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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.
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
On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.
So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.
My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.
Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.
For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).
Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)
As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.
Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.
Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.
All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.
All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.
However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!
More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.
Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).
Instead we should always consider:
[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).
Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).
Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880
Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23
Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)
Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)
A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.
[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.