When I was asked to write a blog about doing research for my dissertation, I immediately went to https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/category/first-class-dissertation/ to read what others had written before me. Previous entries covered race and discrimination, homelessness, hate crime, and working with sex offenders, among other things; all good meaty stuff that is highly relevant to the study of criminology, and to society.
I knew I was taking a risk when I decided to mix it up and write a criminology dissertation that was based on historical crime and punishment, as there was the chance that it fell into neither camp. From a historian’s perspective, I wasn’t researching a primary source, per se, and from a criminologist’s perspective, would it have enough relevant criminological theory?
I just knew I wanted to do something to do with historical crime and punishment, but I didn’t know where to start. Eventually I came across two quotes that I thought were relevant to my subject area: ‘the rulers of eighteenth-century England cherished the death sentence’ (Hay, 1975:17), and; ‘a quasi-judicial role such as [the royal pardon] is not a suitable function for the executive’ (Travis, 2009:9). From these, my idea was firstly to examine who received the death penalty and why, and why some were pardoned while others were not. Secondly, when it came to pardoning, who had the power to pardon and what were the criteria used? I was also particularly interested in the political aspect of this.
What soon became obvious was that even 200 plus years ago, it was the same people committing crime as it is today: the working-class poor, the marginalised and the desperate. And just as today, when those with money, power and connections commit crime, it was not considered crime in the same way, and therefore, the punishment was not the same. I could see then, that I would be able to apply relevant criminological theory. I also needed to incorporate a fair bit of law and constitutional changes to the criminal justice system. As we were always being reminded that criminology is a ‘rendezvous’ subject that encompasses many other disciplines, this gave me the confidence to forge ahead!
I actually really enjoyed researching my dissertation, especially the case studies. After doing lots of research on the Old Bailey Online, I found 3 cases from 1789 which highlighted 3 different outcomes for the same crime, as a way of showing the criteria used for deciding who was pardoned and who was left to hang. I also examined several more recent death penalty cases from the 20th and 21st centuries, to show that the royal pardon is still an essential part of the criminal justice system, despite modernisations designed to replace it, like the introduction of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
My advice to students in year 2 is: start thinking about your dissertation early! It took me a long, long time to decide what I wanted to research, and I researched a lot of stuff that I didn’t end up using. At one point I was so worried that I even talked to @paulaabowles about deferring my dissertation until next year! But I’m so glad I didn’t do that. I won’t lie to you, it is hard work and requires a lot of time and dedication, which is why it’s so important to pick something that interests you. In the end, though I still worried that it would be too ‘in the middle’ to please either camp, I thoroughly enjoyed doing this piece of work, and was quite sad when it was finished. To be rewarded with a First was beyond anything I could have hoped for, and I’d like to think that was due not only to my hard work, but also to the passion I had for the subject matter.
Hay, D. (1975). Property, Authority and the Criminal Law. In: Hay, D., Linebaugh, J., Rule, J., Thompson, E. and Winslow, C. (Eds). Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Verso. Pp. 17-63.
Travis, A. (2009). National: Royal Pardon: Legal Reform: I shouldn’t be able to make these decisions, says Straw (Guardian Homepages). The Guardian (London, England). P.9.