Thoughts from the criminology team

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Monthly Archives: May 2017

A walk in the past

Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.

KG1The inspiration of this blog has developed from a recent trip to Riga, Latvia. Whilst the city itself is surrounded by cobbled streets, creative buildings and various water attractions; it is merely inevitable to miss Latvia’s criminological past. Many of the city’s museums’ and prominent statues are dedicated to war and occupation, with a particular focus towards the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The two historical landmarks of interest for the discussion of this blog will focus on the KGB Building and Riga Ghetto Holocaust museum.

Firstly, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as I think they are important to this text. It is easy to read of the happenings of the past; yet, sometimes it is experience that can enable an individual to truly grasp an understanding of how a society once operated. Upon entering a place whereby masses of people endured acts of repeated interrogation, violence and execution; events from the past become very surreal and complex.

To provide a brief history, the KGB was a secretive and secluded state- security organisation, involved in all aspects of life of everyday people in the Soviet Union. The organisation enforced Soviet morals and ideologies with various mechanisms such propaganda, which in turn, politically oppressed all citizens of Latvia. After the War, the KGB selected the Corner House for its headquarters, as its construction made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. The KGB Building has preserved its original layout, design and furniture from the Soviet times which allows for a genuine feel of its previous context. Interestingly, the tour guide that showed us round the prison was a former Russian prison officer, whereby we were shown various cells and rooms of importance. One aspect that really stood out to myself was a small cell that we were informed to enter, in which we were told roughly 30 prisoners at a time would be held inside singular cells like these. During the day time, lights were kept off and the heating was set to high- as you can imagine, this would have been extremely unpleasant in these conditions. The tour guide then told us to lightly cover our eyes, as he turned on several piercing bright lights, that even after a few minutes started to make myself feel dizzy. It was then explained that prisoners were prevented from sleeping with these lights being on each night; if caught covering their eyes by a prison guard, they would be beaten. Standing in the exact room of where individuals endured this kind of treatment allowed me to reflectively engage, both mentally and physically, of the complex issues of this dark historical time.

It could be argued that the KGB period hits close to home with the case of Alexander Litvinenko: a former officer of the Russian FSB who resided to Britain in escape of arrest by the Secret Service he had once been a part of. Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned to death by two Russian assassins, reinforcing the Soviet Union’s traditions of effectively ‘destroying the enemy’.

Another point of criminological interest was the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust museum; opened with the aim to preserve memories of the Jewish community in Latvia. On arrival, you are met with a memorial wall and informative stand that show the history of WW2 and the Holocaust- more than 70,000 names of Latvian Jews are recorded. Next, I approached a transportation waggon which were simply used to deport Jewish members to concentrations camps. However, oddly to myself, there were several tree branches inside the waggon itself. I then discovered that this represented those who were deemed ‘unfit’ for labour were taken to the Bikernieki forest- Latvia’s largest mass murder cite during the Holocaust period. As previously mentioned, it was the presence of being in a place whereby those same people lived in a society with arguably no humanity that is so difficult to fully digest.

As a Criminology student, visiting these institutions made real some of the key issues that emerge in class discussions, providing valuable, historical and international development of criminological debates. From an academic perspective; it is widely accepted that accounts should remain objective and avoid journalistic traits, yet the mass suffering of these events is inevitable to ignore.

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What’s That Got to do With Criminology?

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When discussing pressing social issues I am often asked ‘what’s that got to do with criminology?’ Perhaps unsurprisingly this question normally comes from people who are unfamiliar with the discipline and possibly expect that anything not commonly associated with things like policing or punishment falls outside of its orbit of inquiry. Yet criminology concerns itself with many facets of the social world and makes use of a number of related fields of study in order to explore and explain crime and criminality. Criminology is therefore what we would call an interdisciplinary subject that, whilst may be described in a number of different ways, could be understood as the social scientific investigation of the causes of crime and criminality and of society’s reaction to criminal and deviant acts.

Because of this broad remit criminology is a complex subject and criminologists certainly have their work cut out for them. To adequately explore the complexity of crime and its causes those who study criminology must look beyond common sense notions, administrative pandering and official discourse. We must explore wider social, political, economic and cultural issues because crime cannot be viewed in isolation from these factors. Therefore, far from being confined to issues of policing, punishment, and other mechanisms of criminal justice, criminology tackles a whole range of other pressing social issues that have the potential to cause harm. Rather than functioning as a telescope fixed on one single element, criminology could perhaps be described as being more like a kaleidoscope in that it views a number of different elements together and considers how they interact and potentially influence crime.

