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Sociology: News


Frank Bechhofer has passed away

We are very sad to announce that Frank Bechhofer has passed away.


Frank was born in Nuremberg, and left Germany when he was three years old, settling in Nottingham where his father re-established his business making tinsel ribbon and wire-coated string.  He attended Nottingham Grammar School, and did Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge (at Queens College), graduating in 1959, with an MA in 1962. Thereafter, he was a research student in industrial management in the Department of Engineering, and was elected Foundation Scholar at Queen’s College in 1960. Frank was a keen hill walker, and as a summer job as a student, took groups walking in the Lake District. His early research was in industrial sociology and the sociology of work, and he joined the research team in the Department of Applied Economics led by John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood, along with Jennifer Platt.  Between 1962 and 1965 they carried out the Affluent Worker Study published by Cambridge University Press as three major co-authored volumes in 1968 and 1969, a piece of research of such fame that it was translated into German (1970, 1971), Swedish (1971), French (1972) and Italian (1973).

Frank’s interests broadened into studies of inequality, stratification and the class structure, and he came to Edinburgh as a lecturer in sociology in 1965. He was promoted to Reader in 1971, and to Professor of Social Research in 1987. Frank’s métier was also research methods, rather wished upon him by his head of department, Tom Burns, and he used to say that he was kept on his toes by being one lecture ahead of the students. He subsequently founded the research seminar on social stratification, funded by the Social Science Research Council, which took place mainly at Cambridge University, bringing together leading lights and producing memorably heated arguments. Frank revived the Research Centre for Social Science at Edinburgh, and turned it into a major unit for empirical research in social science.

Frank had an excellent eye for research problems, and used to say that you needed two things for a successful research application: a good idea, and an ingenious way of getting at it. His book with Lindsay Paterson, ‘Principles of Research Design in the Social Sciences’ (2000) is a gem which grew out of teaching graduate students. He successfully taught research methods to a generation of students, was dean of graduate studies, but above all, put his money where his mouth was by winning a slew of research grants. With Brian Elliott, he studied small shopkeepers, and broadened it out, with Brian Elliott and David McCrone, to studies of small business politics and middle class movements in Britain, which identified the early development of the 'New Right' and the mobilisation of small business groups by the Conservative party. He did not have any truck with the fashionable notion that you could only study what you were sympathetic to. Studying what anyone was up to was always fair game.

Never one to shirk a challenge, in 1975, he took himself, Jean and his young children off to Poland where he was visiting professor at the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University, and experienced the delights of living in a tower block in a steel town under the previous Communist regime without speaking a word of Polish. Thereafter, his research activity moved away from class and stratification in the 1980s towards the study of Scotland, its demography and occupational structure. In the later 1980s, he coordinated the Edinburgh team, with Michael Anderson, David McCrone, and Bob Morris, on Social Change and Economic Life Initiative in their study of Kirkcaldy/Glenrothes. His work, with David McCrone, on Scotland’s social structure, which had begun in the early 1980s, and their partnership took them into studies of national identity from the 1990s, above all, a decade-long collaboration, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, culminating in their book, ‘Understanding National Identity’ (2015). Above all, Frank believed that doing social research is in essence a collegial activity, and practised what he preached.

As well as being an excellent scholar, Frank was a splendid academic citizen. He served on numerous committees of the British Sociological Association, was on its executive committee from 1968 to 1972, BSA’s Vice-Chair in 1983-4, and its Chair from 1984-86. He was External Examiner at Trinity College Dublin, Surrey, Warwick, and Essex, and examined numerous PhDs at home and abroad. He was a stalwart of Economic and Social Research Council committees, notably its research grants board (1989 to 1995), its research resources advisory board (1989 to 1994), and convened its Review of British Cohort Studies. He was the Consultant to the Scottish Household Survey and member of its advisory group and review board from 1998 to 2005. His eye for research and his keen lawyer-like brain and sense of fairness, made him the person to go to if you wanted good sense and rigour.

In 1997, he took early retirement from running the Research Centre for Social Science, but not that one would notice, because he was thus released to get on with research and writing. He remained, throughout his life, a sociologist to trade, always asking the question: what’s sociologically interesting about this? He served on many university committees, under Principals too numerous to mention. He was pleased to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2008, and served on RSE’s digital participation inquiry (2014). He was elected a fellow of Academy of Social Sciences in 2016. His nomination as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh described him as follows:

‘Frank Bechhofer is one of the most prominent sociologists in Scotland. From 1965 to 1997 he was a leader in the development of empirical social science research at Edinburgh University and his many publications have won him a national and international reputation. He has been especially prominent in promoting the social scientific study of modern Scotland and in persuading the research community to take devolution seriously. His own publications are a key resource for understanding Scottish society but equally important has been his behind-the-scenes work in directing and encouraging young scholars and in persuading external funders to sponsor Scottish studies and resources for study. It is no exaggeration to say that the social sciences in Scotland would have been much the poorer had he not chosen to make his career here’.

Frank was no academic narrowly defined, but someone with broad interests in music, theatre and culture, a mainstay of the Edinburgh Folk Club, a director with Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group in his early days, and someone who added lustre to his adopted country; proof if needs be, in this mongrel nation, that being Scottish is a matter of aspiration, not of birth. Germany’s loss was Scotland’s gain.

David McCrone

Main books:

The Petite Bourgeoisie: comparative studies of the uneasy stratum, (1981) Macmillan, (edited with Brian Elliott).

Social and Political Economy of the Household, (1994) Oxford University Press, (edited with Michael Anderson and Jonathan Gershuny).

Principles of Research Design in the Social Sciences, (2000), (with Lindsay Paterson).

Living in Scotland: Social and Economic Change since 1980, (2004), (with Lindsay Paterson and David McCrone).

Nationalism, National Identity and Constitutional Change, (2009) (edited with David McCrone).

Understanding National Identity, Cambridge University Press, (2015), (with David McCrone).

Frank Bechhofer