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Why Criminology terrifies me

Hitler-Jugend_(1933)

Cards on the table; I love my discipline with a passion, but I also fear it. As with other social sciences, criminology has a rather dark past. As Wetzell (2000) makes clear in his book Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945 the discipline has (perhaps inadvertently) provided the foundations for brutality and violence. In particular, the work of Cesare Lombroso was utilised by the Nazi regime because of his attempts to differentiate between the criminal and the non-criminal. Of course, Lombroso was not responsible (he died in 1909) and could not reasonably be expected to envisage the way in which his work would be used. Nevertheless, when taken in tandem with many of the criticisms thrown at Lombroso’s work over the past century or so, this experience sounds a cautionary note for all those who want to classify along the lines of good/evil. Of course, Criminology is inherently interested in criminals which makes this rather problematic on many grounds. Although, one of the earliest ideas students of Criminology are introduced to, is that crime is a social construction, which varies across time and place, this can often be forgotten in the excitement of empirical research.

My biggest fear as an academic involved in teaching has been graphically shown by events in the USA. The separation of children from their parents by border guards is heart-breaking to observe and read about. Furthermore, it reverberates uncomfortably with the historical narratives from the Nazi Holocaust. Some years ago, I visited Amsterdam’s Verzetsmuseum (The Resistance Museum), much of which has stayed with me. In particular, an observer had written of a child whose wheeled toy had upturned on the cobbled stones, an everyday occurrence for parents of young children. What was different and abhorrent in this case was a Nazi soldier shot that child dead. Of course, this is but one event, in Europe’s bloodbath from 1939-1945, but it, like many other accounts have stayed with me. Throughout my studies I have questioned what kind of person could do these things? Furthermore, this is what keeps me awake at night when it comes to teaching “apprentice” criminologists.

This fear can perhaps best be illustrated by a BBC video released this week. Entitled ‘We’re not bad guys’ this video shows American teenagers undertaking work experience with border control. The participants are articulate and enthusiastic; keen to get involved in the everyday practice of protecting what they see as theirs. It is clear that they see value in the work; not only in terms of monetary and individual success, but with a desire to provide a service to their government and fellow citizens. However, where is the individual thought? Which one of them is asking; “is this the right thing to do”? Furthermore; “is there another way of resolving these issues”? After all, many within the Hitler Youth could say the same.

For this reason alone, social justice, human rights and empathy are essential for any criminologist whether academic or practice based. Without considering these three values, all of us run the risk of doing harm. Criminology must be critical, it should never accept the status quo and should always question everything.  We must bear in mind Lee’s insistence that ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’ (1960/2006: 36). Until we place ourselves in the shoes of those separated from their families, the Grenfell survivors , the Windrush generation and everyone else suffering untold distress we cannot even begin to understand Criminology.

Furthermore, criminologists can do no worse than to revist their childhood and Kipling’s Just So Stories:

 

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who (1912: 83)

Bibliography

Browning, Christopher, (1992), Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, (London: Penguin Books)

Kipling, Rudyard, (1912), Just So Stories, (New York: Doubleday Page and Company)

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

Lombroso, Cesare, (1911a), Crime, Its Causes and Remedies, tr. from the Italian by Henry P. Horton, (Boston: Little Brown and Co.)

-, (1911b), Criminal Man: According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso, Briefly Summarised by His Daughter Gina Lombroso Ferrero, (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

-, (1876/1878/1884/1889/1896-7/ 2006), Criminal Man, tr. from the Italian by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, (London: Duke University Press)

Solway, Richard A., (1982), ‘Counting the Degenerates: The Statistics of Race Deterioration in Edwardian England,’ Journal of Contemporary History, 17, 1: 137-64

Wetzell, Richard F., (2000), Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press)

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The never-changing face of justice

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There are occasions that I consider more fundamental questions beyond criminology, such as the nature of justice.  Usually whilst reading some new sentencing guidelines or new procedures but on occasions major events such as the fire at Grenfell and the ensuing calls from former residents for accountability and of course justice!  There are good reasons why contemplating the nature of justice is so important in any society especially one that has recently embarked on a constitutional discussion following the Brexit referendum.

Justice is perhaps one of the most interesting concepts in criminology; both intangible and tangible at the same time.  In every day discourses we talk about the Criminal Justice System as a very precise order of organisations recognising its systemic nature or as a clear journey of events acknowledging its procedural progression.  Both usually are summed up on the question I pose to students; is justice a system or a process?  Of course, those who have considered this question know only too well that justice is both at different times.  As a system, justice provides all those elements that make it tangible to us; a great bureaucracy that serves the delivery of justice, a network of professions (many of which are staffed by our graduates) and a structure that (seemingly) provides us all with a firm sense of equity.  As a process, we identify each stage of justice as an autonomous entity, unmolested by bias, thus ensuring that all citizens are judged on the same scales.  After all, lady justice is blind but fair!

