Ian Craib (1945-2002)

Obituaries by Ted Benton, Mike Roper and John Walshe, and a tribute to Ian by his son, Ben Craib

Portrait of Professor Ian Craib (1945-2002)

Note: The contents of this page are extracts from a memorial collection put together in the year after Ian’s death. A small number of hard copies are available on request.

Obituary by Professor Ted Benton, Dept. of Sociology, University of Essex (original, from which an edited version was printed in The Guardian, 18th February 2003)

Ian Craib, who has died at the tragically early age of 57, was professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Despite his personal modesty, the continuous stream of books, articles and reviews which he authored over more than 25 years earned great respect both in and well beyond the academy. A mark of his originality is his commitment to asking the large and important questions which necessarily transgress disciplinary boundaries. In Ian’s case, philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis and social theory were all called upon in the making of his unique contribution. He saw himself as at the margins of his discipline, but perhaps because of this he had a deeper understanding of both its indispensability and its limitations than most. His early work explored the relationships between philosophy and social theory, and he remained committed to a vision of the importance of this connection throughout his career. Through the 1970s his advocacy of a humanist Marxism, inspired by Sartre’s existentialism, sustained his political activism, to the left of, and then (uncomfortably) within the Labour Party. In his work as a sociology teacher and writer, he resisted the tide of structuralist thought which swept the humanities and social science disciplines at that time. By the end of the 1970s, a combination of personal difficulties and political despair had provoked a retreat from organised politics into his prolonged personal and intellectual engagement with psychoanalysis.

By the mid 1980s he had become a trainee psychotherapist, but still had not abandoned his commitment to social theorising. The synthesis of these twin engagements was his Psychoanalysis and Social Theory (1989). It was the sub-title of this work – ‘the limits of sociology’ – that signalled Ian’s most abiding sociological argument. The shift from existentialism to psychoanalysis turned out to be a way of bringing new intellectual resources to maintain the central concern of his earlier humanism: the claim of the inner life of individuals to be respected and defended from reductive simplifications. Using an image offered by one of his patients, he acknowledged that we might eventually be able to explain the ‘hand of cards’ each of us is dealt in life. But much depends on how that hand is played, and there is something imponderable and wonderful about the creativity individuals show in surviving against the odds. Intellectual approaches which fail to recognise this are to be opposed because they threaten to close down on human possibilities.

The 1980s again saw Ian swimming against powerful currents of thought. In the face of fashionable denunciations of large-scale theorising and avant garde dismissals of the sociological classics, he published two major works of sociological theory – one on classical, the other on modern social theory. Intended as student texts, these were much more than is commonly understood by that. Ian both demonstrated and argued for the importance of engaging with the major thinkers of the past if we are to understand both the present and its contemporary thought. But these were more than just textbooks in another important sense: they were an extension of Ian’s much more central commitment to his role as a teacher. In them one gets a glimpse of his quite distinctive, challenging but still empathic educational philosophy. At the same time, the interest in psychoanalysis deepened, and he began to make distinctive and original contributions to its specialist literature, both through books such as The Importance of Disappointment and Experiencing Identity, and through his work as a psychotherapist in the NHS.

But this more public presence, significant as it has been, is perhaps not what Ian would most wish to have recalled.  He came to Essex University in the mid 1970s, and could hardly have found a more stimulating or congenial environment. He latterly paid tribute to the policy of a department unafraid to recruit staff from its ‘fringes’ and from other disciplines. He engaged passionately in the political and theoretical debates of the time, and the subsequent retreat from organised politics was not an abandonment of politics as such. He recently recognised that while trying to be a ‘serious Marxist’ he had always been a ‘very unserious Marxist’: closer, perhaps, to anarcho-syndicalism (though, typically Ian, he added that he wasn’t quite sure what this meant!). True to his early humanism, his politics expressed itself in his later years in his devotion to teaching and to his therapeutic work, as well as in his writing. For him, the insistence on ‘opposition, argument and thought’ were what had given us such limited freedoms as we enjoy, and it was to evoking and educating these capacities in himself and others that his political values continued to express themselves.

He stressed the importance, in therapy, as well as in the process of becoming a sociologist, of learning to ‘tolerate anxiety, contradiction, paradox and uncertainty and inner conflict and to make something of it all’. His teaching was a process of challenging, sometimes disconcerting, exploration of possibilities. He could not have been more at odds with the prevailing ethos of higher education under new labour, according to which its value is defined in terms of enhanced lifetime earnings, and every course must have its pre-determined aims, objects and outcomes. In a recent book, Ian contrasts this instrumental approach to education its humanist alternative:

‘For some people education is a value in itself, something to be sought after because the more educated we are, the more civilized we become. Through education we become better people, more sensitive, able to appreciate the true and the beautiful, able to find sophisticated pleasures in the world; we become better citizens.’

