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“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!!


“A small case of injustice”

Gilbert Baker

Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights.  A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights.  The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights.  In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals. 

This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law.  In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group.  These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all.  This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws.  The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation. 

Take for example “entrapment”.  Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis.  The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society.  The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax.  So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals?  It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.  This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.     

The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction.  As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison.  It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery).  It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category. 

The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced.  Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them.  This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested.  For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) . 

The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing.  During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live.  It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police.  This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.    

In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:

It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”

This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise.  For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts.  The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing.  The struggle continues…    

Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm

The victimisation of one

One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions.  Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one. 

Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience.  It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives.  To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story. 

Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal.  Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.  Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations). 

Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten.  Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure.  In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents.  Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried. 

Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged.  The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut.  In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced.  Likewise, the McGann family did the same.  Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one.  Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced.  This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind. 

Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted.  People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation.  Then there are those whose experience was not even counted.  In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery.  In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery. 

Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence.  Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with.  These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves.  Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery.  At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed.  In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved?  Have we heard their voices?  Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives.  It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves.  The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read. 

In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri.  Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation.  These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget. 

“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24.  […] My father come from Perry County.  He wus named Abernathy.  My father’s father was a white man.  My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold.  De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans.  Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers.  This was 1832.  De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit.  Dey had six boys.  […] I ve been living here since de Civil War.  Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot.  What I think ‘bout slavery?  Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”. 

Hannah Allen

“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.  I had two sisters and three brothers.  One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919.  His name was Spot.  My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs.  Slavery was a mighty hard life.  Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children.  I nursed in da family one year.  Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children.  I nurse there two years.  Neither family was nice to me.” 

Mary Bell

When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand?  In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn.  Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.    

References

Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford

Deniable racism: ‘I’m alright Jack’

‘No coloureds need apply’: a black man reads a racist sign in a UK boarding house window in 1964.
Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.

But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon.  The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’.  It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else.  In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way.  ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’.  But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas.  And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden.  The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.

I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra.  They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end.  A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly.  Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing.  This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone.  That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.

In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra?  Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something.  The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’.  If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on.  Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.

“I can’t breathe”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kopper/28529325522

George Floyd’s words: “I can’t breathe”, have awaken almost every race and creed in relevance to the injustice of systematic racism faced by black people across the world. His brutal murder has echoed and been shared virtually on every social media platform – Floyd’s death has changed the world and showed that Black people are no longer standing alone in the fight against racism and racial profiling. The death of George Floyd has sparked action within both the white and black communities to demand comprehensive police reforms in regards to police brutality and the use of unjust force towards ethnic minorities.

There have been many cases of racism and racial profiling against black people in the United Kingdom, and even more so in the United State. Research has suggested that there have been issues with police officers stereotyping ethnic minorities, especially black people, which has resulted in a vicious cycle of the stopping and searching of those that display certain physical features. Other researchers have expounded that the conflict between the police and black people has no correlation with crime, rather it is about racism and racial profiling. Several videos circulating on social media platforms depict that the police force does harbour officers who hold prejudice views towards black people within its ranks.

Historically, black people have been deprived, excluded, oppressed, demonised and brutally killed because of the colour of their skin. As ex-military personnel in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and currently working as a custody officer, I can say from experience that the use of force used during the physical restraint on George Floyd was neither necessary nor proportionate to the circumstances. In the video recorded by bystanders, George Floyd was choked in the neck whilst fighting for his life repeating the words “I can’t breathe”. Perhaps the world has now noticed how black people have not been able to breathe for centuries.

The world came to halt because of Covid-19; many patients have died because of breathing difficulties. Across the world we now know what it means if a loved one has breathing issues in connection with Covid-19 or other health challenges. But nothing was done by the other police officers to advise their colleague to place Floyd in the recovery position, in order to examine his breathing difficulties as outlined in many restraint guidelines.

Yet that police officer did not act professional, neither did he show any sign of empathy. Breath is not passive, but active, breathing is to be alive. Racial profiling is a human problem, systematic racism has destroyed the world and further caused psychological harm to its victims. Black people need racial justice. Perhaps the world will now listen and help black people breathe. George Floyd’s only crime was because he was born black. Black people have been brutally killed and have suffered in the hands of law enforcement, especially in the United States.

