Peter Townsend: The Fortunes of Sociology at Essex 1963-1982

Peter Townsend was Founding Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, from October 1963 to December 1981, and chairman of the Department during its first seven years. He was elected Pro-Vice Chancellor (Social Policy) and served from 1974 for three years. He moved to the University of Bristol as Professor of Social Policy in January 1982 and became Professor of International Social Policy at LSE in 1998. He died in 2009.

A brief outline of his work with linkscan be found at:

This paper was given : Nov 11 2004 Department of Sociology, University of Essex, 40th anniversary

A comment by Adrian Sinfield can also be found by clicking here Peter’s lecture


The development of sociology at the University of Essex is in many ways the recent history of the subject in Europe. After the sweeping claims for the subject in the 19th Century there was little consolidation institutionally by the time of the foundation of the new universities in the mid -1960s. Essex was in the vanguard of a new professional, scientific and international approach to the subject and the early years of the establishment of the department in the University illustrate both the internal debate about the scope of the subject and its intellectual priorities and the external interpretation of its role and functions -which was sometimes hostile and often uncomprehending or dismissive.

The scrutiny of that early history of the subject at Essex (and at some of the other new universities) helps to reveal the innovations which were made to address fundamental intellectual and social questions. That collective work represented a major contribution to national and international culture. Representatives of the subject played an honourable and constructive role during the periods of political unrest at British universities during the 1960s and 1970s, although that role -and its longstanding contribution to the vitality and liberal values of university life – remains to be properly recognised.

When I returned to Essex in 1990 on the University’s 25th anniversary I said that sociology and the social sciences generally had acquired a reputation for crusading intellectualism. If that idea applied to the 1960s and 1970s it applies even more today. There was a zest and a vivacity that infected relationships between colleagues, despite a murderous programme of work, and that has endured for decades. The common understanding was that we were here to re-establish and apply traditional university values in a completely new setting and without the halter of already established institutional rules and procedures round our necks. I made friendships that continue to heal wounds and offer models to follow – among others Stan Cohen, Geoff Hawthorn, Adrian Sinfield, Denis Marsden, Paul Thompson, Alisdair MacIntyre, Lee and David Lockwood, Joan Busfield, Peter Abell, Pat Doreian, Ruth Lister, Ken Plummer, Michael Harloe, Gordon Marshall, Howard Newby, Ian Craib, Phil Holden and, until recently, Colin Bell. It was broad church sociology, combative exchanges and wits sharpened in the process.

Forty years on I am fortunate still to be active in teaching at LSE – the place where, before Essex, I began academic life. On Wednesdays, for example I convene, with Eileen Munro, an MSc option in Child Rights, Child Poverty and Development. There are 35 attending, from 23 countries. Having been briefly Acting Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, before the full-time Director Conor Gearty was appointed in 2002, I have digested the truth that Human Rights provides perhaps the prime intellectual framework in the modern day for global sociological analysis and strategies for social change. One of my recent books with David Gordon (Townsend and Gordon, 2002) gives a preliminary account. In some respects I consider the human rights framework may have a more lasting scientific impact than that of human development (see also Townsend, 2004). With Stan Cohen I share the makings of a multi-disciplinary human rights alliance, that gains strength from others from international law – like Christine Chinkin and Conor Gearty. We are aware that Human Rights at Essex is setting a pace that is hard to match but good to learn from.

More than other scientists university sociologists are bound to be conscious of serving two roles. As teachers, administrators and research workers they are allocated tasks which are legally defined or customary within large institutions of higher education. Usually they will do their level best to make a good job of that occupational role to which they have been formally allocated. But because of their professional education and experience they will be more than ordinarily aware of the larger social forces controlling the institution within which they work, the behaviour and expectations of those around them, the social structure of town and gown and even the nature of the duties which they perform.

This can easily place them in the front line of any social or political conflicts which arise in current daily events. Professional judgments and the events into which sociologists are obliged to participate may be particularly hard to reconcile with institutional obligations.

The management of this conflict can be creative as well as bruising. This is my central theme today. It is something which academic colleagues in other university departments as well as more illustrious political and social elites find difficult to understand. \it affects interpretation of what has happened in the past as well as what is happening today. I was reminded of this at a degree ceremony in the University in 1990, 15 years ago. It was a colourful and warm-hearted occasion marking the University’s development. But it was also a ritual conferring political as well as academic rewards, which revealed in its constitutional representation and programming the crushing political domination of higher education by established class interests.