It is impossible to put into words the unique place he has occupied in the discipline, in this department and the university. His combination of complete integrity, and loving commitment to his students and his colleagues is such that his wife, Fiona, refers to the department as ‘the in-laws’. Paradoxically, for one who insisted on the un-achievability of ‘identity’, Ian was always and inimitably himself: a colleague of unfaltering integrity: implacably rigorous, usually iconoclastic, wickedly insightful, but uniquely honourable, generous and forgiving. His characteristically impish, subversive chuckle never left him, even in the dark days of his final illness. He remains in my memory the same party-goer, leaping to the beat of the Rolling Stones’ ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. That was in happier times, when his libertarian spirit was more widely shared, and its political vision seemed possible. Of course, he did get satisfaction (if never complacency) in the love of his son, Ben (of whom he was immensely proud) and his wife, Fiona.

Portrait of Ian Craib (1945-2002)

Obituary by Dr. Michael Roper, Dept. of Sociology, University of Essex, published in The Independent, 24th January 2003

Ian Craib straddled two fields which have had a difficult, sometimes fractious relationship, accompanied by some notable failures of attempts at integration: sociology and psychoanalysis. He was on the one hand a social theorist. His PhD thesis, published in 1976 as Existentialism and Sociology, was an assessment of the work of Jean Paul Sartre, and demonstrated a form of humanist Marxism which remained influential in his subsequent thinking. He was also author of Modern Social Theory, Classical Social Theory, and (with his colleague Ted Benton), Philosophy of Social Science. These books grew directly out of his experience of teaching on sociological theory courses in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex, where he was appointed as a junior lecturer in 1973, and where he remained until his death. Ian had an extraordinary ability to explain difficult concepts in plain and lucid prose, without simplification. I remember my huge relief, as a young member of staff, trained as an historian and struggling over classes on structural Marxism, to discover Ian’s crystal clear account of Althusser.

On the other hand he was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who practised within the NHS. After a period of upheaval in his personal life in the late 1970s, Ian underwent psychoanalysis before training as a group analytic therapist in the mid 1980s. My first encounter with him dates from this period, when, as a young, rather homesick PhD student from Australia, I was referred on to his university group therapy. His way of running the groups – as of class teaching – was to minimise intervention, hoping to encourage the richness of transference that would draw us into full relationships with each other. Nobody, I have heard students say, could endure a silence like Ian. Yet, despite this seeming remoteness, there was a care and supportiveness there which, I came to know in my later capacity as a friend and colleague, and as I observed in his feelings for his wife, Fiona, and son Ben, was constant, and ran deep.

For Ian these two fields were in constant dialogue, in reality and in his writing. His university group therapy often contained students who he also taught, meaning that we knew more about his personal life than therapeutic conventions normally approve. Far from attempting to exclude the reality of these external relationships, Ian worked with them, and, typically took a belligerent attitude in his writing about it, taking psychotherapists to task for their attempts to pretend that the therapeutic relationship could be insulated from the external world.

Ian was first diagnosed with cancer in 1993, first a brain tumour, and then, a further two years later, what was thought to be a primary cancer in the lungs. This experience undoubtedly influenced Ian’s personal and intellectual development in the following decade, when books seemed to fairly flow out of him, at a rate of one every couple of years. The Importance of Disappointment was completed in the wake of an operation to remove the first cancer. It set the tone for much of the work which followed, including an introductory textbook on psychoanalysis, a volume of essays entitled Experiencing Identity, and numerous, trenchant critiques of aspects of sociological thought, delivered from the vantage point of the clinician and psychoanalytic thinker. The Importance of Disappointment provided a pointed commentary on modern society and the tendency to eschew pain, ambivalence, and difficult experiences in favour of a notion that we could somehow banish anxiety, and create identities of our choosing. For Ian the individual aspiration to freedom was important, but never achievable, and in so far as change was possible, it could only be truly accomplished through full recognition of the ways in which unconscious desires resisted reform. The book provided a commentary on modern attitudes to death. In place of mourning, bereavement counsellors provided ‘abstract guidelines’ aimed at relieving, rather than confronting, the experience of guilt, and the intensity of pain, that surrounds death. This critique was extended to non-psychoanalytic therapies, which he criticised for false advertising, and for raising the stakes, encouraging us to believe that we could liberate ourselves from our pasts, as if ‘personal fulfilment’, or ‘self-expression’, were truly achievable. For Ian such tendencies amounted almost to a social evil, since ‘the links with other people, in all their dreadful complexity, are all that we have’, and these were deliberately broken by creeds which diluted the fullness of human contact. Against such a tendency, Ian introduced ideas from psychoanalysis to assert the ambivalent and conflictual character of human nature.

