Sociologist, businessman and chair of the inquiry that led to the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission
In the spring of 1983, the London Review of Books published a review of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook: The First Guide to What Really Matters in Life. It was deeply serious and learned, beautifully written and structured, and made a convincing case that the authors of the handbook were better at undertaking anthropological fieldwork than they were at engaging with sociological theory. It was also a hilarious piece of academic self-parody, which concluded by regretting that neither the authors nor their publishers had recognised that “they had a bigger bestseller on their hands than even Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages in NW Melanesia”. It was scarcely coincidence that the review was published on the first of April. And it was equally unsurprising that the author of this sparkling piece was WG Runciman, the distinguished sociologist, who has died aged 86.
Runciman’s magnum opus was A Treatise on Social Theory (1983-97), a trilogy that sought to marry theoretical analysis and empirical observation, to demonstrate the appropriateness of this methodology by offering in the final volume a sociological history of 20th-century Britain, and to reinvigorate a subject that seemed to have lost its way. Yet Runciman had little time for disciplinary boundaries, and he ranged widely across the humanities and social sciences, publishing articles on topics as varied as the origins of states in ancient Greece, accelerating social mobility in Anglo-Saxon England, and charismatic legitimacy and one-party rule in Ghana.