Archive for category Around the world

Judith Okely ( Lectured 1981-1989)

UnknownFurther details on my Essex Students in the 1980s Judith Okely

When I arrived at Essex from Durham University where I had been lecturer, I soon noticed very different students. In the former, many came from elite Public Schools, although I am delighted one of the most talented was first generation university from a Manchester working class family. He is now professor and former Dean at Durham. But he was the exception. In Essex I did not encounter many students from private schools. One who attended my Social Anthropology Course, I knew immediately was from the North East. He was a true Geordie and shockingly, not likely ever to have been at Durham university. Indeed, so disconnected were the Southerners at Durham that when a postgraduate, born and brought up in Newcastle, was heard talking at a student party, several congratulated him for his ‘perfect imitation’ of the local accent.

The student in Essex was doing a joint sociology/government degree and told me years later he knew John Bercow there. This person is now Speaker in the House of Commons. Andy Dawson , by contrast got to know me well. He was gripped by social anthropology. I supervised his dissertation where he gathered the older university porters and cleaners for a recorded discussion about ageing. Typically he had got to know them. There was no class distance here. He obtained a distinction for the outcome.

Well into my time at Essex, I obtained several ESRC grants on Ageing both in France and Essex. There were at the time competitive ESRC phd awards ‘linked’ to an existing staff research grant. This was the year of the miners’ strike. Despite negative support from the then senior staff, I put in an application for Andy, at his suggestion, to do research on Ageing, retired miners. Just before we finalized the application, I asked if he had any connections with miners. His reply “EEH flower, 11 of me uncles were miners!” It was an added bonus to elaborate his knowledge of the North East locality as research site. I believe that some about 6 colleagues applied with different proposals. I was the only successful one.

I had been thrilled by Andy’s parents’ excitement at his graduation. He was the first in his extended family. The joy was even more ecstatic when he obtained his phd. He had various research jobs then a lectureship at Hull university. In the mid 1990s, he persuaded me to move there from Edinburgh. Eventually,  Dr Andy Dawson was to become Professor of anthropology at Melbourne university, Australia.

Recently I emailed him to ask for details of an extraordinary encounter which he had mentioned in the late 1990s when we were both at Hull. One of our phd students had become involved in studying conflict in former Yugoslavia. Andy followed him to the field sites, many of terrible violence.

Dr Andy Dawson in Bosnia asked if he could make contact with key peacekeeper officials. Initially skeptical, he found door after door opening. Entering the main office, he approached the manin charge who casually looked up and said ‘Hello Andy. I did your course on the Anthropology of Europe at Hull’. He argued that this was the only thing which helped make sense of the context. He has become a leading light in ‘The Organisation of the High Representative’ led for most of its existence by Paddy Ashdowne, the EU’s body in Europe. This senior official’s main degree was in S. E. Asia Studies at Hull, with the one course from our sociology/ anthropology department.

Andy emailed me: ‘ When I was there, Bosnia was full of young lawyers and political scientists whose core belief was that, since Bosnians has got themselves into this mess, they were the  last people that one should listen to in devising resolutions. They believed that peace-building was all simply about the rigid implementation of international law. In contrast, Jonathan  (Robinson) was very much an anthropologist, learning the language, getting out into the field and listening to people. The feeling was that through this he was able to broker some really significant agreements between local Serbs and returning Muslims. I have no doubt that this explains his rise.”

All this is inspirational. As a committed anthropologist I delighted that Paul Thompson, then HOD, and others on the appointments committee which included David Lockwood and Peter Townsend, offered me the lectureship. It was only a year later, that I was to discover  that a female sociologist, initiated an unsuccessful petition against my appointment. Apparently for her, anthropology was reduced to racial/racist profiling. A couple of years into my appointment, she asked me why it was that so many students enrolled for my course. It was incomprehensible. The example of Andy Dawson proves the point. I still note other ex students who have progressed in wonderful ways after graduating. It is always a joy to recognize them and see their trajectory.

Judith Okely

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Omolou Soyombo (1988-91:Ph D)



Prof. Omololu Soyombo 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.

Omololu Soyombo

Professor of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences,

University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria

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Andrew Dawson (1981-1990, BA, PhD)

Andrew Dawson (1981-90, BA, PhD)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.

