The return of sociology


Theresa May’s use of sociological research in her maiden speech is thought noteworthy by Gibson Burrell

What was remarkable about Theresa May’s rhetoric outside Number 10 as she returned from kissing the Queen’s hand was the absence in her speech of economics or even politics.

Instead she drew very largely upon the concerns of British sociology, a disciplinary base that has struggled for state recognition of its legitimacy ever since Thatcherism. True, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the Blair government once commissioned research from professional sociologists, but for a Tory Prime Minister to utilise this particular social science rather than economics marks an important rhetorical shift.

Perhaps sociological research had found favour in the Home Office where Mrs May previously worked. Or perhaps the domestic arena is one where insights about the nature of ‘sociological facts’ is deemed to be most necessary. Or perhaps the reality of policy changes to be witnessed in what remains of this parliament will in no way match this shift to sociologically informed rhetoric.

Shift in rhetoric

But, indisputably, a shift in rhetoric there was. In drawing upon sociological research, she spoke of a union of all our citizens: the poor who lose nine years of life to poverty; of those who face a justice system loaded against them; of the white working class boy who has the least chance of going to university of all members of society; of those going to state schools facing disadvantageous recruitment into the professions; of women confronting much reduced income over a lifetime of employment compared to men in equivalent positions; of sufferers of mental health issues not getting access to treatment; and of the young unable to buy a first home.

The Prime Minister also said she would confront workers’ job insecurity, their inability to pay off mortgages and find good schools for their children, and their non-meritocratic career possibilities.

The message was of overcoming the huge power differentials enjoyed by the wealthy and the fortunate few. All of these issues reflect the sociological imagination much more than ones drawn from economics or conventional political science.

Symbolic value

So why did Mrs May primarily use a sociological discourse in her first speech? Rhetorics are tools of differentiation that seek to persuade, but they also have tremendous symbolic value in ‘othering’- that is to say in constructing that which one opposes.

The neglect of neo-liberal economics in her speech allows the speaker to ‘other’ a raft of social issues that the Bullingdon Club – the famous Oxford dining club once frequented by David Cameron and Boris Johnson – may well have not recognised.

It permitted launching an attack upon privileged members of Cameron’s cabinet, a shift away from ‘austerity’ as a goal, and a call for one nation conservatism in a nation state totally dominated by London and the South East. In short, sociology and sociological research were used to mark out a May government from much of what had preceded it.

But let not sociologists celebrate their renaissance too soon. The nature of power is not to give in without a struggle and sociological research is known to be dangerous – for it can, occasionally, bring on many changes.


Professor Burrell is Professor of Organisation Theory and has recently taken up the role of Section Editor responsible for ‘Business Ethics and Sociology’ in the Journal of Business Ethics.







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Alliance Manchester Business School has a global reputation for innovative and influential teaching and research, which impacts business on a local, national and international level. We call this Original Thinking Applied.

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