Michael Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Incoherent Empire: Conversation with Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, February 27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Michael, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Manchester, England. I'm from a lower-middle class background. I passed examinations, went to an elite grammar school, and then went to Oxford University.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My father was an upwardly mobile man. He started as a salesman and ended up as the sales director of the corporation—making asbestos.

Oh, gee.

He was a man who had not received a high level of education, but he was a highly intelligent man. He read quite a lot and he was interested in politics, and we used to argue a lot from the age of fourteen. He was a liberal, and I declared myself being a bit further left of that at that age. He influenced me a great deal, but not in specific ways.

Was it the arguments? Was he the kind of person who made you think about what you were saying?

Oh, yes. Even after he retired and I was already established, after my mother died, especially, he used to love my coming back home, and he would start an argument with me about whatever it was, the Soviet Union or anything. He used to love it.

At Oxford, what did you plan to study, and then where did you finally wind up?

I was admitted to read law, which was my father's desire, and to be in the professions rather than in business. I gave that up after about three weeks, having [studied the law concerning] murder, which was the most interesting part! I read history, which I had always enjoyed, and I still enjoy reading history books. I love the narrative story about other worlds, about other societies, and so I quite enjoyed reading history, though I wasn't a highly committed undergraduate, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I graduated. I thought I wanted to be a social worker, and, indeed, I qualified as a probation officer, and then was asked to do a little bit of social research, and that started me on the path that led me to sociology. I did a Ph.D. at Oxford University in Sociology.

And what was that Ph.D. on?

It was a study of a factory. Actually, it was a British subsidiary of an American corporation, General Foods Corporation. They were moving their factory, which made Maxwell House coffee and one or two other products, from central Birmingham to a rural site, and they were offering all their employees a chance at moving, and so I did a survey of 300 employees before and after the move, seeing who moved and who didn't, and why. It was a very practical industrial and community/family kind of sociology. Then I gradually branched out into broader things.

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