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Who cares what I think?

The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.   

However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.  

Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?

Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.

In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive.  Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.

But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: it’s a funny old world.

sweat shop

“Did you just look at me?” says Queen Anne to the footman and, as he shakes his head staring into oblivion clearly hoping this was not happening, she shouts “Look at me”. He reluctantly turns his head, looking at her in obvious discomfort when she screams “how dare you; close your eyes?”  A short vignette from the television commercial advertising the award-winning film ‘The Favourite’ and very much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t for the poor hapless footman.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife to a bear fair in London; she makes vintage bears as a hobby and occasionally takes to setting up a stall at some fair to sell them.  As I sat behind the stall navel gazing and wandering what the football scores were, when I was going to get something to eat and when would be an appropriate time to go for a wander without giving off the vibe that enthusiasm was now waning, my wife said, ‘did you see that’?  ‘What’ I asked peering over a number of furry Ursidae heads (I’m told they don’t bite)? ‘That woman in the orange top’ exclaimed my wife. Scouring the room for a woman that had been Tango’d, I listened to her explaining that a 30ish year old woman had just come out of the toilets wearing a bright orange top and emblazoned across her generous chest were the words ‘eye contact’.  ‘I suppose it’s a good message’ said my wife as I settled back down to my navel gazing.

I thought about the incident, if you can call it that, on the way home and that was when the film trailer came to mind as a rather good analogy.  I get the message, but it seems a rather odd way to go about conveying it.  From a distance we are drawn to looking but then castigated for doing so.  A case of look at me, why are you looking at me?  And so, it seems to me that the idea behind the message is somehow diluted and even trivialised.  The top is no more than a fashion item in the sense of it being a top but also in a sense of the message.  The message is commercialised; I wonder whether the top was purchased because of the seriousness of the message it conveyed or because it would look good and attract attention?

I discussed this with a colleague and she brought another dimension to the discussion.  Simply this, where was the top made?  Quite possibly, even likely, in a sweat shop in Asia by impoverished female workers.  And so, a seemingly innocent garment symbolises all the wrong things; entrapment, commercialism and inequality.  I can’t help thinking on this International Women’s Day that it’s a funny old world that we live in.

Halloween Prison Tourism

Haley 2

 

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.

I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.

Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular  fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.

The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.

The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.

Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.

Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.

Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees.  I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about.  A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more.  He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way.  For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes.  If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless.  A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.

So, what is higher education all about, higher than what?  What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world.  It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so.  It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence.  If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on.  That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards.  An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE.  In which case what is the point of HE?

So why would I be confused about HE?  Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market.  Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic.  Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year.  The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.

HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing.  The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions.  The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments.  In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers.  It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree.  As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.

Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]

Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

The commodification of youth: waiting to grow up

struggle-1271657_960_720I find myself reflecting on the problems of youth as I watch my two lads growing up and preparing to leave school. Well I think they’ll leave school and I think they’ll grow up.  The latter begs the question, when is a young person grown up, when does a young person embark on that journey into adulthood?

In the eyes of the law an adult is 18 or over and yet in certain aspects, young people are treated differently until they are 25, for example, state benefits are not equitably distributed between those that are under 25 and those that are over.  Young people cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18 and yet they can legally have sex, get married, with parental consent, and sign up to a near enough £30,000 debt as part of their commitment to higher education, a commitment that derives many a time from external social and economic pressures and expectation rather than personal choice.

At the age of 16 I left school and went to work with 5 O’ levels to my name.  I had a choice and looking back, it was a good job I did; education at that time was not for me.  What choice do 16 year olds have now? Stay at home and be funded by parents, an extension of childhood and then at 18 a debt that hangs over them like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to be sold off to the highest commercial bidder later on? Or simply stay at home with parents and then at 18 seek work in low paid zero hours contract jobs that belie the true state of unemployment in this country.  A somewhat limited choice, I would suggest.

I have watched the manufacturing industries of the past disappear and with them the hope of jobs for many a youngster, perhaps not academically inclined to go through higher education.  So the choice for young people is stark, low paid, irregular work usually in a service industry, resulting in a need to stay in the parental home, or a massive debt and some offer of freedom, albeit perhaps temporary.

Unemployment is at its lowest level and there are more people accessing higher education than ever before. On the surface a success story but delve a little deeper and it is the young that are a paying the price for the elongation and commercialisation of education.  They are prevented from growing up by the restriction on school leaving age and the socio-economic pressures that seem to abound. But if the young cannot get jobs, are not allowed to grow up and develop into adults that contribute to the treasury’s coffers, then in the not too distant future they will not be the only ones to suffer as various services slowly disintegrate due to the lack of funding.  It is time government rethought education but more importantly thought about the future of the young, they are after all our future and deserve better than a lifetime of debt, poverty and insecurity.

