Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Academia

Category Archives: Academia

Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

Banksy_-_Sweep_at_Hoxton

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

Safe data: your inside leg measurement is?

Data

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…

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.

The criminology of real life

CSI_Logo

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

800px-TGS_2010_Zombie

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.

Plagiarism on trial

Plagiarism

For many students, I suspect it is difficult to imagine what an academic does aside from lectures, seminars and marking. The answer can range across several different activities including module or programme development, research, reading, university/faculty committee meetings, working groups and so on. Alongside my responsibilities within Criminology, I am also an Academic Integrity and Misconduct Officer (or AIMO for short). I have undertaken this role for the past few years and thought it might be interesting to share some of my thoughts.

The process involved in suspected academic misconduct is relatively straightforward. The marking tutor spots an issue, either through their subject knowledge, or increasingly with the help of originality reports such as those provided by Turnitin. They then make a referral, complete with the evidence they have compiled and hand it over to be dealt with by an AIMO. The AIMO reviews the evidence and decides whether to interview the student. After this they write a report and the student is informed as to the outcome. All of the above sounds extremely procedural but plagiarism and academic misconduct more generally are far more complex than this would suggest.

As a criminologist, I am used to studying theories around offending, rehabilitation, punishment, recidivism and so on. Perhaps that is why it seems obvious to me to conceptualise academic misconduct along the same lines. For instance; the referral process is undertaken by the university police (that is the referring tutor) who gathers together the evidence for submission to the CPS. In the case of suspected academic misconduct this referral comes to an AIMO who makes the decision as to whether or not there is a case worth answering. If the evidence appears compelling, the AIMO will explore the issue further, in essence, taking the place of the Magistrates’ Court in the CJS. If the offence is deemed to be relatively minor or a first time offence, sentence can be passed by the AIMO. Alternatively, the case can be passed to the Crown Court an Academic Misconduct Panel where the evidence will be heard by three AIMOs. These panels have far greater sanctions available to them (including termination of studies) and they can also hear appeals.

So far the analogy works, but what about the other, more human, aspects. When considering criminal motivation, it is clear the reasons for committing academic misconduct are as wide-ranging as those detailed in court. As with crime, some admit to their wrongdoings at the first opportunity whilst others do not accept that they have done anything wrong. Likewise, in terms of mitigation both types of “suspect” cite family problems, mental health issues, financial problems, as well as, ignorance of the rules and regulations.

But in the case of academic misconduct; who is the victim? Arguably, the answer to that is academia as a whole. If there is an absence of  integrity in any, or all of our studies, academia is impoverished and ultimately the academy and its pursuit of knowledge could fall. As with crime, the impact on individuals is immeasurable and hugely detrimental to wider society.

As would be expected in an entry about academic misconduct, the image used is copyright free. It is available for use and modification from wikimedia

A Useful Degree of Debt?

blog.png

In 2012 Steve Hall noted that “more than 100,000 of young unemployed people have degrees” (Hall 2012:62). Five years on there is little to suggest that this frightening situation has improved. Worse still, due to changes in the financial organisation of the university sector, the next cohort of undergraduate students could be expected to pay over £9,000 a year in tuition fees. The current situation often throws up a very important question: ‘Is having a degree actually worth the accumulation of all that debt?’ Like everything in social science, the answer is by no means a straightforward one; there are a number of things that need to be considered. Firstly, oversaturation is a crucial factor. With more and more people finding their way to university, perhaps in part because of increased societal pressure and limited employment opportunities, it has been suggested that an undergraduate degree has simply become the ‘next A level’. Something to do after college that does not mean ‘signing on’ or accepting the most tenuous scraps of unsuitable work for minimum wage.

Alongside this potential relegation of the undergraduate degree, the reality of almost relentless pressure sustained over a three year period needs to be considered. Whilst all universities across the country enrol scores of interested students, many of these institutions also attract those simply, and understandably, looking for something to do. Students are often not prepared for the amount of work that obtaining a degree requires. Indeed, many lecturers can relate to Fisher’s (2009) recollection of students protesting about being asked to read for more than a few sentences, or that anything that intends to remove students from the sensations of texting, Facebook or Snap Chat often gets chastised as constituting the boring denial of something more immediately gratifying. The reality is that students who simply ‘find’ themselves at university often struggle to realise their potential or avail themselves of the opportunity.

Nevertheless, the experience can be immensely rewarding and the achievement of a degree may serve to reveal occupational avenues that might not otherwise have been considered possible. Studying for a degree at university not only allows you to acquire a unique knowledge base and skill set but provides the space for ideas and concepts to be approached in novel ways, perspectives to be changed and horizons broadened. Ultimately a degree can be a worthwhile endeavour if maximum effort is put into achieving the best degree one is capable of. Sadly, that is certainly not to say that it will provide an infallible passport to a future of financial stability. That permit may only be granted in a more equitable society, one that can only be brought about by the radical transformation of existing social, economic and political arrangements.

Justin Kotzé, April 2017

References

Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.

