Imaginations: David Bouchier (1968 – 1986)

From Student to Staff: David Bouchier (1968 – 1986)

There were educational experiments going on in every department.

My arrival as a student at the University of Essex in the autumn of 1968 came rather late, biographically speaking. At the age of twenty-nine, after some thirteen years working as a journalist, bookseller and in various other marginal occupations, I enrolled as what was ironically termed a “mature student” in the School of Comparative Studies. It was an odd experience, especially when my wife Sheila decided to join me to study art history. We were at least ten years older than most of the other students. We had a house, a dog, a cat, a Mini, and all the other paraphenalia of suburban life. So our appearance in the year of the great “youth revolution” was incongruous, to say the least.

The university itself was virtually new. There were only about 1,500 students, and both staff and students were still finding their way, in more senses than one. The fortress-like architecture, the incomprehensible room numbering system, and the looming dark presence of “The Towers” created an out-of-this-world, atmosphere that reinforced the feeling that we students were rats in a concrete maze. But at least we were experimental rats. There were educational experiments going on in every department. The first year course in Comparative Studies gave a tantalizing glimpse into the worlds of art history, literature, political science, and eighteenth century history. The idea was to jump start our brains by taking us back to to the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment. Religion was declining, modern science was just beginning, and it seemed possible and necessary to investigate everything: morality, equality, conflict, and the best form of government. These were are huge questions, attacked with zeal by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Mill, and they were taken up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a series of mighty intellectuals, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, who laid the foundations of sociology.

The big questions and the big thinkers pushed me towards the study of sociology, because it seemed that in this discipline you could research, write, and even think just about anything. This proved to be almost but not entirely true. What captivated me was the broad view of society, especially in classic theory. Sociology, like anthropology and history, tends to drag us away from our preoccupation with personal issues, and asks us to look at the big picture. I was initially rather disappointed to discover that, in practice, the big picture was smaller than I had imagined, and that sociology had moved a long way towards micro-scale studies of groups and institutions. To my mind there was nothing wrong with social philosophy on the grand scale, but sociology had become an academic discipline competing for funds with all the others, and there were institutional and professional pressures to adopt a more rigorous style and a more practical focus.

The quality of teaching at Essex was high and covered a wide range. We could choose between classes on theory, stratification, statistics, education, social policy, oral history, and many more. There was still scope for the sociological imagination, and the political events of those lively years from 1968 to 1974, apart from being very entertaining in themselves, steered me towards a special interest in radical political and religious movements. I was able to observe some of the key moments of the so-called “youth revolution” at Essex, in Paris, and in Berkeley, California. It was the perfect research topic.The most interesting thing about these movements to me was where the young followers got their ideas, and how those ideas changed over time. Where, for example, did students get the notion that they could change the world? How could they have so thoroughly mistaken the gesture for the reality? How could they (especially the sociology students) have missed the blazingly obvious Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules, not just sometimes but all the time?

When I graduated in 1971 I was keen to pursue these questions, and was fortunate to be appointed as a lecturer in the department, which gave me a chance to push on towards a PhD at the London School of Economics. Those were expansive times for academic employment, very unlike what came later. So, to use the traditional British naval term, I “came up through the hawsehole,” a phrase applied to foremast jacks who became officers on the same ship. There was obviously something awkward about being appointed to teach in the department where I had been a student.. When I joined there were well-established relationships and routines, not easily penetrated. But I have to say that my more experienced colleagues, many of whom are still good friends, were generously supportive of me as I took my first steps into the academic world.

So began fifteen years in the Department, during which I taught mainly theory, social movements, the Enlightenment, and American studies. The latter was an interest I had acquired after travelling all over the US in the 1960s. I soon became accustomed to the departmental routines, like morning coffee and the quasi-religious ritual of the annual revsion of the undergraduate core course. In retrospect it seems like another age: nobody cared that my office was full of pipe smoke, and it never bothered me that my typewriter worked without electricity or that I had to walk to the library to look something up in a book. From the perspective of 2014 we were pre-modern, almost primitive.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the radical reputation of the university the traditional “Publish or perish” rule for faculty was as strong as anywhere else. Tenure and promotion depended on it. During my time as a lecturer at Essex I published three books, which is not a great record unless you consider that they were all typed with two fingers.

