Obituary: Professor Ilya Neustadt
Anthony Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. His most recent book, ‘Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe?’, is published by Cambridge: Polity Press
Friday 19 February 1993
ILYA NEUSTADT had an extraordinary impact upon the development of sociology in Britain. In his prime he was a man of prodigious energy, who built up what was in the 1960s probably the most influential department of sociology in the country. Through his commitment and dedication, coupled with his inspiring teaching, Neustadt was a model for generations of students. He brought to his academic work a fervour and an unbridled intellectual curiosity that was altogether rare.
Neustadt was born in 1915 in southern Russia, near Odessa. While he was still very young, his family moved to Bessarabia, where he received his early education. This early migration was the first of several that he was to experience in the formative years of his academic career. At school he leaned towards the natural sciences and undertook to study medicine in Bucharest. From his medical studies he developed a lasting interest in biology, but decided not to pursue a medical career. Instead, he came to concentrate upon economics and the social sciences.
Fluent in French as well as Romanian and Russian, he went off to continue his education in Belgium, eventually receiving a doctorate from the Liege School of Economics for a thesis on International Organisation in Central Europe. He did not at that point regard himself as a sociologist; music ranked as highly among his concerns as intellectual work. He was a violinist of some considerable promise and studied at the Conservatoire at the same time as he was writing his dissertation.
Fleeing from the Nazis he escaped to Britain. Wanting to pursue developing interests in politics, he enrolled at the London School of Economics and sought to obtain supervision from Harold Laski. Laski, however, was unavailable. Neustadt was instead referred to the sociologist Morris Ginsberg, and thereby moved into the subject that was henceforth to dominate his concerns.
Neustadt obtained a doctoral degree from the LSE for a thesis on the social structure of Belgian society. As a newly arrived emigre few avenues of academic advancement were open to him. For some while he worked as an assistant in the LSE Library. In 1949, however, he managed to obtain a lecturing post at what was then the University College of Leicester, as Lecturer in Sociology in the Economics Department.
He made an immediate impression and launched into the first of many battles to establish his chosen subject within the academy. To friends and enemies alike he piled mystery upon mystery. Hailing from an exotic and cosmopolitan background, armed with formidable scholarly resources, he was concerned to propagate a discipline which at that time was more or less unknown in British universitites. Enemies he certainly did make, but those won over by his intellectual gifts and rhetorical skills became devoted followers.
From his very first years at Leicester, Neustadt drew to him some of the ablest students in the university. Many were to go on to distinguished careers in academic life and outside. One of his earliest students, Bryan Wilson (now a Fellow of All Souls and Reader in Sociology at Oxford), has spoken of the spell which he exerted. He was, Wilson observes, completely different from the other members of the teaching staff - 'by turns highly critical, endlessly time-taking, charming, amusing and irascible'. The teaching sessions would frequently last for several hours, proving a burden to some but to others a source of endless excitement. By his example he taught that an intellectual life is a full-time one, not something to be confined to the hours in the classroom: he was always 'exploring ideas, ruminating, in a sense teaching'.
Neustadt remained at Leicester for the duration of his academic career, apart from a year which he spent as a visiting Professor in Ghana. A fully fledged Department of Sociology was set up in 1959 and he became appointed to a new Chair in 1962. In his inaugural lecture, appropriately entitled 'Teaching Sociology', he set out a vision of sociological thinking that has become enormously influential. Sociology in his view is the core social science; its concepts and findings are relevant to all the others. Studying sociology is far more than just receiving an education in a particular vocational area, it is a quest for social understanding that at the same time demands self-interrogation; learning sociology means looking at one's own life with new eyes.
Neustadt's influence at Leicester was combined with that of Norbert Elias, who joined the department some three years after Neustadt's own arrival. At that time Elias's work was virtually unknown; it was only much later that Elias came to be acknowledged as one of the world's leading social thinkers. Neustadt had recognised his eminence from the beginning and provided a platform at Leicester for the development of Elias's work. Elias's teaching during the 1960s and 1970s was a vital support for Neustadt's own dedication and flair. A formidable pair, they nurtured the talents of a diversity of scholars who passed through Leicester, as students and as teachers.
Neustadt's years of retirement were marked by a progressive physical decline, the result of Parkinsonism, which he first contracted while still a relatively young man. Until near the end his mind remained as alert as ever. He was afraid of death, yet not afraid to say so; just as with every aspect of life, he would say, death lends itself to sociological analysis. Neustadt had no time for the melancholy of Schopenhauer, for whom 'what has been exists no more; and exists just a little as that which has never been'. His own life and work give the lie to such a view. His influence will be manifest for years to come in the work of those across the world who were his students and colleagues.
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