Thoughts from the criminology team

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Meet the Team: Dan Petrosian, Lecturer in Criminology

Hi all! My name is Dan Petrosian and I have recently joined the Criminology team as a Lecturer. I also teach at The Open University where I am a member of the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative, and have previously taught at Croydon University Centre and University of Westminster, where I am part of the Convict Criminology Research Group. Currently I am still working on my PhD with the aim of submitting later this year.

Having thought initially about studying law for my undergraduate degree, I couldn’t imagine the prospect of spending 3-4 years of my life trawling through pages on Corporate and Tort Law to eventually specialise in an area I was really interested in. Just as well…studying Criminology from a critical and holistic angle, it became clear to me that Law was never really my area of interest at all. Almost instantly, I knew Criminology was where life would take me for the long-haul. The ‘common-sense’ and ‘taken-for-granted’ narrative about crime/criminality that I had long been accustomed to suddenly looked flawed…and, in many ways, deliberately tilted towards those who had the power to set the narrative. Over the years, I became particularly interested in how this power manifests itself in different areas of society, how it is exercised through the use of ‘video activism’ and the media in general, and how language and discourse is used in order to shape collective stereotypes about some groups but not others.

My PhD focusses specifically on racial (in)justice; how dominant mainstream media and political discourse is used to ‘frame’ immigration, how this is then challenged by the broader anti-racist movement in the UK through the use of ‘video activism’, and what types of knowledge are produced from this process which can help us understand the complex power interplay between the state and those within its borders. It would be amazing to meet and work with other academics interested in these areas of research!

Although I still have deeply-rooted Imposter Syndrome from having migrated to the UK in the 90s without speaking a word of English and trying to ‘fit in’, studying and working in higher education has taught me that there is always a gap that can be filled at the right time in the right place…a gap that can flip every self-critical flaw into momentary virtue. Joining the Criminology team at Northampton has become part of my learning curve, and I am very much looking forward to working closely with the team and meeting all our students when teaching starts this semester!

Meet the Team: Stephanie Richards, Student Success Mentor and Associate Lecturer in Criminology

A Warm Welcome

Hello all! I would like to introduce myself. My name is Stephanie Richards and I am your Student Success Mentor (SSM). Some of the criminology and criminal justice students would have already had the opportunity to meet me, as I was their Student Success Mentor previously. So, it will be great to touch base with you all and it would also be great for the new cohorts to say hi when you see me on campus.

It is that time of the year when we see new students and our existing students getting ready to tackle the trials of higher education. Being a SSM I am fully aware of the challenges that you will face, and I am here to support you throughout your time at UON. As a previous student I can testify that studying at university is incredibly challenging. The leap from school/ college can be daunting at first. A new building that seems like a maze or the idea of being  surrounded by strangers that you probably think you have nothing in common with can be enough to encourage you to run for the hills….stepping into a workshop for the first time can give you a stomach flip, but once you take that first seat in class you will come to realise it does get easier.

Upon reflection of my experience as a new undergraduate student I would have to be honest and express the difficulties that I suffered adjusting to my new way of life. I could  not keep my head above the masses of reading, and when I did manage to get some of the seminar prep completed, most of the time I struggled with the new questions and concepts that were posed to me. This will be the experience of most, if not all the new students starting out on their university education. This is part of the complex journey of academia. My advice would be to pace yourself, time management is key, if you struggle to understand the work that has been set, ask for clarity and develop positive relationships with your peers and the staff at UON…………..being part of a strong community will get you through a lot!

My role is not just about assisting the new students that have started their university journey, I am also here to help UONs existing students. Getting back into the swing of studying can be daunting after the summer break. Adjusting to face-to-face education can be an overwhelming process but one that should be embraced. We will all miss our pyjama bottoms and slippers but being back on campus and getting some normality back in your day is worth the sacrifice.  

The team of SSM’s are here to support you throughout your journey so please get in touch if you require our assistance. We never want you to feel alone in this journey and we want to assist you the best ways we can. We want you to progress and meet your full learning potential, and to get the most out of your university experience.

Meet the Team: Francine Bitalo, Student Success Mentor and Associate Lecturer in Criminology

Hi everyone! My name is Francine Bitalo and I will be your new Student Success Mentor for this year. I am looking forward to meeting and assisting you all in your academic journey. Feel free to contact me for any support.

Being a graduate from the University of Northampton I can relate to you all, I know how challenging student life can be especially when dealing with other external factors. You may go through stages where you doubt your creativity, abilities and maybe even doubt whether the student life is for you. When I look back at when I was a student, I definitely regret not contacting the Student Success Mentors that were available to me or simply utilising more of the university’s support system. It is important for you seek support people like myself are here to help and recommend you to the right people.

