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Reading is dead, long live the book

Pile_of_books

The first week of teaching is always a bit of a culture shock. The transition at the end of term from teaching to other activities and vice versa marks a change of tempo and a change of focus. For me, the summer is a time of immersion in reading, thinking and writing. All of these activities continue throughout the year but far less intensively. It’s is perhaps ironic then, that this week’s blog post has left me struggling for ideas…

Previously, I have blogged about the stresses and strains of writing, so this week I thought I might turn my attention to reading; a far more pleasurable personal experience. The first questions is why read? The simple answer is to accumulate knowledge, to find the answer to a question and to educate and entertain. Arguably, all of these purposes can be achieved far more easily by looking on the internet, getting a quick (if not always correct) answer. Why bother learning things when the internet can provide information 24 hours a day?  Furthermore, who can fail to find something to entertain and amuse on the television, in the cinema or on the internet? Perhaps the death knell for the old-fashioned art of reading books is sounding with increasing urgency and volume? I disagree!

I learnt to read at around the age of 5 and very quickly I was hooked. Throughout my childhood I was teased for my seeming inability to put a book down even with eating or walking. This never dissuaded me away from the book and even when that one was finished, there would always be another one to take its place. This reading “addiction” has never left me and has meant that I have been able to explore mythical places such as Eastasia, Erewhon, Gilead, Lilliput, Manderley, Narnia and Utopia and without even leaving my armchair. I have explored America, Australia, Botswana, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa to a name a few, not to mention my home city, both over ground and underground. In my reading life, I have travelled on the Orient Express, fought in the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, hidden from Nazis, as well as served prison sentences in Reading Gaol and Robben Island. I have solved crimes with Mikael Blomkvist, Scout Finch, the Famous Five and Hercule Poirot. I have felt the pains of Lady MacBeth, Jane Eyre and the second Mrs de Winter, been left unmoved by Flora Poste and Jay Gatsby and felt terrorised with Joanna Eberhart, Offred and Gregor Samsa.

Whilst the above may illustrate my love of reading, it does not really explain why it is so important to me and my career. For one, it is the only activity that really holds my concentration, particularly for extended periods of time. In the twenty-first century, where life seems so fast-paced and we jump from screen to screen, triggered by notifications as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs, such a skill requires protection and cultivation. Second, it is intensely independent and personal; I can share stories with others, I can even discuss books in details, but my reading is my own. Thirdly, and probably the most important for criminology is the opportunity to try someone else’s life for size. The famous line from Harper Lee; that ; ‘[y]ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ sums this up beautifully (1960/2006: 30). By reading accounts of crime, criminality, victimisation and criminal justice; even if fictionalised, we have an opportunity to test out ideas, to find out how comfortable we are with responses, actions and penalties. In particular, dystopic novels offer the unique potential to imagine the world differently. Whilst on the surface such texts, as with criminology, are presented as negative; dealing with uncomfortable, frightening and disturbing behaviours and responses, they are ultimately full of hope. The potential for change is both explicit and implicit in dystopic fiction and criminology; all is never lost, hope remains no matter what.

If you still need to be persuaded by my argument for reading everything and anything that can get your hands on, perhaps Beccaria’s words of wisdom will help ‘I should have everything to fear, if tyrants were to read my book, but tyrants never read’ (1872: 18).

And after all, who wants to be a tyrant? Not me!

 

Beccaria, Cesare, (1872), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Albany: W. C. Little Co.), [online]. Available from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2193&Itemid=27 [Last accessed 24 March 2012]

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill A Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

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The black hole of danger aka online dating

Black hole

Like so many other singles in the world I decided to join the realms of online dating. Little did I know what I would encounter and the subsequent conversations that would unfold in the office. So, this week’s blog is a reflection on some of those criminogenic discussions that have both amused and appalled us over the last couple of week. I have to start by saying that, on the whole, there are a lot of nice genuine people out there just looking for ‘the one’. That said, this perspective was put into question on Tuesday when I received my first ‘dick pic’. Not being someone who takes this sort of thing too seriously I giggled and deleted the person, however it raised a number of questions about behaviour and our responses to it. For example, on a personal level why was I not offended? Has this type of behaviour become the norm? Is it something that women now expect or at least accept? It’s a big step up from a wolf whistle in the street or the honking horn and leery comment shouted from the window of a passing car.

