Christopher Thorpe is the latest addition to Exeter University’s Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology department, taking over from Anthony King, who left in December. Thorpe graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 2008 with a PhD in Sociology, having already secured a lecturing role at the Robert Gordon University in 2007. In this interview, we ask him about what led him to the subject, his philosophical thoughts and his life prior to and since academia.
Could you tell us a little about your life prior to academia, and how you became interested in Sociology?
When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of subject choice for further study. I wasn’t particularly interested in going to university, so I didn’t. I wanted to travel and work abroad, in Italy specifically, so that’s what I did. I worked on a campsite, learned Italian fluently and subsequently returned to Lake Garda and Verona every year during the summers whilst I did my undergraduate degree in sociology. In terms of what attracted me to sociology, this is a vexed question! I tend to think such a question is a bit misleading because it implies I made a conscious decision to do sociology, which of course, I did at one level. What I didn’t do, or rather, what I cannot lay claim to, are the very many aspects of myself that meant sociology struck me as the only game in town. I went to private school and grew up in a boarding house but my father went to the LSE and was a local Labour candidate for a while (it’s a long story!). Sociological ways of thinking enabled me to understand the social conditions out of which my own selfhood developed, a sense of selfhood that I always felt slightly at odds with at one level. Therein, I believe, lays part of the truth behind what was to become something akin to a very intense relationship!
For those who aren’t familiar with it, what kind of research did you undertake during your time at Aberdeen?
During my time at Aberdeen, and at the Robert Gordon University before that, I began to develop my research interests. One strand of my work, which I hope to reengage with very soon, builds on the subject of my PhD thesis and is concerned with inter-cultural dynamics and processes between Italy and Britain. In particular, I am interested in the ways culture generally, but Italian culture specifically, is understood, shaped and consumed by different social class-groups in the U.K. Part of this involves looking at the ways in which aspects of Italian culture that seem quite banal for native Italians are re-appropriated into the lifestyles of dominant social groups as markers of class-based taste and distinction. In terms of my interest in (Italian) culture, my next project, which I have discussed with Jeffrey Alexander, whom I was fortunate enough to meet, will involve using my PhD thesis as the basis for writing a structural hermeneutics of international cultural interchange between Italy and Britain. On a completely different note, I am presently in the latter stages of writing a social theory textbook aimed at social work students and professionals entitled: Social Theory for Social Work: Ideas and Applications. Part of my teaching remit involved teaching Masters level social work postgraduates. They loved the insights that social theory gave them, but the issue of how to incorporate them into their thinking and practice was not clear to them, and the book aims to address this.
Do you identify with any schools of Sociology in particular?
I suppose I do, yes, but always in a context wherein I am aware that this says as much about me as it does about the merits of the ideas of that school. An act of identification always implies a relationship and relationships are more likely to take hold and develop in certain contexts and not others. In fact, the issue of the context in which an elective affinity springs up between a given thinker and a particular set of ideas is one which interests me a great deal and is something I have written about.
Do you have a favourite academic book/paper/piece of research etc.?
As a piece of writing I was massively impressed with Simon Charlesworth’s ‘A Phenomenology of Working-Class Experience’. I think, really it should have been entitled ‘Phenomenology of Unemployment’, but there you go. I think his use of language, once you take the time to master it, is brilliant. I know certain writing styles are accused as being overly obfuscatory, but to write about the things he does, and so well, I believe requires going beyond everyday ways of thinking and writing. I am okay with that. I wish I could write like that.
Do you think there are any sociologists/anthropologists/philosophers whose importance and work is underestimated?
I can think of a few who are vastly overrated – that would have been an easier question! Not that I think his work is necessarily underestimated, but I don’t believe students are exposed enough to the work of Simmel. I think too, that the work of Norbert Elias is a considerable achievement, although like Simmel, his work is regarded as something a little off the beaten track. Elias obviously owes a large debt to Simmel, which he seems very little concerned to have acknowledged, ironically! I think sociology in the present day would have been quite different had the work of these two thinkers been embraced more by the discipline.
Is there a major issue – whether philosophical or political – on which you’ve changed your mind?
This will sound incredibly soppy, but I am a bit of an old romantic at heart. I think my views on the issue of love have changed. One can, and many have, tried to philosophize and think about love sociologically and anthropologically, but I have never read anything that I feel really does the subject justice. Bourdieu’s analysis of love, for example, ends in a kind of self-affirming narcissism. Luhmann focusses on the different forms love has taken at different times and what is understood to constitute love, but really, as it is experienced and in terms of its power as a motivating force in human life, it remains a very powerful and largely analytically resistant topic. I read quite recently a relatively unknown book called ‘Love and Limerence’, which I thought was brilliant (I wouldn’t say I loved it), but ironically the author ended by concluding that her study had not really provided her with any real insights into what love is or why it is capable of exerting such strong feelings – and not necessarily positive ones – over people.
Finally, can you name a favourite novel, album and TV series?
My favourite novel is tough, not least because one’s tastes change with the passing of time. That said, I am rather fond of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The story is a very simple one and yet it operates on so many levels. It’s a psychological thriller of the highest order. My favourite album is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I cannot sit still listening to it. My favourite TV series is ITV’s adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories featuring the superlative, Jeremy Brett. Cumberbatch is good but when I watch Brett at no point do I ever feel that he is acting. I like that.