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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”.
This time of the year, it always feels a bit, well odd! I prepare for the new academic year, in terms of the administrative tasks but most importantly for the academic material. For many years now, I have been returning to the same space, sit on the same chair and talk to the same old people. I am aware that this may demystify the role of the academic, but this is only the obvious side. What I left out from this annual ritual is the most important part of the process; the time used to contemplate content, to reflect on the pedagogies used and to explore new ideas; this is a process whose gestation will commence at the end of the last year and will mature just before the new academic year begins.
This year things are going to be slightly different; the last academic year I was on the old campus and now we have moved to a brand-new campus. Admittedly, this is a very interesting experience so far. In a way, it feels like I have changed employment although I still see the same recognisable faces around. Getting used to the new buildings will take a bit of time, so for those reading this blog, and coming to the campus, please bear with me and of course, if you see me going the wrong direction point me to the right one. This is a year the myself and my colleagues and our students will be discovering the new campus together. This will be a shared experience to remember.
The move to the new campus is also aligned to the way we have developed our institutional pedagogies, although our subject has long been involved in those, either espousing the changemaker ethos or getting involved with local organisations and engaging with the community. We have already been thinking of ways of working with our students to become more civic minded which will help in connecting the academic experience, with a different kind of social learning.
This is a year like all other years, in terms of preparation and planning but at the same time this is a year like no other. It is a year all students and staff will remember beyond their educational experience. Years ago, I told a group of students that the place of study becomes such an important point of reference because as people we combine experiences together. The new campus will shelter the dreams and aspirations of many generations of students and transfigure them into the level of academic maturity that lead our graduates to professional success. The process is so simple and at the same time so incredibly vital. The students who come will progress through their studies, master the importance of becoming independent learners with confidence, who will return to their communities, to enhance them with their knowledge and ability. This is an incredibly satisfying academic process that encouraged myself and many other colleagues to join academia in the first instance.
Let’s have a great new academic year. One of many
I attended the BSC conference last week, presenting a paper from my PhD research, doing the usual rounds of seeing familiar faces, meeting some new faces and hoping nobody uttered the words ‘well its more of an observation than a question’. There was one session which particularly inspired me and so is the focus of this blog. The key theme was that as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content. We must continue to introduce students to more challenging ideas and shift their thinking from accepted wisdom of how to ‘do justice’ and ‘why people commit crime’.
The session attended was on ‘Public Criminology’, which included papers on the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Turkey, with regards to police response to victimisation, another on the use of social media and other forms of broadcast used by academics on criminology programmes, the impact of the 2011 riots on social capital in the UK and the need to re-introduce political issues in teaching criminology. As with many sessions at large conferences, you never quite know what will emerge from the range of papers, and you hope there are some common themes for the panel and delegate to engage with in discussions. This certainly happened here, in what seems to be a diverse range of topics, we generated interesting discussions about how we understand crime and justice, how the public understand this, what responsibilities we have in teaching the next generation and how important it is to retain our critical focus. The paper that really resonated with me was delivered by Marc Jacobs from the University of Portsmouth on ‘The Myopia of Public Criminology and the need for a (re) Politicised Criminology Education’. Marc was an engaging speaker and made a clear point about the need to continue our focus on the work of activist criminologists, who emerged during the 1970s, asking important questions about class, race and gender issues. He cited scholars such as Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Frances Heidensohn as pioneers in shining a light on the need to understand crime and justice from these diverse perspectives.
This is certainly what I remember from studying criminology as a post-graduate, and they have informed my teaching, especially criminological theories – I have always had a closer personal affinity with sociological perspectives, compared to biological and psychological explanations of crime. It also reminded me of a running theme of complaint from some students – political issues are not as interesting as say, examining the motivations of serial killers, neither are those lectures which link class, race and gender to crime, and which highlight how discrimination in society is reflected in who commits crime, why they do it, and why we respond the way we do. There is no doubt presenting students with the broader social, political and cultural contexts means they need to see the problem of crime as a reflection of these contexts, that is does not happen as a rare event which we can always predict and solve. It happens every day, is not always reported, let alone detected and solved, meaning that many people can experience crime, but may not experience justice.
