Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Criminologist

Category Archives: Criminologist

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Mary Adams, recent Graduate and mature student.

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: I would have to say they are all equally important for understanding different aspects of Criminology. In first year I loved The Science of Crime which showed how things have evolved over time, and that what we now see as funny was actually cutting edge in its day. True Crime also makes you look beyond the sensational headlines and separate fact from fiction. In second year Crime & Justice gave a brilliant grounding in the inner workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system. And in third year, the Violence module explores personal and institutional violence, which is especially relevant in current times

The academic criminology book you must read: Becker’s Outsiders and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics are a must. I also found Hopkins-Burke’s An Introduction to Criminological Theory and Newburn’s Criminology essential reading for first year as well as Finch & Fafinski’s Criminological Skills. For second year I recommend Davies, Croall & Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. If you choose the Violence module in third year you will be grateful for Curtin & Litke’s Institutional Violence. And don’t forget Foucault’s Discipline & Punish!

The academic journal article you must read:
There are so many excellent journal articles out there, it’s difficult to choose! Some of my favourites have been:
'Alphonse Bertillon & the measure of man' by Farebrother & Champkin;
'Bad Boys, Good Mothers & the ‘’Miracle’’ of Ritalin by Ilina Singh';
'Detainee Abuse & the Ethics of Psychology' by Kathryn French;
'Attachment, Masculinity & Self-control' by Hayslett-McCall & Bernard;
'Grenfell, Austerity & Institutional Violence' by Cooper & Whyte;
'The Phenomenology of Paid Killing' by Laurie Calhoun;
'A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists' by J. Arrigo.

The criminology documentary you must watch:
Without a doubt, a must-see is the Panorama documentary London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame. I would also highly recommend the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment

The most important criminologist you must read:
Of course you must read Lombroso, Beccaria & Bentham. I also enjoyed reading work by feminist criminologists like Pat Carlen, Carol Smart & Sandra Walklate. And of course, Angela Davis is a must!

Something criminological that fascinates me:
What fascinates me is how the powers that be, and a good proportion of the public, cannot seem to realise that social injustice is one of the major factors behind why people commit crime. And the fact that putting more & more people in prison is seen as a ‘good’ thing is mind-boggling!

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
The fact that it is such a diverse subject & incorporates so many other disciplines

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
Question everything! Don’t take anything at face-value. Try to look beyond the attention grabbing headlines to find out the real story. Read, read, read!

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Unfortunately I think there are many pressing problems facing society today, the main ones being social injustice & inequality, systemic racism, institutional violence, and mass incarceration


When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Some people joke that I’m learning how to be a criminal! Others think it’s all about locking people up! I tell them it’s all about looking at the mechanisms in-built in our society that disadvantage & discriminate against whole groups of people, and that, unless we are part of the rich & powerful elite, any one of us could find ourselves in the ‘out’ group at any time. I also tell them to stop reading The Daily Mail, vote Labour, and question everything!!


“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective: ej213

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: True Crime - this module highlights the fact that cases you have seen in the media and in films may not be accurate due to the true crime genre exaggerating facts for entertainment. Whilst, this module does not cover quite as much theory as others, it gives the chance to explore cases and discover the truth underneath the exaggeration. Love this module.
 
The academic criminology book you must read: 
The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (sixth edition) - I was recommended this book at an open day and there was rarely an assessment I couldn't find some background knowledge for in this book. It is a great tool.

The academic journal article you must read: 
Testosterone and masculinity

The criminology documentary you must watch: 
FBI: Cold Cases - it is a Netflix original I think but it shows how crimes committed 20 or 30 years ago can be solved due to modern technology. Really interesting especially if you have an interest in forensics.

The most important criminologist you must read: 
Either Lombroso or Marx.

