Professor Tom Burns

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The Independent Online

Tom Burns, sociologist: born London 16 January 1913; Professor of Sociology, Edinburgh University 1965-81 (Emeritus); FBA 1982; married 1944 Mary Clark (one son, four daughters); died Edinburgh 20 June 2001.

Tom Burns went to Edinburgh University as a Research Lecturer in Social Studies in 1949, and 15 years later was a founding member of the university's Department of Sociology. He was appointed Professor in 1965, also serving as Head of Department.

He taught and practised sociology with vigour and imagination. Organisations, which he saw as collaborative systems, fascinated him and he was a committed researcher, whose comments on the research process remain of great value. Even as a senior professor he remained a hands-on interviewer in a range of contexts: including industry, the BBC and the NHS.

His best-known works were The Management of Innovation (with G.M. Stalker, 1961) and The BBC: public institution and private world (1971). The first of these examined the management organisation of 20 firms in the electronics industry. Out of this came the distinction between mechanistic and organic systems of management. Firms working in a stable environment with fairly fixed technologies could operate appropriately with the mechanistic system; those with rapidly changing technologies and uncertain market conditions worked better with an organic system. Since the second situation was becoming more pronounced in the post-war world, the implications of this were far reaching and went far beyond traditional conceptions of what constituted good management practice.

The emphasis was on organisations that were non-hierarchical, with a networking structure of control, authority and communication, with omniscience no longer attributed to the head of the firm. The long shelf-life of this book, which was reissued some 30 years after its first publication, is a tribute to its insights.

Burns had perceptive things to say about the plurality of systems within organisations: the work organisation itself, the political aspects of career advancement and the status system. The ways in which these interrelated could affect the culture of the company and ultimately its success. It took very extensive qualitative interviewing to reveal how this worked.

This was something Burns explored further in his book on the BBC. The original work for this was done in 1963. To his surprise, an experience he described as "utterly mystifying", the BBC refused to allow him to publish. But in 1972 the decision was changed. Burns used the opportunity to bring the study up to date and show how administrative changes were impinging on concepts of work, public service and commitment to the BBC. It is a book full of thoughtful analysis and sharp insights.

Both of these books illustrate Burns's style of research and his approach to the sociological task. This he expressed in the preface to the second edition of The Management of Innovation:

by perceiving behaviour as a medium of constant interplay and mutual redefinition of individual identities and social institutions . . . it is possible to begin to grasp the nature of changes, developments and historical processes through which we move and which we help to create.

In 1995, Edinburgh University Press published a selection of Burns's essays, Description, Explanation and Understanding. They include some autobiographical material and reveal the wide range of Burns's intellectual interests. There is an uncluttered essay on sociological explanation, for example, and a historically grounded piece on the organisation of public opinion. The book deserves to be better known.

Born in 1913 in London, he attended Hague St Elementary School and Parmiter's Foundation School, then read English Literature at Bristol University. For five years thereafter he worked as a school teacher. An appointment as "lektor" in English at Helsinki University was cut short by the Second World War.

For the period of the war he served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit, and afterwards became press and information officer for the Bournville Village Trust. He also served as a research assistant to the West Midland Group of Post-War Reconstruction and Planning, leading to published work on the relation between local government and central control.

Measured by today's routine practices, his entry into sociology was late and unconventional. But he brought to his subject a breadth of experience. He was also extremely well read and enjoyed a rich cultural life. (He and his wife Elizabeth jointly published work on the sociology of literature.)

Burns also wrote, in 1991, Erving Goffman, an elegant intellectual biography of the American sociologist. Goffman, he wrote,

made clear what was previously unclear, pointed to the significance of things which had been regarded as of little or no consequence, and disentangled what was previously all indiscriminate muddle.

That, too, is what Tom Burns did.

John Eldridge