This is not a difference of interpretation. Both interpretations are correct. The second is a legitimate and empirically verifiable sociological insight. The university class ritual cannot be set on one side as a bit of inconsequential historical pomp and circumstance and treated with mild amusement, because its organisation and its symbolism reflect a system of power relations in which contemporary authoritarian values are frequently asserted, not least in retrospective versions of history, which its exponents frequently invoke. The class ritual helps to sustain the wide and widening social inequalities which are such a marked feature of British society. Such a class ritual also threatens to distort and inhibit the intellectual and creative potential in all of us.

At that time the Chairman of the University’s Council tried then to distance the university’s development from some of the unrest marking its early years, instead of welcoming some of the events of those years as a necessary check on undemocratic rule and intellectual conformity and as a basis for many of the real achievements of the university. Leaders today continue to convey similar interpretations of past conflict in the mistaken belief that this is how they should apply their healing powers. Historians like Simon Schama are at liberty to reveal the true nature of the social developments of the long-distant past, but sociologists who jab at the present with authority and no small expertise continue to be dismissed and condemned by the power elites of the present era.


Let me pick up a vivid example. The Department was noted for the leading part it played in the student protests of 1968 and 1974. Attempts to blame sociology for wider political discomfiture have been made of course to the present day. Noel Annan helped to perpetuate the myth of sociological responsibility for disruption, for example, in his book of 1990 (Annan, 1990). But even within the University the responsibility for what happened was much more widely shared. The events at Essex were a very minor part of a world- wide upheaval in higher education – due partly to the liberation implicit in rapid expansion but also to the reactions of the post-war generation against American imperialism in Vietnam and expressions of authoritarianism elsewhere, as in France.

The new universities were picked out for attention by the media. The protests at Essex were deliberately publicised by Conservative politicians concerned to crush Left-wing movements. Incidents in the older universities attracted less than their fair share of publicity. For example, contrary to the media at the time, Denis Healey’s picked out in his autobiography violent student activity in Cambridge, and nowhere else.

The myths about those years deserve to be laid to rest. In 1990 I heard Sir Andrew Stark, the Chairman of the University’s Council, speak of the more assured success of the University’s development in the previous years. Like others he seemed to want to close the door on 1968 and 1974 as if they were years that were best forgotten. I raised the issue with him afterwards.

It is wrong to believe the University is successful because it has surmounted the turbulence of those early years. Closer to the truth is that it is successful because of the turbulence of those years. The real history is one on which future generations of staff and students can build. Some of the objectives that were brought into prominence are ordinarily disregarded in a class society and deserve to be kept in the forefront of public discussion.

With 2002 being a close runner-up 1968 was the most absorbing and exciting year of my university career. What was a university for? Could the professional and political roles of university teachers be distinguished? When did internal as well as external national developments justify the suspension of ordinary university business? Was it possible or desirable to live in an intellectual bolt-hole? Could an academic be an effective specialist without also being an effective generalist? The visit by a chemical warfare apologist, Dr. Ince, was disrupted by students and was followed by months of protest at the victimisation of the student leaders by the Vice-Chancellor and the University’s disciplinary procedures. There were angry confrontations among staff, and hours and sometimes days of debate in Senate and in the biggest University lecture hall, with massive national publicity. I remember whole days when almost the entire complement of the university, including its cleaners, porters and gardeners as well as secretarial and administrative staff, teachers and students were gathered to debate the merits, causes and outcomes of different forms of action. Appropriately enough the meetings were chaired by Fred Twine, a former Trade Union official, who was one of Sociology’s mature students, and they were very orderly. Gabriel Pearson, the Professor of Literature, and myself were a consistent minority of two who opposed the post-hoc and unfair justification of authoritarian action by the University’s Senate and Council.

The escalation of the crisis, the resort to institutional authority by the University administration, the taking of sides, the spontaneous practice of fraternal values, were all matters which many had not experienced directly before, and certainly not in a university context. Of course that had applied more dramatically in Czechoslovakia and France. But even a minor broken-backed rebellion can leave precious memories as well as scars and can inaugurate developments which continue to influence an institution for the good thereafter. There remains at Essex more evidence of democratic representation, respect for minority interests, an energetic internationalism, and collaborative study and work -between staff and students, among departments and between people of widely different origin and status, than in most universities. That seems to me to be worth a statue or two, a concerto or two and certainly more than one anniversary to celebrate.