The link between Ian’s own cancer and the message of The Importance of Disappointment lay in his assertion that it was the fear of death that ultimately lay behind the denial of disappointment. Ian lived with the possibility of a short life after the cancer operations of the mid-1990s. He did this with exceptional bravery, a word which he himself would have hated me to use. He would talk to his colleagues about it, and made it clear that they were free to talk about it to him. He talked about the possibility of dying. For some of his colleagues this directness could be uncomfortable. It was certainly challenging, allowing us always to feel something of what he felt. He did not retreat, but if anything engaged ever more fully with life, in the department, in his therapeutic work, and in his writing. For Ian the decade from 1993, a decade lived through cancer and the fear of its return, were perhaps his most fertile and creative.

About two months ago Ian began to complain of chest pains, and was found to have a growth on the lungs so close to the heart it was inoperable. Throughout the period of his diagnosis, despite increasing pain, he continued to teach, and participate fully in the department, and in fact did so until the end of term, the week prior to his death.

He will be sorely missed as a colleague, someone who shouldered a large load in the department, in teaching and pastoral work, without complaint. His success in academic publication did not, as it does for some, mean that he sought ways to minimise his commitment to students and the department. Teaching and research were for Ian always mutually productive. On the Friday before his death I phoned him. He seemed a little flat, perhaps the result of his first bout of chemotherapy (which would, had he lived, have continued well into next year). We talked about writing, and he spoke of experiments in poetry and other creative writing, but of his fear of failing outside his academic home (this was something he also felt in relation to whether he might become a full-time therapist), and of the omnipotent presumption of it all. He said that his academic books had ceased to provide a sense of achievement: he knew he could do it, that it would be well enough received, and in any case, he said ‘how long does an academic book last? Ten, fifteen years at the most’. What mattered more was the difference he hoped he’d made to his students. He worried that he had not done enough good in the world. It was typical Ian, self-doubting to the end, striving always towards a realistic assessment of himself and the world around him. I can think of no-one amongst my academic colleagues who strove harder to do good – in terms which he defined for himself and others – than Ian.

Ian Craib (1945-2002) with his family - Ben and FionaObituary by Dr John Walshe, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, published in Group Analysis, June 2003 (a journal Ian liked and published some of his own work in).

Ian Craib, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and Group Analyst at the local Mental Health Trust, died suddenly on December the 22nd. 2002. In the last decade he had recovered from cancer twice and had been discharged from follow up with a clean bill of health just a year ago. Unfortunately the cancer returned late this year but we all hoped that he would recover once more. It was not to be.

Ian had an international reputation in Sociology and is widely read as a theoretician who ably links Sociology and Psychoanalysis. He has written many important books and articles both on Sociology and Psychoanalysis. He wrote several papers for Group Analysis. His introductory texts are popular with students including Psychoanalysis: A Critical Introduction, published last year. His book The Importance of Disappointment is a remarkable text and central to his thought, his writing, and how he presented himself to the world.

In the mid 1980s he qualified as a psychotherapist and group analyst bringing together his interests in the reciprocal effects between individuals, groups and societies. In the late 1980s he was central along with Karl Figlio, Joan Busfield, Ken Plummer and myself, in the creation of an MA in Sociology and Psychotherapy jointly between the University and the Mental Health Trust. This was one of the first university courses of its type in the country, combining clinical experience with theoretical thinking, something very important to Ian. He and the people involved in this course were later to develop the successful Centre for Psychoanalytical Studies at Essex.

He was somebody with whom one could share difficult and complex feelings. He talked about his working class origins that influenced his understanding of class systems and the politics of power. This partly explains his attachment in his late teens to Troskyite parties that he went on to reject because of what he saw as their authoritarianism. They weren’t able to laugh at themselves. Humour was very important to Ian in his work and his life. He saw it as very positive if a group was able to share through laughter. Unfair treatment and unequal distribution of power and influence angered him and undoubtedly was a force in his joining a civil rights march between Belfast and Dublin in 1968, an experience which he could describe in graphic detail.

In the psychoanalytic field he was a constantly stimulating force to his colleagues in mental health. For many years Ian, Michael Scott, and myself had regular weekly discussions about our groups and psychodynamic theory. He encouraged the sharing of the difficulties, pain, joy and fun of group psychotherapeutic work. The need to get things right, the wonder at how interpretations were so often lost and ignored, the question of whether one should be working with the deep unconscious in therapeutic groups – like all “good” therapists should do- or make comments at the overt conscious level of the group, were constant themes that Ian brought to discussions. His arguments tended to centre on how much the problems of the individual are due to society rather then the internal unconscious phantasy world. He knew that it was always both, but he liked to argue. For Ian what was important was to provoke thought.

