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People :: Former Staff :: John C Spencer


John Carrington Spencer

Professor of Social Administation & Director of School of Social Study, 1967-1978

The university took a long time to appoint a head after Marjorie Brown's departure due to ill-health in 1962. Mary Gregor acted as head for two years from 1964 to 1966, and then Megan Browne held the mantle for another two years before retiring in 1973. John Spencer (1915-1978) was appointed Professor of Social Administation in 1967, and became head of the school in 1968.

Nelson states that John Spencer was born in 1915, read classics at Oxford’s Balliol College then went to the LSE where he studied social sciences [NB this was probably a Diploma in Social Study]. He subsequently got a job with the probation service at Surrey County Council, returning to this after serving with the British army in the Second World War. He secured a post at LSE as assistant lecturer and lecturer in social science where he underook his PhD, under the supervision of Hermann Mannheim, bringing together his experiences both in probation and in the armed forces. He undertook research at three institutions - Dartmoor prison, Maidstone prison and Sherwood borstal - using a combination of documentary analysis, covert observation and interviews. His research interviews in Dartmoor were carried out under the pretext that he was helping the chaplain to deliver general knowledge classes. Nelson (2010: 138) suggests that John was one of a number of sociologist ethnographers from this period who sought to embrace what sociology aspired to be at this time, that is, 'the empirical study of social problems which would lead to solutions on a practical level'.

After leaving the LSE in 1953, John was Director of the Bristol Social Project, an action research project funded by the Carnegie Trust and sponsored by the University of Bristol, and completed in 1961. Here he was concerned mainly with the problems of the family and urban sociology, and used the methods of community organisation and group work (see reference below). In 1958 he took up an appointment for a year as Simon Research Fellow at Manchester University where he carried out the research into white-collar crime which was the subject of his contribution to the volume of essays presented to Herman Mannheim by former students, published in 1965 as Criminology in Transition. John spent the next eight years at the University of Toronto, before he was appointed, in 1967, the first holder of the Chair of Social Administration at Edinburgh University, a post that he continued to hold until his death. Between 1968 and 1978, he was also an Associate Editor of the British Journal of Criminology. John died in 1978 following an illness.

In 1968, John joined with Professor Tom Burns to convene a Working Party funded by the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust that explored how the Social Work (Scotland) Act would be operationalised.

John's obituary makes his contribution to social work very clear. It states:

'He presided over the considerable expansion of social work training and the establishment of undergraduate degree courses in social policy and the development of an extensive programme of postgraduate research. He did not enjoy university administration, but he was a committed teacher and his introductory lectures to first-year students were characterised by wisdom, humanity and humour. His senior students and colleagues particularly appreciated his gift for infusing new ideas into an academic discussion—ideas which were drawn from his prodigiously wide reading and offered in a manner that stimulated the development of new ideas in others. His colleagues also found that his very democratic handling of the department during a period of rapid and substantial expansion made it an exciting and congenial place in which to work. Although his interests spanned the entire field of social policy and administration, he had special and long-standing interests in crime and delinquency and in the development of social work. This was reflected, for example, in his service as a magistrate in the Metropolitan juvenile courts, his membership of the Thomson Committee on Criminal Procedure in Scotland and of the Scottish Advisory Council on Social Work and in his chairmanship of the Children's Panel Advisory Committee in the Lothian Region. His last book, written in collaboration with Nigel Bruce, dealt in a sympathetically critical way with the working of the Children's Hearing system in Scotland. From 1974 to 1975 he was also Chairman of the Army Welfare Inquiry Committee appointed by the Ministry of Defence' (page 2).


John C. Spencer (1954) Crime and the Services, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

John C. Spencer, Joy Tuxford and Norman Dennis (1964) Stress and Release in an Urban Estate: a study in action research, London: Tavistock - this is an abbreviated version of the report on the Bristol Social Project presented to the Carnegie trustees in 1961.

John C. Spencer (1973) Juvenile Justice : the demands of treatment, London : Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency

Nigel Bruce and John Spencer (1976) Face to Face with Families: a report on the children's panels in Scotland, Loanhead: Macdonald.


Obituary by Susan Sinclair and J. Ll. J. Edwards (1979) The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 1979), pp. 1-4.

Gillian Louise Nelson (2010) A Century of Covert Ethnography in Britain, c.1880 – c.1980, Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Glasgow,