Peter Willmott – community, family and public policy. Peter Willmott (1923-2000) played an important role in deepening appreciation of the experiences of people in families and local communities. As a sociologist, researcher and communicator he was able to speak to some of the most important concerns of his time. We assess his work and contribution.
Contents: introduction · life · family and kinship in east london · growing up in a working class community – adolescent boys of east london · community · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this piece
Peter Willmott (1923–2000) was a founding member, along with Michael Young, of an influential and innovative team at the Institute of Community Studies (now known as the Young Foundation). Other members included Peter Marris and Peter Townsend. Their work has become an important milestone in the development of empirical sociology in Britain. He went on to work in a number of settings, most notably the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) where he developed his interest in local networks and initiatives. Willmott’s ability to talk and listen to people, his commitment to social justice, concern with both qualitative and quantitative research, and skills as a writer mark him out. In this piece we explore some key aspects of his work.
Peter Willmott was born in Oxford in 1923. His father was an automobile engineer and the part-owner of a garage. Tragically, his mother died just four years after he was born. This loss, combined with the business running into trouble led to him and his father, along with an aunt with her two daughters, moving to north London (Young 2004). Peter Willmott went to a primary school in Muswell Hill and then on to a local grammar school. He was evacuated along with other pupils at his school in 1939. On leaving school he started an apprenticeship in the Rootes car factory in Luton (arranged by his father). He finished his apprenticeship in 1944 – but did not take to the work. He was then conscripted to work in the south Wales coal mines but was then declared unfit for work underground. His pacifist beliefs took him to the Friends Relief Service and to work in their publicity department. He then went on to study at Ruskin College.
In 1947 Willmott became a warden in a Lambeth hostel for the homeless (founded by Revd Dr Donald Soper) There he met Phyllis Noble, a student social worker, (they married in 1948 and had two sons). She has described their first meeting – reporting that ‘within 10 minutes I was beguiled by his eloquence, in half an hour by his easygoing good humour and charm; and, as I left, I caught myself thinking, I could be happy living with this man’ (Willmott 1995). As well as making her own mark in social work and welfare (for example her Consumers Guide to the British Social Services  went through at least four editions) Phyllis Willmott also helped Peter with his research – showing special aptitude as an ethnographer (Young 2000).
Whilst working in Lambeth Peter Willmott made contact with Michael Young – following up on something he had written. Young was then head of the Labour Party research department). Willmott was invited to join the department as a research assistant (Young 2000). As Young (op. cit.) has reported his great abilities as a writer were soon harnessed in producing pamphlets, briefings and the like for the party. Willmott also continued his studies – taking an external degree in sociology at the University of London.
In 1954 Peter Willmott and Michael Young set up the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green, east London. Willmott has described the aim of the institute as to undertake research that would both add to basic knowledge about society and illuminate practical questions of social policy. Allied to this was a concern to publish findings in an accessible and readable form (Willmott 1985). Their concern was to draw upon the many strengths of social anthropology in order to illuminate sociological enquiry. As Jennifer Platt (1971) has noted, within a few years the Institute of Community Studies became the best known British social research unit. However, in her review of its work, Platt concluded that Institute’s real significance lay in its impact in the fields of social welfare and planning rather than in its contribution to sociology. This was, in part, due to some key methodological and theoretical shortcomings in the approach adopted (see below).
For the first three years of the Institute Peter and Phyllis and their two children lived in the attic of the Institute (Young 2000). The first fruits of Young and Willmott’s work appeared in 1957: Family and Kinship in East London. It met with immediate critical approval. Its focus, analysis and accessible style caught something of the public mood. Now re-issued as Penguin Modern Classic it hasn’t been out of print in the fifty years since it first appeared. Other books by Young and Willmott around the same themes followed: Family and Class in a London Suburb (1960), and The Symmetrical Family (1973). Peter Willmott was also engaged in other research resulting in The Evolution of a Community (1963) (on Dagenham) and Adolescent Boys in East London (1966). Thereafter, Michael Young (2004) has reported, his and Peter Willmott’s interests diverged, although both remained attached to the Institute.
Peter Willmott turned his attention to questions of public policy with regard to the experiences of inner city life and poverty. He worked with Graham Shankland and others on the Lambeth inner area study (Shankland et al 1977), and with Charles Madge on a comparative study of inner city poverty in London and Paris. Willmott had become a part-time professor at the School of Environmental Studies, University College London, and a visiting professor at the University of Paris (1972). His work, along with that of Michael Young was very well regarded within key French academic circles (see Bonvalet 2003) and Peter Willmott both oversaw the publication of the French edition of Family and Kinship (1983) and wrote for French academic publications (e.g. Willmott 1991).
