After a History degree at Exeter and a PGCE in London I taught in a secondary school. During the PGCE I enjoyed the Sociology of Education and found Education and the Working-Class by Jackson and Marsden (1962) particularly illuminating. I had no idea that I would be taught by Dennis Marsden, would work with him at Essex and become a close friend. Sadly he died in 2009 after a long illness but I was able to visit him and Jean (Duncombe) a number of times in his last years. At a memorial symposium at Essex on his work colleagues referred to this book as graphically illustrating their mobility through education laced with class ambivalence – which was also my experience.
One day at school I saw an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement for a Master’s in Sociology at Essex, applied and was accepted in 1965. The university was brand new and the student population tiny – my year was the second cohort – and the campus buildings were under construction. Almost none of the students had a background in Sociology and neither had many of the staff. There was an emphasis on Social Policy given that Peter Townsend was the founding father and he recruited people, including Adrian Sinfield and Dennis Marsden, with a Fabian engagement with class and social problems. Classes were small and the teaching mostly engaging although Parsonian functionalism didn`t much appeal to me: we had no idea that Geoffrey Hawthorn was new at the game and was struggling with his burden of teaching (as he explains in an interview). My focus was on the Sociology of Education and my thesis was on boarding schools. On graduation I started a PhD at Cambridge on that topic but for various reasons transferred back to Essex where I had an exemplary supervisor in Geoffrey Hawthorn. In 1970 I was offered a lectureship and taught several courses including the Sociology of Education with Dennis. Then in 1975 I moved to The Netherlands, initially for a few years but my stay has become permanent. My wife Corry is Dutch and I had spent a sabbatical period at the University of Amsterdam in 1973: the contacts made then led later to an offer to teach in the University of Utrecht.
Looking back I would say that Essex was remarkable in that it attracted staff from all sorts of backgrounds and disciplines but, given that many of them were gifted and productive, it soon became a leading Sociology department not only in the UK but also in Europe. In those early years there was Peter Townsend, David Lockwood, Mary McIntosh (from 1975), Alan Ryan, Peter Abel, George Kolankiewicz, Dennis Marsden, Geoffrey Hawthorn, David Lane, Adrian Sinfield, Colin Bell, Michael Mann, Joan Busfield, Ted Benton, Paul Thompson and Alistair McIntyre (some of whom have passed away). It was largely a man`s world but the gender imbalance started to be rectified from then on. There was little academic ritual, a low sense of hierarchy and the general atmosphere was one of trendy newness. At the same time there was a strong culture of stimulating and rewarding research and publications but without the performance pressures of recent years in UK universities. This was a golden age of individual freedom and few administrative burdens: most people set their own agendas and could, unhindered, use the summer vacation and sabbaticals for research and writing. Predatory publishers stalked the corridors forcing contracts and advances on us. Given the smallness and newness and that quite a few staff lived in Wivenhoe with young families, there were generally amicable relationships and frequent socializing – including on the Wivenhoe quayside on Sunday afternoon. We also played cricket, football and squash and on Saturdays some of us went with to watch football at Ipswich. For me it was a busy time of starting a family, preparing classes and trying to get something published.
The philosophy of the university was innovative – with few of the trappings of the traditional universities – as the Vice-Chancellor boldly proclaimed in the BBC Reith Lectures (Sloman: 1963). Unfortunately its foundation coincided with student radicalism and Essex attracted certain students – some now peers of the realm – who unsettled the benign culture with demonstrations, intimidation of staff, rent-strikes and sit-ins. There were problems with drug use, theft, damage to property and guest speakers being shouted down. Students occupied the administration building with access to confidential staff and student files and to the keys of the offices: rooms were entered, there was some pilfering (including of research data) and all the locks had to be changed. Later conservative politicians and newspapers called for Essex to be closed down. So those were interesting times with never a dull day.
Particularly disturbing for a university were student “strikes” with the barricading of lecture theatres to prevent students attending classes. On one occasion a student resolutely climbed over a barrier and found he was alone with Alistair McIntyre. Both agreed they wouldn`t allow intimidation to restrict their freedom and McIntyre gave him a private master-class on Philosophy. The student was Geoffrey Markham who was one of the Essex police officers studying full-time. Sending officers to university for three years was a considerable investment at that time but Essex was a forward looking force. The scheme continued for some years, became part-time and was later supervised by Maggy Lee. I became friendly with some of these officers and this began to shift my research interest to policing. Years later together with Maggy I interviewed some of them and invariably the experience of studying enhanced their professionalism and their career (Lee and Punch: 2005).
