Richard Sennett

Philosophy Bites is a podcast that has been produced since 2007 by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. In the spirit of the Open University, where Nigel Warburton taught until recently, the podcast brings some of the world’s leading thinkers within reach of non-specialists. There are now more than 250 short interviews on subjects as diverse as love, free market fairness and the simulation argument (don’t ask – or rather, do).

In 2012, Edmonds and Warburton began a new series called Social Science Bites, and though fewer interviews have yet been produced, they offer equally interesting conversations with some outstanding thinkers. One of the first was with Richard Sennett, an American sociologist (for want of a better, single word description), who has written on culture, cities and social relations.

The interview was published on 1 May 2012, the day after Where We Dream, and it felt like a valuable affirmation of the ideas and way of working that I was exploring. Listening to it again, 18 months on, that seems even clearer. So here are a few extracts from Richard Sennett’s conversation that were particularly resonant for Regular Marvels. It helps, of course, that he speaks with such elegant authority…

Richard Sennett in conversation with Nigel Warburton

‘The methods I’ve used in my work are intensive interviewing, which is ethnography, a standard skill set for anthropologists, and now many younger sociologists have returned to ethnography. I’m quite interested because of that in issues of, philosophically, in issues of narrative, because ethnography is all about, they are, created narratives.’

‘Some of it also has to do with a very particular concern that I’ve had throughout my life which is how to write in such a way that connects with a reader, how to revive the idea of the long intense essay which was so natural to earlier generations of social thinkers and rather died out in our time. And one of the ways to do that is not to hide behind a mask with your readers so that they don’t know who’s speaking to them.’

‘I’d say this is another enormous challenge that modern human sciences face, which is how to learn to write outward rather than to talk down to readers.’

‘To me the canons of good social research are […] that you’ve done justice to the struggle that somebody else might have to actually say what they mean. Now that’s neither true nor false but it’s a canon of probity for the interviewer, and that means you don’t take people as examples of a social condition like being a white woman working class resident of Neasden, but that they exist as a competent subject struggling to make sense of their experience.’

‘When we read writers like de Tocqueville or Weber, we don’t read them in order to know ‘well he solved that one’, we read them because they’ve been able to put their hands on really significant issues and say something provocative about them. The notion that social science solves problems, you can forget about it because we have the data, it’s kind of an imperialist recipe that is to say that you don’t have to think about this anymore because we’ve solved the problem for you, I have all the data for it.’

‘My project is to write. I don’t want to go into government, I don’t want to be an advisor to anybody.’

The full interview and transcript can be found here: Richard Sennett on Social Science Bites.

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