In 1978 Peter Willmott was appointed as the director of a government body – the Centre for Environmental Studies. He was there for two years – until it was closed by the then Conservative government. From the Centre he went on to join the Greater London Council (GLC) as head of its central policy unit. In 1983 he moved to the Policy Studies Institute (PSI). Working as a senior research fellow – and without the burden of administration he had experienced in last two posts – he returned to research and, in particular to issues around community and friendship networks and community development (Willmott 1986, 1987, 1989); and polarization and social housing (Willmott and Murie 1988). While at the PSI he also edited their quarterly journal Policy Studies (1988–95) and compiled two volumes of Urban Trends (1992, 1994). The latter were respected, independent and empirically-based reports.
In the 1990s Peter Willmott went onto explore the changing nature of kinship (his ideas around the significance of kinship differed from those of Young). His approach was to survey alterations in the experience of kinship since Anglo-Saxon times and to develop an overview of the contemporary situation. The resulting book (never published) argued that kinship remained a key dimension of people’s lives – and that more attention needed to be paid to its significance in terms of policy.
Peter Willmott died in the Whittington Hospital, Islington, London, on 8 April 2000. Commenting on his life, Michael Young (2000) has argued that all Peter Willmott’s work reflected his personality.
He hated bullshit, perhaps especially when it came from academics. He was humorous, and had a lovely laugh. He was intensely interested in all sorts of people…. He mocked the pretentious. Popular beliefs – for example, that the extended family had disappeared, or that “the family” was on its way to disaster, or that politicians were a bad lot – were dismissed by him. He did not make loose generalisations. He was commonsense incarnate.
Family and kinship in east London (and beyond)
Family and Kinship in East London (Young and Willmott 1957; 1962) is, arguably, the most famous British community study of all – ‘on which a whole generation of sociology students was weaned’ (Howard Newby in his foreword to Crow and Allan 1994: xi). It has sold more than 1/2 million copies and excited considerable debate. However, it does not fit the normal model of the community study in that it focuses on a single institution – the family – and is not concerned ‘with the interrelationships of social institutions in a given locality’ (Day 2006: 59). Michael Young and Peter Willmott completed two further joint studies that look to family and kinship relationships Family and Class in a London Suburb (1960, 1967) and The Symmetrical Family (1973, 1975).
The focus of the book is clearly set out in the opening paragraphs of the introduction:
This book is about the effect of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been build since the war…. The old institution is the family. It has been official policy to move people out of the cities; and we felt it would help in the assessment of this policy if more were known about its effect on family life (Young and Willmott 1962: 11)
The first part of the book looked to Bethnal Green – almost totally populated by manual workers and their families, the second to ‘Greenleigh’ (Debden in Essex) a newish London County Council housing estate fairly typical of the estates to which Bethnal Greeners had been moved (Young and Willmott 1962: 122). In gathering material on Bethnal Green they ‘discovered a village in the middle of London’ (Willmott and Young 1967: 7).
Established residents claimed to ‘know everyone’. They could do so because most people were connected by kinship ties to a network of other families, and through them to a host of friends and acquaintances. Ties of blood and marriage were local ties…. This was rather different from the popular view of what a modern metropolis is like. Bethnal Green is not so much a crowd of individuals – restless, lonely, rootless – as an orderly community based on family and neighbourhood groupings.
On the new council estate, which was still largely working class, Peter Willmott and Michael Young found people ‘cut off from relatives, suspicious of their neighbours, lonely’ (op. cit.). The atmosphere was ‘very different from the warmth and friendliness of Bethnal Green’.
Some years later Jennifer Platt (1971: 112) summed up their basic orientation to working class communities such as Bethnal Green as follows:
The working class way of life is seen as involving the extended family embedded in a stable and predominantly working class community with great neighbourliness and communal solidarity, expressed in networks of social relationships and mutual aid and strong attachments to the local area and its primary groups. In this context people are known and judged as individuals with multiple characteristics rather than as holders of certain jobs or owners of certain possessions. Because they are so well known, and because of the basic homogeneity of the area, pretensions to higher status get little credit and are rarely made; anyone who seriously aspires to other standards is liable to leave the community.
A further aspect of this is the central role of the mother as the centre of the extended family and the representative of tradition, and of the strong ties between mothers and daughters.
