Home > Obituary, Race and Colour > An obituary of sorts: Professor John Rex

An obituary of sorts: Professor John Rex

A journalist called Christopher Hitchens, who died a few days ago, has received thousands of column inches in his praise largely because, in addition to a good prose style, he chose to take controversial positions.    One of Britain’s greatest sociologists, Professor John Rex, who died on Tuesday at the age of 86, will gain few column inches, perhaps because he chose excellence, rigour and consistency in all his work.  

It seems a shame that the works of a serious socialist thinker and researcher like John Rex are likely to remain consigned to the backshelves of secondhand book shops, while the entertaining but ultimately frivolous offerings of Christopher Hitchens go off for further reprints.

In 1968, in a typcially forthright piece The Race Relations Catastrophe, Rex predicted what would happen in British inner cities, and urged politicians to take decisive action:

We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled.  They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear.  Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quite in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism.

The politicians did not act, and in 1981 race riots took place across the country.   For another 30 years, politicians continued to pander to opportunist electoral considerations.  In 2011 rioting took place again - though the intervening years had changed some of the specifically racial characterstics in the ghettoes, and some of the ghettoes had been relocated to outer estates.   Most of those involved think further riots will take place soon, and the police are drawing up their plans.

Rex is probably best known in the academic community for his key works Key Problems of Sociological Theory (1964), Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1970), Race and Ethnicity (1986).  However, it is his groundbreaking and meticulous 1967 study (with Robert Moore)  Race, Community, and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook which really mark him out for members of the non-academic-but-politically-engaged community that I like to thing I belong to.

In this, he set out with great precision the overtly racist policies being enacted by local and central government in Birmingham, and the legacy of discrimination it was creating, which would in turn create the conditions for much of the urban conflict we see today.

Rex founded the Sociology Department at Warwick University in 1970, when Warwick was very much a new ‘red brick’, not the institution with the world-class reputation it has now earned.  He stayed with Warwick for most of his career.

I emailed him a year or two ago when I discovered his work – at the back of a secondhand bookshop - seeking his advice.  I got an automatic reply saying that he was in hospital and that he’d reply on return.  Sadly, he was never able to.  I wish I’d read his stuff earlier.

I hope this little obituary note will at least persuade one or two others to look up his work.  He had, and still has through his published a lot to say that is relevant to where we are now. 

As I set out here, better late than never to act on his advice.

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Categories: Obituary, Race and Colour
  1. December 22, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    thank you for this Paul

  2. John Blackburn
    December 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    And this is true of almost any endeavour: that the ego driven self publicist will steal the scene
    while the worthy acheiver of excellence gives the rest of us a better time – take railway engineering as an example: everyone’s heard of Brunel (even the oaf Clarkson). How many have heard of Ramsbottom (father of production engineering), Vignolles (modern trackwork), Barton Worthington (indestructible civil engineering on the L & Y and Midland), Egan O’Brien (modern electric traction planning, also L & Y). Or even Whitworth (precision engineering)? Whereas we can remember Brunel for : athmospheric railways, a non-port in WestWales…oh, and the Great Eastern. And a chip on his shoulder a mile high about his father, Marc, who WAS a ‘great engineer’.

    • December 23, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      much of the problem is the doers are busy doing while tose ego driven make the most noise or spend more time oin self-publicity than anything else. Part of the problem is the people to front the projects i.e. the merchant bankers who make money out of money and nothing else. The is much to be said for #OcuppyWallStreet principles but how to achieve a smooth change? The rich ones will do all they can to maintain the currently flawed system – time for a change anyone?

  3. Ellis
    December 24, 2011 at 6:52 am

    There isn’t a problem: Rex is valued by decent people, Hitchens revered by fools. Given the nature of the society in which we live this is inevitable: a society in which Hitchens was exposed as a shallow pated pseud and Rex was recognised as a rigorous observer unafraid of the truth would be quite unlike ours. Miliband and Cameron would be working in circuses and wearing funny costumes, for a start…

    • December 24, 2011 at 6:56 pm

      Yes though I doubt that any self-respecting circus would employ either, every show needs attraction rather than disgusted repulsion :(

  4. Cathie Lloyd
    January 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I worked in the same centre as John for a few years. He was such a generous, big-hearted person. There were many young aspiring PhD students who persuaded John to read their work, he was always interested to discuss ideas and hear about new work. His turn towards work in Europe in the 1990s (someone will check the dates I’m sure), was so typical of John, he embraced the issues and became whole-heartedly involved. I will remember arriving in the department in the morning, to see John sitting over a coffee, engaging with the latest articles to arrive in his post. He was very kind to his friends, and I’m sure we’ll hear from many of them. I hope that Warwick will arrange a memorial event for him, they were lucky to have him.

    Cathie Lloyd
    (colleague of JR from about 1991-1998).

  5. Professor Judith Okely
    January 7, 2012 at 3:37 am

    I agree with the contrast between the media’s celebration of their own i.e. the narcissist Hitchens, in contrast to an intellectual and academic. I was also inspired by Rex’s work. I inherited many of his books from my sociology lecturer mother’s collections. Many books I then contributed to the library at Hull prison where I gave lectures. I was incredulous that the first obituary I came across in The Guardian was volunteered by a relative. By contrast, Hitchens was given massive coverage by all his cronies, he who celebrated going to brothels and thus treating women as objects.
    No surprise in the British culture where the tragic Dr Kelly was stigmatised as a mere ‘boffin’. The French, by contrast, celebrate their intellectuals. The British hide if not despise them . Social scientists, especially, are denigrated by the governing hegemony..look at Lord Browne’s suggestion that university funding should only be for teaching science, neither the humanities, nor the social sciences. ‘Sparkbrook’ was pioneering

  1. December 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

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