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Dennis Marsden: Sociologist

John Simkin

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Dennis Marsden, who has died aged 76, was an inspirational sociologist who co-wrote a seminal book, Education and the Working Class (1961), that had a significant influence on the campaign for comprehensive schools. Written with his friend Brian Jackson, it spoke to generations of working-class students who were either deterred by the class barriers erected by selective schools and elite universities, or, having broken through them to gain university entry, found themselves at sea. The book has been reprinted many times and was named by Alan Bennett as a key source for his play The History Boys.

The childhood roots that led to this landmark book lay in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, where Dennis was the second son of a mill worker who headed a Methodist and deeply moral family. He won a grammar school scholarship, impelled by his parents and, as he put it, out of fear of the bigger, working-class boys at the elementary school. With two sons at grammar school, the family finances were so stretched that his mother was forced back to work and considered removing him several times.

An exhibition at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, put him on to a chemical engineering degree. However, he found that breaking into university life was far from easy, in contrast to his "braying, public school contemporaries". He made few friends and had to wait three years for entry to the swimming club, despite the fact that he was an excellent swimmer.

After Cambridge, Dennis avoided an engineering career by flunking interviews and opted for national service. He came out of the army with a new passion for social research, fired by books by Charles Booth and Beatrice Webb, to find a tide of interest in the sociology of the working class following Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957) and the Bethnal Green surveys of Michael Young, Peter Townsend and others.

He wrote at length to Young about how his earlier experiences had shaped his interest in social research and, to his surprise, was offered a job. This led to his work with Jackson, in which they tried to understand their own experiences in the broader context of the lives of others in similar circumstances. Uniquely, they studied the grammar schools of their home town and the careers of their working-class contemporaries. The discursive interview process proved to be Dennis's forte, and he is acknowledged widely as a pioneer in the field of qualitative research. While researching the book, he met his future wife, Pat, in a jazz club in Huddersfield, and married her in 1961.

His quest to use in-depth accounts of people's lives to explain policy issues led him to join Townsend at the new University of Essex in 1965. Townsend was just starting his major survey of poverty in the UK, and asked Dennis to conduct one of the pilot studies. Despite official attempts to block it, this research was finally published as Mothers Alone (1973). This broke new ground by studying fatherless families. It also employed his narrative technique to understand the experience of poverty among this group and the different manifestations of family resilience and, equally importantly, to convey their life stories to a sceptical and judgmental public. He was engaged in many public debates on the subject in the wake of the report of the 1974 royal commission on one-parent families.

He was then appointed lecturer in what was soon to become the country's premier sociology department, which he was later to head. His research career continued on its innovative path. After further influential work on comprehensive schooling, it focused on unemployment in the early 1970s. Workless (1975) was produced with the photographer Evan Duff.

Then came a critique of the 1980s youth training scheme, Scheming for Youth (1990, with David Lee) which, he lamented, failed to prevent subsequent government policies from repeating in exaggerated form all of the defects they identified.

The last part of his career was devoted to the study of intimacy and relationships and produced an astonishingly original series of publications on the changing nature of marriage and the family with his co-researcher and second wife Jean Duncombe, a formidable sociologist in her own right.

The fact that Dennis was appointed to a chair relatively late in his career was mainly indicative of his lack of interest in status. He was dedicated to his craft as a writer, at which he was a perfectionist, and sought no other rewards. Such was his consummate skill in this respect that his books are often regarded as literature rather than purely sociology. He received a higher doctorate from Essex in 1995.

Although he had split with Townsend for methodological reasons, they were later reunited happily. Townsend's death last June had a deep and unsettling impact on Dennis. They had shared so much in the formative years at Essex, especially a commitment to social justice and a belief that sociology could be a force for progressive social change. Not surprisingly, they were both disillusioned with the post-modern takeover of the discipline – "sociology of the shoulder pads", as Dennis described it in a characteristically acerbic putdown.

Jean survives him, along with his two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, a stepdaughter, two stepsons and three grandchildren.

Dennis Marsden, sociologist, born 25 June 1933; died 6 September 2009.


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