Obituary for Emeritus Professor of Sociology, John Eldridge

Published: 7 February 2023

We remember our late colleague, John Eldridge, with an obituary written by Professor Bridget Fowler


Older man wearing glasses and robes standing at lectern

It is with much sadness that I heard of the death of John Eldridge at the age of 86. I first met John in 1972 when he arrived in Glasgow as the inaugural  Professor of Sociology: I was then a young lecturer. I remember the care and enthusiasm with which he galvanised the department, helping launch immediately a Single Honours degree in Sociology. He also supported - and indeed inspired - our ideas for a reformed university. This was at a time when, post-1968 workers’ and students’ movements, we had a challenging programme for academic freedom. For example, when an  independent Faculty of Social Sciences came into being,  John backed fundamental changes to assessment, away from the exam-only model, speaking strongly in Senate in their favour. From then on, students could submit essays as 50% of their assessed work as well as their own dissertations - at that time, quite a breakthrough.

Born in 1936 and living through extreme disruption in his native town of Southampton during the Second World War, John nevertheless became a high-achieving 11+ grammar school student, as well as a national Junior Chess Champion.  He was subsequently educated at the University of Leicester (BSc Econ and Masters). Leicester at that time was one of the very best departments of sociology nationally, with three distinguished exiles on its sociology staff: Norbert Elias,  Ilya Neustadt and Ernest Gellner. John’s Masters’ dissertation was on race relations, an interest he was to return to when he helped establish a law unit in Glasgow so that ethnic minorities might have access to better representation.

He arrived at Glasgow after lecturing at York and being a professor of sociology at Bradford. He immediately established a  Glasgow-based Centre for Industrial Democracy and Participation, undertaking empirical studies of management at a time in the 1970s, like now, of high numbers of strikes. With John MacInnes and Peter Cressey he published Just Managing: Authority and Democracy in Industry (1985) advocating workplace democracy, or at the very least effective co-determination. He went on to write a distinguished book on  Wright Mills (1983) which shows his capacity for sparklingly- lucid prose and judicious handling of contentious debates. This is, in my view, perhaps the finest of his monographs.

Profoundly influenced by the heterodox Weberian sociology of C W Mills, this led him directly to another highly contested social science terrain. A pressing concern of Mills’ The Power Elite had been the distorted media representation of “the masses” and the decline of democratic publics. John quickly set up, as the founder member, the Glasgow University Media Group. This was established to investigate bias on television news, particularly in the depiction of industrial disputes. John’s own single-authored book, in 1968, had been a major analytical study entitled Industrial Disputes: this early research became the lynchpin for the Media Group enquiries.

Thus it was John’s close knowledge of industrial conflict - its patterns and causes - that  led the Media Group to address the biased representation of strikes. The Group - including also Greg Philo, Howard Davis, Brian Winston and Pete Beharrell - had an interdisciplinary background, with skills in television production as well as social science.  They undertook meticulous content analyses of the video-recorded  forms of speech in news reports and interviews.  As John remarked later, rather than sampling, the new technology of video-recording allowed analysis of entire stories in the news as they developed over the months: an unparalleled basis for empirical discussion of bias.  The researchers addressed issues such as the precise hierarchy which existed in different groups’ access to television interviewers  - showing, for example, that not a single striking worker was interviewed nationally in the Glasgow Dustcart dispute of 1975. Even more shockingly, they revealed the absence of any historical context  to aid the understanding of workers in conflict.

The initial publication of these pioneering studies, Bad News (1976), gave indisputable evidence of disparities in media portrayals of managements and workers, in other words, the absence of their claimed “impartiality” and “balance”. John himself was later to situate  the Group’s findings much more theoretically in works such as Getting the Message (1993).

In 1976, as a professor, he received intense criticism from both BBC and ITV professionals on their first publication. The Media Group was repudiated as “politically naïve” or even a “shadowy guerrilla group”: indeed "the hostility” - he said later - “was quite extraordinary”.

John did not receive an easy passage through the University of Glasgow either.  He was called to meet  the Principal of the time, Alwyn Williams, who required him to respond to the BBC’s complaints.  Showing great scientific courage, he refused to dilute or recant the earlier conclusions. It should be noted that The Media Group’s publications are now canonised as indispensable to both media studies and sociology curricula - not just in Britain, but internationally.  

Nor did John have an easy passage when he came to be President of the British Sociological Association in 1979 -1981, at the height of Thatcherism. “Margaret Thatcher” as he put it later, was “the enemy of sociology!”  As such, she decided to abolish the Social Science Research Council. John as BSA President fought tirelessly, to preserve this crucial source of State funding, helping to establish as a supporting body  the Association of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences  (ALSISS) in 1982 (now the Academy of Social Sciences).  The Social Science Research Council was saved,  although it had to be rechristened the Economic and Social Research Council. It was both for this and for the quality of his research that John was given in 2018 the British Sociological Association’s  Distinguished Service to Sociology award and an Hon D. Litt. from the University of Edinburgh.

John combined his  rich life as a sociologist with being a Methodist lay preacher. Indeed he gained his commitment to social justice, equality and democracy from that forceful dissenting tradition. It was this nonconformist tradition, too, that informed his reading of Karl Marx, Max Weber, R.H. Tawney, C. Wright Mills; of Raymond Williams, also, on whom he wrote another illuminating book, with his daughter, Lizzie.

It is for his ability to accomplish highly innovative research in the light of those values that he will be remembered. We remember, too, his public commitments, including to the Glasgow Ethnic Relations Law Unit, and to the Iona Community; we are indebted for his academic service to generations of staff and students, including his much-admired informal lecturing style. 

Personally, I shall never forget his tolerance when my children were young, his friendship and also his warm encouragement. He leaves his wife, Christine, his children, Lizzie, Paul and Alison (a tutor in Sociology at Glasgow) and three grandchildren.

John Eric Thomas Eldridge, born 17.5.1936, died 24.12.2022.

Bridget Fowler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology

First published: 7 February 2023

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