Revisiting New Society

Revisiting New Society

Mike Savage, LSE                                      [pdf]

It is now a little more than 50 years since the first issue of New Society appeared late in 1962. It enjoyed a brief, though meteoric career, less than thirty years later being incorporated into the New Statesman, in 1988. Today, it is largely forgotten: in 1996 the title of New Statesman and Society was changed to drop the latter term.  Yet, especially during its trailblazing years in the 1960s, but also into the 1970s, New Society defined a new kind of appeal for a popular and engaged sociology which commanded a powerful presence on all newsagents’ shelves. Within weeks it rapidly gained a large and enthusiastic readership of around sixty thousand people. New Society introduced the public to a new crop of young sociologists, whose work reported findings from surveys and ethnographies which offered an exciting new window on British society. These young sociologists included John Goldthorpe, Dorothy Wedderburn, David Lockwood, Jean Floud, C.C. Harris, Ronald Dore, Ray Pahl, Peter Willmott, Tom Burns, Peter Worsley, Ann Oakley and John Rex all of whom were later to become major figures in the development of British sociology, and who all saw public commentary as vital to their interest in sociology itself. And these writings were seen to have huge importance: government ministers vied with each other to contribute in its pages to reflect on the challenge of social change and the importance of sociology. I want to emphasise four remarkable innovations associated with New Society in its halcyon period of the early 1960s.

First, it challenged the hegemony of the literary, gentlemanly culture which had previously dominated British intellectual life. When, in 1959, C.P. Snow lamented the divide between ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities, he did not mention the role of social scientific thinking at all, which at this point was only weakly represented in British universities (with the exception of the London School of Economics). Instead, the key reference points for political debates, defined for instance by the weekly magazines such as The Spectator, The Listener, and Encounter was strongly oriented towards the humanities, and especially literary figures and historians – much like the London Review of Books today. The idea of commenting on social affairs from the perspective of the findings of sociological research itself was unheard of, and sociological ideas had only previously become publiclly authorised if they were produced from the social milieu of the gentlemanly intellectual classes. New Society had one foot in the scientific and technical culture which Snow saw as being in tension with that of the humanities, as it was modelled on New Scientist which had appeared in 1956. With its carefully non-politically partisan position and its determination to report the findings of social research, it was thus a key force in the development of a new politics which championed the role of ‘evidence’ and rigorous research as vital to social welfare and reform. Since the 1960s the significance of these currents has grown rapidly, so that it is easy to lose sight of the dramatic cultural innovation which New Society helped being about.

Secondly, the model of New Society involved a dramatic reworking of the popular media themselves through their vigorous use of relatively short and accessible features. In the early 1960s, the broadsheet newspapers largely used long accounts of current news stories, whilst the weekly periodicals focused on opinion pieces by eminent critics. New Society focused on accessible stories addressing issues of social concern. It ran regular features on ‘Work and Business’, ‘The Arts in Society’, and ‘Welfare and Policy’. During the early 1960s, it regularly ran features on the significance of immigration, homosexuality, adolescent ‘delinquency’, gender relations, and social class divisions. It thus rendered what had been seen as ‘troubling’ social concerns into issues which could be openly debated and talked about, so extending the remit of public debate.  This model was soon taken up elsewhere. When in 1964 The Sunday Times began to publish its famous ‘colour supplement’, (which was to become the model for the host of new glossy magazines which were to transform popular publishing in ensuing decades) New Society regarded themselves as having had the idea first.

