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Academic Staff

Professor Ted Benton

Telephone01206 872650
BiographyI began my working life as a science teacher in a pioneering comprehensive school in Leicester. Subsequent study for degrees in philosophy eventually led to my appointment as philosophy lecturer in the sociology department at Essex (where I have remained ever since).

My background in both philosophy and the natural sciences (especially biology) is quite unusual for a sociologist, and I have tried to use my interest in these areas to make a distinctive contribution in several sociological controversies.

1. My earlier research focused on a range of issues at the boundaries of sociology and philosophy. At that time ‘positivist’/empiricist positions were in battle against their hermeneutic/interpretivist critics. I was amongst a small group of academics who tried to move the debate beyond that polarity by foregrounding non-empiricist but still realist accounts of the ‘natural’ sciences. This showed that there were ways of representing the sorts of knowledge aimed at in the social sciences which did not fit into either  the ‘positivist’ or the interpretivist models. Philosophical Foundations of the Three Sociologies (1977) was one of the founding texts of what has come to be known as ‘critical realism’, while the 2001 Philosophy of Social Science (with the late Ian Craib) developed those ideas in the light of subsequent work in the field.

2. At the same time I continued to work on a series of projects which could be described as ‘history of ideas’. In part this work focused on the history of biological ideas, with the aim of developing a realist but non-empiricist view of the nature of biological explanations, and also of the character of conceptual change and innovation in the life-sciences. But I was also concerned with wider questions of the relationships between biological ideas and both social scientific and ‘popular’ understandings of human nature and social processes. This resulted in a series of articles, including the very influential ‘Biology and social science’ (Sociology 1991). Another outcome was the book Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights, and Social Justice (1993) which engaged with the current debate about the moral status of non-human animals and at the same time constructed conceptual means for thinking about the place of humans in nature consistent with but not reducible to Darwinian evolutionary theory and ecology. This same theme also issued in a series of critiques of ‘ultra-Darwinian’ reductive accounts of human nature and society (eg the 1999 ‘Evolutionary psychology and social science’ in Advances in Human Ecology). One current research interest is a related historical/ critical exploration of the debate between Darwin and Wallace on human evolution and prospects (‘Race, sex and the earthly paradise’, forthcoming).

3. In the course of all this, I also attempted to develop a version of historical materialist social theory on the basis of the view of social scientific knowledge that the group of ‘critical realist’ philosophers had been elaborating (The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, 1984). One upshot of that attempt was a recognition that the most sophisticated version of Marxism at that time (‘structural Marxism’) was (like almost all social science at that time) radically under-developed in its view of the relations between human social forms and the natural environment. In part, this was a consequence of the attempt (laudable in itself) of the structural Marxists to counter critics of economic-determinist versions of Marxism, with an emphasis on developing Marxist cultural theory.

4. Both intellectually and politically I had been concerned with the seriousness of the challenge posed by the rise of ecological politics and the growing recognition of the dangers of environmental degradation. In the latter part of the 1980s my research efforts were devoted to a critical engagement with ecological and environmentalist literatures, and this issued in a series of publications on ‘green’ social and political theory, as well as an ecological critique of ‘orthodox’ Marxism. This latter insisted that deep level conceptual revision was required, but that several features of the Marxian theoretical heritage were indispensible (both theoretically and practically) for any adequate response to the ‘ecological challenge’ (e.g. Marxism and natural limits New Left Review 1989; Ecology, Socialism and the mastery of nature, New Left Review 1992; With M Redclift (ed.) Social Theory and the Global Environment, 1994).

5. Independently of my academic research and writing I have been active as a field naturalist and ecologist, with numerous written and photographic publications. One of these (Bumblebees, New Naturalist 98, 2006) was an attempt to bring sociological insights into a topic so far studied from natural scientific perspectives. This has been very well received and prompted the award of the Stamford Raffles prize for 2007 by the Zoological Society of London.

QualificationsCertEd and BA (Leicester) BPhil (Oxford)  PhD (Essex)
Current research1. As part of my long-standing collaboration with others in the Red-Green Study Group, I am working on modes of analysis of the current global capitalist crisis and its ‘overdetermination’ by long-run forms of ecological degradation, and attempts to think through feasible political strategies for alternative social and ecological futures. The intention is that this will result in an extended and up-dated sequel to our early pamphlet What on Earth is to be Done?, 1995. Other, ‘spin-off’ publications will (and have already – eg contributions to the international journal Capitalism Nature Socialism 2007) emerge in the course of this large project.

2. My interest in the relation between the life-sciences and social sciences is continuing in a historical/ critical investigation of the debate between Darwin and A. R. Wallace on human evolution and future prospects. The engagements between them and some key associates in the latter part of the 19th century have a direct bearing on today’s ‘stand-off’ between ‘humanist’ social scientists and ‘ultra-Darwinian’ reductionists. Issues of race, sexuality, and the feasibility of non-antagonistic social relations are among the topics addressed.

3. A second edition of my 2001 book with Ian Craib, Philosophy of Social Science has been requested by the publishers, and I am currently working on that.

4. continuing work in the life-sciences involves work on a film and another work in Collins’s New Naturalist series on Grasshoppers and Crickets (forthcoming 2010)

Research interests
  • Philosophy of the social sciences
  • Modern social theories, especially marxian and neo-marxian
  • Environmental sociology
  • Rural/urban divide
  • Some aspects of the history of the life-sciences (especially Darwin and Wallace).

I was a founder memeber and continue to be active in the Red-Green Study Group (an association devoted to making connections between socialist and green political thought and practice). Also a well-known photographer and natural history writer, with many publications on insects, notably butterflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers and crickets, and dragonflies.

A detailed account of my contributions, and the areas of debate that I've been involved in is given in Moog, S. & Stones, R. (eds) Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs: essays in honour of Ted Benton (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Teaching responsibilitiesTeaches classical and modern social theory on the department's 'core' courses, as well as our undergraduate course in philosophy of social science. Over the last 12 years has developed a strong interest in environmental issues, and teaches an MA option on 'Society and the Environment'. This is a recommended option for our interdisciplinary Masters degree in Environment and Society, and Ted also teaches on the introductory and 'core' modules for that degree.

Graduate Supervision:

Usually from 6-8 Ph.D. students, working on various aspects of social and political theory, but with an increasing focus on ecological and environmental social movements, global issues, and green/left social theory.

Current Graduate Supervision:

Vibeke Hansen 'Changing attitudes to animals in contemporary Spanish culture'Hua-Mei Chiu, 'Environmental-economic confrontation of high-tech industry in Taiwan'
Dimitrios Kyparissis, 'Political socialisation of Greek activists'
Laurence Reynolds, 'Biotechnology: Remaking of Nature, Society & Social Theory'
Robin West, 'The Fordham Project: A study of community & environmental transition

PublicationsLink to publications for Ted Benton

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