Thoughts from the criminology team

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Beyond education…

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In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of going through HE as a life changing process.  The hard skills of learning about a discipline and the issues, debates around it, is merely part of the fun.  The soft skills of being a member of a community of people educated at tertiary level, in some cases, outweigh the others, especially for those who never in their lives expected to walk through the gates of HE.  For many who do not have a history in higher education it is an incredibly difficult act, to move from differentiating between meritocracy to elitism, especially for those who have been disadvantaged all their lives; they find the academic community exclusive, arrogant, class-minded and most damning, not for them.

The history of higher education in the UK is very interesting and connected with social aspiration and mobility.  Our University, along with dozens of others, is marked as a new institution that was created in a moment of realisation that universities should not be exclusive and for the few.  In conversation with our students I mentioned how as a department and an institution we train the people who move the wheels of everyday life.  The nurses in A&E, the teachers in primary education, the probation officers, the paramedics, the police officers and all those professionals who matter, because they facilitate social functioning.  It is rather important that all our students understand that our mission statement will become their employment identity and their professional conduct will be reflective of our ability to move our society forward, engaging with difficult issues, challenging stereotypes and promoting an ethos of tolerance, so important in a society where violence is rising.

This week we had our second celebration of our prison taught module.  For the last time the “class of 2019” got together and as I saw them, I was reminded of the very first session we had.  In that session we explored if criminology is a science or an art.  The discussion was long, and quite unexpected.  In the first instance, the majority seem to agree that it is a social science, but somehow the more questions were asked, the more difficult it became to give an answer.  What fascinates me in such a class, is the expectation that there is a clear fixed answer that should settle any debate.  It is little by little that the realisation dawns; there are different answers and instead of worrying about information, we become concerned with knowledge.  This is the long and sometimes rocky road of higher education.

Our cohort completed their studies demonstrating a level of dedication and interest for education that was inspiring.  For half of them this is their first step into the world of HE whilst the other half are close to heading out of the University’s door.  It is a great accomplishment for both groups but for the first who may feel they have a long way to go, I will offer the words of a greater teacher and an inspiring voice in my psyche, Cavafy’s ‘The First Step

Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing

Thank you for entering this world.  You earn it and from now on do not let others doubt you.  You can do it if you want to.  Education is there for those who desire it.

C.P. Cavafy, (1992) Collected Poems, Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Edited by George Savidis, Revised Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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“Political Drillin”

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A recent track that has come to light which incorporates Drill Music is that called ‘Political Drillin’. On the track the artist manages to incorporate quotes from politicians; which proves he is highly deserving of his title ‘DrillMinister’.

What was particularly shocking to me was how easy it was for the governmental quotes to actually fit in with what he was initially rapping about, considering how frowned upon the genre is by these same figures.

It becomes very obvious that the slurs deemed as “violent” are ones that much of us are accustomed to hearing on a daily basis. In my interpretation, the artist seems to be bringing this to light. When young people use similar racial, derogatory terms towards one another it is seen to be violent and makes headlines, but politicians seem to throw these around in parliament without being reprimanded for their actions. Why is this continuously tolerated?

The fact that these comments are known to all and no action is taken against them demonstrates that there is a certain calibre of people that can be deemed as criminal and those who will not. Once again shedding light on the class, age and racial division that is hanging over society.

So once again I put the question out…is drill music a cause of violent crime, or are we simply a criminal society? If the DrillMinister can be labelled violent, surely politicians should be too?

 

*The image contains a quote from Jess Phillips MP utilised as a lyric by DrillMinister:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spJoRLpDLLM

Funding Higher Education – consider the bigger picture

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There have been plenty of blogs on this site and others promoting the value of knowledge, scientific endeavour, progressing our understanding, and more recently, finding ways to counteract the phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts. It seems we need to value education even more, so, when I see the headline ‘University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants’ (BBC News 2018) my initial thinking is, yes, absolutely we must. However, this is soon followed by a sense of despondency, knowing there will be plenty of people who will assume the country cannot afford it, taxpayers should not foot the bill and we should just muddle along and hope students just accept this is how the world works now. Well, I find this difficult to accept, in light of the wealth of evidence against this notion that funding higher education from the public purse is unthinkable. After all, we used to, and plenty of other countries do this. What is also clear, are the benefits this brings, that this is about investing in the future, ensuring a skills base for jobs which need this level of education and knowledge. To see this as an investment means valuing the fact that there are school pupils who have the opportunity, drive and ambition for a career which requires a degree, possibly postgraduate training and vocational training. This should not be hindered by their class, their parents’ occupation, and experiences of poverty and exclusion. We must also equally value those who want to build our houses, cars, offer vital services which require a very different form of ambition and aspiration. One must not be held as more value over the other, they both need to be supported, grants are part of this, but so are training bursaries, decent wages, secure jobs and valuing investment in the arts. Instead, what we have created is a climate of competitiveness, we see it in increased levels of social anxiety among young people, including students, and we see it in the rise of the gig economy. Grants would offer freedoms for students from a wider range of backgrounds to make choices based on their own ambitions, and not be held back by their circumstances. They would allow students of any background to choose to study from the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, law and business – without weighing this choice up in the context of which will guarantee a well paid job.