Fighting the Tide or Following the Current?

This week’s blog is a reflective piece that will, I think, resonate with some of my ‘Outsiders’ students and perhaps with criminologists more broadly. It concerns the nagging tension between being a reluctant capitalist subject and a critical criminologist, more specifically between the roles of consumer and critic. Whilst criminology undoubtedly possesses transformative potential, particularly in its critical and ultra-realist forms, some sections of the discipline and arguably some, but certainly not all, of its proponents sit comfortably within the very structures subject to criticism during the ‘working day’. Indeed, we (and I include myself in this) hold the world to rights from 9-5 Monday to Friday then disavow the many harms we so vehemently lecture/write about whilst indulging in conspicuous consumption on weekends; fitting neatly into the circuitry of consumer capitalism.

Whilst I resolutely resist the drive to mask the fallout of free-market capitalism by not giving to charity, which is, as Žižek (2009:19) notes, the quintessential “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation”, I am guilty of indulging a range of consumer impulses. It would be nice if this dilemma was as simple as being a hypocrite, something I could rectify by having a strong word with myself. Unfortunately, the reality is that this reflects a tension that emerges from occupying a social terrain that requires a dual identity and one within which the risks of protesting too ardently are severe.

Yet rather than serving as a vestigial port from which to take critical aim at pressing issues the university sector, as an industry, compounds this tension further. For criminology in particular the irony is painful. We occupy positions in what is now a heavily marketised sector; one that dictates the state of play based on the logic of the market, on catering for elusive customers rather than educating students. The irony of course is that, as criminologists, we are employed to research, write and lecture about criminalised and un-criminalised harms that pervade the social world by a sector whose neoliberal institutions have no qualms about inflicting severe harm on those who work and study within them. Universities seem to have become marketised, profit seeking institutions that pay lip service to helping communities whilst adopting the very structures that cause severe harm to society.

Perhaps the university can no longer be seen as a place from which to do some good. Or perhaps there is still a great deal of good that can be done from under the neoliberals’ nose. Either way, we cannot retain a blind and baseless optimism that refuses to acknowledge and tackle the many harms of neoliberalism, including those inflicted by the university sector. Rather, we should maintain an ultra-realist commitment to “explaining the world as it is, warts and all” (Winlow and Hall 2013:175).

 

Justin Kotzé, July 2017

References

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books Ltd.

The Commodification of Abstinence

 

rebel grafitti

The inspiration for this short blog post comes from an incredibly stimulating discussion with some of my second year students studying the criminology module ‘Outsiders’. In class we were discussing how rather than constituting active forms of rebellion that resist the mainstream, various ‘trendy’ acts of so-called deviance, such as graffiti, parkour and ‘rooftopping’, have actually become absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture. Following this we began to discuss ‘new’ ways of resisting. Amongst the ideas offered was the notion of somehow disconnecting ourselves from the now ever-present network of social media and its frequent and avid advertisement of consumer items. Interestingly, having already discussed the tendency for social media’s ‘revolutionary potential’ to be integrated within rather than threaten capitalism (Crary 2013), this proposed disconnect would also require avoiding the latest online driven micro-revolution. The result of this discussion was the idea of ‘going mobile free for a week’.

The problem with this proposed ‘period of abstinence’ is that it becomes another micro-revolution that simply represents a new opportunity for commodification. This is because capitalism has the uncanny ability “to incorporate every attack by integrating the attack into the system” (McGowan 2016:12). It does this by taking the seemingly revolutionary practice and transforming it into a marketable commodity. With this in mind, we started to consider how such periods of abstinence would be integrated and commodified. It was suggested that a number of high-street retailers such as Game and HMV would perhaps have preparatory sales the week before to help us cope with the inevitable upset of ‘going mobile free for a week’. Similar offers would no doubt be made by a range of other providers; why not get into cycling, mountain climbing, or Zumba? That is after buying all the essential gear and merchandise of course. Then, once this period of abstinence is over, what better way to show how ‘resistant’ you were than by posting pictures of, or tweeting about, all the things you got up to during this ‘rebellious’ period; thereby further contributing to the marketing of consumer items.

Rather than representing some form of resistance then, this period of abstinence becomes commodified and successfully integrated into contemporary consumer capitalism. This does not mean that there is no alternative to capitalism, it simply means that if we wish to make a genuine attempt at resistance we should avoid being absorbed or forced into the next ‘trendy’ micro-revolution or simulated rebellion (Hall et al. 2008). Precisely how we do this is of course another matter entirely.

Justin Kotzé, March 2017

References

Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press.

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