It would be wrong to ignore the ugliest outcomes. If 1968 was exhilarating the aftermath, especially 1970, was anarchic and depressing. 1970 was the slough of despond -a year when alienation took the form of minor destruction, the deliberate spreading of litter and the scribbling of outraged graffiti on every available surface. This was because fault was not admitted and pacification was not earned. The University seemed intent on applying its “repressive state apparatus” in the clumsiest way.

This eventually reached a second climax in 1974 when successive waves of police, amounting to about 250 in total, came early one morning to remove a successful blockade of the access road under the central buildings. The blockade had lasted many days but was at the time occupied by only a dozen students, including a severely disabled sociology student who was one of the leaders. But when they were marched off by the police a hundred took their place. The police moved in again and marched off this hundred to the cells. A thousand students then moved forward in support. At this stage some of us on the deck of what we affectionately called our aircraft carrier realised there was likely to be bloodshed. The student President, Rusty Davis – fittingly a red-haired woman -and myself went up to the Deputy Chief Constable who was leading scores of police towards hundreds of milling students and begged him to withdraw.

Soon there was a thin red line of staff and students separating the prospective combatants. We felt lonely and tense. The Deputy Chief Constable was plainly taken aback by this evidence of staff disagreement with the Vice-Chancellor’s action. He agreed to take us to meet the Vice-Chancellor, who had resisted earlier pleas to negotiate. He tried to remain aloof, and seemed determined to let matters take their course. This was an uncomfortable meeting. No compromise was offered. However, the police read the situation for the first time and, back on the access road, decided to withdraw quickly.

Very wisely, the police did not burn their fingers a second time. When, on a subsequent occasion, a few students blockaded the narrow corridor leading to an internal room which had been chosen to prevent students from demonstrating outside the windows of Senate they were mysteriously unavailable when a succession of  senior academics rang them for assistance to get out of the barred room. Eminent people gave an excellent parody of caged lions for many hours -while four of us reconciled ourselves to the inevitable and settled down for a long and interesting discussion of the merits of Schumpeter’s work.

In the end the line between the administrative and the ruling class was held. Concessions were made. Generously the radicals did not press home their advantage. Poachers who believe in equality don’t like to become gamekeepers. The protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s represented a check to the authoritarian trends in British society and could be said to have supported the liberal principles to which the founders of the University were paradoxically committed. It is Sociology which has done most to articulate and take seriously the Reith lectures given by Albert Sloman in 1964.

Sociologists have become inured to marginalisation and some deserve that fate. Some are not happy with administration. They are also more tolerant of their opponents than those opponents are with them. I now regret discouraging one senior sociologist from publishing a book he had written on the events at Essex although he was in two minds about it himself. The larger question of the closure of the University and of the Department of Sociology then loomed.

One thing is often forgotten or ignored about students in these crises. Many are stimulated to consider social as well as political issues seriously for the first time. The standard of intellectual debate rises sharply and an exacting standard is applied far more widely than many elites care to discover or admit. Distinguished student leaders also emerge. Some of the student officers during the late 1960s and early and mid- 1970s at Essex could, and did, hold their own in debate with older and far more experienced people. “ I have a newspaper photograph in my hands showing David Triesman, one of the three rusticated students in 1968, who was a leading figure in the protest against chemical biological warfare and its laboratory developments at Porton Down. He is now Lord Triesman, a Government whip, lately General Secretary of the Labour Party and former leading trades unionist.

The promises of the early and mid-1960s -expansion of higher education, greater occupational as well as social mobility, an open society, interdisciplinarity – implied structural changes of which the protagonists of change were unconscious and to which the new ruling class as well as the old ruling class, to whom they owed allegiance, were bitterly opposed. They could not, or did not, follow through the logic of their own prescriptions. Either they had raised expectations without serious intent of delivery or they did not perceive the oppressive inequality of the structures which they courted. The rise and fall of the SDP reflects the same misperception. The polarisation epitomised in Thatcherism was laid in many different institutions, including the University of Essex, in the 1970s.


This seems sufficient reason to recount part of the history of Sociology at Essex. My sharpest recollections are of the personal discomfort. I remember the six or seven moves for Sociology in as many years (not surprisingly the last of the major departments to be permanently housed); the loneliness of evenings in an unfamiliar town, and lodgings with a 97 years-old man and his 72 years-old daughter; the administration and writing deep into the night, later with the company of one of those indefatigable American postgraduates, who slept in the day and worked at night; the agony of the preparation of 25 First Year lectures -to say nothing of an entirely new MA programme -at a time when I was struggling to apply for research grants, playa necessary part in every appointment and personally make the majority of student admissions to the university (because during the first 12 months Alan Gibson, the Professor of Physics, and myself were jointly responsible for every single admission to the university), as well as drive back to London to strive to be a responsible parent and to keep up a running battle with the Wilson Government -about its disastrous 1965 White Paper on immigration, its failure to introduce redistribution and its pretence of planning.

