Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Norman Dennis 1929 - 2010

Thanks to Ed West at the Telegraph for noting his passing.

"A Labour party member most of his life, and a compassionate socialist, he nonetheless became the leading critic of the British Left’s social liberalism which, he came to believe, was destroying society and in particular working-class life."

Peacefully, at home, on November 13, aged 81 years, Norman, beloved husband of Audrey, a loving father of Julia and John, father-in-law of Phil, devoted grandad of Robert, Sarah and Max. A short service at Sunderland Crematorium at 11.30am will be followed by a service at St Andrew's Church, Roker, at 12.30pm, to which all friends and family are warmly invited. Friday November 26.

Norman Dennis

Guardian obituary by Bob Hudson

In the late 1940s, a group of sociology students who would go on to shape and cement the discipline in Britain started their studies at the London School of Economics. Their number included AH ("Chelly") Halsey, Joe and Olive Banks, Michael Banton, Basil Bernstein, Percy Cohen, David Lockwood and Norman Dennis.

Unlike most members of this sociological establishment, Dennis, who has died aged 81, chose not to seek academic preferment (though chairs were certainly offered) but rather to focus his energies on community life, most notably in his home town of Sunderland. This preference became apparent in 1956 with his first major publication, Coal Is Our Life, the classic community study of "Ashton" (in fact Featherstone in West Yorkshire). Although this study tends to be overshadowed in popular opinion by the well-known Bethnal Green studies of the 1950s, it contains a much harder and less anecdotal edge, especially in analysing the ways in which economic forces structure social relations.

Dennis next turned his attention to the domains of housing and town planning. By then lecturing at the University of Newcastle and back in Sunderland, he was living in Millfield, an area which Sunderland council had selected for slum clearance against the wishes of most of the resident population. In his 1970 publication, People and Planning: the Sociology of Housing in Sunderland, he starkly exposed the social and technical weaknesses of the slum clearance programmes, the insensitivity of their implementation and the shallow nature of resident "participation". In undertaking this study, he achieved a rare degree of empathy with the people of Millfield. He became the secretary of their residents' association. and was in the vanguard of what would now be termed "communitarianism".

In 1972 his sense of empathy led to a further landmark publication. Public Participation and Planners' Blight was an excoriating analysis of the unwillingness of the bureaucratic-professional machine to listen to residents, and the failure of local politicians to challenge the narrative presented by their officials.

The previous year, he had been elected as Labour councillor for the Millfield ward, and I joined him as a fellow councillor for the same ward. It would be fair to say that his relatively short time as an elected member perplexed both the officials of Sunderland council and many of his political colleagues. However, the upshot was that many of the homes he defended from the slum clearance programme are still standing today as a testament to his description of them as "little palaces".

Some academics balked at the idea that a sociologist could be so intimately involved with his subject matter, thereby running the risk of "bias", but Dennis was never one for relativism – for him the possibility of an objective search for truth was not to be easily laid aside. It was a stance that led him into a final phase of work that (again) perplexed many – his association with the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Under this rubric he wrote a series of highly influential studies that railed against what he saw as the decay of the moral fabric of society. These included Families Without Fatherhood (1992 - pdf), Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family (1993 - pdf), The Invention of Permanent Poverty (1997), The Failure of Britain's Police (2003 - pdf) and Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics (2000 - pdf). His call for a return to the moral world of the "respectable working class" of his childhood struck a chord with many, and he found himself transformed from an icon of the activist left to the academic darling of the right. At the same time, he remained an active member of the Labour party in Sunderland. The explanation for all of this lay in his commitment to "ethical socialism" – a philosophy he developed in English Ethical Socialism (1988), which he co-authored with Halsey. Central to this position is the doctrine of personal responsibility, even under unfavourable circumstances, for it is this multiplicity of personal decisions that will form history. In particular he saw reproductive and family decisions as crucial to human destiny, and (in Families Without Fatherhood) highlighted the adverse consequences of raising children without a father. In line with his opposition to postmodernism, Dennis felt no qualms in stating the moral truth as he saw it.

Dennis was born in Sunderland, the son of a tram driver. He was educated at Green Terrace elementary school and Bede collegiate school, Sunderland. After graduating with a first from the LSE he worked at the universities of Bristol, Leeds and Birmingham, as well as spending time at Palo Alto, California, as a Rockefeller fellow. His heart, however, lay in Sunderland and he spent almost 40 years as a lecturer (and subsequently reader) in social studies at the nearby University of Newcastle.

A physically active man, and lifelong teetotaller, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia last July, though he remained active and alert until recently. Our families enjoyed a convivial meal in a Sunderland restaurant only weeks before his death, where he was in typically rumbustious form. He is survived by his wife, Audrey, and their two children, John and Julia.

• Norman Dennis, sociologist, born 16 August 1929; died 13 November 2010

Guardian tribute by Carol Roberton :

Norman wrote: "I went to the LSE instead of Corpus Christi, Oxford, partly because of [Harold] Laski, Miliband's mentor, but mainly because of RH Tawney" and he described how he had continued to advocate Tawney's "fellowship based on family" socialism.

But this, wrote Norman – "along with its closely related chapel and temperance socialism and the philosophies of the benign, enabling state in which co-operation and fellowship are the best bases for social organisation, not capitalist competition" – was "one of the great lost causes of our age. Who now has any memory that such ideas actually dominated Labour Party thinking, until they were all dumped into memory's hole of oblivion at the time of the countercultural revolution? I really ought to be on a national register of cultural monuments, as one of the sole surviving representatives of this point of view."

Norman the TV presenter - narrating this BBC documentary on the Durham miners.

Notice at Newcastle University.

Journal tribute from his daughter Julia.

For some reason there's nothing about his death on the Civitas website, despite the four of his books which are available there (links in the obit above). I'm very surprised at them - that's quite shameful.

His long essay "Defame Fathers, Create Crime?" is here.

Christian Institute tribute page - including an mp3 of 'Families without fatherhood'

With his passing, the ranks of radical, anti-our-new-Establishment sociologists are thin indeed. I can only think of Peter Saunders as keeping the flag flying.


Mark said...

'With his passing, the ranks of radical, anti-our-new-Establishment sociologists are thin indeed.'

His passing also leaves the true followers of Tawney & Halsey in Labour (like Frank Field) even more isolated. The existence of brave, compassionate men like Norman Dennis shouldn't be dispatched down the memory hole. Sadly however, (if the example of Civitas-to date- is anything to go by) his fears on this score may prove to be valid.

Anonymous said...

"let there be light" - funny thing is that the first thing scientists predict happened after the big bang was a massive blast of photons. so the bible got it spot on. Which is funny really, because if I was making up a fantasy version of the creation I don't think it would even occur to me to start with light.

Anonymous said...

Yeah well the book of genesis also suggests that the earth is at the centre of the universe.

The Earl of Shilton said...

I'm very surprised at them - that's quite shameful.

Can't say I'm surprised Laban. Just reading the ignorant comments on the Telegraph article shows where many on the Right are coming from.
The free market libertarian right and the revolutionary left have succesfully destroyed the traditional social fabric of this country. All in the pursuit of their ideologies.