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“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”

Sticks and stones

The academic year is almost over and it offers the time and space to think.  It’s easy to become focused on what needs to be done – for staff; teaching and marking assessments, for students; studying and writing assessments – which leaves little time to stop and contemplate the bigger questions. But without contemplation, academic life becomes less vibrant and runs the risk of becoming procedural and task oriented, rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure, mindlessly trying to make sense of words, without actually taking time out to think what does this actually mean. We’re all guilty of trying to fill every minute with activity; some meaningful, some meaningless that we forget to stop, relax and let our minds wander. Similarly, writing becomes a barrier because we focus on doing rather than thinking. With this in mind what follows is not a reasoned academic argument but rather a stream of thought

As some of you will remember, a while ago Manos and I had a discussion around words in Criminology (Facebook Live: 24.10.16). In particular, whether words can, or should, be banned and if there is a way of reclaiming, or rehabilitating language. Differing views have emerged, with some strongly on the side of leaving words deemed offensive to die out, whilst others have argued for reclamation of the very same terms. Others still have argued for the reclamation of language, but only by those who the language was targeted toward.

All this talk made me think about the way we use language in crime and justice and the impact this has on the individuals involved. This can be seen in everyday life with the depiction of criminals and victims, the innocents and the guilty, recidivists and those deemed rehabilitated, but we rarely consider the long-lasting effects of these words on individuals.

The recent commemoration (27.07.17) of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 brought some of these thoughts to the forefront of my mind.  This legislation partially decriminalised sex between men (aged 21 or over) but only in private, meaning that homosexual relationship were confined and any public expression of affection was still liable to criminal prosecution. This anniversary, coming six months after the passing of “Turing’s Law” (officially, the Policing and Crime Act 2017) made me think about the way in which we recompense these men; historically identified as criminals but contemporaneously viewed in a very different light.

I view the gist of “Turing’s Law” as generally positive, offering the opportunity for both the living and dead, to clear their names and expunge their criminal records. After all it allows society to recognise the wrongs done in the name of the law to a not unsubstantial group of citizens. For me, where this legal righting of wrongs falls down, is in the wording. To offer someone a pardon suggests they are forgiven for their “sins” rather than acknowledging that the law (and society) got it wrong. It does not recognise the harm suffered by these men over the course of their lifetimes; a conviction for sexual offending cannot be shrugged off or easily explained away and leaves an indelible mark. Furthermore, whilst the dead are to be pardoned posthumously, the onus is on the men still living, to seek out their own disregard and pardon.

Farewell

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After much deliberation and careful consideration I have decided to leave the University. I have, for the most part, enjoyed my time here and have learned a great deal from my colleagues who are never short of advice and a willingness to share it. Their patience, enthusiasm, understanding and commitment have been greatly appreciated and are something I shall strive to emulate. Much is often made of the importance of the ‘student experience’ without commensurate attention afforded to the staff experience. Whilst I do not wish to enter into discussion about the institutional factors that prompted my decision to leave, I would like to acknowledge some positive elements of my ‘staff experience’.

I taught across all three years of the criminology degree programme and have met some very interesting students. Of course not all shared my passion for the discipline or enthusiasm for studying but a number of students made the lecturing experience incredibly thought provoking and enjoyable. Those to which I refer were never short of challenging questions, views, opinions and the drive to seek out answers to complex questions if only to be in a position to ponder more searching questions; in short every lecturer’s dream. What I found most remarkable was their willingness to listen, to consider and perhaps even accept new ideas that not only challenged their existing world view but elements of the very discipline they were studying. This receptiveness allowed me to pitch ideas and content, at what was considered a high level, which was not only understood and owned but utilised in seminar discussions, social media commentary and assessments. If I could take you with me I most certainly would.

As I move to another university, and since I cannot take you with me, I would like to offer some last bits of advice which you may take or leave as you like.

  • Maintain your intellectual curiosity and continue to develop your critical faculties. Remember success in your studies is built from perseverance rather than some innate intellectualism you think you may or may not have. Persevere with what may appear as ‘long and boring’ readings, do not become disheartened if you do not understand; more sticks than you might think and besides seminars are the ideal place to explore what you understood and what you did not.

 

  • Resist the temptation to view yourself as a customer, granted the issues around fees make this difficult, but ultimately it does more harm than good. As a customer you expect the commodity (a degree) for which you are in the process of paying to be given to you. Yet as a student you earn through determined perseverance a qualification that is infinitely more valuable.

 

  • Lastly, make the most of the opportunity. Work hard and attain the best degree that you are capable of achieving. Remember that, whilst there are people around to support you throughout your studies, it is ultimately up to you.

It has been a pleasure, good luck for the future.

 

Justin Kotzé, August 2017

Fighting the Tide or Following the Current?

This week’s blog is a reflective piece that will, I think, resonate with some of my ‘Outsiders’ students and perhaps with criminologists more broadly. It concerns the nagging tension between being a reluctant capitalist subject and a critical criminologist, more specifically between the roles of consumer and critic. Whilst criminology undoubtedly possesses transformative potential, particularly in its critical and ultra-realist forms, some sections of the discipline and arguably some, but certainly not all, of its proponents sit comfortably within the very structures subject to criticism during the ‘working day’. Indeed, we (and I include myself in this) hold the world to rights from 9-5 Monday to Friday then disavow the many harms we so vehemently lecture/write about whilst indulging in conspicuous consumption on weekends; fitting neatly into the circuitry of consumer capitalism.

Whilst I resolutely resist the drive to mask the fallout of free-market capitalism by not giving to charity, which is, as Žižek (2009:19) notes, the quintessential “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation”, I am guilty of indulging a range of consumer impulses. It would be nice if this dilemma was as simple as being a hypocrite, something I could rectify by having a strong word with myself. Unfortunately, the reality is that this reflects a tension that emerges from occupying a social terrain that requires a dual identity and one within which the risks of protesting too ardently are severe.

Yet rather than serving as a vestigial port from which to take critical aim at pressing issues the university sector, as an industry, compounds this tension further. For criminology in particular the irony is painful. We occupy positions in what is now a heavily marketised sector; one that dictates the state of play based on the logic of the market, on catering for elusive customers rather than educating students. The irony of course is that, as criminologists, we are employed to research, write and lecture about criminalised and un-criminalised harms that pervade the social world by a sector whose neoliberal institutions have no qualms about inflicting severe harm on those who work and study within them. Universities seem to have become marketised, profit seeking institutions that pay lip service to helping communities whilst adopting the very structures that cause severe harm to society.

Perhaps the university can no longer be seen as a place from which to do some good. Or perhaps there is still a great deal of good that can be done from under the neoliberals’ nose. Either way, we cannot retain a blind and baseless optimism that refuses to acknowledge and tackle the many harms of neoliberalism, including those inflicted by the university sector. Rather, we should maintain an ultra-realist commitment to “explaining the world as it is, warts and all” (Winlow and Hall 2013:175).

 

Justin Kotzé, July 2017

References

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books Ltd.

What’s That Got to do With Criminology?

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

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

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

Justin Kotzé, May 2017

Technology of the future: zombification

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Criminology Team’s blog

Welcome to the Criminology Team’s blog, live from Fawsley 1!

Over the forthcoming weeks and months we plan to write some short opinion pieces, as well as longer narratives, focused on all different facets of criminology, as well as wider social issues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here belong to individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the team or the institution.

If you have any suggestions for subjects you might like to appear on the blog, please get in touch

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