Professor John Rex was a leading figure in British sociology, chairing departments at various universities and founding two, at Durham and Warwick. A leading scholar in the field of race or ethnic relations in the UK, he participated in comparative and collaborative studies on the topic in Europe and elsewhere and was well-known internationally for his work in this area, and as a theorist of social conflict.
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1925, he volunteered for the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Returning to South Africa, he graduated in sociology and philosophy from Rhodes University, but his sense of the injustice of the racial oppression there, and in Southern Rhodesia, where he worked for a short time, drove him to settle in the UK.
His first academic appointment was at the department of extra-mural studies at Leeds University; subsequently, awarded a PhD for a thesis on the philosophy of social research, he joined its department of social studies. Later, his reputation as an inspirational teacher drew many undergraduates to sociology degrees, a number of whom became distinguished sociologists. His book Discovering Sociology (1973) was based on his lectures to undergraduates.
His first book, Key Problems in Sociological Theory (1961), remains unsurpassed in its freshness and brio. It was path-breaking for drawing on the teachings of Max Weber and the methodology of social science.
Rex's emphasis on social conflict contrasted with the centrality accorded to consensus on basic values as necessary for social integration by influential schools of thought at the time. He argued that group conflicts were not necessarily detrimental to social order, and under certain conditions in industrial society may in fact be indispensable to it. Social conflicts, in his view, do not always pivot around social classes in the Marxist definition, for structured social inequality may arise from a variety of sources, something which Weber had emphasised. These themes were elaborated by the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf in the late 1950s-60s. The partial convergence of their outlooks led to their names being paired for a long time as the major conflict theorists in contemporary sociology.
Though he maintained a distinctive theoretical perspective, he did not seek to form a school. He was open-minded and tolerant of divergent standpoints, as can be seen from the appointments he was involved in, and from the representation of many schools of thought in the volume he edited, Approaches to Sociology (1974). Scholars from a variety of theoretical perspectives contributed to the Festschrift I edited in his honour, Knowledge and Passion (1993).
Although studies of race relations in Britain had been conducted before by academics in sociology and anthropology, Rex's book on race relations in Birmingham, Race, Community and Conflict: a Study of Sparkbrook (with Robert Moore, 1967), was the first in which empirical research was informed by a distinctive theoretical approach. All his subsequent studies in the area of race and ethnicity stressed the importance of clear theoretical concepts in the analysis of data. The research for his first book on the subject made him realise how fraught race relations were in the area studied, and he argued that unless appropriate policies were enacted it was likely that serious clashes would arise – as eventually happened.
Recognition for this work came with his appointment as director of the SSRC Research Unit on Race Relations and with invitations to participate in research. His integrity and fair-mindedness were appreciated, and prized through the disputes and polarisations that were endemic in these studies.
Among his books were Colonial Immigrants in a British City: a Class Analysis (with Sally Tomlison, 1979); Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1983); The Ghetto and the Underclass (1987); Ethnic Minorities and the Modern Nation State (1996). The last volume he published in this area was Governance in Multicultural Societies (2004, co-edited with Gurharpal Singh).
He never became a public intellectual in the way that, say, Ernest Gellner or Anthony Giddens did, but he was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was involved in the early days of Universities and New Left Review. He also stood for selection as a Labour candidate; fortunately for social science, he was not successful.
John Arderne Rex, sociologist: born Port Elizabeth, South Africa 5 March 1925; married 1949 Pamela Rutherford (divorced 1963; two daughters),1965 Margaret Biggs (two sons); died 18 December 2011.
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