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Is justice fair?

There is a representation of justice.  A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other.  This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority.  The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair.  To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life.  Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.  

The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public.  The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata.  Well, at least in principle.  There is a difference between representation and reality.  This is something we learn from early on.  As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup.  It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations.  Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet.  Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing. 

Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need.  It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth.  Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era.  Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism.  The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised.  Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice.  Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing. 

This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”.  Desirable and available to all citizens.  A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account.  Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation.  The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring.  There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart.  The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo

On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened.  Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical.  Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive.  Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people.  For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice.  If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental.  Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations. 

Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system.  It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness.  Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems.  From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented.  Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower.  Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change.  Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.       

https://www.pikrepo.com/flrpo/lady-justice-statue

“I can’t breathe”: Criminology, Science and Society

Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect.  In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder.  Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon.  After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth.  This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder.  The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment. 

There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point.  Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society.  In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool.  As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced.  The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.   

When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.

This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law.  It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton).  In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.* 

The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.

Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.

Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.

If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong.  If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.  Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement.  For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression. 

Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.

Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.

If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.

*Even that can now be given as an affirmation

Criminology 2020 AD

2020 will be a memorable year for a number of reasons.  The big news of course was people across the world going into lockdown and staying home in order to stop the transmission of a coronavirus Covid-19.  Suddenly we started counting; people infected, people in hospitals, people dead.  The social agenda changed and our priorities altered overnight.  During this time, we are trying to come to terms with a new social reality, going for walks, knitting, baking, learning something, reading or simply surviving, hoping to see the end of something so unprecedented.     

People are still observing physical distancing, and everything feels so different from the days we were discussing future developments and holiday plans. During the last days before lockdown we (myself and @paulaabowles) were invited to the local radio by April Dawn to talk about, what else, but criminology.  In that interview we revealed that the course started 20 years ago and for that reason we shall be having a big party inviting prospective, current and old students together to mark this little milestone.  Suffice to say, that did not happen but the thought of celebrating and identifying the path of the programme is very much alive.  I have written before about the need to celebrate and the contributions our graduates make to the local, regional and national market.  Many of whom have become incredibly successful professionals in the Criminal Justice System. 

On this entry I shall stand on something different; the contribution of criminology to professional conduct, social sciences and academia.  Back in the 1990s Stan Cohen, wrote the seminal Against Criminology, a vibrant collection of essays, that identified the complexity of issues that once upon a time were identified as radical.  Consider an academic in the 1960s imagining a model that addresses the issue of gender equality and exclusion; in some ways things may not have changed as much as expected, but feminism has entered the ontology of social science. 

Criminology as a discipline did not speak against the atrocities of the Nazi genocide, like many other disciplines; this is a shame which consecutive generations of colleagues since tried to address and explain.  It was in the 1960s that criminology entered adulthood and embraced one of its more fundamental principles.  As a theoretical discipline, which people outside academia, thought was about reading criminal minds or counting crime trends only.  The discipline, (if it is a discipline) evolved in a way to bring a critical dimension to law and order.  This was something more than the original understanding of crime and criminal behaviour and it is deemed significant, because for the first time we recognised that crime does not happen in a social vacuum.  The objectives evolved, to introduce scepticism in the order of how systems work and to challenge established views. 

Since then, and through a series of events nationally and internationally, criminology is forging a way of critical reflection of social realities and professional practices.  We do not have to simply expect a society with less crime, but a society with more fairness and equality for all.  The responsibilities of those in position of power and authority is not to use and abuse it in order to gain against public interest.  Consider the current pandemic, and the mass losses of human life.  If this was preventable, even in the slightest, is there negligence?  If people were left unable to defend themselves is that criminal?  Surely these are questions criminology asks and this is why regardless of the time and the circumstances there will always be time for criminology to raise these, and many more questions.    

Managerialism, students and the language of failure

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Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels.  How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams?  Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case.  However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.

Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League.  If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability.  It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs.  Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally.  This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve.  And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled.  Make sense so far, I hope so?

If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students.  Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades.  We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts.  We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university.  We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades.   The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.

Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’?  These are a ‘1st and 2.1.  At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades.  The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’.  This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade.  Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’.  A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.

Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player.  Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League.  The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.

With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.

It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.

The struggle is real

Stephanie is a BA Criminology graduate of 2019 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of her own dissertation.

Last year was a very important time for me, during my second year of studying Criminology I began doing a work placement with Race Act 40, which was an oral history project to celebrate 40 years of the Race Relations Act 1974. The interviews that were conducted during my placement allowed me to get a variety of in-depth stories about racial inequalities of Afro-Caribbean migration settlers in the UK. During my time with the Race Act 40 project it became clear to me that the people who had volunteered their stories had witnessed a long line of injustices from not only individuals within society, but also institutions that makeup the ‘moral fabric’ within society. When exploring whether they have seen changes post and pre-Race Relations they insisted that although the individual within society treated them better and accepted them post-Race relations, to an extent there is a long way to go to improve the hostile relationships that has been formed with politicians and police.

The notion of hostility between politicians and the Afro-Caribbean community was reinforced, as the UK was going through the Windrush scandal which affected the core of every Afro-Caribbean household within the UK. This was extremely important for me as both paternal and maternal grandparents were first generation Windrush settlers. During the scandal my father became extremely anxious and the ramifications of the Windrush scandal hit home when some of his friends that came to the UK in 1961, the same time as he did, were detained and deported on the grounds of them being ‘illegals’. The UK Government used their ‘Hostile Environment’ policy to reintroduce Section 3 paragraph 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, which puts burden of proof on anyone that is challenged about their legal status in the UK’.

The UK government was ‘legally’ able to deport Caribbean settlers, as many of them did not have a British passport and could not prove their legal right to be in the UK and the Home Office could not help them prove their legal rights because all archival documents had been destroyed. This was a hard pill to swallow, as the United Kingdom documents and preserves all areas of history yet, overnight, the memory of my family’s journey to the UK was removed from the National Archives, without any explanation or reasoning. The anxiety that my father felt quickly spread over my whole family and while I wanted to scream and kick down doors demanding answers, I used my family’s history and the experiences of other Black people under British colonial rule as the basis for my dissertation. The hostility that they faced stepping off the Windrush echoed similar hostility they were facing in 2018, the fact that the British government had started deporting people who were invited into the country as commonwealth workers to build a country that had been torn apart as a corollary of war was a slap in the face.

Under Winston Churchill’s government, officials were employed to research Black communities to prove they were disproportionately criminal as a strategy to legally remove them from the UK and although they did not have any evidence to prove this notion the government did not apologize for the distasteful and racist treatment they demonstrated. It is hard to convince Black people in 2019 that they are not targets of poor similar treatment when they have been criminalised again and documents have been destroyed to exonerate them from criminality.

A final thought:

I have outlined the reasons why this topic has been important to me and my advice to any Criminology student who is going to be writing a dissertation is, to find a topic that is important and relevant to you, if you are passionate about a topic it will shine through in your research.

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

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”. 

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

Who cares what I think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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