Something criminological that fascinates me: 
The fact that crime is defined by the wealthy meaning that the prisons are mostly filled with the lower classes due to the upper classes' crimes being seen as victimless

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is: 
That criminology is a relatively recent study

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
There is rarely one answer so long as you can support your argument 

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is: 
This could be an essay in itself. I guess I would have to say poverty because 14 million people (2019/20) still live in poverty and these people are not going to have the same advantages or prospects in education or the workplace meaning they are more likely to commit crime in order to survive

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is: 
Amazing and the most interesting course I have chosen to study because it never had a definite answer which I guess can make it complex however, the debates within the course are great to participate in because it is interesting to hear another's perspective but also voice my own. It is also very inclusive in its module content which is great

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Bonnie Middleton (2017-2020)

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: All of them! Every module contributes to your understanding of Criminology and all are different and enjoyable. Personally, my favourite module was Violence: From Domestic to Institutional in Year 3; this module ties together everything you know about Criminology; the reasons why we are subjective as criminologists and our ability to look beyond the scope of what we know.  
 
The academic criminology book you must read: 
Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance (1963) by Howard Becker. Albeit a dated book, its ideas are relevant and relate to many criminological such as; how and why criminals are labelled and stigmatised; why are the youth demonised; why people reject the norms and values of society and become criminals in doing so.

The academic journal article you must read: 
This is a hard one. Articles are great for discovering new ideas and methodologically testing theories. I would recommend reading: Arrigo, J. (2004). A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture, Interrogation of Terrorists. Science and Engineering Ethics. 10(3), pp. 543-572. This article poses many questions for a criminologist which enlightens you to think subjectively and challenge your own views; which is what Criminology is all about. From reading this article you will learn to think critically when faced with a challenging dilemma; the rights of a terrorist and how can the law can be tailored to fit the crime.

The criminology documentary you must watch: 
Where do I begin? Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley are both great journalists and documentary makers. If I had to pick one, I would recommend watching the BBC’s documentary on Grenfell If you watch this documentary you must consider; the government’s response; who is accountable; why are the residents of Grenfell still in temporary accommodation. These are the sorts of questions you should be asking as someone studying Criminology.

The most important criminologist you must read: 
Familiarise yourself with the ideas of Lombroso, this will aid your understanding on how criminological theory and ideas have developed overtime through biological, psychological and sociological standpoints.

Something criminological that fascinates me: 
Domestic abuse. I had done my dissertation on this as I have a great interest in male dominance and power over women, especially in intimate relationships. Gender plays a key role in this which when examined in depth, will change your view on gender paradigms.

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is: Criminality was believed by Lombroso to be inherited and that criminals possessed physical defects, criminality would be measured by the size and shape of particular body parts; this was later discredited. I can remember learning this in first year and it fascinated me.

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is: 
To not judge a book by its cover and to not take everything at face value. Do not be afraid to challenge other’s standpoints and beliefs. Thinking critically is the most important skill to have, search deeper into issues and apply your own thoughts and experiences. 

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is: 
Mass incarceration and reoffending rates. The UK is yet to move away from the ‘tough on crime’ approach favouring law and order and punishment. The penal system needs to be reformed to ensure offenders are rehabilitated to break the cycle of criminality; definitely educate yourself on political party’s manifesto’s and what they say about crime and justice before voting.

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is: I tell family and friends that criminology is such a broad field of study; we look at law, psychology, science, sociology, politics, penal systems, criminal justice organisations, media and much more. From this, you attain the ability to think critically and reflect, it can help you in many situations not just criminological issues. It is an incredibly insightful and enlightening field to study; it opens up many opportunities.

What’s in the future for criminology?

This year marks 20 years that we have been offering criminology at the University of Northampton and understandably it has made us reflect and consider the direction of the discipline.  In general, criminology has always been a broad theoretical discipline that allows people to engage in various ways to talk about crime.  Since the early days when Garofalo coined the term criminology (still open to debate!) there have been 106 years of different interpretations of the term. 

Originally criminology focused on philosophical ideas around personal responsibility and free will.  Western societies at the time were rapidly evolving into something new that unsettled its citizens.  Urbanisation meant that people felt out of place in a society where industrialisation had made the pace of life fast and the demands even greater.  These societies engaged in a relentless global competition that in the 20th century led into two wars.  The biggest regret for criminology at the time, was/is that most criminologists did not identify the inherent criminality in war and the destruction they imbued, including genocide.    

In the ashes of war in the 20th century, criminology became more aware that criminality goes beyond individual responsibility.  Social movements identified that not all citizens are equal with half the population seeking suffrage and social rights.  It was at the time the influence of sociology that challenged the legitimacy of justice and the importance of human rights.  In pure criminological terms, a woman who throws a brick at a window for the sake of rights is a crime, but one that is arguably provoked by a society that legitimises inequality and exclusion. Under that gaze what can be regarded as the highest crime? 

Criminologists do not always agree on the parameters of their discipline and there is not always consensus about the nature of the discipline itself.  There are those who see criminology as a social science, looking at the bigger picture of crime and those who see it as a humanity, a looser collective of areas that explore crime in different guises.  Neither of these perspectives are more important than the other, but they demonstrate the interesting position criminology rests in.  The lack of rigidity allows for new areas of exploration to become part of it, like victimology did in the 1960s onwards, to the more scientific forensic and cyber types of criminology that emerged in the new millennium.   

In the last 20 years at Northampton we have managed to take onboard these big, small, individual and collective responses to crime into the curriculum.  Our reflections on the nature of criminology as balancing different perspectives providing a multi-disciplinary approach to answering (or attempting to, at least) what crime is and what criminology is all about.  One thing for certain, criminology can reflect and expand on issues in a multiplicity of ways.  For example, at the beginning of 21st terrorism emerged as a global crime following 9/11.  This event prompted some of the current criminological debates. 

So, what is the future of criminology?  Current discourses are moving the discipline in new ways.  The environment and the need for its protection has emerge as a new criminological direction.  The movement of people and the criminalisation of refugees and other migrants is another.  Trans rights is another civil rights issue to consider.  There are also more and more calls for moving the debates more globally, away from a purely Westernised perspective.  Deconstructing what is crime, by accommodating transnational ideas and including more colleagues from non-westernised criminological traditions, seem likely to be burning issues that we shall be discussing in the next decade.  Whatever the future hold there is never a dull moment with criminology.   

20 years of Criminology

It was at the start of a new millennium that people worried about what the so-called millennium will do to our lives.  The fear was that the bug will usher a new dark age where technology will be lost.  Whilst the impending Armageddon never happened, the University College Northampton, as the University of Northampton was called then, was preparing to welcome the first cohort of Criminology students. 

The first cohort of students joined us in September 2000 and since then 20 years of cohorts have joined since.  During these years we have seen the rise of University fees, the expansion of the internet and google search and of course the emergence of social media.  The original award was focused on sociolegal aspects, predominantly the sociology of deviance, whilst in the years since the changes demonstrate the departmental and the disciplinary changes that have happened. 

Early on, as criminology was beginning to find its voice institutionally, the team developed two rules that have since defined the focus of the discipline.  The first is that the subject will be taught in a multi-disciplinary approach, widely inclusive of all the main disciplines involved in the study of crime; so alongside sociology, you will find psychology, law, history, philosophy to name but a few.  The impetus was to present these disciplines on an equal footing and providing opportunity to those joining the course, to discover their own voice in criminology. The second rule was to give the students the opportunity to explore contentious topics and draw their own perspective.  Since the first year of running it, these rules have become the bedrock of UoN Criminology. 

The course since the early years has grown and gone through all those developmental stages, childhood, adolescence and now eventually we have reached adulthood.  During these stages, we managed to forge a distinctiveness of what criminology looks like; introducing for example a research placement to allow the students to explore the theory in practice.  In later years we created courses that reflect Criminology in the 21st Century always relating to the big questions and forever arming learners with the skills to ask the impossible questions.   

Through all these years students join with an interest in studying crime and by the time they leave us, to move onto the next chapter of their lives, they have become hard core criminologists.  This is always something that we consider one of the course’s greatest contribution to the local community. 