One of the implications I noted from the Public Orator’s speech, unintended I am sure, was that because I had outside activities I was bound to have to restrict university teaching, research and administration. This was never in fact true. Like most other university teachers I have always been acutely aware that these are the three activities for which I am employed and paid and that my success in dealing with them always deserves close scrutiny. I believe the suggestion that I restricted these activities was made in the early days at Essex to weaken indirectly the criticisms made by a number of colleagues and myself of the conduct of university policy. Individual character assassination is a well-known method of diverting attention from the true sources of structural disputes. It becomes credible only because of the intellectual isolationism bred in the traditions of too many British universities and the reputation for self -absorption and the easy life implied by the historic right to tenure. My friends might remember exceptions over the years but generally the record shows I did more than the average number of contact hours of  teaching, and certainly more than the average number of hours of administration and research.

One of the ironies about the allegation of giving too much time to outside activities is, of course, that an individual may be preoccupied with the internal rights and needs of a university department, and deliberately give those matters priority rather than give up time hob-knobbing in a senior staff common room (even when he or she thinks it should exist -which many of us at Essex considered it should not) or cultivating university-wide committees and town and gown formalities. There are the local politics of a university just as there are the local politics of Parliament itself. Some Parliamentarians have always tried to rise above the urge to obtain tea- room popularity.


The key theme here is sociology in practice as well as in theory and organisation. I mean that I treat seriously the sociology of university life. I came to think a lot about that from the mid-1960s to the early and mid-1970s. This was understandable because a new university as well as department was being created. And the structuring of a university can be argued from sociological principle.

The battle over the staff common room (like that over honorary degrees) was an episode in the attempt to apply sociological principles to a university. Some of us believed that exclusivity there bred superior and fundamentally self -destructive notions of artificially elevated status. It bred an unwillingness to communicate, and hence an unwillingness to explain oneself outside the formal and restricted precincts of the lecture room and the class room. This was as undesirable as the liberal tendency of some teaching staff to drink in the bar with students and then use Senate and Council committees to smash their dissent.

Sociology in practice means using principles of social structure and other key concepts to advance an understanding of what a university should be about. Let me give acceptable academic examples. Selection is one. People from Polytechnics with A-levels; mature students of any age, especially women with children; students with severe disabilities; students from black minorities or from poor areas of the country; and students from working class culture who needed time and effort to reach the same results as other students even if their initial Qualifications are below average – these were some of the students we wanted to recruit. Britain, South-East England in particular, lacked representative numbers from these origins. The Department of Sociology led the process of devising means to represent their interests.

The signs nationally were of course propitious. Consensus government, the Robbins Report, the agreement by a Conservative Government to build several new universities, and the commitment of a Conservative Minister of Education to comprehensive education, were auguries of change. There was the exhilarating influence of the Comprehensive Schools Committee. I was one of the platform speakers launching that committee in 1965 and tried to present the evidence in favour of expansion -especially of the high percentage of each age group in California and many parts of Scandinavia entering higher education at the time: “There is no reason to doubt that 40 per cent of our children have the capacity to take a university course and perhaps another 20 or 30 per cent at least five subjects in the GCE at ‘O’ level” (Townsend, 1975, p.199). In the early 1960s the percentage of young people of each age achieving university entrance qualifications was a miserly 7 per cent and there was room for a rapid increase. Others in Sociology at Essex, like Dennis Marsden and Mike Lane, played their part in the prosecution of the argument. In fact the numbers in higher education in Britain increased from 217,000 to 376,000 between 1962-3 and 1967-8 and Edward Boyle, Minister of Education in the early 1960s, said he had been influenced by the sociological evidence on the depth of the pool of ability and had accepted it in his thought and action. If he had contributed anything to education it was this -to which public opinion had to adapt (Boyle, 1971, p.92).