Whilst the picture may be less than clear it is the job of the criminologist to try and make some sense of it, to try and put crime into perspective. This requires us to analyse the wider social, economic, political and cultural context within which crime occurs, society reacts and criminal justice operates. What may appear at first glance to have very little to do with criminology may, upon closer inspection, turn out to be of considerable criminological concern. For example, do zero-hour contracts not have the potential to push people into criminality because of their instability? Does the societal drive to both stand out and fit in by having the latest fashion not have similar potential? Do rapid resource depletion and the enforced mass migration that follows not have the potential to fuel trafficking networks? As social scientists criminologists must maintain a broad contextual view of the social world in order to explore not only acts officially defined as crime but also things that may cause harm.  What do consumerism, fashion, social competition and the X Factor have to do with criminology? Probably a lot more than you might think.

Justin Kotzé, May 2017

How do you punish the incorrigible?

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This week saw the (very low key) commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day (15 May) which got me thinking about a number of different contemporary issues. Although the events which I describe happened a century ago, the criminalisation, and indeed, punishment of conscience has never truly been resolved.

Conscientious objection in the UK first came to the attention for most after the passing of the Military Services Act 1916. This legislation allowed for the conscription of certain categories of men into the military. The enactment of this law enabled men to be forcibly coerced into military service regardless of their personal and individual aspirations. Subsequent to this, further legislation was passed (Military Training Act 1939, National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, National Service Act 1948) continuing this system of coercive enlistment into the military. By default, such legislation also laid the foundations for conscientious objection; after all, without such coercion there is no need to register dissent, simply don’t enlist in the military.

During WWI (and for some considerable time after) Conscientious Objectors [COs] were bullied, cajoled, ridiculed and stigmatised, not to mention, incarcerated, multiple times. In one horrific incident it was alleged that COs were driven to the trenches of France and threatened with a firing squad if they did not comply. Despite this type of treatment the vast majority of COs continued to resist, strongly suggesting that their conscience, moral compass or faith was far stronger than anything the state could throw at them.

In the UK the individual and collective dilemma of the conscientious objector has largely faded into history; although the same cannot be said internationally (for instance; Greece, Israel and the USA). However, their very existence and that of other non-conformists (at different times and places) raises questions around the purpose and supposed effectiveness of incarceration.  In essence; what do we do when the “deviant” refuses to conform, how far are we prepared to go, as a society to punish the incorrigible and persistent offender and what do we do when nothing seems to work?

We could attempt the practices used with the WWI COs and keep convicting whilst ratcheting up the tariff of their sentence each. However, we know from their experiences that this appeared to consolidate their objections and harden their resolve. We can try and talk to individuals in order to help them see the “errors of their ways” but given the conviction held by COs, that the war was fundamentally at odds with their belief system, this is also likely to fail. We could try punishment in the community, but for many of the COs anything which they felt compromised their standpoint was equally resisted, making any such approach also likely to be unsuccessful.

Although the “problem” of the COs no longer exists in 21st century Britain, other individuals and groups have filled the space they have vacated. We could replace the COs with the Black civil rights movement (think Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King) or other protests (think “Tank Man” in  Tiananmen Square or Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge) or those deemed traitors by many (as were the COs) , such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The question remains: is it possible to rehabilitate the heart and mind of someone who is so clear as to their moral standpoint and committed to doing what they perceive to be “the right thing”?

The criminology of real life

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Ever since I joined academia as a criminology lecturer, I found the question asked “what do you do” to be one that is followed by further questions.  The role or rather title of a criminologist is one that is always met with great curiosity.  Being a lecturer is a general title that most people understand as a person who does lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops, something akin to a teacher.  But what does a criminology lecturer do?  Talks about crime presumably…but do they understand criminals? And more to the point, how do they understand them?