In an ordinary day, like any other day in the local court one may see an usher, next to a probation officer, next to a police officer, next to a drugs rehabilitation officer, all of them our graduates making up the local criminal justice system.  A demonstration of the reach and the importance of the university as an institution and the services it provides to the local community.  More recently we developed a module that we teach in prison comprised by university and prison students.  This is a clear sign of the maturity and the journey we have done so far…

As the 21st century entered, twin towers fell, bus and tube trains exploded, consequent wars were made, riots in the capital, the banking crisis, the austerity, bridge attacks, Brexit, extinction rebellion, buildings burning, planes coming down, forest fires and #metoo, and we just barely cover 20 years.  These and many more events keep criminological discourse relevant, increase the profile of the subject and most importantly further the conversation we are having in our society as to where we are heading. 

As I raise my glass to salute the first 20 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton, I am confident that the next 20 years will be even more exciting.  For those who have been with us so far a massive thank you, for those to come we are looking forward to discussing some of the many issues with you.  We are passionate about criminology and we want you to infect you with our passion. 

As they say in prison, the first 20 years are difficult the rest you just glide through…

Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

Visa by Impression, Atavism or Exploitation?

My paper, ‘beyond institutional autonomy: a quadrumvirate interaction theory of civil-military relations’ was accepted for presentation at the 2019 Biennial International Conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society scheduled for November 8-10, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency, Reston, Virginia. However, I am unable to attend the conference because I was denied visa at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. In this entry, I wish to highlight and add my voice to the concerns academics and non-academics, especially those from the ‘Global South’ face in securing visas to enable them attend conferences in the supposed ‘developed world.’ Hence, this entry is a personal reflection on the US visa regime in Nigeria, and its nexus with criminology.

Individual visas are often issued based on the merit of an application and the adequacy of the supporting documents submitted by applicants who are also required to pay certain fees and charges for the application. The issuing authorities would normally consider the criminal background record of an applicant, their previous travel history and the adequacy of funds to cover for the cost of the trip. In some cases, as typical with the US visa regime in Nigeria, applicants are required to present themselves before a consular officer for a visa interview and the decision to issue a visa is at the discretion of the consular officer.

Given this, one would expect that the consular officer would in the least, view/review the supporting documents of an applicant, in addition to asking some pertinent questions. The rationale being that the US visa web-application platform does not provide a link/option for submitting the supporting system prior to the interview. However, this was not the case when I was denied a visa. In fact, the interview barely lasted two minutes, and the following was the ‘interview’ conversation I had with the male consular officer:

Why do you want to go to Reston Virginia? To attend a conference.

What do you intend to do in the conference? I will be presenting a paper, a theory from my PhD research.

Who would pay for the conference and travel fee? The conference organisers and (he interjects with the next question, but I told him I still have another source of income, but he replied saying I had told him enough and that I should answer the next question).

What is your highest academic qualification? A PhD from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, I just concluded last December.

What do you do for a living? I just concluded a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Stellenbosch and I have just accepted an appointment with the University of Jos as a Lecturer.

Do you have a family? Yes, a wife and a child, and we are expecting another.

For how long have you been married? 3 years

How old is your child? 1 year and 8 months

What does your wife do for a living? She is a housewife, she looks after the family

Are you travelling alone? Yeah (At this point, he faced his computer keyboard, typed some few words, then turned to me and told me, unfortunately we cannot issue you the visa while handing over a pre-printed form containing the reasons for visa denials).

From this ‘interview’ conversation, two things stood out for me. One is the fact that the consular officer made his decisions without viewing or considering any of my supporting documents and the second was the question, what did I do, say, or answer wrongly?

In terms of the latter, I found nothing wrong with my responses, but I found a huge systemic fault with regards to the former. The internet is rife with complaints from individuals, organisations and recently countries accusing the US of implementing a harsh visa regime which deliberately frustrates and traumatises visa applicants. My web application process in Nigeria is nothing short of this, in fact, I thought it was easier to make heaven than to obtain the US visa from Nigeria.