Just before I left Essex for Bristol at the end of 1981 one of my second-year sociology classes consisted of 12 students, among whom was a 60 years-old former Ford Company shop steward from Dagenham, two or three mothers in their 30s and 40s with young children, two students from South-East Asia, two British-born black students representing the first of those in the second generation of immigrants from the West Indies, a nurse in her late twenties and perhaps three students aged 19 or 20. Perhaps this was unusual even in Sociology at Essex. By contrast with Bristol in 1982 it was light years ahead in a rounded conception both of what a university should be about but also how to raise academic, or rather, intellectual and scientific standards by applying principles based on good sociological evidence. For example, both staff and students were placed in difficult, challenging and sometimes very uncomfortable learning situations. In their first year 18 years-olds were often gauche and awkward, but how fast they learned! During the mid-1980s I reflected often on the intellectual maturity of young third-year Essex undergraduates, compared with their peers at Bristol.

The example I have discussed so far is admission, or recruitment. Of course, that is only in part within the control of a Department. The rules of the University, via its Matriculation Committee, on which I served, and the administrative procedures of School or Faculty Board have to allow similarly for expansion on the basis of the principle of equal educational opportunity.

A single change has long-term structural implications. The fact that the Department was determined to offer opportunities to disabled students and to mature students meant that it would be only a matter of time before facilities for those students simply had to be provided if they were not provided already. It was more than a decade before the case was finally accepted and accommodation was built within the new Health Centre for severely disabled students (too few rooms, as it happens, compared with the plans), and the Day Nursery opened in temporary quarters. Both of these developments represent a history of protracted and abrasive conflict which it would out of place to describe here. A parallel achievement to that of the day nursery and health centre was the development of a less custodial housing policy and the lowering of rents. This had an equally stormy history. And it is wry to reflect that the Vice-Chancellor’s house was the first new building to take its place on the campus. That was not a priority of sociology.

Change in recruitment therefore has complex repercussions elsewhere. Let me take another conventional academic example -assessment. In Sociology the teaching staff gave themselves many hundreds of hours of extra work by agreeing democratically after protracted meetings with students to set up three forms of assessment for each and every course -by the conventional three-hours written examination, by open or take-home papers and by double reading and marking of essays prepared throughout the year. As a consequence we were probably the first department in the country to award a first-class degree, incidentally to a woman, on the basis of take-home papers and essays. The student’s performance in three hour written exams, in which invariably she was at her worst, could be set on one side.

As with many revolutionary developments the university bureaucracy woke up to what was happening. There were the internal strains of this grandiose but highly principled system of assessment. More orthodox departments wanted to cut us back to size. Here, as elsewhere, the lofty objectives derived from sociological knowledge and principle implied that professional staff should accept sacrifices which in practice they were unwilling to make. The teaching and other professions in University departments are not immune from tendencies in all professions for class interests to prevail unduly over “client” interests in terms of material benefits, status advancement and restriction of work-load.

The original plan to have three forms of assessment for each of 10 courses or projects and to ignore any worst ten of the thirty derived marks was subsequently modified -because of the extra volume of marking and the difficulties of managing a system which could be guaranteed to be free of plagiarism as well as the opposition of professional and bureaucratic orthodoxy.

Debates about selection and assessment are of course a familiar element of university management. At Essex we were aware that more was at stake internally and externally for the subject. Internally there was the strategic question: What ~ sociology? What should it become? Dick Lipsey was one of those social scientists who took a rather scornful attitude to the subject. He advised me to specialise and build conservatively on existing strengths, by appointing people only within social policy, or social administration as it was known. Noel Annan, the Chairman of the original University Academic Steering Committee, had expressed enthusiasm for Social Arithmetic, as he called it, and believed I could father his child.

I felt all of this was unacceptably disparaging. I realised that those in charge of the subject at LSE were doing it little good in those days. They were surprisingly a- theoretical and non-internationalist as well as largely indifferent to the institutional policy base of the subject. And although I had done some early work on social policy and realised that what might be called the “Mass Observation” approach in Sociology had a rich future my origins lay in philosophy and social anthropology. So I knew that structure, and institutions, gave sociology its vaunting coherence -which will persist, whatever political hostility is aroused against the subject and its adherents.

As it turned out, the attempt to specialise within Economics was not a success. Lipsey and his colleagues concentrated on mathematical economics, econometrics and modified monetarism. Staff turnover was however destructive of student progress and the professional development of that department. For a long time political economy, development economics and Keynesian economics attracted little interest and support. In Sociology we were determined from the start, in the first four appointments, to draw on all that was best in the subject. Sometimes this drew rearguard opposition from University spokesmen and social science colleagues, especially when we recommended Marxist candidates. In the history of European sociology that eclecticism was believed at the time to be a recipe for weakness. It was in fact a calculated risk which has been justified by subsequent events. Unusual was the new commitment to mathematical sociology, social history, the sociology of deviance and social policy analysis as a central part of sociology. The internationalism of the department, its overtures to social anthropology, feminism and social philosophy, as well as to Parsonian sociology, gave it a reputation for crusading intellectualism.

