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Nigel Parton (1976-7, MA Social Service Planning)

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I spent just 12 months as a postgraduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex in 1976/7. I had graduated with a degree in Applied Social Studies, which included the professional social work qualification (CQSW), at the University of Bradford in 1974. After graduation I worked as a social worker for Bradford Social Services. While nominally a generic social worker covering all client groups, my caseload, like all qualified social workers at the time, was biased very much towards child care cases. My degree gave an excellent grounding in  psycho-dynamic and ego psychological approaches to social casework which were dominant in social work training at the time. When I finished the degree I was clear that I wanted to extend do some further study related to social policy and sociology and it was the MA in Social Service Planning which I studied at Essex.

What I really liked was that there were just ten students on the course from a variety of backgrounds. The culture of the department was very different to what I was used to and the focus of the MA was, in effect, the sociology of social policy. Every week we had small group seminars with some great staff – unfortunately many of whom are no longer with us; Peter Townsend, Dennis Marsden, Adrian Sinfield, Stan Cohen, Mary McIntosh, Duncan Gallie and a (relatively) young and enthusiastic Ken Plummer – all of whom either were professors or were to go on to become professors at Essex and elsewhere – and all of whom were, at the time, the leading researchers and scholars in the field. To be honest it is only in more recent years that I have come to appreciate the influence that the course and the wider department has had on my thinking and work – both then and in subsequent years. And some of this is quite mundane in the sense that it was the first time I had to study quite conceptual and theoretical ideas in any depth and to produce a series of longer and  more ‘academic’ assignments. We had to write a 4000 word essay per month as well as produce the occasional seminar paper. This was the time I began to appreciate the value of a more disciplined approach to reading and writing.

Unknown-9One of the courses we studied was on Deviance, Social Problems and Social control and was led by Stan Cohen and Ken Plummer and introduced me to the American sociology of social problems literature and the journal Social Problems in particular where social contructionist approaches were dominant.  Towards the end of my undergraduate degree and while I was a practitioner in Bradford I had become very aware that, following the  public inquiry into the death of seven year old Maria Colwell in 1973/4 that the issue of, what was then called, ‘non-accidental injury to children and the activities of social workers had been thrust into the media in high profile ways and that this was having an impact upon the operation of social services in ways which was not envisaged when we were training to become social workers. I was intrigued about how this had come about and with what implications. However I had not anticipated studying this as part of the MA. But increasingly I found the sociology of social problems literature very persuasive and just at the time I was thinking how this might be applied to ‘NAI’ in the UK I came across an article by Stephen Pfohl  in Social Problems(24(3),pp310-23) entitled ‘The Discovery of Child Abuse’ and this decided me to make this the focus for the dissertation which I needed to complete for the MA with Ken Plummer as my supervisor.

I was never really able to engage with ‘student life’ at Essex as much as I would have liked. My partner, Christine, and I lived in a small bungalow in Clacton called ‘Pixie Dell’ as she was working for social services in Clacton and I travelled about NE Essex on my trusty Honda 50. Then in May, just as I was about to start work for the dissertation, Christine was knocked over by a car and was very badly injured and  spent the next 4 months in hospital near Braintree. So my summer was spent either sitting in the library at Essex trying to find relevant articles and analysing newspaper coverage of child abuse, interviewing  a few key ‘informants’ who had some important insights into how the problem was ‘officially’ being handled or travelling to Black Notley Hospital (now closed). At the end of the course and after Christine came out of hospital we were keen to get back to West Yorkshire and I got a job as lecturer in social work at the, then, Polytechnic of Huddersfield, where I have worked – more or less – ever since. I got pretty engrossed in the work for the dissertation and  Ken Plummer was always very supportive and this prompted me to write a much edited version of the dissertation for the British Journal of Social Work (9(4) 432-451) entitled ‘The Natural History of Child Abuse: A Study in Social Problem Definition’.

It was never my intention to spend so much of my academic and professional life studying and writing about child abuse and child protection – but that is how it seems to have worked out! In the early days I had assumed that the initial public and media interest in child abuse and social work would subside. But this is not what has happened. While the last 40 years have seen occasional lulls, overall the trend has been for an increase in both coverage and also an increase in, what I am now calling, ‘outrage’. Part of this reflects the growing awareness of the size and nature of the problem of child abuse and the terrible suffering experienced by a significant number of children and young people. But the ‘outrage’ is also very much directed at the professionals and managers, particularly social workers, who have been involved in a series of high profile cases and are, almost, seen as ‘responsible’ for the suffering. It is as if child abuse – or rather child protection – and social work are tied together by some sort of umbilical cord and that the latter has projected onto it much of the fear and anger experienced at a rather subconscious level by numerous sections of society. For many years I have been of the view that it is not possible to understand the nature and purposes of social work in the UK without understanding the nature and social reactions to the problem of child abuse. Increasingly I have been of the view that the way we respond to both child abuse and social work says a great deal about the kind of society in which we live and how this might be changing. My most recent attempts to provide a critical analysis of this will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in the spring of 2014 as The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions; and, in many ways, the seeds for this and previous publications were sown in the Department of Sociology at Essex in 1976/7.