In essence this is a sex crime, whether you class it as distribution of pornographic material or indecent exposure it is a crime and therefore raises the question of whether I have a moral and or legal obligation to protect other women by reporting it. Yet here in lies the problem, firstly the most the site can or will do is to delete the user who will ultimately just create another profile, secondly in the grand scheme of things the police have neither the resources nor inclination to investigate. Whilst these are pertinent considerations, the fact that I didn’t report it but instead deleted him (and his picture I might add) has, upon reflection, little to do with the potential response and more to do with the perception of risk. The lack of physical proximity provides a sense of security, albeit tenuous, that you wouldn’t have if this happened to you in the street.

In the online world I have a relatively safe profile and I can delete or block those who cause me offence. Whilst it is true that nothing we do online is truly anonymous, there is a sense of detachment created by the lack of proximity and direct risk which can turn deviant behaviour into something abstract. Is that why someone who is otherwise a law-abiding citizen or at least not a sexual predator feels that it is appropriate to send a relative stranger such images? I do wonder whether they actually make the link between physical actions and virtual ones. I suspect that if confronted most of them would not see their behaviour as criminal or even comparable to someone who exposes himself in public.

The more concerning aspect of this is the potential emotional and psychological damage that could be done. While I spent my youth working in clubs and pubs, exposed to a range of male behaviours and thus gained the experience to navigate this terrain, can the same be said for today’s younger population for whom the internet and online dating may be the norm. This led me to consider my daughters and how to prepare them for this online version of the world that I experienced in the physical. How do I explain why guys would send such pictures to an unknown woman when I can’t even begin to fathom that out myself? How do I prepare them for the emotional roller coaster of online dating where a text message lacks the physical prompts needed to decipher it and can easily lead to confusion, misinterpretation, sexual exploitation and psychological harm. Where parenting is concerned the internet and online dating presents a black hole of danger and one which I’ll have to navigate with care if I want to protect my daughters from the ‘dick pic’ senders of the world.

The Criminology of the Future

metropolis

As we are gleefully coming towards the start of yet another academic year, we tend to go through a number of perpetual motions; reflect on the year past, prepare material for the upcoming year and make adjustments on current educational expectations.  Academics can be creatures of habit, even if their habit is to change things over.  Nonetheless, there are always milestones that we all observe no matter the institution or discipline.  The graduation, for example brings to an end the degree aspirations of a cohort, whilst Clearing and Welcome Week offer an opportunity of a new group of applicants to join a cohort and begin the process again.  Academia like a pendulum swings constantly, replenishing itself with new generations of learners who carry with them the imprint of their social circumstance.

It was in the hectic days at Clearing that my mind began to wonder about the future of education and more importantly about criminology.  A discipline that emerged at an unsettled time when urban life and modernity began to dominate the Western landscape.  Young people (both in age and/or in spirit) began to question traditional notions about the establishment and its significance.  The boundaries that protect the individual from the whim of the authorities was one of those fundamental concerns on criminological discourses.  A 19th century colleague questions the notion of policing as an established institution, thus challenging its authority and necessity.  An end of 20th century colleague may be involved in the training of those involved in policing.  Changing times, arguably.  Quite; but what is the implications for the discipline?

My random example can be challenged on many different fronts; the contested nature of a colleague as a singular entity that sees the world in a singular gaze; or the ability to diversify on the perspectives each discipline observes.  It does nonetheless, raises a key question: what expectations can we place on the discipline for the 21st century.

If we and our students are the participants of social change as it happens in our society then our impressions and experiences can help us formulate a projective perspective of the future.  Our knowledge of the past is key to supplying an understanding of what we have done before, so that we can comprehend the reality in a way that will allow us to give it the vocabulary it deserves.  A colleague recently posted on twitter her agony about “vehicles being the new terrorist weapon,” asking what is the answer.  The answer to violence is exactly the same; whether a person gets in a van, or goes home and uses a bread knife to harm their partner.  Everyday objects that can be utilised to harm.  A projection in the future could assert that this phenomenon is likely to continue.  The Romans called it Alea iacta est and it was the moment you decide to act.  In my heart this is precisely the debate about the future of criminology; is it crime with or without free will?

Surviving in a changing environment: the use of illicit drugs

Blog 'Cocaine Use'

Recent months have seen a rebirth in drug related news stories, often linked to the death of young people or babies or the dealing of drugs by youth and gangs. This led me to consider the place of drugs in British Society, not in terms of their distribution, production, cost, but the reasons why illicit drug use continues to be prominent in UK society. There is plenty of research on this topic and considerable political commentary on the problem, however is drug use really a problem or are we simply more aware of illicit drug use and more open to discussing it? There are certainly arguments for both sides but neither address the reason why drugs are in our society and this led me to consider the speculative argument that cocaine use is increasing, or at least shifting to a newer market.