The current Conservative government have been openly and proudly advocating for privatisation and placing the burden of the cost not on the tax payer, but on those accessing the service. This is a very attractive political promise – to pay less tax creates the perception that people have more of their own wages, and are not supplementing those who don’t work as hard. It also presents privatisation as placing the provision of services with corporations who are more efficient, innovative and can invest money back into the service. Yet, the Community Rehabilitation Companies at the heart of the Transforming Rehabilitation Agenda have been bailed out to the tune of £342m (and counting?) (see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/17/private-probation-companies-face-huge-losses-despite-342m-bailout). Our NHS is under threat from providers such as Virgincare and US companies, and our rail services are constantly in the news for poor service and rising prices. All we need to do is look to our European neighbours to see how different it can be, if we just let go of this notion that paying more tax is a burden, especially as we face this burden in a different form – rising costs and stagnant wages, expensive travel costs compared to other countries, threats to job security, pensions and to our system of free healthcare.

The language used when fees for degrees were introduced by the then Chancellor George Osborne was that grants had become “unaffordable” and there was a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them” (BBC News, 2018). There was plenty of criticism raised at the time, and concern about prospective students being put off. This was quelled by the promise to reduce debt, to have the country live within its means and that young people would simply have to accept debt as part of their future. Yet, as predicted, it has led to greater polarisation of students from lower classes accessing HE, especially among the Russell Group universities, as well as disparities in admittance from BAME groups, indicating once again a level of disadvantage which continues in this arena. It doesn’t seem altogether fair to place the responsibility on HE to widen access and increase diversity if the cost of attending is simply prohibitive and becomes an insurmountable barrier. There is only so much universities, just like schools, hospitals, police services and others can do within a system which creates and perpetuates inequality, and doesn’t support those who aspire to improve their circumstances.

It baffles me that so many people continue to accept this idea that low tax is a benefit, when it simply displaces the costs to citizens in other ways, and it also means governments can support corporations and individuals who seek to pay less and less tax, to increase profits for shareholders. There is something wrong also with an economic system which politicians themselves benefit from financially and, therefore, seek to maintain the status quo. The same can be said for privatisation and introduction of student fees – despite all the evidence which shows this is not a good idea, someone somewhere is getting rich, is influencing decision makers in parliament to maintain this policy, and neither of these parties is concerned about what is best for the country and its future.

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

BBC NEWS (2018) University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45079654.

 

Thoughts from the British Society of Criminology Conference at Birmingham City University

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I attended the BSC conference last week, presenting a paper from my PhD research, doing the usual rounds of seeing familiar faces, meeting some new faces and hoping nobody uttered the words ‘well its more of an observation than a question’. There was one session which particularly inspired me and so is the focus of this blog. The key theme was that as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content. We must continue to introduce students to more challenging ideas and shift their thinking from accepted wisdom of how to ‘do justice’ and ‘why people commit crime’.

The session attended was on ‘Public Criminology’, which included papers on the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Turkey, with regards to police response to victimisation, another on the use of social media and other forms of broadcast used by academics on criminology programmes, the impact of the 2011 riots on social capital in the UK and the need to re-introduce political issues in teaching criminology. As with many sessions at large conferences, you never quite know what will emerge from the range of papers, and you hope there are some common themes for the panel and delegate to engage with in discussions. This certainly happened here, in what seems to be a diverse range of topics, we generated interesting discussions about how we understand crime and justice, how the public understand this, what responsibilities we have in teaching the next generation and how important it is to retain our critical focus. The paper that really resonated with me was delivered by Marc Jacobs from the University of Portsmouth on ‘The Myopia of Public Criminology and the need for a (re) Politicised Criminology Education’.  Marc was an engaging speaker and made a clear point about the need to continue our focus on the work of activist criminologists, who emerged during the 1970s, asking important questions about class, race and gender issues. He cited scholars such as Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Frances Heidensohn as pioneers in shining a light on the need to understand crime and justice from these diverse perspectives.