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Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1964-1970

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1964-1970

Enlightenment and Despair: A history of social theoryStarting at Essex was utterly terrifying; I was the first non-professorial appointment so I was on every committee to plan everything; the first year teaching, on the social structure of modern Britain, didn’t worry me very much because at LSE I had done some extra-mural teaching on the subject; I had taught in Brixton with West Indian immigrants; that was a good education for me because these people did not have an academic interest in the subject but wanted to know how Britain worked; there were four members of the sociology department at Essex – the Professor, Peter Townsend, Herminio Martins, Paul Thompson, Ernest Rudd, and me……..

Read more about these early days from Geoffrey Hawthorn

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Podcast Series: Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson was one of the earliest appointments  to the sociology department and  world leader of the oral history movement.

Paul Thompson was one of the earliest appointments to the sociology department and world leader of the oral history movement.

Voice of the Past

Creating a University: Podcast Series

In 1964, the doors to the University of Essex opened for the first time and welcomed an initial cohort of just 122 students. Today there are more than 12,000 students from over 130 countries studying at three campuses across the county, and around 70,000 alumni worldwide.

This new podcast series tells the story of Essex from its earliest days – – through interviews with people who were there, including students, staff from all levels and local residents.

The podcasts are based on archive interviews for the Wivenhoe Oral History Project, established by Paul Thompson. Paul was one of the founder members of the Essex  Department of Sociology – and a world leader in the field of Oral Hiostory. For many years, the journal Oral History was based in the sociology departmemt.  He has made these podcasts in conjunction with the university and they can be found be clicking here: http://www.essex.ac.uk/fifty/podcasts/

One podcast is to be released every month between November 2012 and August 2013

More about the podcasts

Series Editor: Chris Garrington
Series Director: Paul Thompson

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Pauline Morris, PhD 1968

Pauline Morris: The first ever Ph.D was awarded in 1968

The first Ph.D. on Sociology at Essex was awarded to Pauline Morris in 1968, four years after the department opened. It is likely that she was supervised by Peter Townsend. Pauline Morris was at that time married to Terrence Morris, the criminologist at the London School of Economics. Pauline became Head of the Department of Sociology at South Bank around 1970; and chair of the board of examiners of the B.Sc. London External. She died in the mid 1970’s.

The book  has recently been republished by Aldine and the blurb says:

This classic book allows its readers for the first time to comprehend the size, organization, staffing and operation of a national system of hospitals and residential services for the subnormal. It also allows for the first time, reliable estimates to be given of the scale and severity of certain problems. The basis has been laid for an evaluation of the effectiveness of hospitals for the subnormal. All this has been made possible by a generous grant from the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children to the Department of Sociology in the University of Essex upon the foundation of the University. Of course, a great deal of further research remains to be done but a preliminary network of information is now available to all those deeply concerned about the handicapped.

This is a study of the range and quality of institutional provisions made in England and Wales for that group of handicapped individuals who are known as mentally deficient. Dr. Morris reports on an investigation, which covered nearly half the hospitals for the sub-normal in the country: many of its findings can only shock and dismay.

The investigation was concerned to discover what facilities-physical, occupational and educational-there was for patients, and to learn more about their social environment. It was also concerned to determine the extent to which both staff and patients are affected by their social environment, and by administrative action, and to learn something of the relationship between the hospital as an institution and the outside community, as well as between the patients and the outside world. In addition, it examined the extent to which the provisions and facilities available met the needs of the patients in relation to their physical and mental handicaps.

Pauline Morris was Principal Lecturer in Sociology at the Borough Polytechnic, London. She worked in the field of social research. After a period in California looking at the services for the mentally retarded, Dr. Morris went to the University of Essex.

Peter Townsend is professor of International Social Policy, at The Social Policy Department at the University of Essex. He is a senior fellow and emeritus professor of social policy at the School of Policy Studies at Bristol University. In 1999 he was elected founder Academician to the new Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences. He has written much in the areas of old age, poverty, health, and social policy’.

For a full list of PhDs and MPhils completed in the department, see Memories

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In Memory of Dennis Marsden (1933-2009)

Image of Dennis Marsden, 1933-2009By Ken Plummer, September 9th, 2009

Dennis Marsden joined the Essex Sociology Department in 1965, one year after the university opened.

He came from the Institute of Community Studies to become a Joseph Rowntree Research Officer working with Peter Townsend, the founding professor, on the highly influential project Poverty in the UK.

In 1968, he became a lecturer in the department where he taught the sociology of education and pioneered the very successful MA in Social Service Planning. In the late 1970’s he became Head of the Department.  He retired in 1999 after thirty five years in the department…

(Continued under Memories/Obituaries)

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