As tempting as it might be to focus teaching and engage students through examining the motivation for serious crimes to reinforce students’ expectations of criminology being about offender profiling and CSI techniques which solve cases and allow us all to sleep safely, I’m afraid this means neglecting something which will affect their lives when they do look up from the fascinating case files. I am not advocating the exclusion of any knowledge, far from it, but we need to ensure that we continue to inform students about the foundations of our discipline, and that it is the every day events and the lack of access to justice which they also need to know about. They reflect the broader inequalities which feed into the incidences of crime, the discriminatory policies and practice in the CJS, and the acceptance of this by the public. Rawls (1971) presented justice as a ‘stabilising force’, a premise picked up by New Labour in their active citizenship and neighbourhood renewal agenda. There was an attempt to shift justice away from punitive and retributive responses, to make use of approaches which were more effective, more humane and less discriminatory. The probation services and courts were an important focus, using restorative and problem-solving approaches to genuinely implement Tony Blair’s manifesto promise to be tough on the causes of crime. However, he also continued the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and so there was sense of using community sentencing and community justice in a tokenistic way, and not tackling the broader inequalities and problems sufficiently to allow the CJS to have a more transformative and socially meaningful effect on crime (Donoghue, 2014; Ward, 2014). Since then, the punitive responses to crime have returned, accepted by the public, press and politicians, as anything else is simply too difficult a problem to solve, and requires meaningful and sustained investment. This has been a feature of community justice, half hearted attempts to innovate and adopt different approaches, all too easily overtaken by the need for a day in court and a custodial sentence. It shows what happens when the public accept this as justice and the function of the CJS, even though they are not effective, put the public at risk, and mean entrenched biases continue to occur.
This all emphasises the need to remember the foundations of our discipline as a critical examination of criminal justice and of society. In my own department, we have the debates about where we place theory as part of these foundations. These discussions occur in the context of how to engage students and maintain our focus on this, and it remains an important part of higher education to review practice, content and adapt to broader changes. Moving to a new campus means we have to re-think these issues in the context of the delivery of teaching, and I am all for innovations in teaching to engage students, making use of new technologies, but I firmly believe we need to retain our focus on the content which will challenge students. This is the point of higher education, to advance knowledge, to raise students’ expectations of their own potential and ask them to rethink what they know. The focus on ‘public criminology’ has justified using different forms of broadcast, from TV, tabloid press and social networking to disseminate knowledge and, hopefully, better inform the public, as a counter measure to biased reporting. I don’t think it is desirable to TV producers to replace ‘I am a Killer’ on the Crime and Investigation network with ‘Adventures of a Problem-Solving Court’ or ‘Restorative Justice: The Facts’. Writing for the tabloid press seems to me an act of futility, as they have editorial control, they can easily misrepresent findings, and are not really interested in anything which shifts the notion of justice as needing to have a deterrent effect and to be a retributive act. Perhaps social networking can overcome this bias, but in an age of claims of fake news and echo chambers, this surely also has a limited affect. So, our focus must remain on our students, to those who will work within the CJS, social policy departments as practitioners, researchers and future academics. They need to continue to raise the debates about crime and justice which affect the marginalised, which highlight prejudice, discrimination and which ensure we continue to ask questions about these thorny, difficult and controversial issues. That, I think, is the responsibility we need to grasp, and it should form a core function of learning about criminology and criminal justice at University.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
This entry was re-blogged by the British Society of Criminology blog on 17 July 2018
DONOGHUE, J. (2014) Transforming Criminal Justice? Problem-solving and court specialisation. London: Routledge.
RAWLS, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
WARD, J. (2014) Are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? London: Howard League for Penal Reform.