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Bernard Williams

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Video: Questioning theories
Duration: 00:23:19
Date: 20-06-1982
Professor John Clarke is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at The Open University
Image : Professor John Clarke
Date: 2021

Questioning Theories

This programme comes from D102 An Introduction to Social Sciences, a course (module) that was notable for its view that it should be possible to teach theory to introductory or Level One students. This was widely seen as an act of madness, breaching established wisdom about what such students could cope with. Happily, both the course [module] and the students proved such doubters wrong, and provided a great introduction to my time at the OU. As a result, this programme occupies a distinctive place within the pedagogic approach of the course. The substantive material, organised in study blocks, explored a range of social, economic, political, psychological and geographical processes and relationships in the UK. Each of the study blocks explored competing theories. So, block 3 (The Production of Social Divisions) on which I worked explored class, gender and racial/ethnic divisions and different theories that sought to explain them (Marx versus Weber; different feminisms; Weberian versus Marxist accounts of racialised divisions). The block ended with a reflection on how both the divisions might – or might not – be connected and how the theories might be compared.
This substantive structure of the course (more or less corresponding to disciplinary focal concerns of the time) was recurrently interrupted by systematic reflections on what it meant to think theoretically and how one might compare competing theories. Written and audio materials explored these issues and were supplemented by several TV programmes – of which this was the first. As can be seen, the approach is based on a set of probing questions from Bernard Williams to the two members of the course/module team, followed by his sceptical rebuttal of our answers. I had forgotten what a non-conversational style this produced, such that the programme more resembles a series of statements of position with Williams performing a double role as both interrogative chair and judgemental father figure. More personally, I still remember my dismay at his refusal to engage with my argument that the social world could not be carved up into a series of domains (the economy, politics, etc.) that mapped neatly onto the disciplinary structure of the social sciences. I thought then that these divisions produced a rather strange understanding of the world – and still do.
John Clarke
John Clarke is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the Open University.
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Bernard Williams (page 5 of 8)