Besides everything, Criminology is such an interesting course to study if you are anything like me by the end of it all you won’t view the world the same. Many of you have probably already formed your views on life especially when it comes to understanding crime. Well by the end of it all your ways of viewing the world will enhance and become more complex, theoretical and constructive. The advice I give you all is to enjoy the journey, be open minded and most importantly prepare for exciting debates and conversations.

Look forward to meeting you all.

Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: #MakeSomeSpace

When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.

My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.      

Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.

This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.

There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.

With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?

#CriminologyBookClub: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

As you know from our regular #CriminologyBookClub entries a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all eight bloggers contributing! Our tenth book was chosen by @amycortvriend As can be seen from below, this text gave us plenty to think and talk about.

This was an interesting choice. Having lived through 2001, it was interesting to reflect on events almost two decades ago. I’ve read quite a lot of material around the area, so the content of The Reluctant Fundamentalist didn’t really have any surprises. The use of just one voice to tell the story was interesting and left you wondering what (if anything) the other person in the conversation was saying. I found the sex scenes with Erica rather disturbing, primarily recognising that this was a vulnerable women, regardless of Changez’ motivations. Overall an interesting read, with many unanswered questions left hanging. I know I’ve filled in the blanks, but equally I recognise that other members of the criminology book club may have very different answers….

@paulaabowles

Set in a Lahore café it is easy to imagine the scene and the changing scenery as day turns to night and a one-sided conversation takes place between the narrator and a stranger. In a story of the clash of two cultures and ideologies, the protagonist explains how he at first embraces the ‘American Dream’, soaking up the capitalist vision and the pathway to riches and success only to turn against these ideas as a result of some inner turmoil that he cannot fully explain. For the reader the explanation may become somewhat clearer as each page is turned but still you are left with the question, what is the purpose of this conversation? All becomes clear at the end or does it? A cleverly written plot that captivates from the start. The storyline takes the reader on a journey that is carefully narrated and beautifully descriptive. I really enjoyed the book and it took me back to some of the academic work around terrorism and fundamentalism. A good read that certainly makes you ponder some western values.

@5teveh

When I think back to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I remember being swept up in the unique style of writing, the timely and thought-provoking themes and the somewhat questionable characters. I struggled to put it down and I think it navigates some themes well (I’ll be careful of spoilers). However, once I had finished the book I was left with a crucial question: ‘What is the ending?’. I struggled with the ‘love’ relationship depicted, even more so upon reflection. And was rooting for a love interest between the protagonist and his boss, Jim, but that was not to be. All in all, I could not put the book down and thoroughly enjoyed it, however as always when I take time for critical reflection: things become a little unstuck. However, excellent choice @amycortvriend!

@jesjames50

The book mostly consists of a person telling his life-story in a restaurant. For me, the storyteller’s life experiences were at times very sad, and when reflecting on scenes involving the women who he loved…maybe even a little strange. The book includes plenty of themes that are relevant to the field of criminology so I think it’s a book that criminology students would find interesting. I was intrigued by this book as I wanted to know more about the main character’s story, I also wanted to know why he was bothering to tell his story to a stranger in such detail in the first place. Overall, I thought the book was good, despite ambiguous ending!

@haleysread

I did not enjoy this book. I really struggled to get past the style in which it was written which I found at times irritating and at others uncomfortable. The descriptions of the narrator’s ‘relationship’ with Erica were particularly difficult to read. There were too many things left unknown to the reader which made it difficult to feel sympathetic to any of the characters involved and the ambiguous ending was more frustrating than intriguing.

@saffrongarside

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a novel that we as a society should read. This novel will not give you a manual on how to treat people, but it will hopefully get you to reflect on the implicit ignorance of society and the violence that is legitimised in the name of politics.

Although the backdrop of the novel is set during the 9/11 terror attacks, Mohsin Hamid, does not address the clichés of terrorism, or the morals of individuals. The focus of the novel rests on the problematic treatment  and labels that society pushes onto ‘suspect’ communities, and the power that Western society holds over the rest of the world.

The main character of the story Changez, is not necessarily a likeable or loveable character, he is human, he is flawed he holds the qualities that all humans possess. But being a Pakistani national that is living in the U.S at such a volatile time, creates an atmosphere of angst that is exclusive to him and people that look like him. Throughout the novel I constantly wanted him to comply with the ideals of Western society so that he could fit in to win and be Othered less.

As an individual that is deemed different than the ‘norm’ and part of a suspect community, it is difficult to ignore how hard it is to be completely accepted and given access into a society that only gives you part membership. The blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction of this novel, allows for uncomfortable reflection of my own tireless navigation through society and the problematic narratives that has been thrust upon others.

This book will not solve the problems of the world, but it will allow us to reflect on who we are, how we treat each other and how we can do better as humans.

