Archive for category Around the world
REFLECTIONS ON MY TIME AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX
I had a wonderful and fulfilling experience at the University of Essex during the period of my Ph.D. (Sociology) degree programme (1988 to 1991). The purpose of my going abroad for study was fulfilled in every sense, as I not only completed and obtained the Ph.D. degree of the University, but also had the opportunity of studying in and experiencing the academic system of a world-class university. I returned to Nigeria with a good understanding of how the academic system should work. The mentorship by my main supervisor (Ken Plummer) has remained indelible since my stay in Essex, and I try to put the experience into practice with my supervisees from time-to-time. At Essex, I was exposed to a student-focused and student-friendly academic system. There are quite a number of things for which I still use the University of Essex as a reference point/model of what and how things should be done. The egalitarian system I was exposed to in Essex is also worthy of note – common toilets, common cafeteria, common bars, etc. for staff and students. This is yet to be achieved in our university system in Nigeria.
Coming to Essex was my first trip outside Nigeria and away from familiar people and environment. However, I must say that the students’ office in the University then helped the quick settlement and integration of foreign students through various organized tours and invitations by social associations.
I cannot also forget my stay in Eddington Flat 7, Room 2 (1988 to 1989) and my good flatmates, although there was the initial cultural shock in terms of social interaction and greeting. Coming from a cultural background in which greeting is a common feature (people greet at all times and several times in a day), it was shocking greeting some people without a response or acknowledgment! Initially, I thought people were being unfriendly, but I later got to understand it was just a matter of cultural difference, as interaction with them at other levels showed that they were quite friendly, accommodating and cooperative.
The staff (teaching and non-teaching staff of the Department of Sociology were wonderful, with the administrative staff demonstrating a very commendable level of administrative efficiency for the smooth running of the Department.
Finally, is the wonderful experience I had with my supervisors (Professor (then Dr.) Ken Plummer – my main supervisor, and then Dr. Anthony Woodiwiss (my second supervisor). In this regard, I must also mention the initial cultural shock in my interaction with Ken Plummer, who encouraged and prodded me to simply call him “Ken” instead of formally addressing him as “Dr. Plummer”. This was not very easy initially, especially coming from a hierarchically structured cultural background. However, this surely helped to enhance the establishment of a good relationship with him and others in the Department.
It is therefore a great pleasure to formally express appreciation to the University of Essex for the remarkable experience I had in the University and to join others in congratulating the University on the celebration of its golden jubilee anniversary of remarkable educational service.
Professor of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences,
University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria
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
Here is a lovely picture sent to us by Raymond Chan from Hong Kong ( see entry above) on a visit to the campus in 2008. From left to right are: Raymond Chan, Maggy Lee, Brenda Corti, Mary Girling and Rob Stones. It captures a wonderful ‘nostalgic’ moment. Do send us more photos. And we will get a scrapbook going.
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.
Mahmood SHAHABI (1994 -1998, Ph.D) is an assistant professor in sociology and cultural studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences, Allameh Tabatabai’ University, Tehran, Iran. He obtained his Ph.D. from Sociology Department of Essex University, England in 1998. He has pioneered cultural studies in Iran and recent publications include three book chapters: Rap music and youth cultures in Iran: Serious or light? Co-authored by Golpoush-Nezhad, Elham (Brill-Den Haag and New York, (Forthcoming, 2014), and The Iranian moral panic over video: A brief history and policy analysis (Routledge, 2008), and Youth subcultures in post-revolution Iran: An alternative reading (Routledge, 2006). His research interests include cultural theory, youth cultures, media studies, gender studies, globalization, intercultural communication and diaspora.
I was so delighted when Professor Ken Plummer asked me to have an entry on the department’s 50th anniversary web site. I would like to say a little about my experience during and after my time at Essex.
For a young Ph.D. candidate who had received a full scholarship with a guaranteed future academic position at Allameh Tabatabai’ University in Tehran, getting an admission from a six star sociology department (Essex) seemed rather a dream.
I still remember the first day of my arrival in Essex on January 18th, 1994. I met the then head of Department, Professor Tony Woodiwiss who introduced me to Professor Ken Plummer who agreed to become my supervisor. I soon realized that I was privileged to be taught by Professor Ken Plummer during my five years stay at Essex. To be honest it is only in more recent years that I have come to appreciate the influence that Ken Plummer and the wider department has had on my thinking and work. For instance, although Prof. Stanley Cohen had already left the department, and I had no chance to meet him (who sadly died on January 7, 2013), his books and papers on ‘moral panics and folk devils’ inspired and guided my thesis on video and youth cultures in Iran. I was also privileged to have Professor Tony Coxon (who sadly died on February 7, 2012) and Professor Catherine Hall as members of my supervisory board.