Cocaine, historically the drug of choice for celebrities and the wealthy is now spreading across society to a wider social demographic by why? The main argument produced by the ACMD is that there is a two-tier market based on purity, the more pure and thus more expensive continues to be used by celebrities and the wealthy but a less pure, cheaper version is now available for those less affluent. I don’t doubt the validity of this argument but I think there is more to this than simply price and purity. Historically, drugs that are now illegal were widely available and staple part of people’s daily lives helping to mask the harshness of life or facilitate their functionality within working and social environments. Has much changed? The political drive to make us do more for less is certainly evident in modern society as is the harsh effects of poverty and deprivation, both of which can lead to drug use, albeit these once legal substances are now illegal.

In addition, developments in technology and globalisation have significantly increased the pace of life for most people; we work longer hours to survive or because it is demanded of us, we juggle more commitments than ever before, we are expected to absorb and process huge amounts of information instantaneously all of which has sped up our lives to the point of sensory overload but are our bodies and minds really designed to cope with this long-term? When I was at university I studied during the day and worked nights so the maximum amount of sleep I would get in any 24 hour period was about 4 hours and this was broken sleep, usually between 4pm and 8pm. At that time the drug of choice was pro plus and without it, I would not have been able to sustain this lifestyle for three years. I’d like to say this was just a small period in my life that such actions were needed to follow my dream but the reality is that as the work-life balance blurs and demands on our time increase, time to sleep erodes and our bodies are not designed to operate well on minimal sleep. This naturally leads to the inclusion of stimulants in our daily lives to help us to function, whether that be caffeine or cocaine is a personal choice but potentially a necessary evil if we wish to survive.

That is not say that I condone the use of illicit drugs but that does not mean that I can’t see the potential benefits of such substances. There are numerous documentaries highlighting the use of uppers to stay awake and downers to sleep amongst the celebrity population whose lifestyles can be chaotic. The question is, has this chaos now spread to wider society as the cost of living increases and the political momentum for us to ‘do more’ continues to grow? If it has, then illicit drugs will remain a staple part of societies coping mechanism, whether that be too dull the harshness of daily life or enable us to survive in a changing environment.

Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

Banksy_-_Sweep_at_Hoxton

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. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s 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.

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…

Plagiarism on trial

Plagiarism

For many students, I suspect it is difficult to imagine what an academic does aside from lectures, seminars and marking. The answer can range across several different activities including module or programme development, research, reading, university/faculty committee meetings, working groups and so on. Alongside my responsibilities within Criminology, I am also an Academic Integrity and Misconduct Officer (or AIMO for short). I have undertaken this role for the past few years and thought it might be interesting to share some of my thoughts.

The process involved in suspected academic misconduct is relatively straightforward. The marking tutor spots an issue, either through their subject knowledge, or increasingly with the help of originality reports such as those provided by Turnitin. They then make a referral, complete with the evidence they have compiled and hand it over to be dealt with by an AIMO. The AIMO reviews the evidence and decides whether to interview the student. After this they write a report and the student is informed as to the outcome. All of the above sounds extremely procedural but plagiarism and academic misconduct more generally are far more complex than this would suggest.

As a criminologist, I am used to studying theories around offending, rehabilitation, punishment, recidivism and so on. Perhaps that is why it seems obvious to me to conceptualise academic misconduct along the same lines. For instance; the referral process is undertaken by the university police (that is the referring tutor) who gathers together the evidence for submission to the CPS. In the case of suspected academic misconduct this referral comes to an AIMO who makes the decision as to whether or not there is a case worth answering. If the evidence appears compelling, the AIMO will explore the issue further, in essence, taking the place of the Magistrates’ Court in the CJS. If the offence is deemed to be relatively minor or a first time offence, sentence can be passed by the AIMO. Alternatively, the case can be passed to the Crown Court an Academic Misconduct Panel where the evidence will be heard by three AIMOs. These panels have far greater sanctions available to them (including termination of studies) and they can also hear appeals.

So far the analogy works, but what about the other, more human, aspects. When considering criminal motivation, it is clear the reasons for committing academic misconduct are as wide-ranging as those detailed in court. As with crime, some admit to their wrongdoings at the first opportunity whilst others do not accept that they have done anything wrong. Likewise, in terms of mitigation both types of “suspect” cite family problems, mental health issues, financial problems, as well as, ignorance of the rules and regulations.

But in the case of academic misconduct; who is the victim? Arguably, the answer to that is academia as a whole. If there is an absence of  integrity in any, or all of our studies, academia is impoverished and ultimately the academy and its pursuit of knowledge could fall. As with crime, the impact on individuals is immeasurable and hugely detrimental to wider society.

As would be expected in an entry about academic misconduct, the image used is copyright free. It is available for use and modification from wikimedia

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