18 November 2009

The enormity of my debt to Tony Benn - without whom ...

Writing the last two posts on Tony Benn has reminded me of the enormity of my debt to him, and I think it's time I went public on recording my thanks to him.

I'm not just talking about the rich source of videotaped data his speeches supplied for the research on which my first book on public speaking (Our Masters' Voices) was based, grateful though I am to him for that.

But he played a much more direct part, albeit unwittingly, in changing my life for good - many years before I ever got interested in public speaking.

My first proper academic job
First of all, he was responsible for providing me with two whole years of gainful employment at a crucial and formative stage in my career.

Harold Wilson had appointed Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, as he was still known in the mid 1960s, to be Postmaster General, a job that included responsibility for the country's publicly owned telephone system.

The Labour government was under pressure to supply free and/or subsidised telephones to the elderly - but then as now, research is always cheaper than action because it provides an 'respectable' way of postponing hugely expensive demands on the public purse. So Postmaster General Benn decided set up a two year project to look into the problem.

Conveniently for him, one of his friends and neighbours at the time was a leading expert on old age and poverty, Professor Peter Townsend, who'd recently been appointed to the first chair in sociology at the new University of Essex - where, conveniently for me, I'd just started research for a PhD on the sociology of suicide.

So a two-year Post Office research fellowship was set up at Essex to investigate 'communication and isolation in old age' and, if I hadn't been lucky enough to get the job, it's unlikely I'd have ever have got anywhere near to completing the doctorate, let alone embarking on an academic career.

My first encounter with conversation analysis
But it wasn't just the two years of salary that came my way thanks to Mr Benn, but the initial work on the project led to a discovery that would have a much more profound impact on my life's work. Dorothy Smith had just moved to Essex from Berkeley, where she'd come across a young graduate student called Harvey Sacks, who'd recently finished a PhD based on tape-recorded telephone conversations on a helpline at a suicide prevention agency in California.

This held out the prospect of being able to kill both my research birds (into telephones and suicide) with a single stone. The only trouble was that, insofar as anyone in British sociology had heard of Sacks in 1968, his work was already being written off as far too methodologically innovative, daring, eccentric and controversial to be acceptable by the mainstream of the discipline.

Fascinated though I was by it, I didn't have the guts to try to sell the idea of doing something similar to my Post Office sponsors or to my senior colleagues at Essex - so I ended up playing safe and did a thoroughly boring, though worthy enough, survey of a national random sample over 65 year-olds.

Meanwhile, Harvey Sacks, along with Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson were beginning to attract wider recognition as founders of the new field of conversation analysis. So, by the time I eventually finished my PhD thesis, the gist of the final chapter concluded with the modest proposal that all hitherto existing sociology, from Durkheim's Le Suicide onwards, was methodologically flawed and that the future lay with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

At the time, I didn't have much of a clue as to how you would actually get to such a promised land, let alone what the results would look like if ever you got there. But it eventually took me into research aimed at applying the methodology of conversation analysis to more formal settings like court rooms and, eventually political speeches and public speaking more generally.

And all because of Tony Benn
If Tony Benn had never been Postmaster General and if he hadn't known Peter Townsend, none of this would ever have happened - which is why I'm so thankful to him for his hidden, but nonetheless profound and far-reaching, impact on my life and work.

1 comment:

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what i like most is the book title our masters voice, which tells us about politics.