This is our justice system since 1066 when the Normans brought the system we recognise today and even when, despite uprisings and revolutions such as the one that led to the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, many facets of the system have remained quite the same.  An obvious deduction from this is that the nature of justice requires stability and precedent in order to function.  Tradition seems to captivate people; we only need a short journey to the local magistrates’ court to see centuries old traditions unfold. I imagine that for any time traveler, the court is probably the safest place to be, as little will seem to them to be out of place.

So far, we have been talking about justice as a tangible entity as used by professionals daily.  What about the other side of justice?  The intangible concept on fairness, equal opportunity and impartiality?  This part is rather contentious and problematic. This is the part that people call upon when they say justice for Grenfell, justice for Stephen Lawrence, justice for Hillsborough.  The people do not simply want a mechanism nor a process, but they want the reassurance that justice is not a privilege but a cornerstone of civic life.  The irony here; is that the call for justice, among the people who formed popular campaigns that either led or will lead to inquiries often expose the inadequacies, failings and injustices that exist(ed) in our archaic system.

These campaigns, have made obvious something incredibly important, that justice should not simply appear to be fair, but it must be fair and most importantly, has to learn and coincide with the times.  So lady justice may be blind, but she may need to come down and converse with the people that she seeks to serve, because without them she will become a fata morgana,a vision that will not satisfy its ideals nor its implementation.  Then justice becomes another word devoid of meaning and substance.  Thirty years to wait for an justice is an incredibly long time and this is perhaps this may be the lesson we all need to carry forward.

“A Christmas Carol” for the twenty-first century

Christmas Carol

The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.

Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives. [1]  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty without which Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.

In the immediacy of the  Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example,  teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of  tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights.  Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.

In the words of Scrooge:

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)

[1] The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.

Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)

The business of government

 

Government responsibility

A few weeks ago, the gas company started digging up the road outside my house as part of major works to replace gas pipes in the village. Days after starting the work, holes filled with water and a muddy stream gushed out across the pavement and down the street. Belatedly, the water company turned up and promptly blamed the gas company for the problem. They were unable to do any repairs owing to a submerged electrical cable fizzing away. The electricity company wouldn’t do any work until they knew who would pay for it.  Several days later following intervention of the local highways department the matter was resolved. But the mud left on mine and my neighbour’s drive, the pavement, and the street had to be cleared by me and my neighbours. Not cost effective to clean up I guess.

What rapidly became apparent is that the driving force behind the work and the argument over who pays is profit, not public service, purely finance. Friedman (1962) advocated that the only duty of a business was to maximise profits for the benefits of the company and its shareholders, it had no responsibility to the public or society. I don’t have problem with this ideology, business is about making money not providing public services. So, who has responsibility for looking after the public’s interests, well that’s government surely. After all, as Locke advocated in the 17th century, it is government that has a duty to ensure ‘the peace, safety and public good of the people’ (Locke 1689:299).

Much of what the public need, in the way of welfare, health services, social services, criminal justice, education and a myriad of other service provisions are not profitable, in fact they are in a true business sense not financially viable. It is government that needs to take the lead on these and it is government that needs to ensure that the services are run for the public good. So why then do we hear every service state that they are in financial difficulties, that they need to cut back services, that they cannot cope?  Because government has not done its job. It doesn’t really matter what flavour government you prefer, left or right, conservative or labour, socialist or capitalist, over the last half a century, government has quite simply failed to deliver. Instead it has abrogated responsibility to business, social enterprise, voluntary organisations, and the public. It blames society, the poor, the underclass, the immigrants and youth. It blames those running its own apparatus, the police the prisons, the schools, and the health service amongst others. Government has become self-serving and introspective, it has taken on a business ethos.  It sets its own agendas based on not what is good for the people but what is good for government and those that serve in it. Government congratulates itself on its own defined successes and glosses over disasters. Government has forgotten its true purpose.

The small hiccup in my road is inconsequential compared to the recent tragic events in our country but it served as a reminder, if ever I needed one, that business and the business of government are a toxic mix. Government would do well to remember ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’, (Locke 1689: title page).

 

Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth anniversary edition, reprint, London: University of Chicago 2002.

Locke, T. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, reprint, London: Whitmore and Fenn 1821 [online] available at https://archive.org/details/twotreatisesofg00lockuoft [accessed 26/6/2017].

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

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