Dennis Marsden, 1933-2009

October 15, 2009

A leading sociologist - who analysed everything from class mobility in education to intimacy and infidelity - has died.

Dennis Marsden was born in Huddersfield on 25 June 1933, the son of a Methodist mill worker. After securing a grammar-school scholarship, he later went on to study chemical engineering at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. This proved an unhappy experience and, after National Service and a brief period as a teacher, he switched track to sociological research.

The book that made his name, Education and the Working Class (with Brian Jackson, 1962), cast a reflective light on his own life through interviews with 88 children from working-class backgrounds who had transformed their social status through education. Like all his subsequent writing, the book is notable for its lucidity, its focus on inequality and its commitment to change.

He had no time for postmodernism or the fads he once dismissed as "sociology of the shoulder pads".

In 1965, Professor Marsden joined the sociology department at the University of Essex, part of a team put together by the eminent scholar Peter Townsend for his celebrated survey of poverty in the UK. He was to remain there, as lecturer and eventually professor, until his retirement in 1999.

Despite official attempts to prevent it, Professor Marsden's research with Professor Townsend led to the publication of Mothers Alone: Poverty and the Fatherless Family (1969). He later produced a study of unemployment, Workless (with photographer Evan Duff, 1975), and a sharp critique of the 1980s Youth Training Scheme, Scheming for Youth (with David Lee and others, 1990).

For Ken Plummer, emeritus professor of sociology at Essex, "all Dennis' work was at the cutting edge. Education and the Working Class was the single most influential book in its field in the 1960s and early 1970s - everybody doing teacher training had to read it - and the issues of grammar schools, selectivity and class haven't gone away. He went on to do important pioneering work on single mothers and battered women, and then broke new ground again when he and his second wife, Jean Duncombe, began to look at how couples come together and talk about sex and marriage.

"He was a very quiet man. Yet underneath a somewhat dour exterior he was very kind and caring, and adored by his students - they would really warm to him over a course."

Professor Marsden was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and given only six months to live. He died on 6 September 2009 and is survived by his wife, three children from his first marriage and three stepchildren.

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