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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.
“Was this your first arrest?”
“Yes I’ve been in trouble with the police before, but just like cautions, like some old man called the police because we played football on the grass near his house. That was literally only about a couple months before i got arrested… for rape.”
I had just turned 20 years old when I conducted my first interview with a sex offender. I was prepping for my dissertation in the summer before my final year, conducting research in a probation office I volunteered at. I was allowed to observe, teach and in the final week I would be able to interview 3 males I had been observing. I interviewed the first two males who both I had taught some very basic numeracy skills to, they were both as they were in my observations, very calm and just trying to get through each day without breaching their probation orders. My final interview was with a young male who I had been helping prepare to apply for a construction worker card, which would allow him to apply for building work. In my months of observing and teaching him I felt like he was no different to males I went to school with or anyone you would pass on the street. I did not want to know what his crime was, as a probation mentor that was never my focus, nor my business to know.
Ethically speaking, I was challenged by the idea that I was conducting an interview and research with the consent of an individual who in my eyes did not understand the concept of consent. That may seem like a harmful way to view this man and the outlook of his time in probation as ultimately it was about reform and reintegration after his time in prison. I have progressed a lot since this day and I no longer view this person so hopelessly in my memory, then again, I am unsure of what he is doing now.
Each time I remember the interview and my experience there, I have different thoughts and different feelings, which I suppose is human nature. I also get annoyed at myself that I cannot seem to understand or rather pinpoint my own thoughts on it, I go between thinking what I did (teaching) was a good thing and it may have helped him, to thinking what I did was waste my time on someone who probably didn’t deserve it in many people’s eyes.
I had always felt I was very understanding of those labelled ‘ex-offenders’ and the cycle they can become trapped in. But before this experience, I had always worked with those whose crimes seemed relatively minor comparatively. Sexual violence is not something to me that is as simple to categorise or try to understand. I remember getting home a few hours later and sobbing for a victim I knew nothing about other than her perpetrator.
The experience has always stuck with me and made me appreciate the complexity of not only sexual offences but also the role of reform with sexual offences. It has led me to explore research around sexual violence and I have recently been exploring the work of Elizabeth Stanko and also revisiting my books by Susan Brownmiller. Both examine the role of the victim of sexual violence and raise questions about how historically sexual violence has been viewed.
This is a personal experience and not something I think everyone will relate to, but from experiences shared, there are lessons to be learnt.
As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.
Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.
Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.
All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.
All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.
However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!
More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.
Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).
Instead we should always consider:
[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).
Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).
Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880
Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23
Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)
Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)
A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.
[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.
Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.
It is only human to doubt yourself in certain situations; however, academia can be a problematic situation to doubt your ideas and abilities. It can lead you to change your standpoint unnecessarily and also create so much stress that you give up on an idea or project entirely.
I deal with this less so now since my university experience but still regularly and I felt it may provide comfort to those currently studying or recently graduated, these examples are personal and are only two of many. In particular I want to address doubting your own ideas and work and how important it is to keep challenging those thoughts.
Upon starting university, my first ‘big essay’ (I describe this with humour as it was 3000 words, but as a first year that can seem like quite the ask) was a biographical assignment. This assignment required an interview with a family member or anyone who would be willing to talk to you and to apply that to research by highlighting some key events/accomplishments. I feared writing that essay as I had many friends with parents who were lawyers or grandparents who had been in the war or immigrants. These stories surely would be so interesting and my essay on my dad who worked in a warehouse would be seen as boring, perhaps. This was my first experience with fear and doubt over my work, but then I did the interview, wrote the essay, took a deep breath and submitted. Turns out it was one of my favourite pieces of work and the programme leaders liked it. It was an honest essay and while not glamorous, it was personal to me and that made the approval and grade that more rewarding.
In my second year, I conducted my placement at a probation office and based my research around a case study of one male who was doing an English class and aimed to discuss the success of that class. After around 8 weeks of observations and an interview with the male. I went to my seminar leader at the time (@paulaabowles) in a complete panic and almost teary-eyed. I told her how I felt my research was not good enough because the male was lying to me, in fact he was almost lying to the whole probation experience as he was more or less just turning up to tick the boxes he needed but then conducting his behaviour differently to me in certain situations and the interview. I felt I had failed as a researcher and also as a teacher almost, as I was assisting in the teaching of the class he was in. I was then told some of the great truths of research and also why I had not failed and actually I had done very well. My research was good research and I just had not realised it. The research didn’t find what I wanted it to, in fact it found the opposite, which was still good research. My research which I had titled ‘Playing the system’ had actually proved to not be a failure and my doubts were unnecessary but not anything to be ashamed of. As in my quest at the time to find answers of why was I such a ‘bad researcher’ and interviewer, I found a plethora of other people online and among peers with the same doubts over some great work they had produced.
Whether it be doubts or fear of speaking up in fear of failure or sounding stupid, I hope others may be able to see not only are they not alone, but actually you are normal because of these doubts. We should just maybe work on believing in our work more and not waiting to get the approval of others for those ideas. With this I feel it is fitting to use one of my favourite quotes from Bertrand Russell:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”