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Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

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The Unbreakable Bond of Criminology

Every student has a different experience in their studies, be it through what they have studied, who they studied with or even where they studied. “Team Cops and Robbers” studied the same degree, the same modules at UON, yet we had different experiences. However what we share (and are all very fond of) is how positive the experience was, tackling the stresses (and joys) of the degree as a trio. We each offer a brief overview of our experience as a member of “Team Cops and Robbers”, who graduated in 2015 and still remain very involved in each other’s lives…

Jes: I was a late comer to Team Cops and Robbers, as Emma and Leona had already bonded without me (rude I know!). We were thrown together in Drew’s 2nd year History module, where there were only a few Crim students – so they didn’t get much of a choice with regards to me joining, the then, duo. And the rest as they say is history! What stemmed from there is quite remarkable; we all had own our strengths when it came to Crim. My recollection is Emma knew everything about everything, Leona kept us all motivated and on top of our seminar preparation and I kept us glued to the library and bossed us around -especially with group work (my car Geoffrey was an unofficial member of the gang taking us to and from Park campus). Although we took the same modules, due to our differing interests, we all did different assignment questions and had very different ways of writing and tackling assessments. In my third year, I distinctly remember Emma and Leona reminding me to take time to myself and to not live 24/7 in the library; and had they not been there to encourage me to breathe, it is likely I would have burned out! They were not afraid to question my views, or understanding, or challenge my bossy attitude when it came to group work, for which I am very grateful! And still today, even though we are no longer studying together, they keep me motivated with the MSc, sending me motivational gifts as a reminder that even though they are not studying with me, I am not alone! My academic journey would have been very different had it not been for our trio, and likely would not have been as successful.

Leona: Sometimes being in class with friends can be detrimental as you end up spending so much time having fun, you end up forgetting the work side of uni. However when you meet friends who are so determined to do well and hard-working, it can really motivate you to push yourself. Myself, Jes and Emma became a power trio; encouraging each other, motivating each other and always making sure we were working together for group projects. We are all completely different when it comes to learning but I think these differences really helped us. Learning from them really helped me to improve my own standard of work, and having the girls’ input and guidance throughout, really encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my own voice. Plus it made doing all the studying we did much more bearable. I’m sure sometimes it took us longer to get through everything as we would be half working, half chatting, but as a trio it meant we could help each other if we got stuck or go for coffee breaks if we were bored or unmotivated. Having Jes and Emma there with me meant there was always someone there to go through notes with, always someone to explain something in a different way if I didn’t fully understand something, always someone to motivate me when I was exhausted and didn’t feel like working any more. It meant that my viewpoint expanded as I learned from their experiences and that once we had all finished writing our essays we could share them with each other to check, critique and make suggestions for improvement. But more than all that, it meant there was always someone there to help you balance the workload, someone to tell you when to take a break, and to “day drink” in the SU, explore winter wonderland, or have a Disney film day. During my time at uni these girls inspired me to work harder, and to really challenge myself to improve on everything I was doing. Without them there to encourage me and spur me on, I don’t think I would have come out with the grade I did, and I am certain that my uni experience wouldn’t have been half as memorable.

Emma: Meeting Jes and Leona was one of the best things about university. Not just because they are now two very dear friends of mine, but because we were vital to each other’s sanity at uni. I met Leona first in welcome week with a very interesting exchange asking if I was at the right seminar and proceeding to tell her my name, that I was from the south west and that I liked reading about serial killers. Leona reciprocated with the main difference being that she was from the north and from there our friendship blossomed.  Jes was some girl who sat with another group of people. It wasn’t until 2nd year that Jes really came into our friendship group and “Cops and Robbers” was formed. We all had strengths and weaknesses that helped us when it came to group work. Jes was always super, super organised, having her essays completed with weeks to go. Leona was always bubbly and would follow Jes with completing her essay with time to spare. Me… I would research and collect quotes and references and then write my essays with 48-24hrs to go, as I liked the time pressure. This changed in my 3rd year though as being around Leona and Jes, they moulded me and proof read my concepts and challenged me back on things. Any time we had group work, I knew we would do well because as a trio we kicked ass! We did not always have the same views in our seminars and would often debate but we would always leave as friends. Best advice for getting through university sane, is to find people who are fun, you get on with and drive you to be the best.