One of the key points that Platt makes in relation to all this is that Michael Young and Peter Willmott really only drew on a limited amount of hard data to draw these conclusions. Much of the material was impressionistic and descriptive. The material they drew from interviews and observation combined with their skills as writers created great colour and connected with many readers. In addition, inadequate attention was given to the economic forces that helped structure relations (especially when set against Dennis et. al.‘s classic study Coal is our Life which had appeared the year before). Local political organization was largely ignored, and ‘there was little real detail about gender relations, or behaviour within the home, and above all a surprising neglect of work’ (Day 2006: 61). One of the conclusions we can draw is that Young and Willmott fell into the trap of romanticizing Bethnal Green. Later studies by other researchers also contradicted key elements of their account – however this is not unusual. Things change over time, and studies of this sort are not cumulative (Crow and Allan 1994: 195). That said, one particular research programme and analysis undertaken by Jocelyn Cornwell in East London (1984) has thrown up a significant dimension. She found a contradiction between her respondents’ public and private accounts of community life. The latter reveal a more troubled and problematic view – of the lack of care for each other, the ‘turning of a blind eye’ to what was going on in neighbours’ homes etc. (Cornwell 1984: 44-7). Michael Young and Peter Willmott, she argued, tended to draw from the public account and, as such, produced a ‘partial and one-sided’ account (1984: 24).
Family and class in a London suburb
Willmott and Young’s second major study focused on Woodford – a suburb with a much higher middle class presence – and compared the the nature of family and communal life with Bethnal Green (1960, 1967). It was based on over 1000 interviews and used observation, diaries and other forms of research to build their analysis. As they expected they found that kinship ties were much looser in Woodford:
When a couple marry they set up a genuinely independent household; relatives’ homes are more often connected by occasional missions, not by the continuous back and forth which make two homes into one in Bethnal Green. Kinship matters less, friendship more. (Willmott and Young 1967: 108)
However, there were significant surprises or rather themes the writers did not expect- especially with regard to four areas:
- Old age. Woodford families seemed to look after their older members from a physical point of view as well as those in Bethnal Green. Given the relative density of the extended families in the latter this was significant. One of the main differences was that ‘Woodford parents come to their children’s door when one of them is too old or too infirm to take care of themselves any more’ (op. cit. 108).
- Mothers and daughters. In Family and Kinship… Peter Willmott and Michael Young had concluded that ‘the mother-daughter tie’ was a widespread and perhaps universal phenomenon in the urban areas of industrialized countries – at least in the case of families of manual workers. The Woodford study revealed that it was also a significant feature of middle class family life (op. cit.: 111).
- Friendliness. Willmott and Young had expected Woodford to be ‘another Greenleigh’ (op. cit.: 111), to compare badly with the apparent warmth, easy-goingness and friendly character of Bethnal Green. This was not the case:
People in the suburb are on the whole friendly, neighbourly and helpful to each other. They attend clubs and churches together, they entertain friends and neighbours in their homes, they like (or at any rate they profess to like) their fellow neighbours. (op. cit.: 112)
Their explanation for this was that the middle class people in Woodford had a ‘certain capacity’ or skill to make friends. To some extent, they speculated, this may have been at the cost of antagonism between classes.
- A different working class. The Woodford working class turned out to be even more different from the Bethnal Green than Willmott and Young expected. This derived in significant part from the relative lack of middle class people in the latter. This allowed for two key lines of defence – the long-settled community and the local political system (op. cit.: 113-4). In general the Woodford working class ‘have to contend with middle-class views which are a much greater, more immediate challenge than they are in Bethnal Green’. As a result they divide: ‘a part clinging rather unconvincingly to a version of the Bethnal Green code, a part accepting middle-class views and settling out to become middle-class themselves, in attitude, in house and furniture, and in politics’ (op. cit.: 114-5).
Family and Class in a London Suburb, not unexpectedly, did not have the impact of its predecessor. It did not catch the spirit of the times in the same way; and had relatively little new to say sociologically. The descriptive writing was as strong as ever, and some of the material confirmed what many commentators knew (after all quite a number came from places like Woodford). In many respects, it can be seen as a sort of footnote to Family and Kinship in East London
The Symmetrical Family
The Symmetrical Family entailed conducting and analysing over 2500 interviews with people across the London metropolitan area. In contrast with the earlier two studies which had looked to sociological research on a micro scale ‘through an alliance with anthropology’ (1975: 1), Michael Young and Peter Willmott now looked to the macro and to history. Their interest was in the changing relationship between work and home. They put forward a three stage model of the development of the family in Britain which became a common feature of sociology texts over the next two decades. The three stages were as follows:
Stage 1: The pre-industrial family (pre-1750) which could be characterized by its nature as a unit of production. The crucial division of labour ‘was between its members, all of whom engaged in working such resources as it could command, either for its own immediate consumption or, sometimes, to produce goods for sale (Young and Willmott 1975: 66). It was relatively stable; and had important economic relationships links with wider society. The division of labour was ‘presided over by the husband’ (op. cit.: 67). ‘He was the undisputed master, the patriarch of the family’.
