Nachruf by Viscount Runciman von Doxford


The sociologist, entrepreneur and chairman of the investigation that led to the formation of the Commission for the Study of Criminal Cases.

The London Review of Books issued a review of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook in the spring of 1983: The First Guide to What Really Matters in Life.

It was very serious and erudite, beautifully written and arranged, and made a persuasive case that the authors of the Handbook were better at doing fieldwork in anthropology than at dealing with sociological theory.

It was also a funny piece of scholarly self-parody, ending with the disappointment that “they had a bigger bestseller on their hands than even Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages in NW Melanesia.” neither the writers nor their publishers had known.

It was hardly a coincidence that, on the first of April, the review was published.

A Treatise on Social Theory (1983-97), a trilogy in which he tried to combine theoretical study and empirical observation, was Runciman’s magnum opus, to prove the appropriateness of that approach by presenting a sociological history of Britain in the twentieth century in the final volume. Runciman, however, had no time for disciplinary limits, spanning the arts and social sciences, publishing papers on subjects as varied as the history of ancient Greek states, accelerating social mobility in Anglo-Saxon England, and Ghana’s charismatic legitimacy and one-party rule. Born in London, Walter Garrison Runciman, named Garry, was the only child of Katherine Schuyler Garrison, whose ancestors were prominent figures in New York’s Gilded Age, and (Walter) Leslie Runciman, who inherited the shipping company of his family and was chairman of the National Maritime Museum’s board of trustees. The Runcimans were a dynasty in the north whose rise to wealth and fame was a classic social climbing story. Walter Runciman, Garry’s great-grandfather, was a self-made man, a shipping magnate based on Tyneside who later became Hartlepool’s MP and was elevated to the peerage in 1933. Another Walter, his grandfather, held office in the 1905-16 Liberal governments, later served in the 1930s national governments, was a committed appeaser at the time of Munich, and in 1937 was made Viscount Runciman of Doxford. “my wicked uncle,”my wicked uncle. Garry was shipped off to the United States during World War II, like many other upper-class children, and on his return followed the then customary family route via Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (where he came first in both Classics and History), disrupted by the Grenadier Guards’ National Service.

He was also called the smartest man in Cambridge as a Trinity undergraduate. As a Harkness Fellow, he then went to Harvard and returned to Trinity as a Research Fellow in 1959. Plato’s Later Epistemology (1962) was his first book, but he had chosen to become a sociologist by then, inspired and encouraged by Robert K. Merton of Columbia University, a topic then seldom taught in British universities beyond the confines of the London School of Economics. Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (1966), a seminal research that highlighted the significance of the difference between material disparity interventions and individual perceptions of their own social and economic conditions, was the immediate outcome. Runciman left Trinity in 1963 to follow the business career that his father had hoped and planned, and 13 years later he became president of Walter Runciman plc, the shipping company of the family, which meant that he was both a ‘practicing capitalist’ and an academic sociologist, he later noted. He developed the business and fended off a hostile takeover, but he rejected a £ 65 million bid from the Swedish corporation Avena in 1990, having by then succeeded his father as 3rd Viscount. He was president of the General Council of British Shipping in the late 1980s and was chairman of Andrew Weir, another shipping firm, from 1991 to 2005.

Runciman, both a capitalist and a sociologist, was intrigued by the mechanisms by which societies generate and allocate wealth, and he entered the Securities and Investment Board in 1986, shortly after its creation as the Big Bang era regulator; he was its regulator from 1990 to 1998.


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