Academia, Blog Topics, Early Careers, Postgraduate, Sociology

William Outhwaite, Newcastle University

william21) What/Who inspired you to become a researcher in the first place?

This was more or less automatic, with a heavy dose of luck, as I moved from my undergraduate degree to an MA and then PhD. For my MA I chose to go from Oxford to Sociology at Sussex, rather than doing more philosophy at Oxford, because I had read some of Tom Bottomore’s work. There were doctoral grants for nearly all of us on the MA who were eligible for them, so that was a fairly obvious step. Tom supervised my doctoral thesis and offered to publish an expanded version of my MA thesis in his new book series. We later co-edited a translation and a social theory encyclopedia. I was invited to apply for my first and almost only teaching job, also at Sussex, where I stayed for another 35 years. I don’t think I ever seriously contemplated other kinds of work, though I had friends in the British Council and the European Commission, and in academic publishing.

2) What has been a particular highlight of your research experience?

Apart from lucky accidents, I would highlight the rise in prominence of social theory in the 1970s, partly on the back of the 1968 movements. I wanted to work on theory anyway and this would have been harder a few years earlier (and is probably harder again now). Secondly, the ability to do interdisciplinary social science in a context of European studies.  Although I only started writing about Europe in the 1980s, I was teaching about it from the beginning and that gave a basis for much of my current work. Editing Current Sociology from 1987 to 1992 also brought me into contact with a lot of work with colleagues in both halves of Europe.

3) What has been problematic in your career?

A project with a friend to write a comparative book about the two German states, which we abandoned after 1989, epitomises a certain amount of missing boats. For various reasons I was slower at getting into Euro-sociology than I might have been, though when I did was again perhaps the most interesting time, with post-communist transition and the expansion of the European Union.

4) What advice would you give to someone beginning in research?

Make full use of the freedom to research whatever you want and do it your way if you can. I’d have advised my younger self to move faster and not let time slip by, but researchers these days are much faster and more purposeful and some may need to be encouraged to relax.  The sociology of scientific knowledge, which I was originally hired partly to teach and which I still dip into from time to time, is a good source of practical advice about strategies, which people now can’t be quite as relaxed about as I was.

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