In an article first published in July 1968 in New Left Review, Perry Anderson gave an analysis of a critical weakness of British intellectual culture. His diagnosis is remarkable and surprising. One of the key problems, Anderson argued, was that Britain has failed to make any contribution to the classical sociological tradition; moreover, this failure was indicative of a wider failure to be European and to be modern. Sociology, he suggested, was one of the great achievements of the ‘European bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. By contrast, British intellectual culture was marked by a lack: ‘why did Britain never produce either a Weber, a Durkheim, a Pareto or a Lenin, a Lukács, a Gramsci?’1

Today, while one could point out many weaknesses in British intellectual culture, few would argue that the lack of an indigenous sociological tradition is one of them. But whatever its strengths and weaknesses, something like Anderson’s analysis was certainly influential. From the 1970s onwards, social theory developed rapidly in British universities. Anthony Giddens, who had published a textbook on Marx, Weber and Durkheim,2 can be taken as indicative of this trend and was, for a time, a leading light. What was taken to be traditional British empiricism was rejected, and British social scientists read and reread the European sociological canon they should have been reading all along, rather than through the mediation of its American interpreters. Social theory rapidly  became something of a meta-discipline, effecting a radical transformation of not only sociology but also English, in the form of the emerging interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. The political influence of social theory arguably reached its height in 1997 when Giddens himself proposed the Third Way as the project of New Labour. New Labour, in Giddens’s work, became a neo-Durkheimian project of moral renewal.3

But what was the new British social theory? How did it come to relate to ‘French social thought’? And why would the idea of the network come to be significant for its further transformation?

I begin with four observations. First, what came to be called social theory in Britain was largely devoid of any specific empirical content. The superstructure of social theory was not built on a base of empirical research, although it could make use of empirical examples, but only in so far as they illustrated more general theoretical claims. In this context, Marx’s interest in the reports of Her Majesty’s inspectors in Capital could be taken as of incidental importance to his thought. Weber’s concepts, such as rationalization and status, could be easily stripped of any relation to historical investigations of religion and economy, or the comparative analysis of culture. And the use of statistics by Émile Durkheim in Suicide was of much less importance than his methodological prescriptions, even if his use of statistics in practice did not necessarily follow the prescriptions laid down in Rules of Sociological Method.

The purification of theoretical analysis from empirical content was enormously powerful. It enabled social theorists to develop wide-ranging accounts of modernity and postmodernity. It established a clear hierarchy between the value of theoretical and empirical labour. It made it possible to blur the boundaries between the social sciences and philosophy in a particular way.

Foucault, for example, who had insisted on the importance of an attention to detail in Discipline and Punish, could be read as a social theorist of subjectification and power, whose treatment of historical materials was of no particular interest. His account of discipline could be taken to sum up a whole society and then criticized by those who thought that he had failed to give any account of, for example, consumption or the media. He, along with Bourdieu and Baudrillard, was added to the canon of European social theory. French social thought, which was believed to be intrinsically more theoretical than the indigenous product, as Anderson had argued, was vital to the reinvention of British sociology as a theoretically driven enterprise.


1. Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, New Left Review 50, July/August 1968, p. 10.

2. Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971.

3. Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998.

⤓ Click here to download the PDF of this item