Stage 2: The Asymmetrical Family (1750 -1900): Caused by the ‘victory of the new economic forces and characterised by the disruption of industrialisation, this family model entailed a clear separation between home and work.
When home and workplace were physically separated, wives and husbands (although not as much as in the Workhouses of the Poor Law) were also physically separated for a good part of their days and weeks, especially wher husbands had to work for the long hours that were customary. Wives could not see what their husbands were doing and earning (nor husbands, wives) and children could not learn from their fathers by watching them at work. Responsibility for organizing production was surrendered to the owners of capital and their agents, and by them (after the earlier stages of industrialization were over) people were employed not togeher as members of a family but as individuals for a wage. (op. cit.: 73)
This stage emphasized women’s role as “mother” and domestic labourer and children gradually lost their role as breadwinners. What is more the brutality of the workplace bore down on the family. Young and Willmott comment, ‘When a man was treated at work with callous disregard of his humanity he could always turn on the troop of scapegoats at home’ (op. cit.: 77).
Stage 3: The move toward the symmetrical family (20th century): with changing economic and industrial circumstances, developments in science and technology, and cultural and political change (especially feminism) Young and Willmott argued that there was another reconfiguration of the family – initially led by the middle classes. This involved a decline in family size, an increase in the proportion of women working, and a move into a more nuclear, home and child-centred orientation. There was a stress on conjugal family; less segregation of roles; and the home became, increasingly the site of leisure activity. Domestic production also changed with the development of new appliances such as washing machines. In developing their characterization of this stage, Young and Willmott recognized the pioneering work Elizabeth Bott had undertaken fifteen or so years earlier in Family and Social Network (1957).
Young and Willmott were talking here of trends (op. cit.: 265) – the model was developed in order to show some of the movements that had occurred. The study looked at different aspects of the experience – the work of married women, attachment to work and home, the impact of shiftwork and the changing nature of leisure. Others were also exploring these themes – but the scale of the research endeavour combined with the reputations of Young and Willmott meant that the study’s conclusions fed into newspaper discussion and, to some extent, into political debate.
Peter Willmott’s Adolescent Boys of East London (1966, 1969) was part of a small but highly significant flurry of research and exploration around youth in the mid 1960s. Prior to this there was only a very limited post-war British sociological literature that focused on the experiences of young people – the two main contributors being Pearl Jephcott (1942, 1948, 1954, 1967) and John Barron Mays (1954, 1962, 1965). In the early to mid-1960s a number of notable books were published including the Eppel’s (1966) Adolescents and Morality, David Downes’ (1966) classic exploration The Delinquent Solution, Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s (1962, 1966) Education and the Working Class, Michael Carter’s (1966) Into Work and Frank Musgrove’s (1964) provocative discussion of the status of youth Youth and the Social Order.
Based on fieldwork in Bethnal Green, and using the familiar mix of interviews, diaries and observation, Willmott’s Adolescent Boys of East London was greeted with largely favourable reviews – and went through a number of reprints. Having set the context, Peter Willmott went on to explore ‘informal groupings around which the boys’ lives are organized’ (1969: 77) – peer groups, the courting couple and the family. He then turned to their experiences of schooling, work and youth clubs. By allowing the voice of his respondents to shine through Willmott was able to communicate something of the flavour of their experiences and lives. Much of the material remains at a descriptive level until the final chapter which attempts to draw out some key themes and to relate them to sociological theorizing.
Within the 200 or so young men that were interviewed, there seemed to be three broad ‘types’:
- The working class boy – basically someone who goes to a secondary modern or comprehensive school and leaves school at 15 to go into a semi-skilled or skilled job (broadly what William Whyte famously call ‘corner boys’ in Street Corner Society).
- The ‘middle class’ boy – in Bethnal Green where the vast majority were from working class families this term was used to describe those that went to grammar or comprehensive school and left school at 16 or over to enter white collar employment (what Whyte described as ‘college boys’).
