Norman Dennis: In the late 1940s, a cohort of sociology students who would go on to shape and solidify the discipline in Britain commenced their studies at the London School of Economics. Among them were AH (“Chelly”) Halsey, Joe and Olive Banks, Michael Banton, Basil Bernstein, Percy Cohen, David Lockwood, and Norman Dennis.
Norman Dennis obituary
Diverging from most members of this sociological establishment, Dennis, who passed away at the age of 81, opted not to pursue academic advancement (though chairs were indeed offered) but instead directed his efforts toward community life, particularly in his hometown of Sunderland. This inclination became evident in 1956 with his seminal work, “Coal Is Our Life,” a classic community study of “Ashton” (actually Featherstone in West Yorkshire). While this study might be overshadowed in public perception by the well-known Bethnal Green studies of the 1950s, it exhibits a more rigorous and less anecdotal analysis, especially in examining how economic forces shape social relations.
Norman Dennis then shifted his focus to housing and town planning. Lecturing at the University of Newcastle and back in Sunderland, he resided in Millfield, an area chosen by Sunderland council for slum clearance against the wishes of most residents. In his 1970 publication, “People and Planning: The Sociology of Housing in Sunderland,” he exposed the social and technical shortcomings of slum clearance programs, their insensitive implementation, and the superficial nature of resident “participation.” Throughout this study, he developed a rare degree of empathy with the people of Millfield, becoming the secretary of their residents’ association and leading what would now be termed “communitarianism.”
In 1972, his empathetic approach led to another influential publication. “Public Participation and Planners’ Blight” provided a scathing analysis of the bureaucratic-professional machinery’s unwillingness to listen to residents and the failure of local politicians to challenge the narrative presented by officials.
The previous year, Norman Dennis had been elected as Labour councillor for the Millfield ward, and during my time as a fellow councillor for the same ward, his relatively short tenure perplexed both Sunderland council officials and many of his political colleagues. Nevertheless, many of the homes he defended from the slum clearance program still stand today, a testament to his characterization of them as “little palaces.”
While some academics hesitated at the idea of a sociologist intimately engaging with his subject matter, risking “bias,” Norman Dennis never embraced relativism. For him, the possibility of an objective search for truth was not easily set aside. This stance led him into a final phase of work that, again, puzzled many – his association with the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Institute for the Study of Civil Society.
Under this umbrella, he wrote influential studies critiquing what he perceived as the decay of the moral fabric of society. These included “Families Without Fatherhood” (1992), “Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family” (1993), “The Invention of Permanent Poverty” (1997), and “Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics” (2000). His call for a return to the moral world of the “respectable working class” of his childhood resonated with many, transforming him from an icon of the activist left to the academic darling of the right. Simultaneously, 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), co-authored with Halsey. At its core is the doctrine of personal responsibility, even under unfavorable circumstances, as it is these myriad personal decisions that shape history. He particularly saw reproductive and family decisions as pivotal to human destiny, highlighting the adverse consequences of raising children without a father in “Families Without Fatherhood.” In alignment with his opposition to postmodernism, Dennis felt no qualms about stating the moral truth as he saw it.
Norman Dennis, born in Sunderland, the son of a tram driver, received his education at Green Terrace elementary school and Bede collegiate school, Sunderland. After graduating with first-class honors from the LSE, he worked at the universities of Bristol, Leeds, and Birmingham, also spending time at Palo Alto, California, as a Rockefeller fellow. However, his heart remained in Sunderland, and he spent nearly 40 years as a lecturer (and later reader) in social studies at the nearby University of Newcastle.
A physically active man and lifelong teetotaler, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in July, though he remained active and alert until recently. 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.