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In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students. Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House. This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town. Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours. Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities. On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.
The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675. The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft. Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged. Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice. In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges. The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness. How can criminology not be part of this legacy?
There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear. It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do. This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology. The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible. Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement. Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.
These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be. A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate. In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline. Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative. In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet. We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent. History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.
Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration
I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter. This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.
My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.
Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.
I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.
In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.