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
Recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and the capital, like others that happened in Europe in recent years, made the public focus again on commonly posed questions about the rationale and objectives of such seemingly senseless acts. From some of the earliest texts on Criminology, terrorism has been viewed as one of the most challenging areas to address, including defining it.
There is no denial that acts, such as those seen across the world, often aimed at civilian populations, are highly irrational. It is partly because of the nature of the act that we become quite emotional. We tend question the motive and, most importantly, the people who are willing to commit such heinous acts. Some time ago, Edwin Sutherland, warned about the development of harsh laws as a countermeasure for those we see as repulsive criminals. In his time it was the sexual deviants; whilst now we have a similar feeling for those who commit acts of terror. We could try to apply his theory of differential association to explain some terrorist behaviours. however it cannot explain why these acts keep happening again and again.
At this point, it is rather significant to mention that terrorism (and whatever we currently consider acts of terror) is a fairly old phenomenon that dates back to many early organised and expansionist societies. We are not the first, and unfortunately not the last, to live in an age of terror. Reiner, a decade ago, identified terrorism as a vehicle to declare crime as “public enemy number 1 and a major threat to society” (2007: 124). In fact, the focus on individualised characteristics of the perpetrator detract from any social responsibility leading to harsher penalties and sacrifices of civil liberties almost completely unopposed. As White and Haines write, “the concern for the preservation of human rights is replaced by an emphasis on terrorism […] and the necessity to fight them by any means necessary” (1996: 139).
For many old criminologists who forged established concepts in the discipline, to simply and totally condemn terrorism, is not so straightforward. Consider for example Leon Radzinowicz (1906-1999) who saw the suppression of terror as the State’s attempt to maintain a state of persecution. After all, many of those who come from countries that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries probably owe their nationhood to groups of people originally described as terrorists. This of course is the age old debate among criminologists “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Many, of course, question the validity of such a statement at a time when the world has seen an unprecedented number of states make a firm declaration to self-determination. That is definitely a fair point to make, but at the same time we see age-old phenomena like slavery, exploitation and suppression of individual rights to remain prevalent issues now. People’s movements away from hotbeds of conflict remain a real problem and Engels’ (1820- 1895) observation about large cities becoming a place of social warfare still relevant.
Reiner R (2007), Law and Order, an honest citizen’s guide to crime and control, Cambridge, Polity Press
White R and Haines F (1996), Crime and Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Early 2017 the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Market Harborough asked me to give a talk to retired and semi-retired people on ‘The state of the prison system today’. Obviously this is a huge topic and they hoped that I’d include sentencing, courses, attitudes of people, lives and challenges faced, family connections, rehabilitation, demographics and more, in short everything I knew. Making this more of a challenge I was only given 30-40 minutes to talk, rather than a whole day which might have been more feasible. Anyway, I accepted the challenge and on 13 April 2017 I addressed a small group from a range of backgrounds. Unlike a classroom, it is difficult to predict the response you might get, I knew some would challenge my opinion on the prison system and I was not disappointed. At first the group sat quietly and simply absorbed my brief history of the prison system, nodding in places and jotting down a couple of notes. This changed dramatically when I challenged media constructed images of ‘prison being a holiday camp’ and the appropriateness of prison as punishment. Clearly some in the group had been victims so the discussion quickly turned to a punitive knee jerk reaction to all offenders. Underpinning this was a sense of fear, social unrest, and helplessness where crime was concerned. As you might expect comments like ‘in my day a bobby would have clipped you around the ear and taken you home to your parents for a good talking to’, closely followed by ‘parents of today have no control over their children’ or ‘where has the respect and discipline gone, bring back national service’. Whatever the tone, the group was clearly passionate about issues of crime and the ‘state of the prison system’, actively contributing to the discussion. When I led them towards issue of socio-economic conditions, a lack of opportunities, and the impact that prison had on these problems their empathy started to emerge. At this point I was asked the most difficult question of all ‘what is the answer, what can we do? My response was a simple one; try not to judge, put yourself in others shoes, consider carefully who you vote for, and most importantly don’t believe everything the media tells you. In essence I left them with more questions than answers but also a spark in their eye. They were hungry for more, they were hungry for action, and they wanted to be part of the solution. This led me to reflect on two things; firstly the pure joy I felt discussing prisons with a group of people who were fully engaged and curious about the topic area, and why most of our own students don’t exhibit the same level of enthusiasm. Secondly, the lack of fear I experienced in both the preparation and delivery of this talk. This made me think back to my own student years and a conversation I had with a lecturer who said that he’d put together his lecture on the train. At the time I thought this reflected his lack of interest in what he was delivery and I’m ashamed to say, a degree of laziness, however this experience has led me to reconsider my judgement. For instance, had I been asked to do this talk a few years ago I would have probably spent days, maybe weeks agonising over what I would say, writing copious notes, and shaking all through the delivery. The reality is that I spent a couple of hours that morning putting some points together and experienced no nerves at all. In short, I realised that I know a lot more than I thought I did, and my nerves are somewhat a result of not knowing my audience. I knew this audience would be engaged rather than sitting there stone faced or playing on their phones. This leads me to surmise that while I agreed with New Labour’s idea that education should be open to everyone, I no longer believe that that should include university. Too often I’m faced with people who do not want to be at university, or those that simply see it as logical progression, rather than the eager faces of those who want to learn, who are curious and passionate about the world, and make you leave a class with a feeling of elation rather than despondency. In short, the more enthusiastic the audience, the more enthusiastic the lecturer.
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…
Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.