Having carefully thought about the visa regime in the light of my ‘interview,’ I concluded that the US visa regime is anachronistically atavistic, an exploitative business strategy, or both. My opinion is simply that I was denied visa not because of my responses to the questions but because the consular officer found a questionable impression through observing my face as he had not viewed or considered my supporting documents. For this, I appreciate Cesare Lombroso and one needs not be a Criminologist before knowing that facial impression and appearance are never better yardstick than considering the merits of the supporting documents.

A fair and equitable visa system will consider the merit of an application, the travel history of an applicant (which I have a reasonable one), whether the supporting documents are convincing, the criminal record background, purpose of travel, sufficiency of funds, and the existence of a strong tie with one’s origin. However, this was not the case, and this led me to the business exploitation opinion.

Customarily, when one pays for a service, the norm is to provide quality and effective service worth the value of the money paid or promised, anything short of this is clear exploitation – unfortunately, this is how the US visa regime operates in Nigeria. On the day of my interview, there were at least seventy (70) persons queuing up for theirs early in the morning, but it is not my intention to analyse how much income the US derives from this.

A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

“Truth” at the age of uncertainty


Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties.  The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex.  After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield.  It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!

There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time.  I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing. 

So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality.  This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry.  This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating.  In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make. 

A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions.  In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation.  The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter. 

This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience.  The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience. 

Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy.  This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice.  Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic.  The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each.  This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information.  The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence.  The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.

This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance.  We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest. 

Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London

Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

Having recently done a session on criminal records with @paulaabowles to a group of voluntary, 3rd sector and other practitioners I started thinking of the wider implications of taking knowledge out of the traditional classroom and introducing it to an audience, that is not necessarily academic.  When we prepare for class the usual concern is the levelness of the material used and the way we pitch the information.  In anything we do as part of consultancy or outside of the standard educational framework we have a different challenge.  That of presenting information that corresponds to expertise in a language and tone that is neither exclusive nor condescending to the participants. 

In the designing stages we considered the information we had to include, and the session started by introducing criminology.  Audience participation was encouraged, and group discussion became a tool to promote the flow of information.  Once that process started and people became more able to exchange information then we started moving from information to knowledge exchange.  This is a more profound interaction that allows the audience to engage with information that they may not be familiar with and it is designed to achieve one of the prime quests of any social science, to challenge established views. 

The process itself indicates the level of skill involved in academic reasoning and the complexity associated with presenting people with new knowledge in an understandable form.  It is that apparent simplicity that allows participants to scaffold their understanding, taking different elements from the same content.  It is easy to say to any audience for example that “every person has an opinion on crime” however to be able to accept this statement indicates a level of proficiency on receiving views of the other and then accommodating it to your own understanding.  This is the basis of the philosophy of knowledge, and it happens to all engaged in academia whatever level, albeit consciously or unconsciously.

As per usual the session overran, testament that people do have opinions on crime and how society should respond to them. The intriguing part of this session was the ability of participants to negotiate different roles and identities, whilst offering an explanation or interpretation of a situation.  When this was pointed out they were surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed and its complexity.  The role of the academic is not simply to advance knowledge, which is clearly expected, but also to take subjects and contextualise them.  In recent weeks, colleagues from our University, were able to discuss issues relating to health, psychology, work, human rights and consumer rights to national and local media, informing the public on the issues concerned. 

This is what got me thinking about our role in society more generally.  We are not merely providing education for adults who wish to acquire knowledge and become part of the professional classes, but we are also engaging in a continuous dialogue with our local community, sharing knowledge beyond the classroom and expanding education beyond the campus.  These are reasons which make a University, as an institution, an invaluable link to society that governments need to nurture and support.  The success of the University is not in the students within but also on the reach it has to the people around.

At the end of the session we talked about a number of campaigns to help ex-offenders to get forward with work and education by “banning the box”.  This was a fitting end to a session where we all thought “outside the box”. 

%d bloggers like this: