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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

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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

Safe data: your inside leg measurement is?

Data

Data is now an intrinsic part of our lives.  It always has been, but those of you that are old enough to remember the pre-computer days (PCD) that’s not the Neolithic period, only a matter of 40 odd years ago, data didn’t seem that relevant.

In the PCD, if a shop assistant asked you for your details, i.e. name, address and telephone number, it was for a guarantee or a mail shot or at worst, to miss sell PPI. Now you are asked as a matter of course for your name, address, phone number and email address (not available PCD).  Refuse and you are looked upon with incredulity or even disdain and woe betide if you dare to ask why the information is needed? But, provide the information and this is what happens…

I needed new tyres for the car and on Saturday, whilst on my way into town, I popped into a well-known supplier.  I negotiated a reasonable deal, actually that was always going to be the price but it makes me feel better to say that, and I paid for the tyres. I was asked for and provided the usual details i.e. name, postcode, house number etc.  Job done, didn’t think about it any further.

Monday morning, phone call on the mobile, private number; I duly answer.  Is that Mr (full name), yes, I reply, thinking I wonder who this is, sounds official. I’m Sandra from UK Investments, can I confirm your address as (address given) … Sorry who are you, I ask and Sandra reiterates the company name. How did you get my phone number, asked in a somewhat annoyed tone…? You must have ticked a box… I don’t recall ticking any box and I’m not interested in any investment… please explain how you got my number … and the phone goes dead.

Coincidental that I gave away the information on Saturday and now it’s being used on Monday? Maybe, maybe not, but I suspect my details have been sold on.

Sometime ago I had an accident in my car and had a phone call from the other parties’ insurance company to get my details and sort out my claim.  Two days later, a phone call on my mobile from someone asking about the accident and whether I had been injured at all… where there’s blame there’s a claim… and lots of money for the lawyers. I gave them short shrift but a couple of weeks later another call on my house landline… same thing and another short conversation involving how did you get my number and a phone going dead.

Two months later, my partner, same address, different surname, received a call on her work mobile… has someone at this address been involved in an accident… and a few weeks after that the same call on her personal mobile?  How on earth do they tie all of these together?

So, when my doctor’s surgery asks me whether I consent to allow my details to be input onto a national database, because this will benefit me when being treated anywhere in the country, I am somewhat reluctant and sceptical.

Whilst I think back to the recent hacking of NHS computers, hacking is probably the least of my worries.  Back in the PCD my personal data felt relatively private and respected, in contemporary society privacy seems to be an antiquated notion that is wilfully ignored in the pursuit of financial gain. Privacy and your data, think again and oh, my inside leg measurement is…

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

How do you punish the incorrigible?

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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”?

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.

A licence to kill?


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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. 

 

Erasmus in the time of Brexit

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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?

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