Dennis Marsden (1933-2009)

Image of Dennis Marsden, 1933-2009Obituary by Ken Plummer
September 11th 2009

See also: Obituary by Alan Walker in The Guardian (23/9/09)

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.

Alan Walker has said that he was “one of the  most brilliant and inspirational sociologists”, and many of his students and colleagues would agree. His great skill lay in qualitative interviewing and his belief in letting people speak for themselves. A major strand of his early work helped find a  voice for women living with difficulties in life. He wrote one of the first books on single mothers (Mothers alone), and pioneered research on battered wives and married daughters caring for their elderly mothers. He also produced a fascinating study of unemployment with photographs by Euan Duff  (Workless). In later work, with David Lee and Penny Rickman he focused on Youth Training Schemes. He met Jean Duncombe during this project who became his loving partner (eventually wife) for the rest of his life, and with whom he worked on his last major pathbreaking project on love and coupledom, co-editing The State of Affairs(2004).

But perhaps his most celebrated work was his first which he co-wrote with Brian Jackson in 1962. Education and the Working Class is a true classic of British sociology, telling a story that remains relevant today: of how the middle classes fare so much better than the working class in education. In this book he tells how a few working class kids were able to progress to grammar school, university and ultimately middle class life styles and incomes – though not without difficulties. The book is written in a very clear and down to earth language – full of first hand quotes – from the 88 students who made it, both boys and girls. It became an academic bestseller; Dennis became a national name in educational circles and for several generations it was the most influential book in thinking about class and education – impacting thousands of lives. Alan Bennett once remarked it was a key source for The History Boys.

I read the book around 1966 – when it appeared as a Penguin and I was a third year undergraduate. It inspired me greatly –as it has so many – because I could find signs of my own life in it. Dennis’s life was to be found in it – he was born into a traditional working class family in Huddersfield in 1933. He was one of that select band of working class boys who did well, went to Grammar School and then to Cambridge – to study science not sociology incidentally). He then went on to do the necessary National Service, taught for a while in a secondary modern, and then turned to research and social work at Toynbee Hall and the Institute of Community Studies in London’s East End. In 1965, he got a post at Essex. The rest as they say is history. His contribution to the department over thirty five years was enormous before he retired in 1999, But it is an interesting tale of a life crowded with achievement and a life that moved a little way through the social classes – though as anyone who knows Dennis will probably agree that there remained a core of that working class background that was unmovable, even unchanged.

Throughout all his work was a triple concern. He was always concerned about inequalities (class obviously, and more controversially, women).His methodology was nearly always that of an intense qualitative interviewer – he was a stern critic of the dominance of quantitative work. And overall he was passionate about sociology being concerned with the structural basis of inequalities and the need for social change. In his later life he became disillusioned by both the direction sociology was taking, and the direction of the Labour Government. He was never interested in sociological fads or New Labourism.

Dennis married Pat his childhood sweet heart in 1961, and they had three children. They divorced in the early 1980’s . His middle years after divorce were very difficult ones. But in 1986, he met Jean Duncombe and found a soul mate with whom he lived happily for twenty three years. Together they raised her children in Wivenhoe, before moving to Emsworth and Chichester where they worked at the University of Chichester.

Dennis was an essentially very private person and never looked for status. He hated pretension in all its kinds and had little time for sociological fashions. He was quiet, kind and gentle: a keen ornithologist, a very accomplished photographer, a lover of classical music – and a very private man. But he could be brusque: he never quite lost his working class Yorkshire bluntness and always called a spade a spade.

Dennis was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March 2004 and was given only six months to live. But he lived another four and a half years and died in peace at the local hospice. Jean nursed and loved him through all this time and he died on Sunday September 6th 2009 in her arms. He leaves three children, Daniel, Ben and Sarah; and three step children, Michael, James and Emily: and a large number of students and others who have been inspired by him.

Ken Plummer, September 11th 2009

  1. Dennis Marsden (1933-2009) « ESSEXSOCIOLOGYALUMNI

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