Thirdly, New Society played a key role in making popular culture respectable, rather than the object of scorn from the educated classes. Ray Gosling, who later became famous for his popular documentaries on aspects of everyday life, was centrally involved in the early years. The jazz musician George Melly and the novelist Colin McInnnes were also early and regular contributors. These three were all gay and their prominence testified to New Society’s capacity to challenge the conventional moral boundaries of its day. Its editor from 1967, Paul Barker, was particularly committed to exploring the relationship between arts and society. It was fundamentally concerned to recognise the importance of youth culture in a way which avoided the condescension of the established literary elite. This hugely appealed to legions of young people across Britain who saw the journal as central to their identities. The famous cultural critic, Simon Frith, expressed the sense of possibilities which the journal offered young people in a ruminative article from 1995: “When New Society was launched (as the social sciences’ own New Scientist) on October 4, 1962, I was still at school. I bought the magazine every week and read it from cover to cover. Under the influence of the TV series, Probation Officer, I had already decided I wanted to do something “social”, and New Society became my handbook of the possibilities. I was most taken (I have still got the clipping) by Ray Gosling’s “The Tough and the Tender” (fourth in a series on adolescent morals) which appeared in issue 29, an account of a working-class teen values that to a sixth-form pop obsessive was at once completely familiar and quite strange. I was most influenced by New Society’s intellectual mission, its propaganda for sociology.”

Fourthly, New Society innovated in its own interests in using research. Shortly after its launch it was decided to conduct a survey of its readers, as a means of producing new insights into contemporary Britain. Swamped by over seven thousand responses, many weeks were spent analysing the findings, which the leading sociologists of the day were then commissioned to comment on. New Society thus sought to popularise the kind of survey research which they saw as vital for informed social commentary and policy making. Today, as we are routinely and repetitively asked to conduct user surveys on our view about hotels, train journeys and other consumer ‘experiences’, this endeavour might strike us as mundane. However, we should remind ourselves that it was New Society who appear to have been the originators of this idea of conducting user surveys, and so exciting was this at the time that the results were said to be considered by the Conservative cabinet of the day. It also broke new ground in reporting on the geographical locations of its readers – especially their strong North London bias – in a way which foreshadowed the geo-demographics of market researchers.

What, then, are the lessons of New Society fifty years later? David Beer and Roger Burrows (2010) have recently argued that despite recent worries about the prospects for the discipline of sociology, actually it has seeped into contemporary culture in all sorts of profound, yet also un-appreciated ways. The success of New Society is a perfect example of their argument, and a reminder of how sociologists have themselves been in the vanguard of socio-cultural change and left a legacy which remains evident even after the original intervention – the journal itself – has ended. There is also a further, perhaps more challenging, lesson to learn. The sociology championed by New Society, committed to fieldwork, surveys, ethnography, and getting to grips with popular culture, was a different sociology to that which had previously dominated in Britain, institutionalised notably in the London School of Economics alongside other bastions of privilege. This previous gentlemanly sociology had been moralising and evolutionary in tone, a far cry from the somewhat risky and roué variety led by the new generation which was championed in New Society. We are, in some respects in a similar moment of generational division in British sociology today, with very different views about the remit of the discipline, for instance regarding what kind of sociological canon is needed, the power of the post-colonial critique, and the potential for new kinds of radical research methods and the role of the new media.

I therefore take from the case of New Society the final lesson- that it is not enough to rest on our laurels (impressive though they are), but that we need to recharge and reinvigorate sociological practice in the context of the profound challenges of our time if we are to re-fashion a sociology which more fully captures the public imagination today. That re-charged sociology also needs to invent new means of communication to capture the excitement generated by New Society in its time.

References: Beer, David. & Burrows, Roger. (2010) ‘The sociological imagination as popular culture’, in, Burnett, J., Jeffers, S. & Thomas, G. (eds) New Social Connections: Sociology’s Subjects and Objects. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Frith, Simon (1995) ‘Speaking Volumes: New Society (1962-87)’ Times Higher, 30th January. *This article reports arguments first published in Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, (Oxford 2010). Mike Savage is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was founding director  of CRESC – the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (2004-2010) – at the University of Manchester. His longstanding interests in stratification, inequality and the British class structure have included his involvement (together with Fiona Devine) in the design of the BBC Lab’s Great British Class Survey. Further information about future developments of the Great British Class Survey can be found here.

20 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 02, 2013

    From John Urry: I have just been reading your short article on ‘new society’…totally agree. I like the comment from Simon Frith when he says: “When New Society was launched (as the social sciences’ own New Scientist) on October 4, 1962, I was still at school. I bought the magazine every week and read it from cover to cover. Under the influence of the TV series, Probation Officer, I had already decided I wanted to do something “social”, and New Society became my handbook of the possibilities.’

