Obituary: Frank Bechhofer, eminent sociologist and champion of Scottish folk scene
One of Scotland’s most eminent sociologists, and a leader in the development of social science research at the University of Edinburgh, Frank Bechhofer was German-born but happy to be an “honorary Scot”. He was, in fact, much more than that, not only casting a keen sociologist’s eye on questions of Scottish society, identity and constitutional change, but celebrating his adopted country’s culture through his involvement with its folk scene.
Professor Emeritus of Social Research at the university’s School of Social and Political Science and Research Fellow in its Institute of Governance, Prof Bechhofer has died after a brief struggle with inoperable liver cancer.
From arriving in Britain in 1939 at the age of three with his family, refugees from Nazi Germany, Bechhofer went on to establish a national and international reputation, particularly in developing and promoting the social scientific study of modern Scotland, as well as important work in the sociology of class structure and in establishing Edinburgh University’s Research Centre for Social Sciences.
His early years, however, must have seemed far from propitious. Arriving in Nottingham, where his father developed a business producing tinsel ribbon and wire-coated string, Bechhofer went to nursery school as a three-year-old with no English, moving on to Nottingham High School, where his headmaster reportedly commented: “If that boy becomes a prefect it will be over my dead body.”
The non-prefect went on to gain a place at Queen’s College, Cambridge, although deferring it for National Service, during which he returned to his native Germany as a commissioned officer in the Royal Artillery. He graduated at Cambridge in 1959 with a BA in Mechanical Sciences, gaining an MA three years later, becoming a research student in industrial management in the university’s department of engineering, and being elected a Foundation Scholar in 1960.
While at Cambridge he cultivated a lasting active interest in theatre, producing with the Queen’s College drama group, BATS, and forming a small theatrical company that regularly performed at the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno. The three-week summer break in Cornwall would become a fixture in later family life, for it was also at Cambridge that he met his wife, Jean.
A Shetlander, Jean, having gained masters in psychology at Aberdeen, was working as a child clinical psychologist at Cambridge when she was introduced to Frank by a mutual friend. While his first request for a date was rebuffed, he persevered and they soon found many common interests, including music, drama and hillwalking. The couple married within a year, on 3 December 1960.
Visiting Shetland to meet Jean’s family, Frank was captivated by the Northern Isles and when his and Jean’s fathers met, they apparently got on famously, partly through their mutual experience of the First World War, albeit on opposing sides. A daughter, Kirsten, was born in 1963, then a son, Sean, in 1966, a year after the Bechhofers moved to Edinburgh.
As a research officer at Cambridge’s Department of Applied Economics, Bechhofer had been part of a team that carried out the Affluent Worker Study, possibly the most widely discussed text in modern British sociology. Joining Edinburgh as a lecturer in sociology, he was promoted to Reader in 1971, then to Professor of Social Research in 1987. He established an important research seminar on social stratification, based mainly at Cambridge, and in Edinburgh revived the Research Centre for Social Sciences in 1984, becoming its director and making it a major base for empirical sociological research. As well as teaching research methods and co-writing, with Lindsay Paterson, the book Principles of Research Design in the Social Sciences, he had a keen eye for research problems and for gaining the grants to solve them. Pursuing research interests in class and stratification, he studied the politics of small businesses and middle-class movements in Britain and the early development of the New Right, while the mid-Seventies saw him move with Jean and their young family to Poland, where he was visiting professor at Warsaw University’s Institute of Sociology, experiencing the joys of life in a tower block under the Communist regime – without a word of Polish.
Back in Scotland, the Eighties saw his researches shift towards the study of Scotland, its demography and occupational structure, particularly in collaboration with David McCrone. Their decade-long study culminated in the authoritative Understanding National Identity, published in 2015. He also played an important role in developing science, technology and innovation studies at the university, laying the foundations for their present dynamism at Edinburgh.
He and Jean continued to pursue their love of drama in Edinburgh, producing plays for the university’s Graduate Theatre Group. The Seventies saw them acquire a cottage in Perthshire, a haven which enabled them to cultivate a vegetable garden and enjoy hill-walking.
Frank’s long-standing involvement with folk music initially stemmed from Jean’s interest, firstly in Cornwall, later in Edinburgh. While Jean was a regular performer, Frank became involved in the organisational aspects, initially with Edinburgh Folk Club, which they joined in the mid-Seventies and helped run for several years, Jean as chair and Frank as secretary.
This immersion in the folk scene and an initial stint acting as agent for the English singer Nic Jones led to the creation of the Bechhofer Agency which, at its peak, boasted an impressive roster of such internationally renowned names as Duck Baker, Archie Fisher, Tommy Sands, Chris Stout, Catriona McKay and the trio of Ali Bain, Ale Möller and Bruce Molsky, many of whom became fast friends who frequently stayed while on tour.
Cultural interests extended much further than folk music, however, with regular classical concert and theatre-going, particularly at Festival time. And the music gene clearly carried on through the family, as witnessed by a delighted-looking Frank and Jean photographed earlier this year, on stage with the indie-rock band Cabbage, which features their grandson Asa on drums.
In 1997, Bechhofer took early retirement from running the Research Centre for Social Science, although the term “retirement” was entirely nominal, as he threw himself into further research and writing. As long-time colleague and collaborator, David McCrone puts it: “He remained, throughout his life, a sociologist to trade, always asking the question, what’s sociologically interesting about this?”
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2008 and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2016, his RSE nomination describing him as “one of the most prominent sociologists in Scotland … It is no exaggeration to say that the social sciences in Scotland would have been much the poorer had he not chosen to make his career here.”
McCrone said: “Frank was someone who added lustre to his adopted country; proof, if needs be, in this mongrel nation, that being Scottish is a matter of aspiration, not of birth. Germany’s loss was Scotland’s gain.”
He is survived by Jean, their children Sean and Kirsten, and by three grandchildren. The funeral is at Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh tomorrow at 2pm.