Some people are not deeply interested in the minutiae of the construction of schemes of study. This is crucial for intellectual depth as well as breadth and therefore for the stable and continuing representation of the subject for many years. There were a number of innovations. There was the first 12 months mastership scheme in the social sciences in Britain. We started as we meant to continue and five students graduated with an M.A. in Sociology less than 12 months after the opening of the university. We persuaded the Vice-Chancellor to add two research posts to the permanent staff of the Department (to emulate scientific laboratory posts). They taught methodology and supervised research projects in detail. The precedent was not popular with the UGC and the Vice-Chancellor eventually withdrew those posts.

The Department also experimented in other ways with empirical science as part of undergraduate work. Research dissertations by undergraduates on the basis of work in unlikely places became standard practice. Dorothy Smith took groups of students to supermarkets to observe behaviour. New sociological fashions, like that in Ethnomethodology, were followed. Not all of these were to last. We diversified into taught mastership courses in the comparative sociology of the USSR, Latin America and the United States, in Philosophy and the Sociology of Literature. Because of my own long-standing interest in the sociology of health I am particularly regretful that the experiment implicit in Dorothy Smith’s appointment did not endure. There were other plans that did not materialise or did not last long, as well as appointments made and not taken up or intended appointments which were blocked for political reasons and at least one appointment which was imposed despite unanimous internal academic opposition.

Innovation and vitality depended in part upon growth. The Vice-Chancellor, Albert Sloman, had promised that few departments would be established but that by national standards they would be large and therefore influential even internationally. During the first 10 years that promise was fulfilled and Economics, Government and Sociology gained immeasurably as a consequence. That commitment had unsuspected implications for our evangelical or crusading zeal for the subject.

There were continuing disagreements about the content of the compulsory undergraduate courses and especially over the First Year course and Second Year theory. One innovation which depended on the special interrelationships of new types of staff, and which came to endure, was the Second Year course in Social Policy and Social Change. This proved to be a creative amalgamation of previous developments of Social History, Marxist Sociology and Social Policy Analysis. I believe that helped to give the subject a better depth as well as breadth.

The ambitious aim to represent and interrelate all that was best in the subject also had repercussions elsewhere. It made interdisciplinarity an inevitable value or principle. A department which found a place for mathematical modelling, history, anthropology, social philosophy and the sociology of literature was bound to pay respect to the surrounding social science departments and have a lot to do with them. This was consistent with the university’s plans for integrated first year courses and increasing specialisation with each succeeding year.

I remember a garden conversation in the summer of 1964 with Dick Lipsey and Jean Blondel about the possibilities of drawing up a course in which the politics, economics and sociology of different issues, like unemployment, could be considered in successive weeks. The plan was for the three departments to follow, at least in substantial part, a common programme. The plan was greeted first of all with enthusiasm, then acquiescence, and finally distrust. Very little of it survived in practice. People who have invested intellectual capital in particular undergraduate courses are reluctant to throw that capital away or accept that it is easily substitutable. The three of us found that while in principle there should be a lot of common ground in practice there was surprisingly little. I learned how selective were the social sciences and therefore how idiosyncratic were their theoretical stances. Teaching is also frequently particularistic. Partly this is because academic teachers have considerable power to operate as they choose, and work to rule. Partly it is because they accept ideological and theoretical stances without much question. At the level of sociological function the differences between departments are more apparent than real.

The organisation and management of a department is related to academic breadth as well as depth in many ways. Let me give one example which is often neglected in discussion. Throughout my university career I have found that professional staff underestimate the worth of academic secretaries and assistants. Most are of course women and one of the problems of gender discrimination in universities, which is rife, is that women are assumed to play secondary roles and are very badly paid for the vital contribution which they make. This is not gesture politics. A Departmental Secretary often is a lynch-pin of a department. I mean that she is a repository of academic and not only organisational knowledge; she is a recruitment officer and sometimes an indispensable occasional psychiatrist; she is a progress chaser; she is an agony aunt for successive generations of students; and she can set a tone as well as a pattern of behaviour which determines organisational efficiency but also the balance of academic achievement and originality. The level of technical skill, dependability, patience and receptivity is almost invariably underestimated. At Essex we have been lucky with such colleagues. We moved a little towards adequate recognition of their worth but never moved, or were allowed to move (because of wage structures and bureaucracy), enough. Academic standards might thereby have been raised higher.