Hopefully what is clear from each of our perspectives is how important we were to keeping each other (relatively) sane! Your friendship groups during your studies are essential to keeping you happy, but also keeping you motivated! Whilst it is independent studies, and at the end of the day is YOUR degree; the input from friends and family will shape your own ability and attitude. If you find the right group, hopefully you will find that they push you, support you and challenge you!

Am I a criminologist? Are you a criminologist?

Bentham

I’m regularly described as a criminologist, but more loathe to self-identify as such. My job title makes clear that I have a connection to the discipline of criminology, yet is that enough? Can any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Tabalah, Damilola or Harriet) present themselves as a criminologist, or do you need something “official” to carry the title? Is it possible, as Knepper suggests, for people to fall into criminology, to become ‘accidental criminologists’ (2007: 169). Can you be a criminologist without working in a university? Do you need to have qualifications that state criminology, and if so, how many do you need (for the record, I currently only have 1 which bears that descriptor)?  Is it enough to engage in thinking about crime, or do you need practical experience? The historical antecedents of theoretical criminology indicate that it might not be necessary, whilst the existence of Convict Criminology suggests that experiential knowledge might prove advantageous….

Does it matter where you get your information about crimes, criminals and criminal justice from? For example, the news (written/electronic), magazines, novels, academic texts, lectures/seminars, government/NGO reports, true crime books, radio/podcasts, television/film, music and poetry can all focus on crime, but can we describe this diversity of media as criminology? What about personal experience; as an offender, victim or criminal justice practitioner? Furthermore, how much media (or experience) do you need to have consumed before you emerge from your chrysalis as a fully formed criminologist?

Could it be that you need to join a club or mix with other interested persons? Which brings another question; what do you call a group of criminologists? Could it be a ‘murder’ (like crows), or ‘sleuth’ (like bears), or a ‘shrewdness’ (like apes) or a ‘gang’ (like elks)? (For more interesting collective nouns, see here). Organisations such as the British, European and the American Criminology Societies indicate that there is a desire (if not, tradition) for collectivity within the discipline. A desire to meet with others to discuss crime, criminality and criminal justice forms the basis of these societies, demonstrated by (the publication of journals and) conferences; local, national and international. But what makes these gatherings different from people gathering to discuss crime at the bus stop or in the pub? Certainly, it is suggested that criminology offers a rendezvous, providing the umbrella under which all disciplines meet to discuss crime (cf. Young, 2003, Lea, 2016).

Is it how you think about crime and the views you espouse? Having been subjected to many impromptu lectures from friends, family and strangers (who became aware of my professional identity), not to mention, many heated debates with my colleagues and peers, it seems unlikely. A look at this blog and that of the BSC, not to mention academic journals and books demonstrate regular discordance amongst those deemed criminologists. Whilst there are commonalities of thought, there is also a great deal of dissonance in discussions around crime.  Therefore, it seems unlikely that a group of criminologists will be able to provide any kind of consensus around crime, criminality and criminal justice.

Mannheim proposed that criminologists should engage in ‘dangerous thoughts’ (1965: 428). For Young, such thinking goes ‘beyond the immediate and the pragmatic’ (2003: 98). Instead, ‘dangerous thoughts’ enable the linking of ‘crime and penality to the deep structure of society’ (Young, 2003: 98). This concept of thinking dangerously and by default, not being afraid to think differently, offers an insight into what a criminologist might do.

I don’t have answers, only questions, but perhaps it is that uncertainty which provides the defining feature of a criminologist…

References:

Knepper Paul, (2007), Criminology and Social Policy, (London: Sage)

Lea, John, (2016), ‘Left Realism: A Radical Criminology for the Current Crisis’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 5, 3: 53-65

Mannheim, Hermann, (1965), Comparative Criminology: A Textbook: Volume 2, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Young, Jock, (2003), ‘In Praise of Dangerous Thoughts,’ Punishment and Society, 5, 1: 97-107

Questions, questions, questions…..

Question everything

Over the last two weeks we have welcomed new and returning students to our brand-new campus. From the outside, this period of time appears frenetic, chaotic, and incredibly noisy. During this period, I feel as if I am constantly talking; explaining, indicating, signposting, answering questions and offering solutions. All of this is necessary, after all we’re all in a new place, the only difference is that some of us moved in before others. This part of my role has, on the surface, little to do with Criminology. However, once the housekeeping is out of the way we can move to more interesting criminological discussion.