If one were close to him he would share willingly his experiences through many joys and difficulties. The break up of his second marriage, his happiness in meeting Fiona, his wife, and their relationship which spanned one of the most productive writing periods in his life. His constant delight in his son Ben and worries about being separate from him. He was typically open, something one can experience in his writings, or if one was lucky enough to attend his seminars or lectures. A theme that was important to him was that it was better to have loved rather than have never loved at all. He saw the former as sometimes painful but also joyous, an exploration and the latter as cold and distant, a non-relationship lacking exploration. His explorations were many, including learning how to drive. It was uncertain who was more frightened, him or the world around him. Typically, when not successful, he explored alternatives. He insisted upon his Englishness, had no doubt about that identity and would defend it against attacks, including my Irish polemics against perfidious Albion. He loved cricket.

His death was a terrible “disappointment”, in the sense he extensively analysed in his book. He explored how feelings of anguish and loss are always present in the face of such reality and how it is not helpful either to suppress them or to believe that one should be happy all the time. He will be sadly missed by his wife, his son, his stepchildren, his many friends and colleagues, patients and students.

Ian Craib (1945-2002) with his son Ben.

Ian with his son Ben

My father – by Ben Craib

My dad lived, and saw, a world of complexity, instability and ambiguity. But one unwavering constant in all this was his huge capacity to give and love. Whether it was to students, readers, patients, friends, partners or family he gave to so many people: Whether it was the clear, lucid explanation of a complex idea, or a simple cuddle. He loved me immensely, always. And I loved him equally back. He was a fantastic father. There is nothing more painful than the loss of a strong bond of love. But what he has given me means he will never leave my heart.

My parents split up when I was very young. My dad never had a dad who was there, but he made damn sure I did. As I grew up, I always saw him regularly. He was a rock and a refuge, an important balance to unstable times.

Without that presence, I would have been lost growing up. I cannot go through every way in which he gave. I’m flooded by memories of hugs, jokes, magical conversations at every age, but really, his love for me was infused with everything, whether he snapped at me, smiled at me, or even made me a cup of tea.

He did this very much uniquely. He was compassionate, provocative, and honest. He had the amazing ability to always see the opposites in situations, which could be both thrilling and infuriating – a gift and a curse he called it. He used this to always try and maintain a sense of reality, whatever. He was accused of being a pessimist, which was probably true. But this was my dad. His insight, to see the bad in good and the good in bad, was part of his greater, sensitive, often magical view of the complication and contradiction in life. Whether I worried about an essay at school or a broken heart he would comfort, analyse, at the same time saying I know, it’s hard, it has to be gone through. He was never cold. There were always unlimited hugs. But he gave me a sense of the endless ebb and flow of life, joy replaced by pain replaced by joy. He never sugar coated anything and would never want me to do it with him. This honesty, this message of accept yourself, warts and all, was not always easy, and is a lifetime’s learning.  But I clung onto his wisdom, his clear intelligent articulation of life as a mess, and I feel it created the bit of me that is grounded, that ensures I never get too close to the flames for too long. Dad saw me through the difficult process of growing up. My grief is tremendous, but he helped me just long enough to become an adult, someone capable of surviving the awful pain of his death.

My dad wasn’t happy all his life. No one is, and he would say it isn’t the most important thing. He certainly had joy, especially after surviving  two previous cancers. He knew how precious life is. Whether it was putting up the Christmas tree, eating fish and chips, or walking to church in spring, he had joy. Even when he was down, a flash of black humour, would, for me, show an irrepressible light, even if he did not realize it. He suffered, and learned to suffer well, but always said, in his words, he’d had a good life, considering the shit he came from.

I always found something incredible about the transition between the shy, gawky, scared blonde boy with glasses and cowboy outfit to the wise, psychotherapist and academic I always knew. He came a long away. Down to his last breaths, he denied he was amazing, but that is something I will always disagree with him on. It warms me that he was contradictory and provocative to the last. But not just to me, what he gave people was profound and precious.

I’d like to read something brief from his preface to The Importance of Disappointment. Something that I have held onto. He is speaking of the effect of his first cancer.

‘I had never before allowed myself to recognize the fear of death that must be common to us all, and neither had I properly understood its implication: that life is immensely precious and the links we have with other people, in all their dreadful complexity, are all that we have, and if there is such a thing as evil, it lies in the deliberate breaking of those links’

Death has taken away an incredibly strong link. Dad will be immensely missed. But his love and his wisdom live on, in books, inside those he has helped, and in his death he still councils us, helping us look all the pain, and grief, in the face.

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