring these ideas to the attention of others for them to recognize and accept their truth. Argument and persuasion were felt to be unnecessary, given the “obviousness” of the ideas once stated. Hence, they emphasized didactic education rather than persuasive discussion. The members of the circle therefore felt no real need to enter into proper dialogue with advocates of other positions. Their absolute certainty—often perceived as arrogance—was viewed with suspicion by their intellectual rivals, who simply ignored what they had to say. Other sociologists felt alienated from the Geddes circle and refused to cooperate in any venture that they thought might be a mere pretense at cooperation designed to impose the Geddes viewpoint. Excluded from expanded professional activities, the Geddes circle became increasingly inward looking. Its members tended to overpromote the work of very minor members of the group, further undermining their credibility in the eyes of others.

I find it hard not to see echoes of these tendencies in critical realism. There’s a much broader lesson here about the dangers of intellectual leadership, as the characteristics which lead ‘schools’ to form can in turn undermine the longevity of their ideas. I’ve long been drawn to the idea of a social life of theory which would unify the conceptual evaluation of theoretical ideas and their sociological explanation as cultural forms. These are two sides of the same coin and going back to the lost traditions, examining the failed projects which one promised so much, helps us look at the contemporary landscape of social theory in a new way.

 

Categories: social ontology social theory Thinking

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