For me, this focuses on the posing of questions and working out ways in which answers can be sought. It’s a common maxim, that within academia, there is no such thing as a silly question and Criminology is no exception (although students are often very sceptical). When you are studying people, everything becomes complicated and complex and of course posing questions does not necessarily guarantee a straightforward answer. As many students/graduates over the years will attest, criminological questions are often followed by yet more criminological questions… At first, this is incredibly frustrating but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes incredibly empowering, allowing individual mental agility to navigate questions in their own unique way. Of course, criminologists, as with all other social scientists, are dependent upon the quality of the evidence they provide in support of their arguments. However, criminology’s inherent interdisciplinarity enables us to choose from a far wider range of materials than many of our colleagues.

So back to the questions…which can appear from anywhere and everywhere. Just to demonstrate there are no silly questions, here are some of those floating around my head currently:

  1. This week I watched a little video on Facebook, one of those cases of mindlessly scrolling, whilst waiting for something else to begin. It was all about a Dutch innovation, the Tovertafel (Magic Table) and I wondered why in the UK, discussions focus on struggling to feed and keep our elders warm, yet other countries are interested in improving quality of life for all?
  2. Why, when with every fibre of my being, I abhor violence, I am attracted to boxing?

Nicola Adams

3. Why in a supposedly wealthy country do we still have poverty?

4. Why do we think boys and girls need different toys?

boys toys

5. Why does 50% of the world’s population have to spend more on day-to-day living simply because they menstruate?

6. Why as a society are we happy to have big houses with lots of empty rooms but struggle to house the homeless?

buckingham palace

7. Why do female ballroom dancers wear so little and who decided that women would dance better in extremely high-heeled shoes?

This is just a sample and not in any particular order. On the surface, they are chaotic and disjointed, however, what they all demonstrate is my mind’s attempt to grapple with extremely serious issues such as inequality, social deprivation, violence, discrimination, vulnerability, to name just a few.

So, to answer the question posed last week by @manosdaskalou, ‘What are Universities for?’, I would proffer my seven questions. On their own, they do not provide an answer to his question, but together they suggest avenues to explore within a safe and supportive space where free, open and academic dialogue can take place. That description suggests, for me at least, exactly what a university should be for!

And if anyone has answers for my questions, please get in touch….

Criminology: in the business of creating misery?

foucault

I’ve been thinking about Criminology a great deal this summer! Nothing new you might say, given that my career revolves around the discipline. However, my thoughts and reading have focused on the term ‘criminology’ rather than individual studies around crime, criminals, criminal justice and victims. The history of the word itself, is complex, with attempts to identify etymology and attribute ownership, contested (cf. Wilson, 2015). This challenge, however, pales into insignificance, once you wander into the debates about what Criminology is and, by default, what criminology isn’t (cf. Cohen, 1988, Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011, Carlen, 2011, Daly, 2011).

Foucault (1977) infamously described criminology as the embodiment of utilitarianism, suggesting that the discipline both enabled and perpetuated discipline and punishment. That, rather than critical and empathetic, criminology was only ever concerned with finding increasingly sophisticated ways of recording transgression and creating more efficient mechanisms for punishment and control. For a long time, I have resisted and tried to dismiss this description, from my understanding of criminology, perpetually searching for alternative and disruptive narratives, showing that the discipline can be far greater in its search for knowledge, than Foucault (1977) claimed.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Foucault (1977) was right; which begs the question how do we move away from this fixation with discipline and punishment? As a consequence, we could then focus on what criminology could be? From my perspective, criminology should be outspoken around what appears to be a culture of misery and suspicion. Instead of focusing on improving fraud detection for peddlers of misery (see the recent collapse of Wonga), or creating ever increasing bureaucracy to enable border control to jostle British citizens from the UK (see the recent Windrush scandal), or ways in which to excuse barbaric and violent processes against passive resistance (see case of Assistant Professor Duff), criminology should demand and inspire something far more profound. A discipline with social justice, civil liberties and human rights at its heart, would see these injustices for what they are, the creation of misery. It would identify, the increasing disproportionality of wealth in the UK and elsewhere and would see food banks, period poverty and homelessness as clearly criminal in intent and symptomatic of an unjust society.

Unless we can move past these law and order narratives and seek a criminology that is focused on making the world a better place, Foucault’s (1977) criticism must stand.

