Anthony Giddens: A biography

As Anthony Giddens prepares to give the 2007 Pavis Lecture, Shaun McMann introduces the man and his work.

By: Shaun McMann (Department of Social Policy and Criminology)

  • Duration 10 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 14th November 2007
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Politics
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Prof Anthony Giddens: Courtesy of Polity Press Copyrighted image Copyright: Polity

Anthony Giddens was born on January 18th 1938 in Edmonton, North London. He graduated from Hull University in 1959. Having been brought up in North London he supports Tottenham Hotspur, and when he took his Masters at The London School of Economics (LSE) he wrote a dissertation entitled Sport and Society in Contemporary Britain.

In 1974 he gained his doctorate from the University of Cambridge, and since then he has published approximately one book every year, and has produced some of the most influential sociological texts. Indeed, Sociology is the standard introductory textbook in many colleges.

He began his working life at the University of Leicester, and then worked for many years at Cambridge University, where he was given a full professorship in the late 1980s.

More recently, he was director of The London School of Economics. Interestingly, his appointment at the LSE coincided with the election of New Labour, and Giddens soon became an advisor to the Blair government. He also took part in the discussions between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton from 1997 onwards.

Partly due to his prolific output, but mainly because of his incisive understanding of the relationship between powerful social structures and individual people’s freedom to act, he has long been considered a leading British sociologist and social theorist.

Giddens is now a Life Fellow of Kings College Cambridge and Professor Emeritus at the LSE. He has over a dozen honorary degrees and was recently given a Labour life peerage as Baron Giddens of Southgate.

Theoretical Development

Over his long and influential academic career Anthony Giddens has published more than 30 books along with 200 articles, essays and reviews. Almost inevitably with this level of output he has covered an extremely wide range of issues, and as a result has been instrumental in some of the most significant developments within modern social theory.

Even though he is mainly known as a sociologist, it would perhaps be more accurate to see his work as straddling a whole series of disciplines within the social sciences, including psychology, linguistics, economics, cultural studies and politics. In this sense, his interdisciplinary approach has enabled him to comment on an extremely wide range of issues and to introduce a number of theoretical models that help to explain key aspects of the development of societies at a local, national and global level.

In terms of his written style, it is fair to say that whilst some of his work is highly abstract and complex, he has a down to earth approach to writing that makes his work very accessible.

Even though he has written on a wide variety of different subjects, it is possible to identify a number of recurring themes within the body of his writing. The popular conception of his work is that it falls broadly into three categories.

The first of these, what may be termed ‘sociological inquiry’ is a re-examination of the role of sociology. The second, ‘structuration theory’, is an analysis of the interplay between social structures and people’s freedom to act, this is also referred to as their ‘agency’. This stage in his work is where his reputation was very firmly established.

The third category, in which he discusses the relationship between the self and society, is largely based on an assessment of how people gain a sense of their own identity.

In addition to these three broad phases, Giddens has written about a whole series of other significant aspects of society, but two of the most important branches of social theory that Giddens’ work has helped to make clearer are modernity and new approaches to politics. What follows is a brief discussion of each of these five aspects of his work.

Sociological Inquiry & Structuration Theory

At the beginning of Giddens’ career he wanted to help establish a new understanding of the role of sociology. At that time functionalism was the dominant branch of sociology. More particularly, Emile Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method (1895) was still being used as one of the main bases for how society should be analysed. However Giddens preferred a much more reflexive and critical approach to what sociologists should be attempting to do.

It should be noted that he has also been very critical of two of the other main founding fathers of sociology; Karl Marx and Max Weber.
In response to the way in which power is conceptualised by all three of these theorists, Giddens preferred to place much greater emphasis on the different roles that power plays within the development of capitalist industrial societies.