Many blacks have suffered institutional racism within the criminal justice system, education, housing, health care and employment. Black people like my own wife could not breathe at their workplaces due to unfair treatment and systematic subtle racial discrimination. Black people are facing unjust treatment in the workplace, specifically black Africans who are not given fair promotional opportunities, because of their deep African accent. It is so naïve to assume that the accent is a tool to measure one’s intelligence. It is not overt racism that is killing black people, rather the subtle racism in our society, schools, sports and workplace which is making it hard for many blacks to breathe. 

We have a duty and responsibility to fight against racism and become role models to future generations. Maybe the brutal death of George Floyd has finally brought change against racism worldwide, just as the unprovoked racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence had come to embody racial violence in the United Kingdom and led to changes in the law. I pray that the massive international protest by both black and other ethnicities’ will not be in vain. Rather than “I can’t breathe” reverberating worldwide, it should turn the wheel of police reforms and end systematic racism.

“Restricting someone’s breath to the point of suffocation is a violation of their Human Rights”.

8 Kids and Judging

Written by @bethanyrdavies with contributions from @haleysread

Big Families are unique, the current average family size is 2.4 (Office for National Statistics, 2017) which has declined but remained as such for the past decade. Being 1 of 8 Children is unique, it’s an interesting fact both myself and Haley (also a former graduate and also 1 of 8) both fall back on when you have those awful ice breakers and you have to think of something ‘special’ about yourself.

There is criminological research which identifies ‘large families’ as a characteristic for deviance in individuals (Farrington & Juby, 2001; Wilson, 1975). It’s argued alongside other family factors, such as single-parent households, which maybe more people are familiar with in those discussions. In fact, when looking for criminological research around big families, I didn’t find a great deal. Most of what I found was not looking at deviance but how it affects the children, with suggestions of how children in big families suffer because they get less attention from their parents (Hewitt et al. 2011). Which may be the reality for some families, but I also think it’s somewhat subjective to determine an amount of time for ‘attention’ rather than the ‘quality’ of time parents need to spend with children in order to both help fulfil emotional and cognitive needs. This certainly was not the case from both Haley’s and experience.

When I first thought about writing this piece and talking to Haley about her experiences. I did question myself on how relevant this was to criminology. The answer to that I suppose depends on how you perceive the vastness of criminology as an academic field. The family unit is something we discuss within criminology all the time, but family size is not always the focus of that discussion. Deviance itself by definition and to deviate from the norms of society, well I suppose myself and Haley do both come from ‘deviant’ families.

However, from speaking with Haley and reflecting on my own experience, it feels that the most unique thing about being part of a large family, is how others treat you. I would never think to ask anyone or make comments such as; “How much do your parents earn to look after you all?” or “Did they want a family that big or was it lots of accidents?” or even just make comments, about how we must be on benefits, be ‘Scroungers’ or even comments about my parents sexual relationship. Questions and comments that both I and Haley have and occasionally still experience. Regardless of intent behind them, you can’t help but feel like you have to explain or defend yourself. Even as a child when others would ask me about my family, I had always made a point of the fact that we are all ‘full siblings’ as if that could protect me from additional shame , shame that I had already witnessed in conversations and on TV, with statements such as “She’s got 5 kids all different dads”. Haley mentioned how her view of large families was presented to her as “Those on daytime television would criticise large families” and “A couple of people on our street would say that my parents should stop having kids as there are enough of us as it is.”

Haley and I grew up in different parts of the UK. Haley grew up in the Midlands and describes the particular area as disadvantaged. Due to this Haley says that it wasn’t really a problem of image that the family struggled financially, as in her area everyone did, so therefore it was normal. I grew up in a quite affluent area, but similar to Haley, we were not well-off financially. My childhood home was a council house, but it didn’t look like one, my mum has always been house proud and has worked to make it not look like a council house, which in itself has its own connotations of the ‘shame’ felt on being poor, which Haley also referenced to me. It was hard to even think of labeling us as ‘poor’, as similar to Haley, we had loads of presents at Christmas, we still had nice clothes and did not feel like we were necessarily different. Though it appears me and Haley were also similar in that both our dads worked all the hours possible, I remember my dad worked 3 jobs at one point. I asked my dad about what it was like, he said it was very hard, and he remembers that they were working so hard because if they went bankrupt, it would be in the newspaper and the neighbors would see. Which I didn’t even know was something that happened and has its own name and shame the poor issues for another post. Haley spoke of similar issues and the stress of ‘childcare and the temporary loss of hot water, electric and gas.’

