Blog Topics, Sociological Castaways

David Byrne, Durham University

DByrneDesert Islands differ and the resources available to castaways can be radically different. Crusoe had a full set of tools, cooking implements, guns and gunpowder. Most real castaways have next to nothing. I would settle for a billhook, a decent knife, some fishhooks and line, a cast iron pot, and a fire starting flint and would want the island to be in the temperate zone, not the tropics AND TO HAVE NO MOSQUITOES (or sand flies). Somewhere of the Oregon or New Zealand coast would do nicely. You can see the Ray Mears’ influence here.

Academic Books

I will start with Hubert Blaclock’s Social Statistics. My paperback edition is McGraw Hill 1979 but somewhere I have an earlier hardback bought as an undergraduate in the 60s – those where the days when undergraduates could afford hardback books! Blalock was by far the best expositor of social statistics, a sociologist who understood the methods and how to explain them, not just in terms of the mathematics but also in relation to what they could do and how they could be used. And there are mathematics in this book, just the right amount to enable a decently numerate person to see into the techniques as opposed to using them as a black box. As an undergraduate I worked out the examples by hand with a slide rule and log tables. Lot to be said for that because that way of working makes you see what you are doing. Nowadays I would disagree with much, but not all, of Blalock’s understanding of causation. His Causal Inferences in Non-Experimental Research (University of North Carolina Press 1967) remains trapped in a logic which assigns causal powers to disembodied variables but it is founded on a vastly more sophisticated methodological sensibility than the crude technique driven approach of the ESRC to enforcing quantitative work across the social sciences.

My second choice is Catherine Marsh’s The Survey Method (Allen and Unwin 1982).  This is not a cookbook on how to do surveys. Rather it is a kind of personal engagement and even intellectual biography written by someone who was wholly committed to the value of quantitative work in the social sciences and at the same time was deeply sceptical of the notion that numbers speak for themselves. She started with a reflection on the impact of Cicourel’s Method and Measurement in Sociology (Free Press 1962) – another of my undergraduate hardback purchases (financed by working as a farm hand every summer). I loved that book but it was disabling and Marsh took a straightforward realist approach which got past the issues he raised, issues which still matter a great deal. In the mid 80s I did a lot of causally oriented survey work around housing and health and Marsh helped me to make sense of that and to develop a realist approach to quantitative work which has been enormously useful across the years.

Then to Edward Thompson – it remains a mystery to me as to why successive generations of UK based social theorists have taken so little notice of Thompson’s theoretical work. OK he knocked Alhusser and his disciples down and kicked them into bloody mush in The Poverty of Theory (Merlin Press 1978) and that kind of assault is hard to get over but he had such important things to say. My actual choice is Whigs and Hunters (Allen Lane 1975), a product of Thompson’s far from happy period at Warwick University and simply the best piece of historical sociology I have ever read. Not only does this provide an utterly coherent historical materialist account of crucial developments in Law and the Economy, it also presents, very briefly, a wonderful description of Thompson’s actual method in engaging ‘outwith his period’. If you ever do any historical work then look to that as a guide.

Finally I choose a book at the interface of Sociology and Social Policy, the location of my day job across nearly fifty years Dilemmas of Social Reform by Peter Marris and Martin Rein (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1967) – another hardback undergraduate purchase – 60-70 hour weeks on Agricultural Wage Board rates, especially overtime rates, could add up to a fair bit. This account of the experiences of the Ford Foundation Gray areas projects in the 60s USA both excited my interest in community development and alerted me to the possibilities and difficulties of action research. The discussion of the issues surrounding the problems of deriving useful knowledge from ‘social experiments’ bears revisiting although it is far too sophisticated and intelligent for the majority of our contemporary proponents of randomized controlled trials as a mode of evaluating interventions in complex social systems.

Other Books

Here I will go for some poetry and some prose. For poetry I will take Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems in the best edition you can find. It was a toss up with Kipling, Keats, and Milosz very much in the running but his is a voice I just find speaks to me best. For fiction I will take Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate in Russian along with a Russian dictionary. Not starting from scratch In Russian I think this twentieth century equivalent of War and Peace will keep me going – I have read it in English and it bears reading again and again.


Eclectic tastes here and my partner has even introduced me to Opera in recent years but I will go for a tape with the following on it – all bringing back memories: Joan Baez singing Silver Dagger, Joni Mitchell singing Big Yellow Taxi, Carly Simon singing Your so vain, Van Morrison singing Raglan Road, and Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra.


Got to be a clockwork radio so I can keep in touch as the world goes to hell in a handcart.






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