I thank Ken Plummer for offering me this opportunity on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary to reflect on my years at the University of Essex. Time well spent! I completed my BA Honours in Sociology & Government in 1984 and then, after a year¹s break in sunny Spain, returned to complete my PhD in Sociology in 1990.
I can¹t say I found the early days at Essex particularly easy. My period betwixt school and university, spent serving an apprenticeship and playing music in The Big Smoke, had stretched a little longer than most. Following this, the campus milieu struck me as decidedly unreal, like a youth club in a large field. And, even for those times, which were the very darkest of Thatcherism, campus politics were often disturbingly to the left of fruity. Here was a place where supporting the Soviet Union rather than England in televised football matches was de rigueur. Here was a place where, in order to gain respect, decent middle-class kids would return from vacation with affected industrial accents. And here too, more humorously, was the place that, for the ears of a visiting and philandering Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the immortal words ³Cecil, Cecil, CecilŠ.in, out, in² were coined.
However, more difficult than any of this was academic life. I found my first two years as an undergraduate tough in the extreme. At one level it was intimidating. I had chosen Essex because of its Sociology program, and in my eyes the luminaries of the discipline were nothing less than rock stars. So, sitting in a 101 tutorial with none other than David Lockwood all pipe smoke, gravitas and brilliance invoked confidence sapping ³I am not worthy² emotions. At another level, the intellectual rigour demanded by the program was quite considerable and, it felt, beyond my capacities.
Having flirted with dropping out at the end of my second year, and chancing my arm once again as a musician, I returned to give Essex another go. Suddenly and mysteriously, so it seemed, everything just clicked. I guess that a big part of it was just my developing. But the biggest factor of all was undoubtedly, the brilliance, kindness and dedication of the staff I was so lucky to encounter. In particular, the Third Year subjects ŒSociology of Knowledge¹, ŒJoint Seminar in Government & Sociology¹ and ŒSocial Anthropology¹, that were convened by Ted Benton, Bob Jessop/Tony Woodiwiss and Judith Okely respectively, were inspiring. I was also blessed by the superb pedagogical presences of Ian Craib and (again) Judith Okely. Without revealing his technique, Ian literally taught me how to write, how to write fast and how to enjoy writing. I cannot thank that simply wonderful man enough, and I miss him dearly.
And of Judith Okely, the list of contributions and qualities is too long to repeat here. Here are just a few. She has been a wonderful patron. Were it not for her efforts in obtaining the ESRC scholarship that funded my doctoral study, I would almost certainly not be in the academic profession today. Who knows, I might even have become an ageing rock star by nowŠ.not! She has been, especially as my doctoral supervisor, a source of enlightened intellectual support. Notably, in commenting on my work she displays a very forgiving and confidence-inducing ability to hone in on the intellectual rough diamonds and ignore the rubbish that often encases them. Lastly, she holds in unrivalled abundance the very intellectual skills those of an ethnographer that I cherish most, especially her near telepathic ability to read the meanings within social encounters, even silent ones! It was my great fortune that some years after both of us had left Essex Judith and I became colleagues at the University of Hull. Also, despite geographical distance, I am so glad she is just a phonecall away.
Speaking of which..what have I been up to? After working for several years at the Queen¹s University, Belfast and the University of Hull, in 2004 I took the Chair in Anthropology at the University of Melbourne, where I have also directed its Development Studies program for several years. I have conducted three major ethnographic projects in England, Ireland (north and south) and Bosnia & Herzegovina and amongst its diasporas. My work focuses largely on identity politics, particularly in post-industrial and post-conflict contexts. However, I have also conducted theoretical work on postmodernism and mobility. Much of my work also has an applied focus, and I have conducted research on migration and asylum-issues for a range of non-governmental and governmental bodies, including the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (U.K.). I also remain a passionate and very active advocate for the right to unfettered mobility and, particularly, for the dissolution of immigration controls. Most satisfyingly, I have been able to use the skills learned from my teachers and supervisors at Essex in helping many undergraduate and doctoral students to reach their full potentials. Despite being in Anthropology, I have the good fortune of sharing a school with Sociology. In a disciplinary division of labour where, stereotypically, one is better at theory and the other data and one does the West while the other does the rest, I enjoy inhabiting a pleasurably liminal position. On everyday matters, life in Oz is good (it¹s 40 bloody degrees as I write), especially sharing it with Kotoyo, my wife of twenty-five years and Fintan, our ten year old. For the happy position I am in I have much to thank the Sociology Department at the University of Essex, a place that, if truth is to be told, I still think of as my real intellectual home.
Professor of Anthropology
School of Social and Political Sciences
John Medley Building
The University of Melbourne