Investigation of policy influences can deepen analysis in the social sciences and reveal the limitations of much conventional theory. I mean that any study of policy implies the examination of policy institutions, professional and bureaucratic organisation, and the development and mode of operation of law and hence of the state. The manipulative character of a great deal of Liberal-Pluralist theory in all the social sciences then becomes easier to recognise.

I have become very interested in both the social history of the derivation of theory and the compatibility of theories supposedly developed independently by the different social sciences. This is necessarily part of the sociology of knowledge. For me the politics of the process have come as a revelation. I feel I have acquired a much better retrospective understanding of the political implications and effects of Parsonian functionalism, within sociology, and of Democratic Pluralism, within Political Science, to add to my awareness of the political and ideological motives and effects of monetarism, within Economics, and of Thatcherism generally. Politicians use social science theory to legitimate their ideologies and actions; but social scientists use politicians to curry favours and their theories are deeply influenced by political events.

Long before 1979 it was evident in universities like Essex that Keynesian economics was on the wane and that the monetarism of Friedman and others was on the ascendant. National and international market values also seem more strongly reflected in the trends taking place in social and political theory, and after a strong showing in the 1970s Marxian sociology has been on the defensive in the 1980s. Whether the relationship between professional and political trends is push or pull remains a live question.

Academic professions reflect in their theories and not merely the dispositions of their personnel the conventions of the cultural and political establishments, and national political trends. Professional luminaries can be interesting not so much because of what they contribute to the subject as how they legitimate the ideologies which are the orthodoxies of the day. This can take an intricate or subtle form, as in the case of Ralf Dahrendorf, as well as a crude or laughably blatant form, as in the case of the Liverpool economist Patrick Minford.

It is worth acquiring a rounded sense of the awesome institutional power of a political culture like Thatcherism -the objectives of which are much more social than economic. It is a political virus which influences academic work generally and the development of each discipline. We neglect that form of social and political control at our peril, and need to provide for a more liberal or diverse academia and institutionalise radicalism. The politics of conformity are practised powerfully in British universities, as they are in British schools. Few university staff openly discuss the restriction of research topics and of the personnel designated to carry them out by the Research Councils and so-called independent Trusts and Foundations, quite apart from their own restricted choice of research topics.

Non-conformity is a principle for university departments to consider more seriously than they do. Resources for projects which do not attract conventional sponsors are often frustratingly hard to find -as I have found throughout the last 15 years -but there are ways of keeping projects alive at small cost, and even of countering the massive investments in bureaucratic orthodoxy.


In the early years of the Department of Sociology at Essex we were fortunate to obtain substantial research grants. The new universities had been promoted by the political Right as well as political Left. University education was in its most expansionist phase of the last 50 years. A preliminary enquiry addressed to the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust for £32,000, far too little, it transpired, for a national study of poverty in 1964, was approved by return of post. We probably tried to take on too much too quickly. We failed to get the Nuffield Foundation to develop the Sembal Trust Research Fellowships in Social Gerontology which we attracted for an initial three years. The subject has reached major proportions in some other countries, though is still low key in Britain. We had a head start in the Sociology of Education and squandered the presentation of some very important findings on class and achievement (Townsend, McCashin, Marsden and Lane, 1975). A research project on unemployment and sub-employment anticipated developments more than a decade later and included pioneering work on gender inequalities.

If the Department had had its way the university would have founded a national survey research centre in 1966. At a meeting of Senate in 1965 it was argued that there were resources for a Data Archive or a Survey Centre but not both. The Government Department sponsored the Data Archive. I had made it my business in 1963 to visit the two biggest archives in the United States. They were white elephants, because they were little used. The Roper Institute was a cavernous building. It was like a huge morgue. At Essex we took a formal vote. My memory is that the Research Centre lost by one vote. The Department has now successfully sponsored the Centre for Micro-Social Change. Maybe a seed was sown a quarter of a century earlier. Maybe the kind of Department which the Department of Sociology became ensured that the project was bound to be resurrected in anew, and probably better, form.

Those early years taught that sociological research requires creative organisation. The job cannot, on theoretical grounds, be left to Government research councils or charitable foundations. The best sociology is likely to be done by teams operating collaboratively. The hierarchical model, with the research seigneur, for example, sitting in his office, with second-tier managers and armies of ill-paid interviewers, generally women, doing the so-called field-work in representative areas of the country will need to be replaced by an egalitarian exchange model which involves dual functions of integrative or collaborative and specialist work.

