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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


Constance Lever



From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, p.40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Social Science and Political Theory
W.G. Runciman
Cambridge University Press; 22s 6d.

This book is a series of essays (originally lectures) linked somewhat loosely by a common theme, that political philosophy and political sociology, though clearly distinct, are essential to each other. Judgements about value and relevance are involved in posing questions for empirical study and interpreting the data obtained; factual knowledge is necessary to decide the validity of most philosophical standpoints, and whether the problems they pose should be reformulated.

Runciman does this mainly by isolating those aspects of classical sociology and modern research which seem relevant to certain longstanding questions of liberal political philosophy such as ‘How can the citizen be protected from the state?’, ‘How can political extremism be avoided?’. The most interesting part is where he looks at the theory of democracy in the light of concepts of elites and unavoidable oligarchies, of modern studies of voting habits and apathy and the effects of differing constitutional arrangements. He here suggests that the relevant questions should not be about formal democracy but actual relations of rulers and ruled, the accessibility of the former to information and pressure, how they can be changed, who can join them.

The book suffers from being unclear as to its audience and trying to do too much. It contains numerous potted versions of theories and brief allusions to or rapid patronising dismissals of people and ideas, of a kind mystifying to a student or non-sociologist and superfluous or irritating to someone who knows of them. When he does spend some time on one individual (Marx, Weber) he is fair though he tends to return to often gross oversimplifications, preceded perhaps by ‘as Marxists would have it’. He discusses the theory of class in terms of economic and market situation, life chances, work situation, class consciousness – and later can glibly speak of status distinctions within the same class, the latter measured by income. More detail and less scope might perhaps have been preferable, more about the relevance of empirical data and less brief evaluations of the classics. However, this is a useful book: it raises many interesting questions. The danger of theories and factual studies in politics taking place in isolation from each other is very real and often realised. Mr Runciman’s book is refreshing.

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