Indeed, Markham maintains that the degree has been crucial throughout his career and to his performance as a highly-regarded officer who reached high rank. Most of the police graduates stayed in the force and did well. For instance, Ralph Crawshaw studied Politics and returned to the university after retirement, took a Masters in Human Rights Law and has become an authority in the field. He writes of how stimulating it was to be taught by Ivor Crewe, Mike Freeman and Ian Budge and that the “whole experience was quite transforming”. It helped him do some things differently in the police service as he`d been made aware of the power of the state and abuse of that power. This led him directly to human rights and after graduating he decided that he would go back to the university once he`d reached pensionable age “primarily because the whole process had been so stimulating and rewarding”. Clearly attending university was of great value to him and others. I`m plainly biased – both Geoffrey and Ralph have been instrumental in helping me with my police research and publications and we have remained friends ever since – but I believe the scheme was positive for both the Essex Police and the university. And it should be acknowledged in the institutional memory.
But in the radical early 1970s there was deep suspicion of the police presence on campus. For example, at one stage after several weeks of students blocking access to the campus, the police moved in and arrested over a 100 students. The police were led by one of the Essex graduates. Then disinformation appeared in the press that the officer had been planted in the university and had not honestly attained his first-class degree. This was typical of the antagonism to the police in general at that time, some of which rubbed off on me. Moreover, what actually happened when the blockade was broken has become distorted with memory: for a previous contributor to this site wrote – perhaps on hearsay – that, during the stand-off between students and the police at the blockade, Peter Townsend interceded and calmed matters down. That is not quite what happened. The students had been blocking access to the campus for weeks and eventually an Assistant Chief Constable met with the VC and others and firmly informed them that, although this was private property, it was intolerable that illegal conduct was restricting people`s freedom and the police would have to intervene. I`m sure Peter did his utmost to resolve the situation and avoid confrontation but, with fuel and supplies running short, the decision had already been taken. When the police contingent arrived Sociology staff inserted themselves between the police and students as a kind of deescalating buffer. But Howard Becker was giving a staff seminar that afternoon and suddenly nearly all the staff disappeared except for me. The students refused to give way, the police moved in and made the arrests when there was any resistance: after some scuffling it was soon over.
There was, then, a downside to that first decade at Essex but it was also an exciting period of innovative research and impressive productivity. Furthermore, it was typical of the eclecticism that there was the social historian Paul Thompson pioneering oral history and organizing fascinating field-trips; Stan Cohen enthusiastically promoting the Sociology of Deviance; and Colin Bell and Howard Newby reinventing Agricultural Sociology. However, the rather idyllic early years of pioneering and amicable solidarity started to wane as people of different academic and theoretical plumage joined the faculty and there were hefty doctrinal disputes that diminished the emphasis on Social Policy.
For several reasons I felt that I had to spread my wings. There were frustrations as I was low in the pecking order, would remain second to Dennis if I stayed in the education field (and he spent the rest of his career at Essex) and I was experiencing difficulties with the sponsors of my PhD research on former pupils of Dartington Hall School. The Trustees of the “progressive” Dartington enterprise endeavoured to restrict access to my PhD – Peter Townsend flatly refused to countenance that – and prevent publication of my findings (cf Punch: 1979, 1986). But I badly needed a publication and wrote an article for the BJS without asking their permission which led to irate missives from Devon but fortunately, after some grovelling, they were not followed by a writ. So when an application to the Home Office for police research was turned down I decided to move abroad, originally for a short period.
But I look back at that period in Essex as one of remarkably productive achievement in innovative and quality scholarship: and which in a very short period of time, and reinforced by later cohorts of talented academics, developed a leading department of Sociology. There were equally strong faculties of Politics, Economics and Law – with a leading Human Rights Centre – that could muster their own line-up of star performers.
Finally, the Essex I left in 1975 was still small with predominantly British staff and students, while Colchester was a dull, grey garrison town. Thanks to the internet a Brazilian student of the time (Julio Grieco) contacted me recently and wrote about how cold the place was and how awful the food. The architecture of Mediterranean palazzos was certainly not geared to North Sea gales and the cuisine served in Wivenhoe House was of Fawlty Towers quality. Then through meeting Nigel South at a conference over a decade ago I began teaching again at Essex but in the Law School with Jim Gobert. I was amazed that there were people around from way back. Mary Girling was still the Secretary in Sociology and the old squash-ladder lay in a corner.
But Colchester had gone through a major make-over. And the university had expanded considerably, the resources and infrastructure (including for languages and for sport) had improved immensely, there was a rich cosmopolitan diversity of students and faculty, vibrant summer schools were taking place, new departments had arisen and Sociology was scoring high on the RAE. And although the northerly wind could still howl across the squares the catering had progressed greatly, at least by British standards.
Lee, M. and Punch, M. (2006) Policing by Degrees (Groningen: Hondsrug Pers)
Punch, M. (1979) Progressive Retreat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Punch, M. (1986) Politics and Ethics of Field Work (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage)
Amstelveen, The Netherlands.