This is certainly what I remember from studying criminology as a post-graduate, and they have informed my teaching, especially criminological theories – I have always had a closer personal affinity with sociological perspectives, compared to biological and psychological explanations of crime. It also reminded me of a running theme of complaint from some students – political issues are not as interesting as say, examining the motivations of serial killers, neither are those lectures which link class, race and gender to crime, and which highlight how discrimination in society is reflected in who commits crime, why they do it, and why we respond the way we do. There is no doubt presenting students with the broader social, political and cultural contexts means they need to see the problem of crime as a reflection of these contexts, that is does not happen as a rare event which we can always predict and solve. It happens every day, is not always reported, let alone detected and solved, meaning that many people can experience crime, but may not experience justice.

As tempting as it might be to focus teaching and engage students through examining the motivation for serious crimes to reinforce students’ expectations of criminology being about offender profiling and CSI techniques which solve cases and allow us all to sleep safely, I’m afraid this means neglecting something which will affect their lives when they do look up from the fascinating case files. I am not advocating the exclusion of any knowledge, far from it, but we need to ensure that we continue to inform students about the foundations of our discipline, and that it is the every day events and the lack of access to justice which they also need to know about. They reflect the broader inequalities which feed into the incidences of crime, the discriminatory policies and practice in the CJS, and the acceptance of this by the public. Rawls (1971) presented justice as a ‘stabilising force’, a premise picked up by New Labour in their active citizenship and neighbourhood renewal agenda. There was an attempt to shift justice away from punitive and retributive responses, to make use of approaches which were more effective, more humane and less discriminatory. The probation services and courts were an important focus, using restorative and problem-solving approaches to genuinely implement Tony Blair’s manifesto promise to be tough on the causes of crime. However, he also continued the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and so there was sense of using community sentencing and community justice in a tokenistic way, and not tackling the broader inequalities and problems sufficiently to allow the CJS to have a more transformative and socially meaningful effect on crime (Donoghue, 2014; Ward, 2014). Since then, the punitive responses to crime have returned, accepted by the public, press and politicians, as anything else is simply too difficult a problem to solve, and requires meaningful and sustained investment. This has been a feature of community justice, half hearted attempts to innovate and adopt different approaches, all too easily overtaken by the need for a day in court and a custodial sentence. It shows what happens when the public accept this as justice and the function of the CJS, even though they are not effective, put the public at risk, and mean entrenched biases continue to occur.

This all emphasises the need to remember the foundations of our discipline as a critical examination of criminal justice and of society. In my own department, we have the debates about where we place theory as part of these foundations. These discussions occur in the context of how to engage students and maintain our focus on this, and it remains an important part of higher education to review practice, content and adapt to broader changes. Moving to a new campus means we have to re-think these issues in the context of the delivery of teaching, and I am all for innovations in teaching to engage students, making use of new technologies, but I firmly believe we need to retain our focus on the content which will challenge students. This is the point of higher education, to advance knowledge, to raise students’ expectations of their own potential and ask them to rethink what they know. The focus on ‘public criminology’ has justified using different forms of broadcast, from TV, tabloid press and social networking to disseminate knowledge and, hopefully, better inform the public, as a counter measure to biased reporting.  I don’t think it is desirable to TV producers to replace ‘I am a Killer’ on the Crime and Investigation network with ‘Adventures of a Problem-Solving Court’ or ‘Restorative Justice: The Facts’. Writing for the tabloid press seems to me an act of futility, as they have editorial control, they can easily misrepresent findings, and are not really interested in anything which shifts the notion of justice as needing to have a deterrent effect and to be a retributive act. Perhaps social networking can overcome this bias, but in an age of claims of fake news and echo chambers, this surely also has a limited affect. So, our focus must remain on our students, to those who will work within the CJS, social policy departments as practitioners, researchers and future academics. They need to continue to raise the debates about crime and justice which affect the marginalised, which highlight prejudice, discrimination and which ensure we continue to ask questions about these thorny, difficult and controversial issues. That, I think, is the responsibility we need to grasp, and it should form a core function of learning about criminology and criminal justice at University.

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

This entry was re-blogged by the British Society of Criminology blog on 17 July 2018

References

DONOGHUE, J. (2014) Transforming Criminal Justice? Problem-solving and court specialisation. London: Routledge.

RAWLS, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WARD, J. (2014) Are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? London: Howard League for Penal Reform.

 

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