- The ‘rebel’ – basically those that went to secondary modern school, didn’t like it and left at 15. From there they go onto to unskilled or semi-skilled manual work – and probably go through a number of jobs. (Willmott 1969: 171-6)
To some extent, Peter Willmott comments, all boys are rebellious, at some point – but the number labelled as rebels was small. The study demonstrated in his mind what was known in a general sense: ‘that during adolescence most boys withdraw from the mixed-age society of childhood into a one-age society of their fellows, and that as they mature and particularly as they move toward courtship and marriage, they rejoin the mixed-age society as adults’ (Willmott 1969: 177). In the context of this ‘withdrawal’ the peer group is of obvious significance – but also the local community. It ‘stays important to the great majority of boys and becomes even more so as they move into adulthood’ (op. cit.: 182).
These conclusions were subject to debate – especially around the extent to which the continuing influence of the family might have been underestimated. Furthermore, the broad approach, and largely descriptive nature of the book, was thrown into sharp relief as a new wave of writers and researchers focused on youth. The theoretical orientation of some of these researchers attracted considerable interest e.g. Stan Cohen’s (1972) examination of the creation of mods and rockers or the work associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (e.g. Hall and Jefferson 1976). The ethnographic richness and analysis of other researchers, especially Paul Willis (1977) raised the bar in terms of the contribution of social anthropology. This said, the book was important in the way it opened up the social exploration of the experiences of young people to a wider public; and reflection it stimulated amongst practitioners such as youth workers.
Peter Willmott’s later work was characterized by an increased focus on the nature of community and its significance in social life and welfare. There were some signs of this shifting focus in his earlier work on Dagenham, Essex (The Evolution of a Community. A study of Dagenham after forty years 1963). The Dagenham estate was the result of a London County Council initiative to try to handle the city’s most urgent housing needs. Between 1921 and 1932 over 22,000 houses were built on the estate. One of the striking features of the study is the degree of continuity in terms of attitudes etc. with the ‘traditional’ working class communities of east London (like Bethnal Green) from which many of the families came (Willmott 1963: 108). Willmott explores local relationships, estate design and patterns of living – and from draws a number of conclusions for the development of social policy. Four particular areas concerned him: the ability of people to enjoy privacy while being able to be neighbours with others; the necessity of developing a proper transport and services infrastructure alongside the building of the estate; altering housing allocation policies to support extended families; and the desirability or otherwise of having more ‘mixed’ and less homogenous communities.
In his later work with the Policy Studies Institute Peter Willmott reworked earlier discussions of community into an influential and often quoted three element discussion (1986; 1989). His starting point is that community entails people ‘having something in common’. This can be understood geographically – what he called a territorial community or ‘where people share in common something other than physical proximity in the same place’ – the interest community (Willmott 1989: 2). In the case of the latter it is recognized that:
… what is shared in such a grouping of people is more than ‘interest’, as the word is normally understood; it can also cover characteristics as varied as ethnic origin, religion, politics, occupation, leisure pursuit and sexual propensity. (op. cit.: 2)
The two concepts of community are not mutually exclusive. Although interest communities are often dispersed geographically, ‘they can also exist inside quite small areas’ (op. cit.: 3).
Peter Willmott then proceeds to identify a third strand – community of attachment.
[I]n common usage community does not necessarily refer to just to the fact of people living in the same place or sharing the same interest or characteristics. People sometimes, but not always, recognize the common interests they share with others living in the same area or having the same characteristics. Sometimes, but not always, they have a feeling of identity, of common membership. So ‘community’ is sometimes used to refer to such sentiments or feelings and to social bonds and patterns of behaviour that can sustain and reflect these sentiments and feelings. Terms like ‘sense of community’ and ‘spirit of community’ suggest the general meaning of the word. (op. cit.: 3-4)
Other commentators, such as Lee and Newby (1983) have developed a similar three-element conceptualization (see Crow and Allan 1994 – and community on these pages) – however, Willmott then went on to employ the notion in terms of exploring community initiatives, social networks and support, and social policy.
Peter Willmott’s contribution to our appreciation of local communities and the significance of families and local social systems was significant. In recent years he has been somewhat overshadowed in commentaries by the efforts of his collaborator in the earlier studies – Michael Young. He did not have the same restless, entrepreneurial, qualities as Young, but his careful and considered approach brought with it great benefits.
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Acknowledgements: My thanks to Phyllis Willmott for talking to me about Peter’s life and for providing me with additional material including the photograph of her and Peter (circa 1969) used in this article. Picture – all rights reserved.
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2007) ‘Peter Willmott, community, family and public policy’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/peter-willmott-community-family-and-public-policy/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K. Smith 2007
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