@svr2727

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was definitely a fascinating read. It leaves an impression to you. There is something unsettling about the way the story progresses, and you are always on edge about what is likely to happen next. The story is a constant narration as a one-way conversation. At first the novelty of the conversation is interesting and engaging, but in parts it is stretching it, feeling a bit exaggerated. The protagonist is unclear if they are a hero or a villain, friend or foe and this sustains that suspense even further. We are left wondering as we trace different parts of his story through a seemingly random recollection of events. The writing is good and engaging leaving you wanting to know more, but for those who like the certainty of what happens this may not be for you. After I finished the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, mainly because I wasn’t sure of how I felt about the characters. One thing is for sure the subject matter and the pace of writing will leave you guessing.

@manosdaskalou

Having read another of the author’s novels, I was looking forward to The Reluctant Fundamentalist and it did not disappoint. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the writing style which was almost a one-sided conversation which made you constantly wonder who the other person is, why they are there and what they are saying. Spoiler alert: we never find out. I like that the ending is open, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. I also enjoyed the journey of the protagonist from his desperation of wanting to succeed in his pursuit of the American dream to the realisation, triggered by 9/11, that he never truly would fit in, nor does he want to anymore.

@amycortvriend

Let it be Light

You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it.  It is a quote from the bible!  It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals.  A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards.  The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work.  This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures.  I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content. 

Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy.  What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification.  This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids.  Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.

Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun?  Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests?  Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen.  It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime.  The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort.  It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development.  In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless.  In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.  

In life however, big creations cannot happen by command.  “Let it be Baby!”  I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option.  This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself.  We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option.  In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged.  Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will.  Maybe because this is not parenting.  The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting.  Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity?  Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy.  What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write.  Because this will not be knowledge.  The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight!  After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”!  This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light!  A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge.  It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.  

Reflecting on reflection

For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development.  Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective.  It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.

What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me.  I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar.  My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review.  The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts.  For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment.  Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine.  I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor.  And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.

Ignorance is bliss: the problem with education

I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?

And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question.  Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?

If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance.  I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.

If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do.  In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.

If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.

The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.

Ask the expert, if you can find one

It was around four years ago I discovered the title of ‘Doctor’ extended beyond medical staff. I’m not sure many people outside of the academic world fully understand or have any reason to know the order in which post nominal letters are awarded or titles are given. Gaining the title of ‘doctor’ at the very beginning of any academic journey, seems so distantly part of any future plan, its barely imaginable. Some career paths seem wildly ambitious. Wanting to be an ‘expert’ in your field for the humble student, feels much like aspiring to become an astronaut midway through a physics degree.

Once you enter the world of academia, the titles people hold seem to determine an awful lot of their credibility. It’s rare to find a university lecturer who isn’t working towards doctoral qualification, most already have one. The papers, books and research journals are filled with the knowledge of individuals who once were nothing more than students. I often wonder though, at what point someone becomes an expert? At what point, (if ever) do the most academically qualified individuals refer to themselves as experts within a narrow area of their field.

The government often talks about relying on ‘expert’ evidence. Watching the experts stand beside the PM discussing the current pandemic, they appear uneasy, particularly when questions are raised about a different expert having a contradicting opinion. One thing I feel quite sure of is that experts seem to rarely agree. As Bertrand Russell (1927/42) states, “even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken” . Maybe that’s because it’s questionable if anyone can ever truly know everything on a given subject area.

The scientific committee seems to be buzzing with accusations that the experts are not quite what they seem. The ‘data scientists’ advising government and sitting on SAGE are not all from a background which comfortably implies they are qualified to discuss virology or immunology. In the background lingers the fact with such a new virus, with so little known about it, expert knowledge in a narrow sense, is undoubtedly in its infancy and will probably require some degree of hindsight later on.

In the past week one of the UK’s leading experts has resigned from his job after breaking his own guidance. Meanwhile the public watched Matt Hancock ‘snap’ at an opposition MP in parliament. A woman who despite being no more of an ‘expert’ than himself, at least has experience as a qualified A&E doctor to base her opinions and views on. It seems last week’s experts and heroes are this week’s victims in the ongoing witch-hunt for someone to blame.

I’ve started to wonder if labelling someone an ‘expert’ is something other people do to install confidence that a piece of research being relied upon is credible, rather than the experts referring to themselves that way. There’s almost an assumption of arrogance for anyone who dares to protest that their knowledge should be recognised with a title, outside of the academic world anyway. Maybe people simply don’t understand what it took to reach that level of knowledge in the first place.

I’ve looked a lot at ‘labelling’ within the criminological context and it seems to me the labels that are attached to us, almost always seem to come from someone else. In an age of self-proclaimed ‘internet experts’ the real experts, it seems are hard to find.

Reference

Russell, Bertrand (1927/1942) cited in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: A Fresh Look at Empiricism, 1927-42, edited by by John Slater and Assisted by Peter Köllner, (London: Routledge)

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