Andrew Dawson

Professor of Anthropology
School of Social and Political Sciences
John Medley Building
The University of Melbourne

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Raymond Chan (MA 1989, PhD 1996)

Raymond ChanKen asked me to write a short piece to share my memory of my encounter with Sociology Department at Essex, which I am delighted to do so.
I learnt about Sociology at Essex from my former teacher Sammy Chiu (who had been at Essex in 1982 to 83). Those big names such as Peter Townsend, Stan Cohen, David Lockwood, Paul Thompson …; and the radical and progressive academic atmosphere attracted me. With all those fantasy and romantic dreams on studying overseas, I came to Essex to study the MA in Social Service Planning programme (which ceased to be on offer from the early 1990s) in 1988. I was greeted by Dennis Marsden along the corridor (in fact, he sent me most of the course outline months earlier so that I could prepare better), and then, a warm welcome by Brenda Corti who showed me my pigeon hole in the Sociology Reading Room. The Reading Room became my favourite place to meet friends and fellow students (and I learnt how to refill the coffee powder in the machine, and drink coffee on and on every day). It was there I found two Hong Kong students (C H Ng and W K Chan) were in there final stage of PhD study in the Department. I was very fortunate to have the Department’s support and then receive a full scholarship to support my study. Without this, I don’t think I could have come to Essex. It proved to be a turning point of my life.

Yet, I was probably not too ready for academic study at that time, and did not perform very  well during this year. Nevertheless, it gave me an eye-opening experience, being exposed to a variety of theories and perspectives, staff with diverse academic interests, and personal contact with students from all over the world. I was also impressed by the very informal and warm atmosphere in the Department, with a lot of social activities: the graduate workshop and conference at Clacton-on-Sea, the gatherings and interesting discussions in The Rose and Crown at Wivenhoe (I can now  find it  on Google Earth!), Chinese meals at the relatively cheap Dragon House also at Wivenhoe (I still have a picture with Omololu Soyombo who is now at Lagos University, and Moha Asri Abdullah who is now with International Islamic University Malaysia). I also remember Mary Girling’s lovely dogs sitting quietly in the Reading Room. May to June 1989 was a dramatic and traumatic moment for many Chinese students, for the things happened in Tiananmen Square. And the Department staff were very understanding and supported us in organizing actions on the campus. In that year, I also experienced many personal challenges, and I was so grateful to the support from Dennis, Michael Harloe, Brenda, Mary and many others, that I could recover quickly to complete my dissertation (supervised by Michael) in August and then have time for  a lovely “run-the-England / Scotland” trip with Moha.

I graduated in 1989, and went back to Hong Kong to work for three years. But I decided to return to Essex to start my PhD in September 1992, under the supervision of Michael. As Michael was leaving for Salford to become  Vice-chancellor in 1997, I had a good reason pushing me to finish my study as quickly as possible (I passed the viva in January 1996, and received my PhD in July). I still consider coming back to Essex to do my PhD as the right decision. I received tremendous support and excellent guidance from Michael, Colin Samson and Rob Stones (they were my panel member). Studying PhD was a very different experience from studying a MA. Well, I became older and more mature, spent lesser time in the Common Room and more time in my own office, concentrated on my own study and more intellectual discussion with other PhD students. The Department offered me financial sponsorship on data collection both in UK and in Hong Kong. After spending the first year in Essex, I returned to Hong Kong to work with City University of Hong Kong (where I stay until now) to earn money to pay tuition fee. Thanks to email, I received very good guidance from Michael. Michael gave me very detail comments on every draft chapter.

It was 25 years since I first came to Essex. In August 2013, I visited the Department again with my family, told my children how I spent my times in there. That was summer, and the Reading Room and the campus were almost empty. Still managed to buy souvenir from the shop. I also visited Mary, and my children played with her deerhounds.

have had many opportunities to connect with old and new friends from Essex in many other occasions. Met Ken, Rob, Paul Thompson, Yasmin Soysal, Karen O’Reilly (she is also the external examiner of a programme in my University) and Tony Woodiwiss in Hong Kong, Bryan Turner in Seoul, Adrian Sinfield in Edinburgh, Michael (apart from Hong Kong) in Salford and Oxford, Mary in Brightlingsea, John Scott through email (!), visited the ‘Colin Bell’ Building at Stirling, hosted two Essex Sociology graduates as my post-doc fellow and visiting PhD student.  But sad to know some have passed away in these years: Ian Craib, Dennis, Brenda, Mary McIntosh, Barbara Hudson …

The Department has changed a lot. The social policy (my major research area) component seems no longer a key emphasis in the Department. Many familiar faces have left. Yet, the Department is as strong, vibrant, energetic and international as always. Wihtout any hesitation, I am proud to be a graduate of the Essex Sociology Department.