References

Bosworth, May and Hoyle, Carolyn, (2010), ‘What is Criminology? An Introduction’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (2011), (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-12

Carlen, Pat, (2011), ‘Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 95-110

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Daly, Kathleen, (2011), ‘Shake It Up Baby: Practising Rock ‘n’ Roll Criminology’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 111-24

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Wilson, Jeffrey R., (2015), ‘The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition,’ Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, 16, 3: 61-82

Park Life

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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

Park Campus has now been an active part of my life for around 7 years. In 2011 , after an open day and ‘taster session’ and a few months of obsessing over UCAS points and student finance, I stepped foot onto Park Campus, filled with anxiety, excitement and Redbull. It only took me a few weeks to work out, that I really did not know what Criminology was. Years later and the questions keep on coming, I may have a better understanding of theories and have new ideas and opinions, but if there is one thing Criminology at Northampton has ever taught me, is; the more you learn, the more you realise you do not know.

Studying Criminology is not for everyone, it requires a lot of passion for things that some may find tedious, such as reading, research and more reading. For many of us and hopefully those still studying Criminology it is also some of the best bits about Criminology. The rewards of reading something not necessarily to produce an essay but just to feed an interest or challenge your own views is a gift Criminology has given me. From discussions with those at the reunion, it was evident that Criminology never really leaves any of us and it does not matter whether you work in a criminological field or not, there are always moments for us to appreciate our time studying Criminology at Northampton.

Park Campus has meant so many different things to me over the years. Firstly, while I would not yet define myself as a fully grown adult by any means (does anyone?) but Park Campus was the starting point of many learning curves for fundamental skills that I needed to experience before entering the ‘working world’. Park Campus was the place I found a love for learning, a place where I could ask questions without the feeling of dread hanging over me, a place I met my current partner and many lifelong friends. When I graduated in 2014, I was unsure what to do next, luckily, I was not alone in that feeling and for the most part, it was down to losing the routine of working towards a particular goal (usually in the form of an essay or exam date).

Park Campus then took on a new meaning for me, when I joined the Criminology team in 2015. I still have a mixture of feelings when I am on campus, a mixture of familiarity and happiness to walk around as if I were still a student, but also a general sense of pride to be part of such a fantastic team. Luckily, as we move to Waterside I will not only still be surrounded by a great team but also each year brings a new cohort of students with views and ideas that I can witness change, inspire or challenge others around them.

While I’m not much of a Blur fan, but I am a fan of a bit of corny writing (hence the soppy blog post), I leave you with the chorus lyrics to Park Life, which I find enjoyably fitting …

All the people

So Many People

And they all go hand in hand

Hand in hand through their Parklife

‘I read the news today, oh boy’

 

NagasakibombThe English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),

 

The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.

‘Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years’ 

‘Syria: 500 Douma patients had chemical attack symptoms, reports say’

‘London 2018 BLOODBATH: Capital on a knife edge as killings SOAR to 56 in three months’

‘Windrush generation NHS worker lost job and faces deportation despite living in the UK for more than 50 years’

So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough? 

Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:

The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).

With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;

 

  • “move the homeless on”
  • “bomb Syria into submission”
  • “increase stop and search”
  • “longer/harsher prison sentences”
  • “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”

Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be.  Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.

Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?

Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)

References:

Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)

Is Easter a criminological issue?

easter-eggs-3131188_1280

Spring is the time that many Christians relate with the celebration of Easter. For many the sacrament of Easter seals their faith; as in the end of torment and suffering, there is the resurrection of the head of the faith. All these are issues to consider in a religious studies blog and perhaps consider the existential implications in a philosophical discourse. How about criminology?

In criminology it provides great penological and criminological lessons. The nature of Jesus’s apprehension, by what is described as a mob, relates to ideas of vigilantism and the old non-professional watchmen who existed in many different countries around the world. The torture, suffered is not too dissimilar from the investigative interrogation unfortunately practiced even today around the world (overtly or covertly). His move from court to court, relates to the way we apply for judicial jurisdiction depending on the severity of the case and the nature of the crime. The subsequent trial; short and very purposefully focused to find Jesus guilty, is so reminiscent of what we now call a “kangaroo court” with a dose of penal appeasement and penal populism for good measure. The final part of this judicial drama, is played with the execution. The man on the cross. Thousands of men (it is not clear how many) were executed in this method.

