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The criminology of real life

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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.

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