He was vice-principal at Edinburgh for five years until his 1998 appointment as vice-chancellor at Bradford. After a brief but memorable spell in West Yorkshire, he returned to Scotland to take the helm at Stirling University, where he served just under two years as principal before his sudden death on campus.
When Bell took over at Bradford, he made an immediate mark on an institution overdue for a major shake-up. One of his first moves was symbolic: God Save The Queen, the anthem still played at degree ceremonies in a minority of British universities, was abruptly dropped from Bradford's graduation protocol to assert the secular and internationalist character of the university. The cheerful, music-loving Bell was among those hugely entertained by the predictably apoplectic response from rightwing commentators.
He was a risk-taker and a man of principle, who relished academic life for being, as he once put it, "volatile [and] seething with discordant ideas". He was born in Enfield, but raised and schooled in Tonbridge, Kent. In 1964, he gained a geography degree at Keele University, and in 1966 a master's at the University of Wales.
At Swansea, his dissertation became his 1968 textbook Middle Class Families, one of the first empirical studies of the roles of property, inheritance and mobility in the British class system. With Howard Newby, one of his Essex research students (now Sir Howard, vice-chancellor at Southampton before becoming chief executive of the higher education funding council for England in 2001), he wrote Community Studies (1973) and Property, Paternalism And Power (1977), looking closely at wealth and power in the English countryside.
In 1978, Bell coedited Inside The Whale, a stimulating collection of essays on engagement in social research. This looked at where the researcher stands in relation to the people observed and the structures of power. He contributed a self-critical review of his own career in a profession where he felt "sociology that looks down" on society was more respected than that which "looked up" at power structures. Yet, he argued, sociology that did not study the workings of power served only to obscure and mystify it.
Bell's other writings ranged over planning issues, family life, community and kinship. His interests in race relations and the environment were all part of an openminded, radical outlook that made him more friends than many another vice-chancellor. A staunch internationalist, he took part in protests against the Iraq war in his last weeks.
Bell left Essex in 1975 for Australia, where he was professor of sociology from 1975 to 1979. He returned to England to become professor of sociology at Aston University from 1980 to 1984. After resigning from there, he held research posts before taking the sociology chair at Edinburgh in 1988.
Joining Bradford University, in a city notoriously riven by ethnic and class divisions, was a chance to put into practice some of his reflections on inequality and access to opportunity. He proved a broadly popular principal, despite steering through some painful changes to the corporate structure. His return to the Scottish lowlands in 2001 was not altogether an admission of defeat.
Numerous distinctions included fellowships of the RSA and its Edinburgh counterpart. Bell served on higher education policy committees on both sides of the border. He championed the widening of access to universities and sometimes openly clashed with well-heeled élite institutions.
He married Jocelyn Mumford in 1964, and they had a son and a daughter. There also are two daughters from his second marriage, to the sociologist Janette Webb.
- Colin Roy Bell, sociologist, born 1 March 1942; died 24 April 2003