Richard Sennett – understanding the challenges of contemporary living

How come I got to be this old without every having read Richard Sennett. I was still studying this kind of stuff myself as an undergrad in the early 70s when his book (with Jonathan Cobb), ‘The Hidden Injuries of Class’, came out in 1972. It was based on interviews with white working class Bostonians, who had confused and damaged understandings of themselves, who they were, what they were for, where they fitted in to the society in which they worked.   In and among the sociological jargon that sometimes obscures, the insights arising from these ‘conversations’ express important truths about individual experience in a complex world.  An example: ” It is difficult for Ricca Kartides , even as he creates some measure of material security in his life [obviously not written after globalisation and financial crisis!!!!], to feel that his quantitative gains translate into the emotional sense of independence and assurance he wants form these material improvements.  He sees himself as receiving the ultimate form of contempt from those who stand above him in society.  He is a function, “Ricca the janitor”, he is a part of the woodwork, even though he makes $10000 a year, owns a home, drives a car and has some money in the bank for his children’s education…” (p50)

Sennett has written books with great titles – “Respect; the formation of character in an age of inequality” (a mixed autobiographical and academic reflection on identity, dignity, respect and character across the ages, with particular reference to the changes of the last 30 years), “Together: the rituals, politics and pleasures of co-operation”, “The corrosion of character” (again based on interviews with ordinary people). .. and the titles flag up the great insights.  He’s been making a difference in academic understanding and public awareness over many years.  .he deserves to be widely read for his humanity, his ability to make sociology accessible, his insight into contemporary living.

You can find lots more online – wikpedia,  or   his own website.  

I stumbled into his work through listening to the LSE podcast ‘tribute’, on his ‘retiral’:  The Sociology of Public Life.

If you only read one great contemporary sociologist I still recommend Baumann (click here  for my earlier post) but Sennet’s work, particularly the sections derived from his detailed probing interviews with ordinary people about their work, their lives and from his memories of his own development, is probably more accessible and certainly stands up there.

As I said at the start, how come it took me so long to come across him and learn from his insights.  Long may he continue to publish!


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