    This is more or less true for me except in my (now Independent) School we read articles from new society in general studies classes…these were the best lessons I ever had….

    I also like the point about sociology’s seepage. A good example of this would be the research/publications done by the arts/campaigning group Platform (as in oil Platform!) that like me is bothered by the issues of energy/oil. See their latest sociologically informed book on The Oil Road

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  2. Avatar
    October 02, 2013

    As a re-entrant into sociology in 1964 I subscribed and kept nearly every single copy of New Society from then until it closed, and they are still in a large box in my garage. If anyone wants to collect them from Newcastle upon Tyne they are welcome to do so before they finally get recycled during the coming months. They’d probably fit into a car, on seats as well as boot. I’m afraid they are loose and not indexed, so if you want to search for individual copies you’d have to go through the lot. Get in touch if you are interested.

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    • Avatar
      November 18, 2015

      Are they still available? Regards Tony Smith

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      • Avatar
        November 27, 2015

        Tony,

        My 1969-1972 copies of New Society are still available, if you can collect them from Streatham Hill, South London.

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      • Avatar
        January 20, 2017

        I only just found out these magazines existed, If anyone has any copies can you let me know, I will pay postage! Many thanks

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  3. Avatar
    October 02, 2013

    Thanks for your comment John – good to hear from you. Discover Society would love to have your run of ‘New Society’ and could collect.

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  4. Avatar
    October 02, 2013

    I read New Society as a teenager too and I agree it’s a good time to recall what made it great. There was a real sense of purpose and edge in the writing that was published there. A great piece by Ray Pahl published in the same year that Margaret Thatcher came to power. He asked teachers on the Isle of Sheppey, off the north Kent coast, to set that year’s school leavers an essay – to imagine their lives as if they were looking back on them from the end of their lives, and to describe what had happened. Brilliant – what they wrote revealed so much about the conditions of those young people’s present. Let’s hope that Discover Society keeps some of those qualities alive in our time and offers its readers the same kind of nourishment and insight. I love the title too – Discover Society! – like a literary nail in the ideological coffin of Thatcherism. Maybe that’s too much to hope for in our neo-liberal times.

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  5. Avatar
    October 02, 2013

    I subscribed to New Society from my undergraduate days in the early 1970s and probably borrowed the occasional copy before that from Sue Scott when we were at school together. It was inspiring, radical, practice focused and a feast of insights into issues and social worlds that challenged our world views and interpretations. It undoubtedly shaped my growth as a budding sociologist. I was thrilled beyond belief when the issue of 3 April 1980 carried an article written by the late Jackie Burgoyne and I, entitled Why Get Married Again? It was my first ever publication. Great to see the first issue of Discover Society maintaining that particular focus with a piece on families, relationships and personal life.

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    • Avatar
      October 03, 2013

      Thanks for your comment David. I’m sure that we swapped my New Society’s and your Melody Maker’s. I started reading NS in 1969 and am sure that it played a big part in my decision to do sociology, just as it has played a big part in my involvement in the development of Discover Society. Perhaps you would like to write for DS 33 years on?

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  6. Avatar
    October 09, 2013

    How we could do with a New Society now. I always read it and the Findings column gave me me first ever writing job doing short reviews of then current research. Not much good for today’s REFs but a good starting point. Nice to hear that J V-W still has a collection – maybe somebody should find some money to put them on line. An invaluable archive. Much missed.

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  7. Avatar
    October 19, 2013

    Thanks for this paean of praise to my favourite magazine. I loved it so much that I still have every copy I ever bought and still dip into it especially the stuff on class whenever i feel down.

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  8. Avatar
    October 31, 2013

    When I was on the editorial board of Network I suggested that the BSA linked with other social science organisations to suggest a re-launch of New Society. As with others who’ve commented here, it was my pathway into sociology while I was at school in Hemel Hempstead in the 1960s. I guess that’s why I read Berger’s ‘Invitation to Sociology’ (still a great book, surely?) Timothy Raison, its first editor, become a Tory MP. Yet he still published Colin MacInnes, Minister for Information for the bogus Black Power advocate Michael X, whose extraordinary articles about bohemia and Notting Hill inspired me. As revolting students at Leeds University in 1969 we invited people we liked to become our Professor. New Society published an article about our impertinent assertion of student power – written by one of our chosen few, Laurie Taylor. It would be wonderful if Discover Society could be as eclectic, stimulating and adventurous.

