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Bernard Williams

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Video: Competing theories?
Duration: 00:23:31
Date: 15-06-1982
Professor Sophie Watson is Professor of Sociology at The Open University
Image : Professor Sophie Watson
Date: 2021

Competing Theories

This discussion between Bernard Williams and Stuart Hall is illustrative of a period when sociological thinking was a great deal more straightforward than it has become since. It was also illustrative of a mode of discussion and exchange that to me now seems very outdated in its style from its sense of certainty to its use of an assumed male personhood as the social actor.
OU teaching in the early 1980s was very much about setting up competing theories as effectively monoliths of thought. Here pluralism is contrasted with Marxism, or structuralist thinking, as if the two had the explanatory power to explain social worlds according to a clear set of beliefs. The forty intervening years have seen an explosion of different approaches to understanding social worlds, which have destabilised these theories to a large extent. Not that either theory does not offer us useful insights into understanding society. They do. Rather that since the 1980s the postmodern or post-structuralist, followed by the cultural, turn have complexified the picture. Post-structuralism arose from the work of a diversity of thinkers. Most notably in the social sciences, it was Michel Foucault who critiqued structuralism as setting up binary oppositions which were too simplistic, and which attempted to describe the world according to universal truths. Instead of seeing power as located in particular structures, namely capitalism, power in post structuralism was argued to be exercised in many different contexts and as deeply connected to knowledge. At the same time an interest in culture, which was central to Stuart Hall’s later thinking, emphasised the importance of language/discourse and meaning.
Feminist theorists, and later post-colonial theorists, amongst others emphasised instead the specificity of socio-cultural differences as well as social/political/cultural contexts and saw class as important but not necessarily determining. Interpretations of the social world thus became more complex than the world that Williams and Hall are describing here.
On a more personal note, I was good friends with Stuart in the second half of his life where his influence on sociological thinking was indeed steeped in Marxism, but which became over the years more inflected with an attention to culture, multiculturalism, diversity, race and media. I imagine if he saw himself in this video, that characteristic warm chuckle would be his response. His influence on social theory and on sociological thinking was highly significant for many, many years long after he retired from the Open University. 
Sophie Watson
Sophie Watson is Professor of Sociology at the Open University
Remembering Professor Stuart Hall - feature on the OU Digital Archive.
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Bernard Williams (page 6 of 8)