About John Orr

John Orr 1943-2010

The following is taken from the Special Minute produced by the University of Edinburgh at the time of his retirement from full-time teaching in 1998

John Mackinney Orr came to Edinburgh University from Simon University in Canada, where he had been a teaching assistant. He has devoted his career to the Sociology Department in Edinburgh, but has held appointments at Trinity College Dublin (1977), at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study (1979-80), and at the University of Virginia (1989). He was promoted to a readership in 1986 and then to a Personal Chair in 1992. He was trained at the University of Birmingham, first in Moral and Political Philosophy, and later in Sociology, and carried out his doctoral work on German social theory, leading to a PhD from Edinburgh University, The Fighter in Bondage: Revolutionary Nationalism in Germany 1914-1933, and a highly regarded article in the Archives Européeanes de Sociologie. Since then, however, his main work has been published in monographs, which have flowed regularly over the years. His focus shifted to the sociology of drama, film and literature, and he is acknowledged internationally for the authority and expertise of his work in this area.

John has made a crucial contribution to what is now known as ‘cultural studies’. He is one of the select few who, in the wake of the early stimulus of Raymond Williams, have been responsible for establishing this field as a recognised discipline within Sociology. His own objective has been to reconcile a sociological perspective on art as a product of society, with the analysis of art works as aesthetic accomplishments. There are few other scholars who are capable of this intellectually ambidextrous achievement. His main books, many published by Edinburgh University Press, are Tragic Realism and Modern Society (1977; revised edition 1989); Tragic Drama and Modern Society (1981; revised edition 1989); The making of the twentieth Century Novel (1987); Tragicomedy and Contemporary Culture (1991); Cinema and Modernity (1993); and Contemporary Cinema (1998).

As well as leading this field of research, John has also had a major impact as a teacher. He introduced and sustained several courses, all of which have proved highly popular, that have enabled students to be exposed to cultural studies. These have included the Sociology of the Novel, Sociology of Drama, and Culture and Modernity. His Film Studies 1 and Film Studies 2 (sometimes taught jointly with the English Literature Department and always open to students of both Departments) deserve special mention. These courses, among the first of their kind in Britain, have for many years enthused our students with an understanding of the possibilities for sociological study of this so pervasive and influential art form. In addition to these special duties, John has also been a willing contributor to undergraduate and graduate theory teaching, always adept at bringing alive for students theorists such as Simmel, Freud and Adorno. He has inspired generations of undergraduate and graduate students, including many who have gone on to academic careers in cultural studies, film studies, social theory, and also the actual making of films. Indeed, some of John’s special abilities probably stem from the fact that, in spite of his productivity in academic work, he has not restricted himself to this area. He has also written novels, plays that have been performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and directed short films.

After his retirement from full-time teaching, and until his sudden death in 2010:

John Orr continued to teach part-time at Edinburgh University as an Emeritus Professor and played a major role in the development of the inter-departmental MSc in European Film Studies. During this period he published The Art and Politics of Film (2000), Hitchcock and Twentieth Century Cinema (2006), and Romantics and Modernists in British Cinema(2010). He also edited collections on Postwar Cinema and Modernity (2000), The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda, (2003), and The Cinema of Roman Polanski, (2006). At the time of his death he was working on Ingmar Bergman and European Cinema, which will be published by Berghahn Books.