Runciman, Walter

Runciman, Walter (W. G.)

(1934-) British sociologist and industrialist, who as an independent scholar and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge has produced a succession of commentaries, research monographs and theoretical works, especially in the areas of political sociology class analysis, historical and comparative sociology, and sociological theory. A member of the House of Lords, he also chaired the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. His first book, Social Science and Political Theory (1963), was a plea for Anglo-American political theory to give greater attention to European political sociology especially the work of WEBER and SCHUMPETER. In Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (1966), he employed historical analysis and social survey data to show that actors’ conceptions of social deprivation and class consciousness are relative rather than absolute, varying according to the social comparisons actually made by social actors (see RELATIVE DEPRIVATION, CLASS IMAGERY). Runciman argues that the conception of a ‘just society’ is a valid one, and should embrace notions such as equal provision for need, greater equality of educational opportunity, and increased opportunities for democratic political participation. However, he finds no indication that an automatic development of class consciousness and class action will occur which will lead to this outcome. Runciman's magnum opus, is a trilogy of volumes on sociological theory, of which two have been completed. The first of these A Treatise on Social Theory Vol. 1, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1983) identifies three main methods which have a legitimate place within sociology:
  1. theory-neutral ‘reportage’ of’empirical facts’ about the social order;
  2. theoretical explanation of overarching social structure;
  3. phenomenological ‘description’ of the ‘lived textures’ of social lives, While the first and second of these are seen as broadly ‘positivistic’, the third is not, but is dependent on a ‘coherence’ rather than a correspondence’view of reality. The second volume of the Treatise, Substantive Social Theory (1989), consists of a wide-ranging comparative analysis and an evolutionary theory of social development in which the 'struggle’ between different bases of social power, analogous to Darwinian ‘natural selection’, is central (see also EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY). The trilogy is to be concluded with a volume applying the concepts of volumes 1 and 2 to British social history In all of this, Runciman regards the role of the sociologist as, ideally, that of the impartial benevolent observer. Runciman's ‘evolutionism’ has been subject to the standard criticisms directed at EVOLUTIONARY THEORY in modern sociology. The distinction he draws between his third and the first and second method has been criticized as over-polarized. But the breadth and the power of his sociological analysis, especially his historical comparative analysis, has been much admired.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000