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  9. Avatar
    December 30, 2013

    Staggers, Naggers, and Favelas
    (a cultural studies exercise)

    It was the small-hours of Monday and piece about tourism in Brazil’s favelas had just completed on BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed. I was considering the likelihood of the Castro dynasty encouraging a similar scrutiny of the ruins of Havana, where their serfs risk and sometimes lose their lives seeking shelter amid the rubble and, according to BBC News, dream of being permitted to build a shanty town [1], when presenter Laurie Taylor announced the appearance of a new on-line monthly. But would Discover Society, like the Professor’s favourite New Left Review, lurk behind a Rupert Murdoch-style paywall, with content available only to the more plutocratic of web-surfers?

    Although that fear proved unfounded, another soon took its place. In October 2012, Paul Barker, a long-serving editor of New Society (1968-86), appeared on Thinking Allowed to commemorate the magazine’s founding half a century earlier. For several minutes, all present basked in uncritical mutual admiration. The magazine “did very well” (before folding, obviously), particularly among the self-proclaimed “intelligentsia” and “meritocrats,” was “well-written,” “renowned,” “politically relevant” (whatever that means) but “never endorsed any party.” Neutrality might have been the ambition of founding editor Timothy Raison, who left in 1968, but sociologists notice left-wing bias much as fish experience water and it came as no surprise when that myth was finally laid to rest by a merger with the overtly partisan New Statesman in 1988. The latter was still widely known as The Staggers and Naggers, a punning reference to the title New Statesman and Nation which followed an earlier merger with Nation and Athenaeum (also eventually swallowed whole). “Staggers” was an allusion to recurrent financial problems while “naggers” had been prompted by the tediously left-wing nature of its political commentary. My foreboding concerned the likelihood that this new publication would prove still to be bogged in the old morass.

    In the mid 1970s, a full three decades after analyses such as Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom had demolished the fantastical edifices contrived by the likes of Hegel, Marx, Lenin, and Engels, the heretical suggestion that a sociology department might at last be established that was not explicitly and exclusively Marxist fell on deaf ears. There may yet be insufficient non-socialist sociologists in the whole of Europe to staff such an establishment. Asked why New Society had foundered while its stablemate New Scientist was still going strong, Barker averred that, while natural science brought news and useful, testable predictions, sociology produced very little of either. Some in the field, including Marx, have believed they have the gift of divination but the widespread adherence to the latter’s ideology, as discredited in theory and useless in practice as the phlogiston model for combustion, means that this generally proves to be delusional. The public had simply lost patience with the vacuity of the magazine’s maunderings, however supposedly “well written.”

    During the 2012 programme, Barker spoke of a “cultural shift” before New Society’s 1988 demise; an assessment which might be regarded as something of an understatement. The 1978-9 “winter of discontent” had forced all serious observers to abandon the idea that there was such a thing as “society,” meaning an entity resembling a benevolent uncle with infinitely deep pockets and able to fund an unlimited succession of supposedly worthy projects. A long, bruising, and expensive battle with the mineworkers’ union over whether anarcho-syndicalism or democracy should prevail in Britain had also changed the landscape.

    Viewed as satire, Ken Loach’s recent movie The Spirit of ’45 illustrates well the quagmire before the paradigm-shift. The “natural monopolies” brought into “public ownership” amid much celebration in the film, for instance, inflicted a triple-whammy on the economy: vital services were delivered with consummate bureaucratic inefficiency, cost the customer a fortune, but nevertheless required ruinous subsidies from the taxpayer. Mercifully, the Monty Python sketch showing the nightmare of having a cooker installed by one of the notorious gas boards will be meaningless to the current generation, but it bordered on drama-documentary at the time [3]. And should one of their “Yorkshire businessmen” tell of a youth in which it could take more than half a decade for Post Office Telephones to connect a subscriber, and that the expense was such that domestic usage in the 1950s averaged just three minutes per day, “they won’t believe you” (at the time, local calls in the US were often regarded by the companies as too cheap to meter). Examples abound but, since a landslide Labour majority of 145 had given way to overall Conservative Party control by 1951, it’s safe to assume that the true “spirit of ‘45” was naïveté, followed rapidly by disillusion.