The main points that came from both mine and Haley’s discussions were actually about how fun it is to have a large family, especially as we were growing up. It may not seem like it from my earlier points around finance, but while it was a factor in our lives, it also didn’t feel as important as actually just being a part of that loving family unit. Haley put it perfectly as “I loved being part of a large family as a child. My brothers and sisters were my best friends”. We spoke of the hilarity of simple things such as the complexities of dinner times and having to sit across multiple tables to have dinners in the evening. I had brothers and sisters to help me with my homework, my eldest sister even helped me with my reading every night while I was in primary school. Haley and I both seemed to share a love for den making, which when your parents are big into DIY (almost a necessity when in a big family) you could take tools and wood to the forest and make a den for hours on end. There is so much good about having a large family that I almost feel sorry for those who only believe the negatives. This post was simply to share a snippet of my findings, as well as mine and Haley’s experience. At the very least I hope it will allow others to think of large families in an alternative way and to realise the problems both me and Haley experienced, weren’t necessarily solely linked to our family size, but rather attitudes around social norms and financial status.

References:

Juby, H. and Farrington, D., 2001. Disentangling the Link between Disrupted Families and Delinquency: Sociodemography, Ethnicity and Risk Behaviours. The British Journal of Criminology, 41(1), pp.22-40.

Office for National Statistics. (2017). Families and households in the UK, Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2017 (Accessed: 5th June 2020).

Regoli, R., Hewitt, J. and DeLisi, M., 2011. Delinquency In Society. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Wilson, H., 1975. Juvenile Delinquency, Parental Criminality and Social Handicap. The British Journal of Criminology, 15(3), pp.241-250.

The day after!

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“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This quote allegedly belongs to A. Einstein who imagined a grim day in the aftermath of a world war among nations who carried nuclear arms. 

It is part of human curiosity to imagine beyond the current as to let the mind to wonder on the aftermath of this unique international lockdown!  Thoughts wonder on some prosaic elements of the lockdown and to wonder the side effects on our psyche.  Obviously as I do not have a vast epidemiological knowledge, I can only consider what I know from previous health scares.    

The previous large-scale health scare was in the 1980s.  I still remember the horrible ad with the carved headstone that read AIDS.  One word that scared so many people then.  People were told to practice safe sex and to avoid sharing needles.  People became worried and at the time an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence.  Images of people suffering Kaposi’s sarcoma began to surface in what became more than a global epidemic; it became a test in our compassion.  Early on, gay people reported discrimination, victimisation and eventual, vilification.  It took some mobilisation from the gay community and the death of some famous people to turn the tide of misconceptions, before we turned the tide of the disease.  At this stage, HIV is not a death sentence and people who are in receipt of medical attention can live full and long lives. 

It is interesting to consider how we will react to the easing of the restrictions and the ushering on a new age.  In some Asian countries, since SARS in 2003 some people wear face masks and gloves.  Will that become part of our attire and will it be part of professional wear beyond the health care professions?  If this becomes a condition, how many people will comply, and what will happen to those who will defy them. 

We currently talk about resilience and the war spirit (a very British motif) but is this the same for all?  This is not a lockdown on equal terms.  There are people in isolation in mansions, whilst some others share rooms or even beds with people, they would rather they did not.  At the same time, we talk about resilience, all domestic violence charities speak of a surge in calls that have reached crisis levels.  “Social distancing” has entered the lexicon of our everyday, but there are people who simply cannot cope.  One of the effects the day after, will be several people who will be left quite traumatised.  Some may develop an aversion to people and large crowds so it will be interesting to investigate if agoraphobia will surge in years to come. 

In one of my exercise walks. I was observing the following scene. Grandparents waving at their children and grandchildren from a distance.  The little ones have been told not to approach the others.  You could see the uneasiness of contactless interaction.  It was like a rehearsal from an Ibsen play; distant and emotionally frigid.  If this takes a few more months, will the little ones behave differently when these restrictions are lifted?  We forget that we are social animals and although we do not consciously sniff each other like dogs, we find the scent of each other quite affirming for our interactions.  Smell is one of the senses that has the longest memory and our proximity to a person is to reinforce that closeness. 