My fieldwork was conducted in Tehran, where I administered a survey of 450 video users amongst high school students. Theoretically, I adopted a combination of the constructionist, gratificationist, subculturalist, and hybridist perspectives into my study. They were employed to explain the Iranian moral panic over video, the popular uses of video, the consequences of video use for the power relationship between youth subcultures and the mainstream culture, and the consequences of video uses and youth subcultural life for Iranian culture, respectively. From this research I gained my PhD – examined by Prof. Nigel South (my internal examiner) and Prof. Ali Mohammadi (my external examiner); and published as two book chapters: The Iranian moral panic over video: A brief history and policy analysis (Routledge, 2008), and Youth subcultures in post-revolution Iran: An alternative reading (Routledge, 2006).
My Ph.D. thesis and what I learnt at Essex made an enormous contribution to my entire subsequent career in Iran: I moved over to cultural studies. I have been teaching cultural theory since 2000 and contributed to the founding of the first Department of cultural studies in Iran, at Allameh Tabatabai’ University in Tehran. About 150 MA students have graduated from our department so far. I and my colleagues have founded many research traditions in the field of cultural studies in Iran and contributed to the emergence of the Iranian cultural studies. I myself am the first and perhaps the only Iranian academic who has applied moral panics theory to the Iranian socio-cultural context. I owe all these achievements to my Essex experiences in 1994-98.
Essex was a very friendly and welcoming department while I was there. Although there was not really a typical day in Essex for me and it was always changing, but there were some rituals which characterized my campus lifestyle: visiting the sociology common room not only for coffee, but also for checking my pigeonhole and meeting my friends; visiting the university gallery and also the second hand bookshop on campus; visiting the library, the computer lab, and finally staying at my office to work out for about 8 hours a day. I remember I and my Iranian friends (about 24 Ph.D. students in different departments), including Dr. Hossein Serajzadeh, another graduate of Essex sociology department, usually got together on Fridays and played some football on campus. I also remember we had some informal seminars on a regular basis (monthly) among ourselves to present an academic lecture followed by debate and discussion. I remember my presentation was related to the sociology of political communication in Iran. At that time I was influenced by James Scott’s book entitled ‘Dominance and the art of resistance’!
My major activities in recent years have included teaching such courses as cultural theory, intercultural communication, media sociology, youth cultures, sociology of sports; attending many International conferences in a number of European countries (Spain, Finland, Norway, England, Sweden, Poland and Turkey), supervising MA and Ph.D. dissertations; conducting some quantitative and qualitative researches for the Iranian government ministries and organizations; performing as a member of research councils in some ministries and organizations; and acting as a member of the managing board in the Iranian Association for cultural studies and communication.
Overall, I am proud to be a graduate of the Essex Sociology Department. I will do my best to attend the Department’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 9, 2014 to refresh my old but unforgettable memories at Essex. Being an Essex graduate will remain part of my identity forever.
Studying sociology at Essex was a revelation to me. Imaginative academics inspired a journey into new territories of philosophical thinking, at time when ‘modernism’ was just becoming ‘post’. The sociology lounge and the deep smell of coffee infused our intellectual debates, mended broken hearts and offered a space for creating lifelong friends. Daily tensions of motherhood and study – struggling to get a baby on the bus and into the nursery before the lectures began. I managed to startle Ken (Prof Plummer) as he supervised my undergraduate project on urban witchcraft and it was Ken who recommended that I went on to study for my PhD. Although I did not have a vision of my journey’s end, I enjoyed the bricolage of postgraduate life.
Having completed my PhD it took me into new terrains and I had the privilege of living and working with indigenous communities around the world with my memories of Essex travelling with me. For instance, I had been working on issues concerning human rights and bio-piracy with the Hagahai people who live in the highland forests of Papua New Guinea. As I flew home we had to detour and land on the Trobriand Islands (now the Kiriwina Islands). I thought about my anthropology lecturers (Drs Okely and Ennew), as the children ran across the rough runway, pointing and laughing at the odd white woman (me) who had just landed. I never thought when I was learning about the ‘Malinowski and the Kula Ring’ in the classroom at Essex that my feet would walk on that land. I have to say that over the years my sociology career has ebbed and flowed and I currently I find myself working back in academia. However, I have never had a clear sense of ‘building a career ‘and so I have found myself working in different jobs in international, national and local settings (researching, writing, and making films) but always with social justice and social inclusion at the heart of my work. As we now we find ourselves at a time where neo-liberalism permeates every aspect of our lives (yes, I am a fan of Philip Mirowski) I believe that critical sociology is still needed in the world. Sociology continues to enrich my life and I would like to say thank-you to everyone in the Sociology Department at Essex for offering me such a very unique education. Long may it continue to flourish. (1991-1995)