Home » Criminology
Category Archives: Criminology
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
Recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and the capital, like others that happened in Europe in recent years, made the public focus again on commonly posed questions about the rationale and objectives of such seemingly senseless acts. From some of the earliest texts on Criminology, terrorism has been viewed as one of the most challenging areas to address, including defining it.
There is no denial that acts, such as those seen across the world, often aimed at civilian populations, are highly irrational. It is partly because of the nature of the act that we become quite emotional. We tend question the motive and, most importantly, the people who are willing to commit such heinous acts. Some time ago, Edwin Sutherland, warned about the development of harsh laws as a countermeasure for those we see as repulsive criminals. In his time it was the sexual deviants; whilst now we have a similar feeling for those who commit acts of terror. We could try to apply his theory of differential association to explain some terrorist behaviours. however it cannot explain why these acts keep happening again and again.
At this point, it is rather significant to mention that terrorism (and whatever we currently consider acts of terror) is a fairly old phenomenon that dates back to many early organised and expansionist societies. We are not the first, and unfortunately not the last, to live in an age of terror. Reiner, a decade ago, identified terrorism as a vehicle to declare crime as “public enemy number 1 and a major threat to society” (2007: 124). In fact, the focus on individualised characteristics of the perpetrator detract from any social responsibility leading to harsher penalties and sacrifices of civil liberties almost completely unopposed. As White and Haines write, “the concern for the preservation of human rights is replaced by an emphasis on terrorism […] and the necessity to fight them by any means necessary” (1996: 139).
For many old criminologists who forged established concepts in the discipline, to simply and totally condemn terrorism, is not so straightforward. Consider for example Leon Radzinowicz (1906-1999) who saw the suppression of terror as the State’s attempt to maintain a state of persecution. After all, many of those who come from countries that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries probably owe their nationhood to groups of people originally described as terrorists. This of course is the age old debate among criminologists “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Many, of course, question the validity of such a statement at a time when the world has seen an unprecedented number of states make a firm declaration to self-determination. That is definitely a fair point to make, but at the same time we see age-old phenomena like slavery, exploitation and suppression of individual rights to remain prevalent issues now. People’s movements away from hotbeds of conflict remain a real problem and Engels’ (1820- 1895) observation about large cities becoming a place of social warfare still relevant.
Reiner R (2007), Law and Order, an honest citizen’s guide to crime and control, Cambridge, Polity Press
White R and Haines F (1996), Crime and Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.
The 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.
This week saw the (very low key) commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day (15 May) which got me thinking about a number of different contemporary issues. Although the events which I describe happened a century ago, the criminalisation, and indeed, punishment of conscience has never truly been resolved.
Conscientious objection in the UK first came to the attention for most after the passing of the Military Services Act 1916. This legislation allowed for the conscription of certain categories of men into the military. The enactment of this law enabled men to be forcibly coerced into military service regardless of their personal and individual aspirations. Subsequent to this, further legislation was passed (Military Training Act 1939, National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, National Service Act 1948) continuing this system of coercive enlistment into the military. By default, such legislation also laid the foundations for conscientious objection; after all, without such coercion there is no need to register dissent, simply don’t enlist in the military.
During WWI (and for some considerable time after) Conscientious Objectors [COs] were bullied, cajoled, ridiculed and stigmatised, not to mention, incarcerated, multiple times. In one horrific incident it was alleged that COs were driven to the trenches of France and threatened with a firing squad if they did not comply. Despite this type of treatment the vast majority of COs continued to resist, strongly suggesting that their conscience, moral compass or faith was far stronger than anything the state could throw at them.
In the UK the individual and collective dilemma of the conscientious objector has largely faded into history; although the same cannot be said internationally (for instance; Greece, Israel and the USA). However, their very existence and that of other non-conformists (at different times and places) raises questions around the purpose and supposed effectiveness of incarceration. In essence; what do we do when the “deviant” refuses to conform, how far are we prepared to go, as a society to punish the incorrigible and persistent offender and what do we do when nothing seems to work?
We could attempt the practices used with the WWI COs and keep convicting whilst ratcheting up the tariff of their sentence each. However, we know from their experiences that this appeared to consolidate their objections and harden their resolve. We can try and talk to individuals in order to help them see the “errors of their ways” but given the conviction held by COs, that the war was fundamentally at odds with their belief system, this is also likely to fail. We could try punishment in the community, but for many of the COs anything which they felt compromised their standpoint was equally resisted, making any such approach also likely to be unsuccessful.
Although the “problem” of the COs no longer exists in 21st century Britain, other individuals and groups have filled the space they have vacated. We could replace the COs with the Black civil rights movement (think Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King) or other protests (think “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square or Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge) or those deemed traitors by many (as were the COs) , such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The question remains: is it possible to rehabilitate the heart and mind of someone who is so clear as to their moral standpoint and committed to doing what they perceive to be “the right thing”?
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.
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.
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
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.
The recent news around “Marine A’s” (Alexander Blackman) successful appeal to have his conviction changed from murder to manslaughter made headlines. The act which led to Blackman’s conviction took place in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011. On the day in question, Blackman was filmed shooting dead an injured man on the ground. During the killing, Blackman can be heard clearly citing Shakespeare, followed by an acknowledgement that ‘I just broke the Geneva Convention’. Furthermore, he announced, after the killing, that ‘It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us’. All of which seemed to suggest that this was an open and shut case, but such a conclusion would ignore both the military context and apparent public feeling.
For many, this appeal judgement appeared to vindicate Blackman and excuse his behaviour on the grounds of mental health. The media circus, which surrounded both the original conviction and the later appeals (the first reduced the tariff on his life sentence from 10 to 8 years), almost seemed to imply that he had been acquitted rather than his conviction amended. Indeed, for those who supported Blackman, many of which were military personnel, the fact that he had even been charged was seen as an affront to the dignity of both the soldier and the Marines.
It is interesting to consider why the case has caused so much furor. Blackman was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder, the crime itself was recorded (inadvertently) for posterity but the case raises much wider questions. For a criminal justice system which is based primarily on Classicism’s understanding of crime and punishment there seemed to be very little focus on Blackman as an individual responsible for his own behaviour. After all, Blackman made clear his rationale for the killing, even going so far as to cite the Geneva Convention and remind his colleagues that they could never talk about these events. However, the continual focus appears to have been on his chosen occupation as a military man, representative of all those soldiers who went before and those who would follow the same career path. Rather than individual agency and motivation, it would appear that the focus has been on conditions of war and the nature of soldiering as well as, his supposed mental state on the day.
Outside the Royal Courts of Justice, on verdict day, Blackman’s wife claimed that the downgrading of her husband’s offence was a better reflection of “the circumstances that [he] found himself in during that terrible tour of Afghanistan”. Whilst civilian courts have long paid heed to evidence of mental health conditions, it is worth considering whether they would go to such lengths for a civilian, regardless of past trauma or the circumstances of their crime. Likewise, we need to acknowledge that the modern servicemen (unlike his conscripted WWI/WWII/National Service forefathers) does not find himself on the battleground but has chosen to enlist in the military with all that such a career entails, in the twenty first century.
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?