For a historian the exploration of past is key, for a legal professional the study of black letter law principles and for a criminal justice practitioner the way methods of criminal processes altered in time. What about a reader in criminology? For a criminologist there are wider meanings to ascertain and to relate them to our fundamental understanding of justice in the depth of time. The events which unfolded two millennia back, relate to very current issues we read in the news and study in our curriculum. Consider arrest procedures including the very contested stop and search practice. The racial inequalities in court and the ongoing debates on jury nullification as a strategy to combat them. Our constant opposition as a discipline to the use of torture at any point of the justice system including the use of death penalty. In criminology we do not simply study criminal justice, but equally important, that of social justice. In a recent talk in response to a student’s question I said that that at heart of each criminologist is an abolitionist. So, despite our relationship and work with the prison service, we remain hopeful for a world where the prison does not become an inevitable sentence but an ultimate one, and one that we shall rarely use. Perhaps if we were to focus more on social justice and the inequalities we may have far less need for criminal justice

Evidently Easter has plenty to offer for a criminologist. As a social discipline, it allows us to take stock and notice the world around us, break down relationships and even evaluate complex relationships defying world belief systems. Apparently after the crucifixion there was also a resurrection; for more information about that, search a theological blog. Interestingly in his Urbi et Orbi this year the Pope spoke for the need for world leaders to focus on social justice.

The number’s up for quantitative research! Or is it?

teddy-bear-2855982_960_720

As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.

Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.

Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.

All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.

All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.

Blog birthday wordle

However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!

More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.

Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).

Instead we should always consider:

[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).

Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).

References:

Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880

Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)

A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.

[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.

Anniversaries and Festivities

HMPAbout a year ago, as a team we started  this blog in order to relate criminological ideas into everyday life.  News, events and markers on our social calendar became sources of inspiration and inquiry.  Within a year, we have managed somehow to reflect on the academic cycle, some pretty heavy social issues that evoked our passions and interests. Those of you who read our entries, thank you for taking the time, especially those who left comments with your own experiences and ideas.  

For us as a contributing team, the opportunity to talk outside the usual spaces about things that we regard as interesting is a real pleasure.  A colleague of mine, tends to say that criminology is a subject made for discussions.  These discussions usually grow in classrooms but they are restricted of time.  In some way, our blog is an extension of that environment but we are also cognisant that we want to talk beyond the parochial “ivory towers” of academia.

The first blog entry was about running a pilot then, for a new module delivered entirely in prison with students from the university and the prison.  This week, we celebrated the first cohort who completed the module.  I have been an observer of social conventions all my life and to see the way people in the celebration connected with each other was great.  For all of us in the module, it makes perfect sense because we have done that journey together but for anyone coming for the first time in prison this must have been an astounding experience.  

This is what we commemorate in a celebration.  Not necessarily the end result whatever that is, but the journey.  As people consumed with speed in a modern society, we very rarely take the time to look back and reflect.  It can be argued that we can do so when we reach our ever expanding retiring age; reflect on our life’s work.  Nonetheless, it is important now and then to look back and see how we get here.  For example, I am proud that I serve a university that offers opportunities to students from the wider society without barriers or obstacles.  Some of our students are first in their family to go to University.  This is an amazing opportunity that leaves the doors of social mobility open.  A number of our graduates are now my colleagues or work in the wider criminal justice system.  

So what is a celebration? A moment in time to look back and say, “hey I have a journey ahead but look how far I have come”.  This is why these little moments are so watershed to all; whether we celebrate a year in the blog, a year on a module or a year in a job, marriage etc.  Some celebrations are small reminders of time, other of events and some other of accomplishments.  In a world where the news should be accompanied with health warnings, as people feel insignificant as individuals to bring about change, a celebration is a mark that things can happen.  A person who decides to be an agent of change, whether it is a message against racism (#blacklivesmatter) sexual abuse (#metoo), or gun violence (#enoughisenough), they can do so without realising that one day when they will look back things will be very different for all; a possible cause for another celebration then.  It matters to look back when you want to change the future.  Life is experiential journey and marking these experiences is our way of leaving a trace on a large social wall.  

In a couple of months (May 14) we shall be celebrating 18 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton.  Another moment in time to reflect of the impact and the effects this programme has had on the students and the community.  

Cheers

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