This is, incidentally, a democratic socialist model. One of the features of organisation, as of theory, is that political principles and practices are necessarily embodied in any form that organisation (or theory) takes. This kind of statement is liable to be misrepresented. Therefore I make the necessary assumption that politics is a highly complex, sophisticated and pervasive business. Its tentacles reach everywhere. As scientists sociologists are, in Gordon Marshall’s recent helpful reminder, “committed only to the demystification of our socially constructed reality, in order that we might better understand both our society as a political construct and ourselves as social beings” (Marshall, 1990, p. 77).


I have tried to put my finger on the causes – the failure to change the hierarchical structure of power in the University and to match the needs of a new situation. This is not a particularly novel analysis. For Britain as a whole it is reiterated by many overseas observers and native social scientists and journalists, certainly by those sociologists with some appreciation of the history and contemporary development of social policy. It is a refrain played by the more discerning journalists -for example in 1987 by Robert Chesshyre.

Britain’s main handicap is its anachronistic class system, the public school and the Oxbridge elite, the small minority who rule important British institutions and hold a disproportionately large concentration of unproductive wealth. While at Essex I wrote a book about poverty in the United Kingdom (Townsend, 1979). Least publicised, by my own profession as well as by the media, were the chapters on the rich and on class. In my personal view they are among the more interesting and original parts of that work. I wish I could get the resources to develop them.

Occupational or social mobility has been something of a diversion in sociology – giving the impression of dealing with the subject of class when not dealing with it at all. Some of my colleagues have done a great deal to redress that bias. The key questions concern the structure, the distances and institutions and particularly the policy control of class inequalities. I have tried to write a little about these matters, for example in Poverty and Labour in London (1987) and “Underclass and Overclass: The Widening Gulf Between Social Classes in Britain in the 1980s” (1990).

Practically no resources are committed to measuring the ownership of wealth, the personal and social control of corporate wealth, the links between wealth and income, the sociology of the rich, the political and legal management conferring wealth on the wealthy, the acquisition of wealth by professionals and the relationship of wealth and corporate wealth-holders to the management of universities. The explanation of educational malnutrition, like that of poverty, is primarily the explanation of minority wealth-holding and of extreme inequalities in the availability of personal and family resources. Access to university education and access to critical areas of study at a university follow similar structural edicts. Such access is controlled by a ruling class not yet accountable socially and politically to those with the needs and talents to profit from an open and highly developed university system. A full realisation of opportunities for hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of deprived people could give society a creative impetus not experienced in its history.

This is not a political message. It is a scientific, a sociological, message. Some of the events in the early years at Essex demonstrated what a University of the people might begin to look like, whom it might recruit and what it might provide. To have breathed the exhilaration of those few experiences is privilege indeed, and worth recounting. Experiences can become traditions if enough people recognise their importance and are prepared to speak and write about them and keep their memory alive.


Annan N. (1990), Our Age: A Portrait of a Generation, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Boyle E. and Crosland A. (1971) in conversation with Maurice Kogan, The Politics of Education, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Education Special.

Chessyre R. (1987), The Return of a Native Reoorter, London, Penguin Books. Healey, D. (1989), The Time of my Life, London, Michael Joseph.

Marshall G. (1990), In Praise of Sociology, London, Unwin Hyman.

Sloman, A. (1964), A University in the Making, The BBC Reith Lectures, London, the BBC.

Townsend P. (1975), Sociology and Social Policy, London, Allen Lane and Penguin Books.

Townsend P. (1979), Poverty in the United Kingdom, London, Allen Lane and Penguin Books.

Townsend P. (1990), “Underclass and Overclass: the Widening Gulf Between Social Classes in Britain in the 1980s,” in Payne G. and Cross M., Sociologv in Action, London, Macmillan.

Townsend P. (2004), “From Universalism to Safety Nets: The Rise and Fall of Keynesian Influence on Social Development,” in Mkandawire T. ed., Social Policy in a Development Context, UNRISD, Palgrave.

Townsend P. and Gordon D. eds. (2002), World Poverty: New Policies to Defeat an Old Enemy, Bristol, Policy Press.

Townsend P., with Corrigan P. and Kowarzik U. (1987), Poverty and Labour in London, London, the Low Pay Unit.

Townsend P. with Marsden D., McCashin A. and Lane M. (1975), The Determinants of Educational Attainment, A Pilot Study of Pupils and their Parents in Twenty Schools in East Anglia, Report to the Department of Education and Science (Unpublished).

  1. Essex Sociology Alumni

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