People can talk on social media, use webcams and their phones to be together.  This is an important lifeline for those fortunate to use technology, but no one can reach the level of intimacy that comes from a hug, the touch on the skin, the warmth of the body that reassures.  This was what I missed when my grandparents died, the ability to touch them, even for the last time. 

If we are to come out of social distancing, only to go into social isolation, then the disease will have managed something that previous epidemics did not; to alter the way we socialise, the way we express our humanity.  If fear of the contagion makes us withdrawn and depressed, then we will suffer a different kind of death; that of what makes us human. 

During the early stages of the austerity we saw the recurrence of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe.  This was expected and sociologically seemed to move the general discussions about migration in rather negative terms. In the days before the lockdown people from the Asian community already reported instances of abusive behaviour. It will be very interesting to see how people will react to one another once the restrictions are lifted.  Will we be prepared to accept or reject people different from ourselves? 

In the meantime, whilst doctors will be reassessing the global data the pandemic will leave behind, the rest of us will be left to wonder.  Ultimately for every country the strength of healthcare and social systems will inevitably be evaluated.  Countries will be judged, and questions will be asked and rightfully so.  Once we burry our dead, we must hold people to account.  This however should not be driven by finding a scapegoat but so we can make the most of it for the future. Only if we prepare to see the disease globally, we can make good use of knowledge and advance our understanding of the medicine.

So maybe, instead of recriminations, when we come outside from our confinement, we connect with our empathy and address the social inequalities that made so many people around us, vulnerable to this and many other diseases. 

Coronavirus (Covid-19): The greatest public health crisis in my lifetime

The coronavirus has caused an ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, as early as November 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and recognized it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Whilst we all have an interest in the ongoing spread and consequence of the greatest public health crisis in generations it holds a specific interest for me given my visits to Wuhan and Hubei province whilst working for Coventry University. Wuhan is a massive city with over 11 million of a population, but little heard of until this outbreak. It is believed that its origins are most likely linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan which also sold live animals, and one theory is that the virus came from one of these kinds of animals. The virus spread quickly through the population of Wuhan City which led to comprehensive lockdown to contain the virus. However, the virus spread beyond the city across China and into other countries. The scale of the spread has been significant and by the time the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a full pandemic in March 2020 there were cases recorded in hundreds of countries.

Cases in the UK emerged on January 31st 2020, which prompted a government response to manage the outbreak. In the early stages there was some discussion about “taking it on the chin” and allowing the virus to spread through the population in order to gain “herd immunity”. However, the public health, medical and scientific experts at Imperial College London suggested that the death toll through their modelling exercises, if this strategy played out, could be in excess of 500,000. This was a situation that would be socially and politically unpalatable, and a change of thinking emerged with a combination of social distancing, public health advice on washing hands and a strategy to protect the capacity of the NHS to cope with escalating cases. A new lexicon emerged that we are now all familiar with: flattening the curve, delaying the spread, the peak of the infection and latterly the language of the health professionals in the frontline supporting and caring for people acutely ill with Covid-19; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), ventilation and oxygen saturation and therapy. This is because the virus can attack the respiratory system leading to pneumonia and in several cases an immune response that leads to multi-organ shutdown. The media presentation of this crisis is all very frightening.

At the time of writing the pandemic has progressed relentlessly in the UK with currently over 65,000 people have tested positive and of those hospitalised nearly 8,000 patients have died. Some commentators have suggested that the UK was slow to recognise the seriousness of the virus and was slow to initiate the “lockdown” measures required to halt the spread. In addition, the UK’s position on testing for the virus has been criticised as slow, lacking preparation despite the global warnings from WHO and a shortage of the essential materials required. Whether these criticisms are valid only time will tell but the UK’s data on cases, hospitalisation, need for critical care and deaths is on a trajectory like other countries which could be described as liberal democracies. Here is the first clue to the timing of the response. The measures required to halt the spread of the virus have massive economic consequences. Balancing these two issues is incredibly difficult and has led to some commentators suggesting all liberal democracies will struggle to respond quickly enough.

What is now abundantly clear is that this is going to take some time for us to get through as a society and the consequences for large sections of our society are going to be devastating. However, what I’d like to discuss in the remainder of this blog are a number of early lessons and personal observations in terms of what we are seeing play out.