His work during the period running up to the mid 1970s took a much more sceptical approach to the distinction between macro sociology, on the one hand, with its emphasis on explaining society in large, institutional terms, and micro sociology on the other, which emphasises a more individual level. What Giddens preferred to do was to show that these two approaches, the macro and the micro, should both be employed within any thoroughgoing sociological theory or model. It seems that he felt that an understanding of society should not be reduced to an attempt to explain the grand scheme of things. Nor, indeed, should it be reduced to looking at people’s day-to-day experiences.

Giddens believed that sociologists should try to interpret the social world both in terms of large structures and how these are then interpreted and acted upon by the people that inhabit it. Within this aspect of his work, social actors are seen as reflexive and adaptive to the social conditions in which they live, rather than being entirely shaped by their social setting. In other words, he felt that sociologists should see society as the direct outcome of social structures and the people who live in them.

Leading directly on from this work on how sociology should be conducted, Giddens then began to consider the mutually influencing ways in which social structures and people’s agency interact. Within this, he was particularly interested in the extent to which individuals or wider social forces are the basis for how society itself is shaped and reshaped. Moreover, he has suggested that even though it is clear that people are not entirely free to act as they see fit, they do still have enough freedom to act in ways that reproduce and alter the social structures that bear down on them.

In this sense, his work is a departure from traditional sociological theory specifically because he argues that it is people themselves that are the motor for social change, rather than the big institutions, as has traditionally been the main focus for sociologists. More importantly, perhaps, he also suggests that social theorists should now appreciate that structure and agency are a part of the same process. In other words, it makes no sense to discuss one without given due consideration to the other. To sum this up, he coined the term ‘duality structure’ which suggests that society is created by agents, who are at the same time constrained by it.

Modernity & Identity Theory

At the beginning of the 1990s Anthony Giddens published two books on the impact of changes in society; The Consequences of Modernity and Modernity and Self-Identity. Both of these are concerned with the differences between pre-modern, modern and late-modern societies. Although he doesn’t present a case for any of these being more preferable, he does concentrate on a contrast between traditional culture, what he also calls ‘pre-modern’, and post traditional culture, what he also calls ‘modern’ or ’late modern’.

Giddens believes that for people living in traditional societies, individual actions are not matters that have to be extensively considered and thought about. This is mainly because people’s choices are so limited. However post-traditional societies are much less constraining and give people many more options. Therefore, individual actions require much more thought. As a result of this increased number of choices, people have to become much more reflexive. Life in modern and late modern societies is much more of a project, a thing to be worked through, than ever before.

Giddens then goes on to argue that people in ‘post traditional’ societies have begun to establish a quite different way of viewing themselves than in previous eras. There is now a much more reflexive approach to self-identity in which people are in a stronger position to choose what they want to do and who they want to be.

Interestingly however, he also felt that this came at a price, particularly as people are becoming more and more dependent on what he refers to as ‘expert systems’, in which knowledge is held by individuals and groups who are generally working at a distance from most people, yet they still hold a lot of power over them.

Whilst he acknowledges that traditional societies were perhaps more riven with social injustice and inequalities, they was also more of a sense of certainty about a person’s place within the social hierarchy. For Giddens, post-traditional society’s freedoms are accompanied by greater stresses and what he refers to as ‘manufactured uncertainty’.

Contemporary Politics & Social Justice

As well as a radical change in the way that people make sense of their own identity, the age of late/high modernity also has allowed the development of what he refers to as a ‘post scarcity economy’ in which basic survival needs are met for the over whelming majority of people. What this then allows is the general public to focus on emancipation and the development of new social movements.

In view of this, Giddens is quite optimistic about the social structures in these sorts of societies, mainly because he believes that what he refers to as a ‘third way’, that relies on neither traditional left wing or right wing ideas, is helping to establish a fairer and more democratic social structure. He believes that communism is now a thing of the past and that there is no clear alternative to the capitalist system. However, contemporary social divisions are not so much based on traditional class, but rather on the lifestyle choices that people make. So, what this suggests is that we now have much more room for manoeuvre.

Find out more

Sue Hemmings traces her intellectual relationship with Giddens: Giddens and me

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