My path through the university system has been a slightly strange one. I did a BA in philosophy at University College London where, in spite of the privilege of being taught by some of the world’s leading philosophers in the University of London program, I found myself frequently frustrated by the abstraction of so much of what I encountered. I knew that while I wanted to engage with ideas, it was how these ideas emerged from and shaped the world around me that was at the core of all my interests. So I went to Warwick to do an MA in Continental Philosophy. I thought that continental philosophy might prove more satisfying in this respect but, within a few weeks, the social theory module I had opted to take had finally left me with a firm sense of where my interests lay. Plus I spent a year getting infatuated with Richard Rorty (thankfully it was just a phase) with the result that I had an ever decreasing sense of the value or purpose of philosophy. Nonetheless I spent the rest of my time getting equally preoccupied with John Rawls, bête noire of my undergraduate degree, devoting a whole series of essays, as well as ultimately my dissertation, to finally articulating my frustrations with his approach. Until my second term at Warwick I still intended to undertake a PhD in Political Philosophy and was in the process of clarifying my idea and applying for funding when it began to occur to me that my interest in the subject was entirely critical. I’d spent the last four years getting perpetually irritated by philosophy when in actuality the problem was that it was the wrong discipline for me. I actually quite enjoy reading philosophy six years later when I’m no longer frustrated by trying to fit my interests into a mode of inquiry which is fundamentally inimical to them.
In an odd sort of way Richard Rorty was pretty crucial to me moving into a sociology department, in so far as that engaging with his work left me unable to see the point of my studying philosophy. Charles Taylor was a more positive influence when I made this intellectual transition. Other theorists who have had a big influence on my work in very different ways include Margaret Archer, Pierpaolo Donati, Dave Elder-Vass, Derek Layder, Alasdair Macintyre, Nikos Mouzelis, Doug Porpora, Andrew Sayer and Christian Smith. My PhD was titled Becoming Who We Are: Personal Morphogenesis and Social Change. What I was trying to convey with this was a process (how people become who they are) and what’s needed to study this process (a theory of how persons change). These sound like obviously theoretical questions and they’re ones which I first began to be able to articulate when I was a philosophy MA student reading a great deal of Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre. It was this interest which led me towards the literature on individualization and detraditionalization when I was beginning to explore sociology. I was gripped by Modernity and Self-Identity, as flawed though I now think the book is. Bauman in particular fascinated me. Again, it’s now the case that I find much of his work problematic (not least of all the fact he’s been writing the same book again and again for years) but I criticise him respectfully from the position of someone who has read a majority of his books from the 90s and 00s. Another book which really expanded my horizons as I made this transition from philosophy to sociology was Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. This is yet another author I now find myself critical of, though if you redefine what he does as ‘sociological journalism‘ then I’d call it the outstanding example of the genre. My point is that these books began to change how I saw the underlying theoretical question that obsessed me: how we become we we are as a ‘self within moral space’ cannot be understood if we abstract too far from the social context. Addressing the theoretical questions I was drawn to necessitated understanding what Mills called “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”. These theories of social change that so gripped me as a disenchanted philosophy student did so precisely because of their attentiveness to (wo)man, biography and self within a changing world. What is it like to be a person now? It doesn’t take much sociological musing to see what’s wrong with this question. It’s an empirical question being asked at a level of generality which precludes an empirical answer. So sweeping accounts of social change, such as those offered by Giddens and Bauman, both invite and need empirical investigation.