Paul Anderson, review of A Commitment to Campaign: A Sociological Study of CND by John Mattausch (Manchester, £29.95), Tribune 25 August 1989

Back in the sixties, Frank Parkin did a study of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Middle Class Radicals, that is still on the reading lists of political sociology students in Britain’s universities.

Parkin’s line on the first “ban-the-bomb” movement, based largely on responses to questionnaires put out well after it had passed its peak, was that it was something of an emotional prop for its deviant, alienated, highly educated adherents. It is a measure of how far this analysis hurt that books are still being written to attack it.

Mattausch starts from methodological premises: Parkin was writing before ethnomethodology and phenomenology hit British sociology: overwhelmed by positivism, he never engaged in empathetic understanding of how his “middle class radicals” perceived their project in the context of their everyday lives. In other words, Parkin didn’t spend hours and hours listening to what CNDers had to say and recording it in minute detail.

Mattausch has an important point: it is daft to make grand assumptions about what motivates people without talking to them, and in-depth interviews are undoubtedly the best way of finding out what people think.

But that’s not the end of the story. Doing sociology this way has its own problems. Which people should be chosen for interview, and how should they be chosen? How can the chosen few be considered “typical” of those not interviewed? And what should the interviewees be asked?

Mattausch chose to talk to “grass-roots” CND members and elected officers in two groups, one in a Scottish city and another in the south of England, and interviewed them in most detail about their CND activities and employment, with general political beliefs and ideas about international affairs taking a back seat. Much that comes out of the interviews is interesting, not least the heterogeneity of the CNDers’ broad political views and the disproportionate number of them who work as welfare professionals.

But the overall effect is rather frustrating. His samples are small, and are drawn from only two places, both with very particular political cultures, so it is difficult to draw many substantial general conclusions from his research. More important, the absence from his “interview schedule” of serious questions about attitudes to international affairs severely limits the value of the whole exercise.

Mattausch’s book provides some useful insights into the peace movement, but much of the picture is missing.

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