The supposed reading of the criminal mind is something that connects with the collective zeitgeist of our time.  Some of our colleagues have called this the CSI factor or phenomenon.  A media portrayal of criminal investigation into violent crime, usually murder, that seems to follow the old whodunit recipe sprinkled with some forensic science with some “pop” psychology on the side.  The popularity of this phenomenon is well recorded and can easily be demonstrated by the numerous programmes which seemingly proliferate.  I believe that there are even television channels now devoted completely to crime programmes.  Here, it would be good to point out that it is slightly hypocritical to criticise crime related problems when some of us, on occasion, enjoy a good crime dramatisation on paper or in the movies.

Therefore I understand the wider interest and to some degree I expect that in a society dominated with mass and social media, people will try to relate fiction with academic expertise.  In fact, in some cases I find it quite interesting as a contemporary tool of social conversation.  You can have for example, hours of discussion about profiling, killers and other crimes with inquisitive taxi-drivers, border-control officers, hotel managers etc.  They ask profession, you respond “criminologist” and you can end up having a long involving conversation about a programme you may have never seen.

There is however, quite possibly a personal limitation, a point where I draw the line.  This is primarily when I get asked about particular people or current live crime cases.  In the first year I talk to our students about the Soham murders.  A case that happened close to 15 years ago now.  What I have not told the students before, is the reason I talk about the case.

Fifteen years ago I was returning from holiday and I took a taxi home.  The taxi driver, once he heard I was a criminology lecturer, asked me about the case.  I remember this conversation as the academic and the everyday collided.  He could not understand why I could not read the criminal intentions of the “monsters” who did what they did.  To him, it was so clear and straightforward and therefore my inability to give him straight answers was frustrating.  I thought about it since and of course other situations in similar criminal cases that I have been asked about.  Why do people want complete and direct answers to the most complex of human behaviours?

One of the reasons that there is a public expectation to be able to talk about individual cases rests on the same factor that makes crime popular; its media portrayal.  The way we collectively respond to real crime cases reflects a popularised dramatisation.  So, this is not just a clash between academic and lay, but reality and fiction.

Technology of the future: zombification

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Fortunately, or unfortunately, I guess it depends on your viewpoint I was brought up in an era where technology, as we now know it, was not that complex.  Mind you, when I was 5 years of age they still managed to put a man on the moon, so I guess complexity is somewhat relative.  Anyway, we didn’t walk around with smart mobile devices, in fact the first mobile phones were well, not that mobile, car batteries in fact with handsets on top of them. Computers were not that advanced, my first computer had a hard drive of 540mb and that was considered huge. We were told, well almost promised that technology would work for us, the three-day working week was on its way.  Technology would free us from the chains of work and everyday drudgery. Instead, we have become slaves to technology and are slowly but surely losing key skills along the way.  One of those key skills is the ability to think and interact; a slow process of zombification.

A while ago I had the good fortune of going to see the comedian Russell Howard in Birmingham; that man is so funny.  So how do you get there, obvious, sat nav? Now there is a nice bit of enabling technology, post code, no thought, there we go, on our way. I’m sure you’ve heard about those drivers that have gone down dead end streets or lorry drivers that have attempted streets too narrow for the lorry; you guessed it, I did something similar. When the nice, polite sat nav lady says turn left, who am I to say that’s not correct? We ended up in an industrial estate at the back of our hotel and had to retrace our steps and try to work out how to get to our destination.  The problem… I stopped thinking. I didn’t need to look at road signs and I didn’t need to work out the best route to follow, I didn’t need to stop and ask anyone, I just needed to follow what the nice lady said, like a sheep.

When I go into work and I fire up the computer, I’m met with a plethora of emails, most of which are complete garbage and of no relevance to me. It is all too easy to fire off that email without thinking, why not cc it into the whole world?  People send emails that make little sense, or seem rude or offhand, the problem… they didn’t think, and it’s all too easy, particularly from so called smart devices.  Sometimes I think the device is smarter than the operator.

Now I’m sure you will recognise this one; the mobile bleeps, you have to check it, never mind that you are in deep conversation with friends, colleagues or those nearest and dearest.  The phone, or the message suddenly becomes more important, if you were thinking and adding some value to the conversation, you are not now.  The phone now controls you.

The problem is that technology now dictates how we act and what we do.  We take the easy route and stop thinking and we have more concern for the technology than we do for humans that we interact with.  I’m not adverse to technology but I am adverse to the way we misuse it and allow others to bring us into their fairy-tale technological world of zombies.

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