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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?


Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. First, its potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be forced coerced to do another’s bidding.  It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.

Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.

Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.

Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these powerful  institutions on individual lives. It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).

Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.  

Lee,  Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12

Terrorism? No thank you



Recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and the capital, like others that happened in Europe in recent years, made the public focus again on commonly posed questions about the rationale and objectives of such seemingly senseless acts.  From some of the earliest texts on Criminology, terrorism has been viewed as one of the most challenging areas to address, including defining it.

There is no denial that acts, such as those seen across the world, often aimed at civilian populations, are highly irrational.  It is partly because of the nature of the act that we become quite emotional.  We tend question the motive and, most importantly, the people who are willing to commit such heinous acts.  Some time ago, Edwin Sutherland, warned about the development of harsh laws as a countermeasure for those we see as repulsive criminals.  In his time it was the sexual deviants; whilst now we have a similar feeling for those who commit acts of terror. We could try to apply his theory of differential association to explain some terrorist behaviours. however it cannot explain why these acts keep happening again and again.  

At this point, it is rather significant to mention that terrorism (and whatever we currently consider acts of terror) is a fairly old phenomenon that dates back to many early organised and expansionist societies.  We are not the first, and unfortunately not the last, to live in an age of terror. Reiner, a decade ago, identified terrorism as a vehicle to declare crime as “public enemy number 1 and a major threat to society” (2007: 124).  In fact, the focus on individualised characteristics of the perpetrator detract from any social responsibility leading to harsher penalties and sacrifices of civil liberties almost completely unopposed.    As White and Haines write, “the concern for the preservation of human rights is replaced by an emphasis on terrorism […] and the necessity to fight them by any means necessary” (1996: 139).

For many old criminologists who forged established concepts in the discipline, to simply and totally condemn terrorism, is not so straightforward.  Consider for example Leon Radzinowicz (1906-1999) who saw the suppression of terror as the State’s attempt to maintain a state of persecution.  After all, many of those who come from countries that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries probably owe their nationhood to groups of people originally described as terrorists.  This of course is the age old debate among criminologists “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  Many, of course, question the validity of such a statement at a time when the world has seen an unprecedented number of states make a firm declaration to self-determination.  That is definitely a fair point to make, but at the same time we see age-old phenomena like slavery, exploitation and suppression of individual rights to remain prevalent issues now.  People’s movements away from hotbeds of conflict remain a real problem and Engels’ (1820- 1895) observation about large cities becoming a place of social warfare still relevant.     

Reiner R (2007), Law and Order, an honest citizen’s guide to crime and control, Cambridge, Polity Press

White R and Haines F (1996), Crime and Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press  