    One symbol of the age was the Comet airliner, which had a disconcerting propensity to explode in mid-air. Had its designers been Marxists, they would have insisted that there was nothing wrong with the theory and all that was necessary for the engineering to work was for another hundred million or so people to be slaughtered. Sociology resembles physics before the age of Pascal, where nothing much could advance until it could be freed from the dead hand of Aristotle. Its Galileo has long since chucked the bricks from the top of its tottering tower but its Marxist puppet-masters still insist that the big one will fall faster if only the experiment is repeated sufficiently.

    Later that Monday, Professor Taylor celebrated another half century, this time of Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Following an Orwellian redefinition of “culture,” which has apparently rendered the term all but meaningless, Professor Matthew Hilton insisted that the new study had to be located – surprise, surprise – “in the history of the Left.” As with New Society, there had been an initial flurry of interest, with contributions from people outside the discipline, including the journalist Alan Wicker, but it was admitted that nobody today could imaging Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, paying the subject any attention. In a Venn circle that hardly overlaps reality at any point, the “anarchic” adolescents, earnestly glozing Marxist propaganda from The Beano, are clearly too wrapped up in mutual admiration to have noticed that “meeja studies” has long been the subject of public ridicule.

    Even the recent “thirteen wasted years of Labour misrule,” as Harold Wilson might have styled it, which did return to the kind of reckless spending that has left little to show for debts that will plague our grandchildren (if we discount the NHS IT scheme, regional fire service control centres, a couple of moribund aircraft carriers, etc.), did not result in a return to”’45” and large-scale renationalisation. It also failed to restore plenipotentiary powers to trade union demagogues or return their members to a pre-Thatcher status as cannon-fodder conscripted in some Trotskyite class-war. It took decades for motor manufacturing to recover from the ancien régime of “Red Robbo,” and, even for two of the most incompetent prime ministers since Lord North, there would be “no turning back.” No similar damascene conversion has yet befallen Thinking Allowed, where Marxists are still invariably described as “distinguished” (although for what and from/by whom is never vouchsafed) and, alas, Discover Society seems actually to admire the mores that culled its antediluvian ancestor. Hopefully, the economies of on-line publication will have cured the “staggers” but, if it seeks an influence beyond the sociology bubble and its handful of “loony-left” groupies, the “naggers” should certainly be afforded a little less licence.

    [1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-24239202
    [2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n1qy8
    [3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dVkdCQCAS0

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  10. Avatar
    October 23, 2014

    Oh dear, somebody stopped taking their medicine. Just goes to show that the loony right can froth & foam just as well as the loony left. It would be great if comments focused on the content of the articles rather than on the lurid fantasies of the reader.

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  11. Avatar
    March 30, 2015

    Just having a lovely sentimental wallow, remembering my bits and pieces Paul Barker was generous enough to publish when I was young and foolish, when the spirit of Xmas never arrived like a group of TORIES at the door of a disco. Can’t you get somebody in to fix these people? Nice one until lame brain chilled the party though….

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  12. Avatar
    November 13, 2015

    I subscribed to New Society between 1969 and 1972 as part of my Philosophy and Sociology studies, and now need to de-clutter. Would anyone care to collect my copies? They should fit into a car boot.

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  13. Avatar
    January 03, 2016

    I too have a full run of New Society from 19/05/1979 to 19/05/1983 if anyone wants them.

    Reply

  14. Avatar
    January 04, 2016

    I’d love to. Could I e-mail?

    Reply

  15. Avatar
    April 17, 2016

    Hi there. I’m searching for a copy of New Society from either 1987 or 88, with a cover image showing a young South Asian man in blue jeans and leather jacket, holding an Iranian flag as part of a demonstration in London. If this rings any bells please let me know. I’d like to somehow get hold of this edition. Thanks

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