I am best known as an industrial sociologist and for my research into the experience of work, trade unions and organisational change. I have combined this with a keen interest in historical sociology and the impact of place and social class upon social and economic life.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that I was born and brought up in Ebbw Vale when it was a thriving coal and steel town on the north eastern rim of the South Welsh coalfield. That place, and the ways that is has changed over the years since, has made a great impression upon me and upon the way I have developed as a sociologist.
After a first degree in economics at the University of Wales, I travelled to study at Liverpool University’s leading centre of Industrial Sociology where I received a postgraduate diploma and began work on a number of projects. One, with Bob Blackburn, involved a study of a confectionary factory based on the Wirral employing male and female workers, some of them doing the same jobs but on different shifts. This was published in 1972 as Perceptions of Work: Variations within a Factory. By this time I was a lecturer in sociology at Bristol University
The Bristol Department had opened in 1966 (with its first intake of students the year after) under the headship of Michael Banton. Mike Savage has referred to those years as “the moment of Sociology” with a huge influx of students and a widening audience though the pages of the weekly magazine New Society. My first article was published in that magazine and provided an account of a wild cat strike at the Ford Halewood plant in Liverpool. This became part of another book also published in 1972, called Working For Ford. These two books, although different methodologically, were linked together by a concern to investigate the ways in which behaviour in work places was influenced by ideas and experiences that people brought with them to work. This thinking, and its link with ideas of social class, was developed in a different way again in the book I wrote with Theo Nichols Living with Capitalism, based on our extensive research into working life in a large chemical complex . This was finished thanks to a Fellowship I received at the University of Manchester in 1973.
After a year teaching at the University of Southern Illinois where I linked up with its Coal Research Centre, I took up a post at Durham University in early 1976 and remained there for almost twelve years. This was a momentous period in the political economy of the UK and one that was to have a profound effect on my research. It was familiar territory – Durham’s history and culture had much in common with the valleys of south Wales, and both areas were experiencing the rapid closure of manufacturing plants, a process that ended with the wholesale closure of the coal mining industry. I obtained funding from the ESRC to investigate these changes, both on the Durham coalfield and on Tyneside.
Previously industrial sociologists had, to some extent, taken the industrial landscape for granted. In Working for Ford, I had written that “the fact it was Liverpool mattered, the fact that it was the Ford Motor Company mattered more” to the study of the factory. The closure of large manufacturing plants across the engineering and textile industries, followed by the ending of steel making at Consett and coal mining across the north east extended this approach. It made questions about the location and creation of jobs and employment more salient, and with it issues of power and the place of “the local” in a globalising economy. This developed alongside my long and close collaboration with Ray Hudson. It also accentuated the historical dimension of my work, and I became especially interested in the history of the coal mining industry and the fact that in Durham, a place where society and politics were so intimately related to the coal, the industry was allowed to close. The book I wrote with Terry Austrin – Masters and Servants: Class and Patronage in the making of a labour Organisation – is the best illustration of this style of work.
In the 1980s, as Government pressure on the coal industry intensified I worked closely with the coal mining trades unions and local communities in seeking to reveal the savage costs that would follow from colliery closures. Along with colleagues I estimated the impact of such coal mine closures upon future employment prospects. I’m afraid that our grim predications were born out in reality. Some of this is recorded in A Tale of Two Industries (with Ray Hudson and David Sadler)
In 1987, I moved from Durham, and accepted the challenge of a Chair at the Department of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Chastened by the impact of government policies upon the stability of industrial employment I became increasingly involved in developing strategies that might give some security to social science research. This experience led me to become the first Director of the School of Social Sciences in Cardiff University in 1999. The new School was multidisciplinary and in the next ten years became established as one of the major centres of ESRC research and PhD training in the UK. In 2008 we received funding to establish WISERD, the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research Data and Methods, a major investment in the social sciences in Wales. I served as the first Director of the Institute 2008-2010.
I have always conducted empirical research in the places where I have lived and worked. This continued in Manchester where Managing Employment Change (with Grimshaw, Rubery and Ward) commented on changes taking place in large organisations in the North West of England. Regenerating the Coalfields (with Bennett and Hudson) builds on field work conducted in the Cynon Valley. I have also worked with local community groups, trades unions and public policy officials to seek to improve economic and social conditions and the life chances of disadvantaged people in disadvantaged places, teaching on extra mural courses and developing lectures with the Workers’ Education Association.
Along side this local involvement I have tried to maintain an international perspective and this has become more essential as economies have become increasingly “globalised”. I have visited Brazil on many occasions to conduct research with my friend Jose Ricardo Ramalho and to lecture at universities in the South (Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Campinas) and the North East (Recife, Joao Pessoa, Belen).
I have written or edited 20 books and received a succession of grants, from the Economic and Social Research Council – two of them for major centres. I have successfully supervised 54 PhD and MPhil theses and acted as external examiner for 64 PhD submissions I served on successive Research Assessment Exercises and on the Rhind Commission for the Social Sciences. I was awarded the degree of Doctor of Social Sciences from Manchester University in 1999. I was elected to the Academy for the Social Sciences in 2000 and was one of the founding Fellows of the Learned Society of Wales in 2010. I was appointed to the first Science Advisory Council of Wales 2011-2014. I was made an Honorary member of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1985. I am an Honorary Fellow at the Wolfson Research Institute at the University of Durham and in 2013 I was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Durham.