You’re never too old to learn

Blog MJ

Early 2017 the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Market Harborough asked me to give a talk to retired and semi-retired people on ‘The state of the prison system today’. Obviously this is a huge topic and they hoped that I’d include sentencing, courses, attitudes of people, lives and challenges faced, family connections, rehabilitation, demographics and more, in short everything I knew. Making this more of a challenge I was only given 30-40 minutes to talk, rather than a whole day which might have been more feasible. Anyway, I accepted the challenge and on 13 April 2017 I addressed a small group from a range of backgrounds. Unlike a classroom, it is difficult to predict the response you might get, I knew some would challenge my opinion on the prison system and I was not disappointed. At first the group sat quietly and simply absorbed my brief history of the prison system, nodding in places and jotting down a couple of notes. This changed dramatically when I challenged media constructed images of ‘prison being a holiday camp’ and the appropriateness of prison as punishment. Clearly some in the group had been victims so the discussion quickly turned to a punitive knee jerk reaction to all offenders. Underpinning this was a sense of fear, social unrest, and helplessness where crime was concerned. As you might expect comments like ‘in my day a bobby would have clipped you around the ear and taken you home to your parents for a good talking to’, closely followed by ‘parents of today have no control over their children’ or ‘where has the respect and discipline gone, bring back national service’. Whatever the tone, the group was clearly passionate about issues of crime and the ‘state of the prison system’, actively contributing to the discussion. When I led them towards issue of socio-economic conditions, a lack of opportunities, and the impact that prison had on these problems their empathy started to emerge. At this point I was asked the most difficult question of all ‘what is the answer, what can we do? My response was a simple one; try not to judge, put yourself in others shoes, consider carefully who you vote for, and most importantly don’t believe everything the media tells you. In essence I left them with more questions than answers but also a spark in their eye. They were hungry for more, they were hungry for action, and they wanted to be part of the solution. This led me to reflect on two things; firstly the pure joy I felt discussing prisons with a group of people who were fully engaged and curious about the topic area, and why most of our own students don’t exhibit the same level of enthusiasm. Secondly, the lack of fear I experienced in both the preparation and delivery of this talk. This made me think back to my own student years and a conversation I had with a lecturer who said that he’d put together his lecture on the train. At the time I thought this reflected his lack of interest in what he was delivery and I’m ashamed to say, a degree of laziness, however this experience has led me to reconsider my judgement.  For instance, had I been asked to do this talk a few years ago I would have probably spent days, maybe weeks agonising over what I would say, writing copious notes, and shaking all through the delivery. The reality is that I spent a couple of hours that morning putting some points together and experienced no nerves at all. In short, I realised that I know a lot more than I thought I did, and my nerves are somewhat a result of not knowing my audience. I knew this audience would be engaged rather than sitting there stone faced or playing on their phones. This leads me to surmise that while I agreed with New Labour’s idea that education should be open to everyone, I no longer believe that that should include university. Too often I’m faced with people who do not want to be at university, or those that simply see it as logical progression, rather than the eager faces of those who want to learn, who are curious and passionate about the world, and make you leave a class with a feeling of elation rather than despondency. In short, the more enthusiastic the audience, the more enthusiastic the lecturer.

Safe data: your inside leg measurement is?


Data is now an intrinsic part of our lives.  It always has been, but those of you that are old enough to remember the pre-computer days (PCD) that’s not the Neolithic period, only a matter of 40 odd years ago, data didn’t seem that relevant.

In the PCD, if a shop assistant asked you for your details, i.e. name, address and telephone number, it was for a guarantee or a mail shot or at worst, to miss sell PPI. Now you are asked as a matter of course for your name, address, phone number and email address (not available PCD).  Refuse and you are looked upon with incredulity or even disdain and woe betide if you dare to ask why the information is needed? But, provide the information and this is what happens…

I needed new tyres for the car and on Saturday, whilst on my way into town, I popped into a well-known supplier.  I negotiated a reasonable deal, actually that was always going to be the price but it makes me feel better to say that, and I paid for the tyres. I was asked for and provided the usual details i.e. name, postcode, house number etc.  Job done, didn’t think about it any further.

Monday morning, phone call on the mobile, private number; I duly answer.  Is that Mr (full name), yes, I reply, thinking I wonder who this is, sounds official. I’m Sandra from UK Investments, can I confirm your address as (address given) … Sorry who are you, I ask and Sandra reiterates the company name. How did you get my phone number, asked in a somewhat annoyed tone…? You must have ticked a box… I don’t recall ticking any box and I’m not interested in any investment… please explain how you got my number … and the phone goes dead.

Coincidental that I gave away the information on Saturday and now it’s being used on Monday? Maybe, maybe not, but I suspect my details have been sold on.

Sometime ago I had an accident in my car and had a phone call from the other parties’ insurance company to get my details and sort out my claim.  Two days later, a phone call on my mobile from someone asking about the accident and whether I had been injured at all… where there’s blame there’s a claim… and lots of money for the lawyers. I gave them short shrift but a couple of weeks later another call on my house landline… same thing and another short conversation involving how did you get my number and a phone going dead.

Two months later, my partner, same address, different surname, received a call on her work mobile… has someone at this address been involved in an accident… and a few weeks after that the same call on her personal mobile?  How on earth do they tie all of these together?

So, when my doctor’s surgery asks me whether I consent to allow my details to be input onto a national database, because this will benefit me when being treated anywhere in the country, I am somewhat reluctant and sceptical.

Whilst I think back to the recent hacking of NHS computers, hacking is probably the least of my worries.  Back in the PCD my personal data felt relatively private and respected, in contemporary society privacy seems to be an antiquated notion that is wilfully ignored in the pursuit of financial gain. Privacy and your data, think again and oh, my inside leg measurement is…

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