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Professor Geoff Dench - Obituary


Geoff Dench was a gentle, humorous man who possessed an eccentric streak.

A controversial social scientist who highlighted the plight of working-class men in modern society,

An original and mischievous social scientist who enjoyed football and supported Arsenal, Geoff Dench was concerned with the fate of the men who once monopolised the terraces at many British grounds: the reduced status of the white working classes in the jobs market and the poor performance of their children in education.

Much of his work was politically controversial and awkwardly prophetic — at odds with most of his discipline — but driven by his concern for families and communities and the people at the heart of them.

He undertook his most important work at the Institute of Community Studies (ICS), which was founded by the Labour peer Michael Young in Bethnal Green, east London, and came to be regarded as a grandfather of the socially conservative strand of social democracy called “Blue Labour”.

His sympathetic understanding of white working-class resistance to large-scale immigration, most notably in his book The New East End, which was written with Kate Gavron and Young in 2006, and his critiques of meritocracy and feminism, foresaw the present political revolt against several aspects of modern liberalism.

He sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to find the data that would provide grist to the mill. On one occasion in the early 1990s there was an ambitious plan to re-examine a famous piece of research about family life in the East End, but nobody at the ICS knew where to find the original data. Dench started hunting high and low and managed to piece together old archives, manuscripts and notes that were scattered all over the place.

According to Jim Ogg, who collaborated with him on the project, “I remember coming in one morning only to find him sprawled on the floor in front of what resembled a giant Lego set, but what was in fact a reconstruction of the matrilineal ties of families in the Bethnal Green of the 1950s, with building blocks and pieces of string to indicate lineages.”

While Dench’s last few years were blighted by a brain disease that causes the body to gradually shut down, he was nursed through this period by his second wife, Belinda Brown, who collaborated with him on a range of projects about the family, the division of labour among men and women, grandparents and the role of men.

He was born in 1940 to lower middle-class parents in Brighton. His father, Herbert, was a dental technician who played the cello in the Brighton Philharmonic, while his mother, Edna, trained as an accountant. Herbert was in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt and Palestine during the Second World War and did not return home until Geoff was five. His parents’ marriage seems not to have recovered from their wartime separation. They divorced when Dench was 18 and, even more unusually for the late 1950s, his mother went to work as an au pair in Italy.

He attended Varndean Grammar School for Boys, then went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to study anthropology and archaeology. Like many people from non-elite backgrounds he found Cambridge difficult socially, and he did not flourish academically either, despite a keen and questioning mind. He did, however, strike up a lifelong friendship with a visiting fellow, Michael Young, later Lord Young of Dartington and the author of The Rise of the Meritocracy, and together they set up the Cambridge Sociology Society.

After Cambridge, Dench was attached to the London School of Economics, where he completed a PhD on the Maltese minority that dominated the Soho underworld in the 1950s, and was part of the expanding world of social science research, rubbing shoulders with many key figures, including Ernest Gellner, David Glass, Peter Laslett, Stan Cohen and Zygmunt Bauman.

He also started working at Lord Young’s ICS in Bethnal Green, where he met his first wife, Fanny Peterson, whose father ran University House, round the corner from the ICS, where they both lived. He experienced a somewhat stormy relationship — they were, in fact, married to each other twice — but he and Fanny had three daughters and in the 1970s made extended trips to Mauritius, Botswana and Lesotho on behalf of Lord Young’s International Extension College.

In the mid-1960s Dench had helped to establish the social policy and sociology department at Middlesex Polytechnic and, having been made a professor, headed the department before retiring in 1990. He was an effective and popular department head at Middlesex, combining charm and directness. Yet intellectually he was a member of the awkward squad, increasingly out of step with the progressive left and keen to return to the intellectual freedom of the ICS.

He later became increasingly dismayed at what he regarded as Labour’s abandonment of working-class solidarity in favour of an individualistic, rights-based vision of a socially mobile society. Meritocracy was inadequate as an organising principle, argued Dench, because it divided people too sharply into winners and losers.

His two most original contributions derive from a respect for tradition, acquired partly from his grounding in anthropology. The first was his understanding of how difficult and disruptive mass immigration can be for newcomers and existing communities; the second was his critique of feminism and its downplaying of the civilising role that family motivations play on men.

The first critique is found in a remarkable, but little known, book published in 1986, Minorities in the Open Society, in which he sees continuities between the colonial era and the desire of the emerging public sector elites to sponsor the new ethnic minorities in Britain’s “internal empire”. Often, this was against what was seen as a reactionary white working class.

He applied those ideas in The New East End, which recounted the sense of betrayal felt by working-class Eastenders who, after surviving the Blitz and being the crucible of the welfare reforms of 1945, were often dismayed to have to share their new inheritance with the Bangladeshi minority arriving in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. The dismay was especially acute in public housing that ceased to be a collective inheritance based on long-time residence and became an individual right based on need, which usually favoured large Bangladeshi families.

The second critique, of what he sometimes called “state feminism”, came in Transforming Men (1996), in which he uses the story of The Frog Prince to argue that women have always been the heart of society and that men are born into this through the civilising effect of family responsibilities and the role of the breadwinner.

Most versions of modern feminism, he argued, with their emphasis on female autonomy, have, however, abandoned this historic wisdom and made men, especially working-class men, feel superfluous. He pointed to the rising male suicide rate, the sharp fall in male participation in the labour market and the poor performance of white working-class boys in education.

In various publications for the Hera Trust he produced detailed analyses of opinion surveys to show that his apparently traditionalist views were in fact quite mainstream: most women do want male breadwinners, especially when they have young children, and men are far more likely to be motivated to work if they have long-term partners and children. He was a man of big ideas, but unusually committed to detailed surveys of what people actually think.

Dench’s views stuck out in the mainly liberal intellectual circles in which he continued to move, and he came in for sometimes angry criticism. He generally remained calm and courteous in response, and his wit and a mischievous glint in his eye were usually enough to defuse confrontation. (He was a handsome man, who was once mistaken for Sean Connery.)

4A gentle, humorous man with an eccentric streak and a deep curiosity about human beings that he had the courage to pursue wherever it took him, he was horrified when the British National Party (BNP) embraced The New East End, and the party won some political support in part of Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s.

He remained involved with his three daughters from his marriage with Fanny: Kate, who trained as a doctor; Joanna, who is a lawyer; and Rainbow, who is an artist. He was a decent amateur footballer, and also a competent carpenter. He liked tinkering with technology, had a darkroom for photography and rigged up a speaker system to listen to records in the bath.

In his later years, and especially after his marriage to Belinda, with whom he had another daughter, Susanna, and a stepson, Tomek Stacharski, he became more conservative and religious. He embraced Anglo-Catholicism after having been raised a Methodist. He is survived by his wife, his former wife and his four daughters and stepson.

According to the Labour MP Frank Field, a friend and admirer, “Geoff’s brilliance lay in swimming against the tide that he thought was destructive of those basic forces which made people happy and gave a secure basis in which to raise children. His efforts to refocus on the role of men in society has yet to bear fruit.”

Professor Geoff Dench, social scientist and author, was born on August 14, 1940. He died from the effects of progressive supranuclear palsy on June 24, 2018, aged 77, while sitting in his garden

The Times - August 23 2018