Erasmus in the time of Brexit

euro

There are few things I tend to do when I am on Erasmus in a long running partner.  I get a morning fredo coffee from their refectory, then into the classroom, followed by a brief chat with their administration staff and colleagues. The programme is usually divided between teaching sessions and academic discussions.

My last session was on learning disabilities and empowerment.  The content forms part of a module on people with special needs.  The curriculum in the host institution combines social sciences differently and therefore my hard criminological shell is softened during my visit.  It is also interesting to see how sciences and disciplines are combined together and work in a different institution.    

  In the first two hours we were talking about advocacy and the need for awareness.  The questions posed by the students raised issues of safeguarding, independence and the protection of the people with learning disabilities.  I posed a few dilemmas and the answers demonstrated the difficulties and frustrations we feel beyond academia, shared among practitioners.  This is “part of the issues professionals face on a daily basis”.  Then there were some interesting conversations “how can you separate a mother from her baby even if there are concerns regarding her suitability as a mum”?  “How do we safeguard the rights of people who cannot live an independent life”?  Then we discussed wider educational concerns “we are preparing for our placement but we are not sure what to expect”.  “Interesting”, I thought that is exactly what my second year students feel right about now.  

As I was about to close the session I told them the thought that has been brewing at the back of my head since the start of my visit….”I may not be able to see you next year…today the UK will be starting the process of Brexit.”  One of the students gasped the rest looked perplexed.  

It is the kind of look I am beginning to become accustomed to every time I talk about Brexit to people on the continent.  

After the class the discussion with colleagues and administrative staff was on Brexit.  It seemed that each person had their own version of what will happen next.  Ironically they assumed that I knew more about it.  Thinking about it, the process is now activated but very little is known.  This is because Brexit is actually not a process but a negotiation.  A long or a very long negotiation.  The EU devised a mechanism of exit but not a process that this mechanism needs to follow.  Despite the reasons why we are leaving the EU the order and the issues that this will leave open are numerous.  In HE, we are all still considering what will happen once the dust settles.  From research grants for the underfunded humanities and social sciences to mobility programmes for academics and students.  My visit was part of staff mobility that allows colleagues to teach and exchange knowledge away from their institution.  The idea was to allow the dissemination of different ideas, cooperation and cultural appreciation of different educational systems.  The programme was originally set up in the late 80s when the vision for European integration was alive and kicking.   The question which emerges now, post-Brexit, is what is the wider vision for HE?

Who am I? Single Parent vs Academic

Blog Who am I? For this week’s blog I thought I’d talk about the challenges of being a single parent and an academic. When I started down this path, children were definitely not part of my plan. I was career driven and adamant that I was going to be an outstanding academic – how things change! As others around me started to settle down and have children I found myself increasingly being challenged by societal perceptions that as ‘a women’ it was my duty to have children, if for no other reason than to have someone to look after me when I got old. I vividly remember these conversations, with people saying ‘you need to make a decision’, or ‘you can’t have both (children and a career)’! For those of you who know me, you’ll know that being told I ‘can’t’ do something simply makes me more determined to prove everyone wrong, however what I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that I’d eventually end up doing it on my own. So here I am some years later trying to balance the two. Do I do it successfully? Well that depends on how you measure success. From an academic perspective the answer’s probably no because I’ve deviated a long way from my original goal. Similarly, if being a good parent is someone who is there for the children after school, every weekend, and school holidays then the answer is also no. In short, trying to do both presents a constant state of tension, with my job demanding evening and weekend work, and my kids demanding less commitment to my career. For many, the answer to this tension is simply a matter of prioritising my children over my career, however what happens when my children grow up and my career has stalled? Also, why should I have to lose myself and my dreams in the name of motherhood? Such questions lead to feelings of guilt, guilt because I’m not there to collect the kids from school like the other mums in my area, guilt because I can’t commit to networking and conference because of the absence of childcare, guilt for taking time to go to sports day, Christmas plays, recitals and the like, rather than finishing that paper for publication.

Mulling this over I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no answer, in fact the situation is only likely to get worse as greater and greater pressures are placed on us in both our work and home environments. But all is not lost, as human beings we have considerable resilience, so I make it work through a process of negotiation and compromise. The children are well accustomed to the rule that ‘mummy works in the morning and plays in the afternoon’. They also get my full attention for a 2 hours every evening, restricting my work to after they have gone to bed. My most cunning approach is the one that involves play zones, where they can run around and burn energy and I can work in the corner with a cuppa tea. Finally, it’s about picking out the moments that are most important to them such as gymnastic recitals, swimming lessons, sports days and all the performances, which to them are huge events. I’m lucky that the nature of what I do allows me the freedom to be able to attend these big childhood events and gain brownie points in their eyes, which then minimises the impact of my absence at other times. The same compromises have been made regarding my career, I’ve adjusted my goals and dreams making them more realistic for my current situation. I’ll still be a good academic but I may never be a high flyer, but I’m happy with that – for now!

%d bloggers like this: