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Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

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Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.

Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.

On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.

The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.

This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.

Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.


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