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Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn (1941-2015)

last modified Jun 17, 2016 04:54 PM

Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn 1941-2015 


Colleagues will have learned of the death of Geoff Hawthorn, who had been suffering from leukaemia since last summer.  Some of the sociologists will never have met him and some will only have known him distantly as a Professor in Politics. Some also will remember him as Head of Department and as a prominent figure in the difficult period when the old Social and Political Sciences Faculty was reshaping itself and being reshaped. Some will remember him as one of the very first people ever appointed to the university as a sociologist, in 1970. But many generations of students (dozens) remember him as one of the most charismatic and caring teachers ever, as an indefatigable lecturer and supervisor who gave everything he had to his undergraduate and graduate students. To that I would add that this was probably at the expense of the realization of his own enormous potential as a social and political theorist and as a man whose mind seemed to know no limits of discipline or subject matter.


A very distinguished historian recently said to me that he could think of no one, except Jack Goody, who had made contributions across such a wide range of subjects: Geoff wrote important and challenging works on  demography, which was his first specialization, (The Sociology of Fertility, 1970) in the history of social theory (Enlightment and Despair, 1976); in philosophy (Plausible Worlds, 1991) and  in political theory via ancient history Thucydides on Politics (2014), described in the TLS as ‘the most original and thought-provoking book on Thucydides to appear in the past fifteen years’.  Coming from a classicist, this is praise indeed for an author who had spent his life wearing the label of a social and then a political scientist.


The above list is incomplete for in the 1990s he developed a highly successful undergraduate course on development and seemed to devour everything in the field and sort it all out into a series of really interesting problems in politics and philosophy. For a period he also ran, together with me, a MPhil in the Sociology and Politics of Development. He managed something very unusual: to be passionate without being doctrinaire.  After that he devoted himself to pure Politics, created a highly original Politics course with Helen Thompson, and was famous for a second-year paper in which for the Michaelmas term students just had to read  a single set book - Thucydides.


Geoff came from almost the poorest and most underprivileged background one can imagine, which he describes in a long interview with Alan McFarlane which is transcribed here. He studied Geography at Oxford and says he was saved from the extreme mediocrity of the subject by a German Jewish refugee lawyer who had washed up in the Department of Agricultural Economics and had attended a late lecture by Max Weber. He then went to LSE and before he could finish his Ph.D in Sociology was appointed a Lecturer in Essex. He later came to Cambridge, and the transcript has a hilarious description of the interview. He married first Ruth Legg, with whom he had two sons, Tom and Dan, and they were like the model young Cambridge couple in the early 1970s. But eventually they divorced and later he met a beautiful Venezuelan museum curator Gloria Carnevali, with whom he had another son, Carlos. They all survive him.


 - David Lehmann

A World Leader

The Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge is a world-leading centre for teaching and research in Sociology, consistently ranked first in UK league tables by The Guardian, The Times, and the Independent.


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