David Lockwood, who has died aged 85, changed the way British sociologists view and study class with groundbreaking books such as The Blackcoated Worker (1958). Researching the class consciousness of clerical staff from the mid-19th century onwards, he found that they saw themselves as “of different clay” to manual workers. Clerks had greater job security, different workplace experiences and a sense of superiority (encapsulated by the black coats they wore). The book was a rebuke to those on the left who criticised clerks for having a “false consciousness” – failing to realise that they had the same interests as manual workers. It showed that, far from being self-deceiving, clerks did in fact have a unique class position.
Lockwood’s approach to class was hugely influential, with researchers subsequently applying it to the study of several different occupations, from coalminers and shipbuilders to farm workers and farmers.
The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure (1969), co-written with his Cambridge colleagues John Goldthorpe, Frank Bechhofer and Jennifer Platt, focused on the newly affluent working class of postwar Britain and examined the claim of “embourgeoisment” – the idea that they were becoming middle class. Lockwood debunked this idea, again emphasising the idea of status: though these affluent workers could now be consumers on a par with some of the middle class, they maintained quite distinct social values, political ideals and lifestyles.
In Solidarity and Schism (1992), his approach to social order demonstrated the deficiencies of both Marxist and functionalist approaches. Marxist thought, which stressed social conflict, did not account for the common values holding society together. The functionalist approach, particularly the work of Emile Durkheim, stressed social consensus, excluding the possibility of disorder or radical change. David’s key contribution was to show that any theory of social order requires both a degree of integration – in the form of status – and an element of conflict arising from class.
David’s politics and scholarship were shaped by his Yorkshire background. He was born in Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, the youngest child of a working-class family. As he was growing up, Holmfirth, a mill town, found itself in the middle of the 1930s depression. His father Herbert, a dyer, was wounded in the first world war and retrained as a cobbler. He died when David was 10. His stoical mother Edith was left to bring up David on the meagre wages of a cleaner. Although he won a scholarship to the local grammar school, family circumstances forced him to leave and to take a job as a clerk in a local mill (he always insisted that this experience had not influenced him to study clerks).
His academic career came about thanks to national service. Serving in the Army Intelligence Corps (1947-49), he came under the influence of a leftwing corporal in the Education Corps, who introduced him to Marx and encouraged him to apply to university. He subsequently took up a place studying sociology at the London School of Economics.
He graduated in 1952 and within a year he was appointed to a lectureship. He was one of a remarkably talented group of sociology graduate students at the LSE, including Joe and Olive Banks, John Westergaard and Ralf Dahrendorf, all of whom were to make their mark in the discipline. According to AH Halsey, who wrote an essay (Provincials and Professionals: the British Post-War Sociologists) about the group, David was the most impressive of them all.
In 1958 he left the LSE to take up a lectureship at Cambridge University, where sociology was taught as an optional part of the economics tripos. The quality of David’s scholarship was influential in the university’s eventual acceptance of sociology as a discipline in its own right. In 1968, David moved to the University of Essex as professor of sociology. During this time he wrote a series of theoretical papers, culminating in Solidarity and Schism. In 1976 he was elected to a fellowship of the British Academy and in 1990 to a fellowship of the Academia Europea.
In 1998, he was appointed CBE for his contributions to sociology.
While some may have seen him as a taciturn Yorkshireman, in fact David was a sociable person with a rare ability to engage with all types of people and to put them at ease. He was also endearingly diffident and shy, only truly gregarious with his family and closest friends.
David is survived by his wife, the social historian Leonore Davidoff, whom he married in 1954, their three sons, Matthew, Ben and Harold, and seven grandchildren.
• David Lockwood, sociologist, born 9 April 1929; died 6 June 2014
This obituary was published by The Guardian 29th June 2014 and written by David Rose