Prof Ted Benton

Emeritus Professor
Department of Sociology
Prof Ted Benton



Ted began his working life as a science teacher in a pioneering comprehensive school in Leicester. Subsequent study for degrees in philosophy eventually led to his appointment as philosophy lecturer in the sociology department at Essex (where he has remained ever since). His background in both philosophy and the natural sciences (especially biology) is quite unusual for a sociologist, and he has tried to use his interest in these areas to make a distinctive contribution in several sociological controversies. 1. Ted's 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. He 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 Ted 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 he 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’, in Carter & Charles (eds) 2010; Wallace's dilemmas:the laws of nature and the human spirit, in Smith & Beccaloni (eds) 2008; Alfred Russel Wallace: Explorer, Evolutionist, Public Intellectual. A Thinker for our Own Times? Siri Scientific, 2013)). 3. In the course of all this, Ted 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 Ted 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 his 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; An ecological historical materialism, in Gale & M'Gonigle (eds) 2000;Social theory and ecological politics, in Dunlap et al. (eds) 2003; Beyond neolibetralism, or life after capitalism? A red-green debate in Jones & O'Donnell (eds) 2017... etc)). 5. Independently of his academic research and writingTed has 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. Since that time he haas published several highly regarded monographs on various other invertebrate groups (e.g Grasshoppers and Crickets (New Naturalist, 2011, Solitary Bees (Pelagic, 2017, Butterflies of Britain and Northern Europe (Beaufoy, 2017) and is developing video film as an approach to the study of insect behaviour. While ostensibly books of natural history, they take further the project of engaging existing life-science approaches with insights from sociology. In the case of grasshoppers and crickets, the focus was on sexual selection and sex-divisions, in the case of 'solitary' bees, intermediate forms between 'pure' solitary life-styles and fully social ones was explored for insights into the evolutionary emergence of sociality. In all these works, sociology and political economy were used as resources in explaining a range of issues in wildlife conservation.


  • CertEd and BA Leicester,

  • BPhil Oxford,

  • PhD University of Essex,

Research and professional activities

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).

Teaching and supervision

Previous supervision

Boontawee Teamvan
Boontawee Teamvan
Thesis title: Struggling Against the Sea in Ban Khun Samut Chin: Environmental Knowledge, Community Identity and Livelihood Strategies in a Village Fighting Severe Coastal Erosion on the Gulf of Thailand
Degree subject: Sociology
Degree type: Doctor of Philosophy
Awarded date: 13/2/2017
Aristeidis Panagiotou
Aristeidis Panagiotou
Thesis title: Strong Structuration Theory in the Technological, Appropriative, and Idealogical Dimensions of Biotechnology: The Case of the Rothamsted Gm Wheat Trials
Degree subject: Sociology
Degree type: Doctor of Philosophy
Awarded date: 27/6/2014


Journal articles (1)

Benton, T., (2009). Darwin and Wallace as Environmental Philosophers. Environmental Values. 18 (4), 487-502

Books (2)

Benton, T., (2013). Alfred Russel Wallace: Explorer, Evolutionist, Public Intellectual: A Thinker for Our Own Times?. Siri Scientific Press. 9780957453029

Benton, T. and Craib, I., (2010). Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought (Second edition). Palgrave Macmillan. 9780230242609

Book chapters (3)

Benton, T., (2010). Race, sex and the ‘earthly paradise’: Wallace versus Darwin on human evolution and prospects. In: Nature, Society and Environmental Crisis. Editors: Carter, B. and Charles, N., . Wiley-Blackwell. 23- 46. 9781405193337

Benton, T., (2010). Wallace's Dilemmas: The Laws of Nature and the Human Spirit. In: Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Editors: Smith, CH. and Beccaloni, G., . Oxford University Press. 368- 390. 9780199239177

Benton, T., (2008). Conclusion: Philosophy, Materialism and Nature: Comments and Reflections. In: Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs. Essays in Honour of Ted Benton. Editors: Moog, S. and Stones, R., . Palgrave Macmillan. 9780230201156



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