First, the data emerging indicates that the narrative about the “virus does not discriminate” is a false one. It is clear that health professionals are much more greatly exposed and that the data on cases and deaths indicate higher numbers of the socially deprived and BAME community. This should not be a surprise as the virus will be keenest felt in communities negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since we recognised this in the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980). The Report showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of Britain and suggested that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately from socially deprived communities.

Second, the coronavirus will force the return of big government. The response already supports this. In times of real crisis, the “State” always takes over. Will this lead to more state intervention going forward? If so then we will witness the greatest interventionist Conservative government in my lifetime.

Third, the coronavirus provides one more demonstration of the mystique of borders and will help reassert the role of the nation state. Therefore, the coronavirus is likely to strengthen nationalism, albeit not ethnic nationalism. To survive, the government will ask citizens to erect walls not simply between states but between individuals, as the danger of being infected comes from the people we meet most often. It is not the stranger but those closest to you who present the greatest risk.

Fourth, we see the return of the “expert”. Most people are very open to trusting experts and heeding the science when their own lives are at stake. One can already see the growing legitimacy that this has lent to the professionals who lead the fight against the virus. Professionalism is back in fashion, including recognition of the vital role of the NHS.

Fifth, the coronavirus could increase the appeal of the big data authoritarianism employed by some like the Chinese government. One can blame Chinese leaders for the lack of transparency that made them react slowly to the spread of the virus, but the efficiency of their response and the Chinese state’s capacity to control the movement and behaviour of people has been impressive.

Sixth, changing views on crisis management. What governments learned in dealing with economic crises, the refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks was that panic was their worst enemy. However, to contain the pandemic, people should panic – and they should drastically change their way of living.

Seventh, this will have an impact on intergenerational dynamics. In the context of debates about climate change and the risk it presents, younger generations have been very critical of their elders for being selfish and not thinking about the future seriously. Ironically the coronavirus reverses these dynamics.

Finally, I return to a point made earlier, governments will be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy. In conclusion, I have heard many say that this crisis is different to others we may have faced in the past 30 years and that as a result we can see society changing. Whilst I’m sure a number of the issues raised in this blog could potentially lead to society change it is also a truism that our memories are short, and we may return to life as it looked before this crisis quite quickly. Only time will tell.

Reference
“The Black Report” (1980): Inequalities in Health: Report of a Research Working Group. Department of Health and Social Security, London, 1980.

Hypocrites or just human?

At a time of a significant religious festival in the Christian calendar and at a time of global anxiety, sacrifice and distress, it seems apt to reflect on where we stand in it all.

Like most, I watch the television, listen to the radio, tap into social media (albeit only on limited occasions), receive emails and listen to family, friends and colleagues.

I am amazed by the sacrifice that some people make to protect or look after others and yet dismayed by the actions and comments of some.  And yet as I ponder on the current situation I realise that it only brings into focus behaviours, actions and comments that were already there.  Perhaps, the circumstances have allowed some to shine or provided more of a focus on those that already do outstanding things, and this is a good thing but human nature as it is, doesn’t really change. Here are a few examples, I’m sure if you reflect on these you will think of more.

  • We lament at the inequality in the world, but we do little about it.  Instead, we fight to buy up all the toilet rolls that we can, lest we run out.
  • We complain the government haven’t done enough in the current crisis and then flout the guidelines they gave us on social gatherings and movement or cause others to do so (did you really need that Amazon order?)
  • We complain about our work conditions, but we are content for the company or organisation to continue paying us, often saying they don’t pay us enough
  • We are upset by colleagues who do us a disservice and then denigrate others because of their so-called ineptitude
  • We complain about being bullied but go on to display the same bullying behaviours that we complained about
  • We call people misogynistic but then in the same breath suggest that the world would be better without men or that women do a better job
  • We accuse people of being racist but then use derogatory and stereotypical language to describe those that we accuse
  • We condemn those that we see as privileged and suggest they should give up their wealth and status. And yet we fail to consider our own privilege and are not prepared to give up what we have (see the first comment re inequality)
  • We see the criminal justice system as unfair but would be the first to complain if we were a victim of crime and the offender wasn’t brought to justice. What we see as justice is dependent on the impact the wrongful act has on us
  • We commit crimes, albeit perhaps minor ones or committed crimes when we were younger and didn’t know better, yet we castigate others for being criminal.  Welfare cheats are awful, but tax payments are to be avoided

I could go on, but I think by now you get the general idea. I’ll return to religion if I may, not that I’m religious, but I did start off the blog with an acknowledgement of the timing in line with the Christian calendar: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”, (John, 8:7).  Maybe we should be a little more honest with ourselves and think about what we say or do before we judge and condemn others.  I do wonder though, are we all hypocrites, or is it part of the pathology of just  being human?