I welcome you to visit me in Hong Kong!

Raymond Chan (MA 1989, PhD 1996)

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On a Visit to the Campus: 2008

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.


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Maurice Punch (1965-6; 1968-75, BA, PhD, Lecturer)


Scannen0001;my foto

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.


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Mahmood SHAHABI (1994 -1998, Ph.D)

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.

He writes:

C5C6D4A7-1F18-4DBC-9349-67E25D655DCAI 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.

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Derrick Swartz (1989-1995, MA, PhD): Fractured Reminiscences of a South African at Essex University

Professor Derrick Swartz (1989-1995, MA, PhD) It was some 25 years ago when I first – and per chance – encountered Essex University. Then the world was markedly different from the one we live in today. Margaret Thatcher was still in power. PW Botha defiantly ruled apartheid South Africa with an iron fist, and Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner. The Berlin Wall still divided that great city, and the Soviet Union was in early stages of internal collapse. We were students at only the rocky start of Windows-based personal computing, and the Internet still only in the making. Of course the cell phone and email revolution had not yet taken off, and most of us remembering writing long letters by hand. Most of this has changed of course. We live in a vastly different world – free of apartheid, Thatcher, Reagan, but not free from new divisions and persistent old social inequalities. And we have also aged a lot since then!

Before then, I hardly knew anything about the University of Essex. My association with Essex was in fact first facilitated by wise counsel from Norman Levy, already then a veteran exiled South African activist, and academic, when I arrived in the UK in 1988 to face an uncertain life in exile: ‘trust me, the struggle will take some time; in the meantime, arm yourself with a good education; go and see Harold Wolpe”.

It was Harold Wolpe (Reader in Sociology 1975-1994) who first provoked and indeed, enchanted me with the explanatory possibilities offered by progressive sociology in thinking about (and indeed, re-thinking) many assumptions I have held about the political and social world. Up to that point, the mystique of ‘the struggle’ (against apartheid) had come to shape one’s thinking about the world in rather narrow and instrumentalist terms, and of course, at the time, the idea of graduate studies (at a time of war) seemed (pardon the pun) rather ‘academic’. Essex, and significantly, Harold, influenced me to step back (but not retreat) from the real politics of the anti-apartheid struggle, to think more deeply and systematically about its systemic features, links to global capitalism, and the difficult challenges facing a future democratic state in South Africa.

Thinking back about this amazing period in my life, I do remember mixed feelings when I first arrived at Essex – certainly, a sense of excitement and anticipation: graduate studies, new place, country, new people, and potentially new, if somewhat uncertain future. At the same time, one was also traumatized by events raging in South Africa, loss of dear comrades, feelings of alienation and, I guess, even a measure of guilt at the privileged of being able to study abroad whilst so much pain was being experienced back home. The weather wasn’t exactly welcoming, and in the rain, I recall thinking as I was seeing the rather austere, grey square buildings through the bus window, of how much it reminded me of a notorious South African police detention centre!

But all this gained a new perspective as I first walked into the Sociology Department – an immediate sense of warmth, of welcome and openness, things happening, buzzing corridors, fresh coffee smells, lively and busy notice-boards, competent and approachable departmental secretaries and administrators (who can forget the inimitable Brenda Corti or the industrious Mary Girling!); the hordes of students from all of the world, and academics – Ted Benton, studious and soft-spoken; Ken Plummer, effervescent and welcoming; Maxine Molyneux, sharp and meticulous; Tony Woodiwiss, Rob Stones, Joan Busfield, Miriam Glucksmann, Robin Blackburn, Harold and many others whose books and papers I subsequently got to read and struggle with.

I found Sociology so amazingly alive at the time – even though some of the senior academics often reminisced about its ‘golden years’ around the late 1960’s and early seventies – when radical intellectual traditions had swept Essex, like so many universities across the UK, influenced in a large measure by ‘1968’ Paris, the war in Vietnam and rising tide of anti-colonial struggles. Nevertheless, Essex in the eighties was certainly no conservative outpost. Although one could then see the beginnings of new higher education policy under Thatcherism, Essex held out quite a robust, critical set of academic traditions. I found Sociology at Essex something of an epiphany – certainly vastly different from that taught when I was an undergraduate student in apartheid South Africa in the late 1970’s – uncompromisingly critical, independent, theory-led, multi-disciplinary in its reach, and offering potentially powerful explanatory tools for pressing problems facing the world.

The Masters programme into which I enrolled in 1989 was hugely stimulating, and as it turned out, an entrée into a Ph.D programme under supervision of Harold Wolpe, and after his return to SA following the release of Nelson Mandela, the able and generous-spirited Tony Woodiwiss. Those years at Essex opened up a whole new universe – of ideas, rich and deep in texture, provocative in posture, sweeping in promise, and in many instances a series of catalysts, swinging me from one exotic planet of ideas to another on the gravity of their power. I found myself reaching beyond more familiar, and dare I say, reassuring, realms of developmental sociology, state theory and critiques of capitalist economic theory and began new and exciting forays into radical feminism, gender studies, post-structuralism, ecological sociology, and philosophy of science. I particularly enjoyed the inter-disciplinary seminar series platforms, not only in Sociology, but also, Government and Politics, most notably, a long-running series initiated by Ernesto Laclau which brought luminous figures such as Derrida, Samir Amin, Stuart Hall, Ettiene Balibar, Chantal Mouffe and many others into the seminar room.

Essex was also a diverse hub, bringing students from all over the developing world – from Nicaragua, Chile, Egypt, Turkey, Poland, Tanzania, Kenya, Grenada, to Palestine and Eritrea. It created the conditions for sharing, exchanging and debating ideas with students from different political traditions. Although a mature student at the time, I rather liked the sometimes random, carefree and idealistic nature of student life. I admired the idealism of many Essex students, who insisted that radical change is not only necessary, but possible; that the culture of greed associated with neo-liberal materialism cannot constitute a stable basis for sustainability; and that democratic action ‘from below’ can bring about profound changes in a highly unequal world.

Essex University itself took an early lead among UK universities in the campaign to isolate the apartheid state and its apologists, and in the successful disinvestment campaign. The student movement, including the Essex Student Union, played a key role in the Release Mandela campaign, even establishing a campus bursary fund in support of South African students. All these efforts, combined with the efforts of millions of others across the world, undoubtedly added to the cumulative pressures that eventually led to the collapse of the apartheid system towards the end of the 1990’s. Democratic South Africa owes a great deal to the efforts by countless numbers of students and staff at Essex University.

Of course, not everything about Essex university life was serious and political per se. I do remember its vibrant student social life, not least the busy pub – on most weekends, hot, noisy, smoke filled, with copious amounts of cheap lager making the rounds. I still have fond memories of the beautiful greens, scenic lake, and fields of Wivenhoe that provided the setting for long walks in between lectures. The privilege one had of being able to study there certainly restored a sense of balance and perspective on the things that, in the end, really matter most in life.

I do have the fondest memories of Essex University, and can honestly say it had an enduring impact on my life. Those years not only gave greater intellectual clarity to one’s understanding of the politics of anti-apartheid struggles, but also spawned a deep interests in pursuing a university career in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Essex literally made me fall in love with university life, and the power of ideas to change the world.

As Essex gears up to celebrate 50 years of existence, it can truly be proud of a truly extraordinary legacy in serving not only several generations of UK students and through its research and engagement work, in improving the quality of life in Britain, but also, many parts of the developing world through critical scholarship of its foreign graduates. I regard the quality of scholarship at Essex as second to none. It has certainly has had a deep resonance in work one has been attempting to transform the role of South African universities in the post-apartheid years in the wider quest for genuine social and economic transformation in South African society.

Professor Derrick Swartz is now Vice Chancellor of  Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa.

Derrick was awarded an honorary degree by Essex University and you can find this and the oration at Derrick Swartz, Essex

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Garry Potter (1983-2006, PhD) : The Pedagogy of the Oppressed*

Garry Potter (1983-2006)Back in the 1990s I was an angry man, a bitter man, in what at the time was a somewhat unusual relationship to the department. Many, if not most, tutorials were done by Ph.D students; few at that time were done by people like myself who already had Ph.Ds. There were some; but it was not anywhere close to the present situation where my university and department Wilfrid Laurier University rely upon academic casual labour for over one third of all their teaching. Some Canadian universities employ a higher percentage  of “sessionals” than do others; but one third of all teaching is around the national average.

“Casual labour”, that is the concept that would mark the moment in Essex Sociology for which I might be remembered. I wrote and circulated to all faculty and grad students a departing epistle: “Casual Labour: a Few Farewell Remarks from the Department’s Nigger”. I complained about injustice; I attacked polemically members of the faculty; I named with the attempt to shame. I was, as said before, an angry man.

I am, of course, no longer angry; and I look back upon my time at Essex with very great fondness. In addition to teaching there for many years, I also did my Ph.D there. I was around for quite a long time. I learned an awful lot! I had a lot of fun! Many people were very good to me and I have many lasting friendships from the time.

I am now on the other side of the fence, as it were. I am tenured, well paid and secure. I get funded to travel, to buy books and computer equipment. I have a pension, health care and a dental plan. Currently I am on sabbatical, which I consider the very greatest perk in the world. I am lucky!

By that I don’t mean that my present good fortune is wholly undeserved. I have worked hard. I have taught well, and perhaps most of all, I have published. But I am still aware that I am lucky.

Many of my colleagues who teach “part-time” (a serious misnomer of there ever was one – many of them teach twice as many courses as I do; they just get paid a lot less for it) desperately want a full-time tenure track position at Laurier. And they too have worked hard and they have Ph.Ds and many of them have published much. But few of them stand any realistic chance of obtaining a ‘proper’ academic position at Laurier, at Essex  . . . or anywhere.

Many of them are as bitter and angry as I was. An interesting point to note concerning this: more than the poor pay, the lack of an office or a dental plan, the absence of any job security, what these people repeatedly stress as what is the worst thing in their situation is the lack of respect they feel they are receiving. It is further interesting to note by comparison that this is a common theme among casual labourers of all kinds, from Walmart to the academy.

They exist in academia in such numbers because they are a part of the world’s neo-liberal transformation of the university, the MacDonaldization of higher education. The academy is not now, if it ever fully was, a meritocracy. There are meritocratic elements in it but unfairness is also built into it. I just had the misfotune to be among the first of a wave in this process and . . . of course, the good fortune, to personally get out of the situation. Many . . . most . . . will not be so lucky.

I’m going to finish this piece with a quotation by Aimée Morrison posting in a blog directed at contract academic faculty and those who support them.

             The tenured, I am trying to say, can be allies in building a more equitable, more ethical academy. But we will have to detach from our neuroses and our   over-identifications. The contingent and the others who didn’t “win” the game that the tenured did had to learn, however violent the impetus, to detach and think of themselves in new ways. Many of you, dear readers, have done this   and I have learned so much from your writing and your thinking and your actions. It’s time that the tenured take on this process, not of examining the ways the institution has undermined us or let us down, but in the ways that by “succeeding” within it we have become blinded to our own privilege, and still struggle emotionally and psychologically to make ourselves feel like we deserve these privileges so many others don’t have. (Hook and Ery blog Tuesday, November 12, 2013

*  Note: With apologies to the ghost of Paulo Freire but it is in reference to a different situation of pedagogy and a different set of oppressed people that this piece is about than that which Freire was considering. The reference is to what are called in Canada “contract academic faculty” or “sessional lecturers”. I don’t know what their UK equivalents are called now and I didn’t know of any applicable label for my position back when I was one, in this particular ‘moment’ in Essex Sociology’s history.

Garry Potter gained his PhD a Essex in 199 …  and then spent a good few years teaching in the department across many courses but especially the theory courses. He never gained a full lectureship, but moved to Canada where he is Professor of Sociology at Laurier University. He has published widely and most recently….. He is the author of The Bet: Truth in Science, Literature and Everyday Knowledges and also of The Philosophy of Social Science: New Perspectives. He co-edited After Postmodernism with Jose Lopez. More recently he wrote and published Dystopia: What is to be done? and made a documentary film of the same title. The film can be viewed for free and downloaded for educational purposes from the website

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Pauline Lane BA (1986-9); PhD (1991-5)

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)




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