The inspiration of this blog has developed from a recent trip to Riga, Latvia. Whilst the city itself is surrounded by cobbled streets, creative buildings and various water attractions; it is merely inevitable to miss Latvia’s criminological past. Many of the city’s museums’ and prominent statues are dedicated to war and occupation, with a particular focus towards the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The two historical landmarks of interest for the discussion of this blog will focus on the KGB Building and Riga Ghetto Holocaust museum.
Firstly, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as I think they are important to this text. It is easy to read of the happenings of the past; yet, sometimes it is experience that can enable an individual to truly grasp an understanding of how a society once operated. Upon entering a place whereby masses of people endured acts of repeated interrogation, violence and execution; events from the past become very surreal and complex.
To provide a brief history, the KGB was a secretive and secluded state- security organisation, involved in all aspects of life of everyday people in the Soviet Union. The organisation enforced Soviet morals and ideologies with various mechanisms such propaganda, which in turn, politically oppressed all citizens of Latvia. After the War, the KGB selected the Corner House for its headquarters, as its construction made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. The KGB Building has preserved its original layout, design and furniture from the Soviet times which allows for a genuine feel of its previous context. Interestingly, the tour guide that showed us round the prison was a former Russian prison officer, whereby we were shown various cells and rooms of importance. One aspect that really stood out to myself was a small cell that we were informed to enter, in which we were told roughly 30 prisoners at a time would be held inside singular cells like these. During the day time, lights were kept off and the heating was set to high- as you can imagine, this would have been extremely unpleasant in these conditions. The tour guide then told us to lightly cover our eyes, as he turned on several piercing bright lights, that even after a few minutes started to make myself feel dizzy. It was then explained that prisoners were prevented from sleeping with these lights being on each night; if caught covering their eyes by a prison guard, they would be beaten. Standing in the exact room of where individuals endured this kind of treatment allowed me to reflectively engage, both mentally and physically, of the complex issues of this dark historical time.
It could be argued that the KGB period hits close to home with the case of Alexander Litvinenko: a former officer of the Russian FSB who resided to Britain in escape of arrest by the Secret Service he had once been a part of. Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned to death by two Russian assassins, reinforcing the Soviet Union’s traditions of effectively ‘destroying the enemy’.
Another point of criminological interest was the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust museum; opened with the aim to preserve memories of the Jewish community in Latvia. On arrival, you are met with a memorial wall and informative stand that show the history of WW2 and the Holocaust- more than 70,000 names of Latvian Jews are recorded. Next, I approached a transportation waggon which were simply used to deport Jewish members to concentrations camps. However, oddly to myself, there were several tree branches inside the waggon itself. I then discovered that this represented those who were deemed ‘unfit’ for labour were taken to the Bikernieki forest- Latvia’s largest mass murder cite during the Holocaust period. As previously mentioned, it was the presence of being in a place whereby those same people lived in a society with arguably no humanity that is so difficult to fully digest.
As a Criminology student, visiting these institutions made real some of the key issues that emerge in class discussions, providing valuable, historical and international development of criminological debates. From an academic perspective; it is widely accepted that accounts should remain objective and avoid journalistic traits, yet the mass suffering of these events is inevitable to ignore.
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”?
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.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I guess it depends on your viewpoint I was brought up in an era where technology, as we now know it, was not that complex. Mind you, when I was 5 years of age they still managed to put a man on the moon, so I guess complexity is somewhat relative. Anyway, we didn’t walk around with smart mobile devices, in fact the first mobile phones were well, not that mobile, car batteries in fact with handsets on top of them. Computers were not that advanced, my first computer had a hard drive of 540mb and that was considered huge. We were told, well almost promised that technology would work for us, the three-day working week was on its way. Technology would free us from the chains of work and everyday drudgery. Instead, we have become slaves to technology and are slowly but surely losing key skills along the way. One of those key skills is the ability to think and interact; a slow process of zombification.
A while ago I had the good fortune of going to see the comedian Russell Howard in Birmingham; that man is so funny. So how do you get there, obvious, sat nav? Now there is a nice bit of enabling technology, post code, no thought, there we go, on our way. I’m sure you’ve heard about those drivers that have gone down dead end streets or lorry drivers that have attempted streets too narrow for the lorry; you guessed it, I did something similar. When the nice, polite sat nav lady says turn left, who am I to say that’s not correct? We ended up in an industrial estate at the back of our hotel and had to retrace our steps and try to work out how to get to our destination. The problem… I stopped thinking. I didn’t need to look at road signs and I didn’t need to work out the best route to follow, I didn’t need to stop and ask anyone, I just needed to follow what the nice lady said, like a sheep.
When I go into work and I fire up the computer, I’m met with a plethora of emails, most of which are complete garbage and of no relevance to me. It is all too easy to fire off that email without thinking, why not cc it into the whole world? People send emails that make little sense, or seem rude or offhand, the problem… they didn’t think, and it’s all too easy, particularly from so called smart devices. Sometimes I think the device is smarter than the operator.
Now I’m sure you will recognise this one; the mobile bleeps, you have to check it, never mind that you are in deep conversation with friends, colleagues or those nearest and dearest. The phone, or the message suddenly becomes more important, if you were thinking and adding some value to the conversation, you are not now. The phone now controls you.
The problem is that technology now dictates how we act and what we do. We take the easy route and stop thinking and we have more concern for the technology than we do for humans that we interact with. I’m not adverse to technology but I am adverse to the way we misuse it and allow others to bring us into their fairy-tale technological world of zombies.