Information overload

If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks you’ve probably found yourself fighting your way through a tsunami of information that’s coming from all directions. Notifications are going into overdrive with social media apps, news apps and browsers desperate to deliver more and more content, at ever increasing frequencies. Add to this all the stories, videos and memes friends and family are also sharing and it’s hard to know where to look first. The sheer volume of content makes it harder than ever to know what is fact, fake or opinion. In honesty, it can all be a bit overwhelming.

How do you even begin sorting the information that’s being thrown at you when you can’t keep up with how quickly your news feeds are moving

1. Sort the fact from the fiction

There’s nothing like a pandemic to send the fake news mills into overdrive. Many are easy to spot, the 2020 version of an urban myth (My neighbour’s, brother’s dog is a top civil servant and says….) others are much more sophisticated and purport to be from trusted sources. The Guardian (Mercier, 2020) reports on the danger of these stories and the tragic consequences that can occur when people believe them.

Why are we so susceptible to fake news stories though? They use “truthiness” to play on our fears and biases. If it sounds like something we think could be true, if it confirms our prejudices or worries, we’re more likely to believe it.

Fact checking is more important than ever. Take a moment to think before you share – what is the source? where are their sources? For more tips on spotting fake news check out this guide (IFLA, 2020) or use an independent reputable fact checking site such as Full Fact. This blog article from the Information Literacy Group (Bedford, 2020) pulls together a selection of reliable information sources related to Covid-19.

2. Bursting your bubble

Personalised content from news feeds can be useful, but we often don’t even realise the news stories and content we’re seeing in apps has been chosen by an algorithm. Their purpose is to feed us stories they think we will like, to keep us reading longer. This can be convenient, but it can also be misleading. We get trapped in a filter bubble that feeds us the type of content we like and usually from a perspective that agrees with our own way of thinking.

Sometimes we need to know what else is going on in the world outside our specific areas of interest though and sometimes we need to consider viewpoints we don’t necessarily agree with, so we can make an informed judgement.

These algorithms can also get things wrong. My own Google news feed weirdly seems to think I’m interested in anything vaguely related to British Airways, Coventry City Football Club and Meghan Markle (I’d like to state for the record I’m not particularly interested in any of these things). This is without considering the inherent biases they have built into them, before they even start their work (algorithm bias is a whole other blog article in itself).

It’s human nature to want to hear things that agree with our way of thinking and reinforce our own world view, we follow people we like and admire, we choose news sources that confirm our way of thinking, but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture when sat in our bubble. Rather than letting the news come to you, go direct to several news sources (maybe even some that have a different political leaning to you, if you feel like being challenged). Be active in seeking news stories, rather than passively consuming them.    

3. Step away from the news feed (when you need to)

It’s a bit of a balancing act, we need to know enough to be informed and stay safe without spending 24/7 plugged in. We’re not superhuman though and sometimes we need to accept that just because it’s on our feed, we’re not obliged to engage. Give yourself permission to skip stories, mute notifications and be selective when you need to. We all have different saturation points, mine will vary day to day, but listen to yourself and know when it’s time to switch off. If it helps, set reminders on your apps to give you a nudge when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. The Mental Health Foundation (2020) have some tips for looking after your mental health in relation to news coverage of Covid-19.

If you need help finding information or want support evaluating sources the Academic Librarian team are offering  online tutorials and an online drop-in service. You can also contact us by emailing librarians@northampton.ac.uk

Cheryl Gardner

Academic Liaison Manager, LLS

References

Bedford, D. (2020) Covid-19: Seeking reliable information in difficult times. Information Literacy Group [online]. Available from: https://infolit.org.uk/covid-19-seeking-reliable-information-in-difficult-times/ [Accessed 31/03/2020].

IFLA (2020) How to spot fake news. IFLA [online]. Available from: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174 [Accessed 31/03/2020].

Mental Health Foundation (2020) Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation [online]. Available from: https://mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak [Accessed 31/03/2020]

Mercier, H. (2020) Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat? The Guardian [online]. 30th March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/30/fake-news-coronavirus-false-information [Accessed 31/03/2020].

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