Not long ago, the stereotypical sociologist wore a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, had bits of yesterday's breakfast in his beard, drove a "rustbucket," and, at every opportunity, spouted pseudo-Marxist jargon. Loved in the '60s, tolerated in the '70s, hated (or fired) in the '80s, he was an endangered beast by the '90s.
But perhaps that's all changed. Anthony Giddens - head of the London School of Economics, inventor of the Third Way, and Tony Blair's favorite guru - has never conformed to stereotypes. Back in the '70s he was the first Cambridge don to wear a leather jacket. Now he's probably the first sociologist with a closet full of Armani suits.
In Britain, Mr. Giddens is another in the long line of trophy academics used by politicians to suggest intelligence, wisdom, and purpose. Though Americans hate to borrow ideas from the Brits, they have warmed to this English academic. We have seen the future and it looks like Tony Giddens.
It appears that Giddens has singlehandedly breathed life back into sociology, which not long ago lay moribund. But is he really a sociologist? Does his subject bear any resemblance to the discipline so widely admired back when flowers had power? And have the foot soldiers in the universities benefited from the exploits of their illustrious general?
Sociologists did much to hasten their demise by abandoning the diligent number crunching of their forebears for self-indulgent Marxist theorizing and postmodernist posturing. Giddens survived those black times rather well, mainly because he's a chameleon.
Back in 1979, he came out with his first great idea - structuration. Basically, the theory proposes that all human beings are knowledgeable agents who understand their world. In other words, behavior should not always be explained by reference to social forces - people are responsible for their own actions. That proved a handy idea during the Thatcher/Reagan years.
In the early '90s, Giddens gave us "The Transformation of Intimacy," a cross between self-help and Oprah by way of a lot of six-syllable words. Central to it was the idea of "pure relationships" - with purity measured by sexual satisfaction, not fidelity. Media critic Jean Seaton called it "an opportunistic postmodernist philanderer's charter."
About the time Britain was tiring of the Tories and America of Bush, Giddens came up with the Third Way. It's supposedly an attempt to find a path between the New Right and the Old Left, necessitated, he says, by the dissolution of the welfare consensus, rapid technological change, globalization, and the discrediting of Marxism. To critics, it seems intellectual cover for those whose principles are sufficiently flexible to accommodate any type of wealth creation.
Hillary Clinton, like Mr. Blair a Giddens groupie, once described the Third Way as a "unified theory of life which will marry conservatism and liberalism, capitalism and statism, and tie together practically everything: the way we are, the way we were, the faults of man and the word of God, the end of communism and the beginning of the third millennium."
She apparently forgot the kitchen sink.
Ralf Dahrendorf, a previous head of the London School of Economics, describes the Third Way as a politics that speaks of the need for hard choices but then avoids them by trying to please everybody.
It is difficult to tell whether Blair and Clinton have been influenced by Giddens or whether they simply see his ideas as a convenient way to give their policies theoretical legitimacy. Giddens doesn't seem to mind.
"Bereft of old certainties, governments claiming to represent the left are creating policy on the hoof," he writes in "The Third Way."
"Theoretical flesh needs to be put on the skeleton of their policymaking."
That seems mere opportunism, a case of adapting ideology to life rather than living life according to an ideology.
Within the academic community, Giddens is often equated with a balloon without a string. One Cambridge don suggested: "If you're after ideas, you might as well go and call on Baby Spice."
But this merely proves that academics would win hands down in any contest to find the most malicious profession.
The important questions remain: Has Giddens changed the nature of sociology and has his sociology changed the nature of our world? On the surface, it seems not - on both counts.
Sociologists have long been noted for their uncanny ability to bring complexity to the most simple things. In this sense, Giddens is a model practitioner.
Witness the following: "Structures exist paradigmatically, as an absent set of differences, temporally 'present' only by their instantiation, in the constituting moments."
At times, he seems incredibly dim: "We should regard older people as a resource rather than a problem. The category of pensioner will then cease to exist."
In "The Third Way," he argues that "companies should not be inhibited from expanding by the existence of too many rules and restrictions."
A prescription more banal would be difficult to find: Did anyone on the far left ever advocate too many restrictions? The Sunday Observer named Giddens one of the 300 most powerful men in Britain, but that seems merely an indication of the current tendency to confuse celebrity with power.
Back at the universities, sociology hasn't changed much. Practitioners have been toughened by their recent misfortunes, but they still zealously search for that one great theory to explain social action (oops, behavior). As for the students, they remain divided between those who hear the words "patriarchal modalities" as sweet music, and the others who find sociology a waste of time but an easy subject to do during four years of state-funded hedonism.
*Gerard J. DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society