The students were an engaging mix of upper middle class grammar school types and working class radicals. This added spice, and sometimes confrontation, to discussion classes and tutorials. Teaching was an enormous pleasure for me, although I was not always sure what I was doing. At the university level it was the rule that no educator should be educated in the techniques of education. We were supposed to know how to teach by instinct, or perhaps because we had spent so much time being taught by others, who also had never learned how to teach.

My research at the London School of Economics eventually became the book Idealism and Revolution. The theme was the architecture of strongly held beliefs, and how and why they change. After this I became interested in the evolving ideology of the feminist movement, which was resented by some women on campus and outside. The book was roundly denounced before a single chapter had been written. In 1984 the controversy emerged into daylight as a “Forum on Bouchier” in the BSA journal. It was disconcerting to be, in absenta, the object of a bitter debate. The experience taught me something important about the invisible, unspoken limits of research and the power of political correctness within the university.

This experience focussed what had become a key issue for me and some others in the department. The disconnection of personal beliefs from sociological research was much more problematic than we had thought. This was scarcely original insight. Max Weber spelled it out in 1897: “There is no absolutely ‘objective’ scientific analysis of culture… All knowledge of cultural reality… is always knowledge from particular points of view.” Nobody really challenged this, but nobody paid much attention to it either: there were too many economic and political reasons to present sociology as an objective science.

There was an odd disconnect between radical implications of many sociological theories and our institutional situation as teachers and government employees. Sociologists protect their particular belief systems as fiercely as theologians. The debate surfaced in 1982 in the sociology department newsletter, in which Ted Benton contributed an eloquent defence of sociology as a committed discipline. Moved by some contrarian impulse I wrote a pompous reply in the following issue, including this paragraph.

“Forgive me if my own sociological imagination suggests that academics, intimately bound to the status quo and insulated from both productive work and political power are not likely to be the most effective critics of the state…We are and always have been tolerated as long as our critiques do not erupt into the real world of power. Institutionalised dissent is a well-tested safety valve.”

Those were the kinds of things we discussed in those years. They seem not much more relevant now than the disagreements between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Biblical times

The sociology department encouraged exchanges with American universities. I was able to spend one year each as a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Connecticut, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. It was a liberal, and sometimes illiberal education, and it was no accident that I eventually moved to America permanently.

The sociology department at Essex changed my life in good ways. Like any first-class department it sent me and thousands of others out into the world with a sharper view – a perspective pithily summed up by Peter Berger in the phrase: “Things are not what they seem.” It’s always a good idea to peek behind the curtain to see what the Great Oz is up to. If students take away this single message – that things are not what they seem in society, in sociology, or anywhere else – the sociology department is doing its job.

In 1986 The Times Higher Education Supplement declared that “Essex may well be the most academically distinguished university in Britain for its size.”

At this point, having achieved my goal, I left.


Brief bio. David Bouchier: born London 1939. Undergraduate at Essex 1968-1971; Lecturer 1971-1986. David moved to New York in 1986, and taught sociology at the State University, and other institutions, before slipping back into his bad old habits of writing and broadcasting as a journalist rather than an academic sociologist. He wrote a column for The New York Times for ten years, and in 2002 he retired from teaching and became and remains an essayist and classical music host for National Public Radio Stations in New York and Connecticut. His books these days are less serious than they used to be, but still have more than a tinge of sociology in them (but no footnotes). His latest collection of essays is Peripheral Vision (2011), and others include The Accidental Immigrant, The Song of Suburbia and A Few Well Chosen Words.

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