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My Academic Journey
Two weeks ago, I attended a university reunion. My cohort are now in our late 40s or early 50s but it is remarkable how little we had all changed. Being back in the place where we all studied together put me in reflective mood and that (combined with some timely prompting from Paula) inspired me to share my academic journey.
I was one of those annoying kids who did well at school and knew exactly what they wanted to do. As a small child, I wanted to be a nurse but I later developed an aversion to bodily fluids which made that career choice untenable. I briefly flirted with the idea of being an English teacher, but both of my parents were in education and strenuously tried to dissuade me. So, at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a prison psychologist. I was in a careers lesson at school, and we had a big green plastic box filled with cards on which were written descriptions of different jobs. I announced that I wanted to be a psychiatrist (I think I was just being provocative) but I couldn’t find “psychiatrist” in the box, so I picked the closest one that I could find: “psychologist”. I read the card and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to find out more about psychology. The more I read, the more interesting I found it, and when I looked into the sorts of settings where I could work as a psychologist, prisons called out to me.
I was very lucky to secure a place to read Experimental Psychology at University College, Oxford in 1990. People have an image of ancient universities as being elitist, but what struck me was the huge diversity of people who were there. They were all clever and had studied hard to achieve their places, but beyond that they came from an enormous range of backgrounds – a far greater variety than I had encountered in my Shropshire comprehensive school. Our tutors worked us extremely hard. We had weekly tutorials, either in pairs or one-to-one, in two modules every term and we had to prepare an essay for each tutorial (two essays a week). In tutorials, we read out, discussed and analysed our essays and the reading on which they were based. There were lectures and practical classes on top of that and we had exams at the beginning of each term to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything over the vacations! That’s why I’m sometimes not very sympathetic to students who struggle to read one paper in preparation for a seminar!
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I still wanted to work in prisons but I knew very little about them. My degree had given me an excellent grounding in psychology but I knew little about the study of crime. So I applied to do an M.Phil. at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. This gave me an extra year as a full-time student and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I was privileged to be taught by such eminent criminologists as Loraine Gelsthorpe, Alison Liebling and David Farrington. I particularly enjoyed the penology seminars with Nigel West, which I attended just out of interest – I wasn’t taking the assessment in that module! The assessments were all coursework (extended essays and a dissertation) and had to be submitted at the start of each term, so I studied hard in the vacations, and I attended my seminars in term time, but there was also plenty of time for sport and socialising and making the most of my last year as a student!
At that time, HM Prison Service recruited new psychologists once a year through a national assessment centre. I applied in 1994, just after I had submitted my M.Phil. dissertation but I was unsuccessful. I got a job instead at the University of Wales, Swansea, as a research assistant in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies. I was involved in an evaluation of drug and alcohol treatment centres, funded by the Welsh Office, which employed both quantitative measures and participant observation. When that contract ended, I obtained another contract with Swansea City Council to compile a community profile of a “problem” estate. This required knocking on doors to interview residents, and participant observation in community settings such as the youth club, old people’s bingo sessions and the local pub. It was considered a rather intimidating environment to drop a well-educated 24-year-old English girl into, but I found the residents to be remarkably warm and welcoming and it was a highly rewarding piece of work.
By the time I finished the community profile, I had re-applied to the Prison Service and passed the assessment centre – the interpersonal skills I had developed through my action research had served me well. I had, however, joined the Prison Service at an unfortunate time. There was a recruitment ban in force which meant that although I had passed the psychologist assessment centre, I couldn’t actually secure a job. I was eventually given a temporary contract to collect data at HMP Littlehey for a large-scale research project analysing effective prison regimes. After 10 months of doing this, the recruitment ban was lifted and I was taken on as a prison psychologist, sharing my time between HMP Littlehey and HMP Wellingborough. The Prison Service used to fund a part-time M.Sc. at Birkbeck University, which all newly recruited psychologists undertook. Obtaining a suitably accredited M.Sc., along with completing a satisfactory period of supervised practice, is an essential requirement of becoming a fully qualified “Chartered” psychologist. In another piece of unfortunate timing, the Birkbeck M.Sc. ceased to run just as I joined the service. At first, there was nothing to take its place. However, other universities soon noticed the gap in the market. I, and others in my prison psychology cohort, were relieved when the University of Leicester set up an M.Sc. in Forensic and Legal Psychology by Distance Learning. The Prison Service agreed to pay my fees and my manager allowed a small amount of study leave when assignments were due. Completing a post-graduate degree while working full-time in a demanding job was hard work and I vowed I would never do it again!
I moved to HMP Woodhill in 1998, completed my M.Sc. in 1999 and became a Chartered Psychologist in 2001. At some point after that, I remember receiving a phone call at work from someone called “@manosdaskalou” at, what was then, University College Northampton! I don’t know where he got my number from, but he wanted someone to talk to his third year Forensic Psychology students about the work that psychologists do in prisons. My parents had not completely succeeded in knocking a desire to teach out of me (in fact I probably inherited my urge to educate from them), and my Dad had taught at Northampton when it was Nene College, so I was keen to fulfil the request. The talk became a regular fixture and, after a few years (by which time I was Head of Psychology at HMP Woodhill), we extended it from a single guest lecture to a series of four, to allow me to cover topics such as risk assessment and offending behaviour interventions in more detail.
My son was born in 2008 and I took 12 months maternity leave from the Prison Service. At the end of that time, I didn’t feel ready to go back, so I negotiated a further 12 months career break. I wasn’t ready to return to the full intensity of managing a team in a high security prison, but I did want to keep my brain active. I asked Manos if there were any opportunities to expand my teaching commitments. The University was in the process of setting up a foundation degree in Offender Management, which was aimed primarily at custodial officers at HMP Rye Hill but was also delivered to a small cohort of full-time students. They were short of lecturers to deliver the modules and my offer to help out was eagerly accepted. The terms of my career break meant that I couldn’t earn money from another employer, but a couple of hours a week teaching suited me very well, so I gave my services for free and taught a module on Professional Practice alongside a lecturer with a background in probation, from another university, called Keith Davies.
After a year of this arrangement, HMP Woodhill were unwilling to have me back part-time, so I resigned from the Prison Service and joined the Parole Board as a part-time psychologist member. This allowed me to work much more flexibly and, with a toddler in the family, it suited me well. It also meant that I could have a proper contract with the University of Northampton and I became an associate lecturer in September 2010. Keith had moved to a different job but I continued to teach Professional Practice on the Offender Management degree. There was also a module in Offender Management on “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour”. The person who taught this left after a couple of years and I took it over. Returning to basic psychology and teaching it every week was daunting at first, but I really enjoyed going back to what I had learned as an undergraduate and re-discovering how relevant it was to real-life criminal justice.
The arrangement with HMP Rye Hill had never really taken off and the Offender Management degree only ever attracted small numbers of full-time students, so in 2014 the course closed. Manos was keen, however, to incorporate more psychology into the B.A. Criminology course, so we adapted “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour” into a first-year criminology module and I’ve been teaching it ever since! I’ve also taught a module on violence and I’ve covered maternity leave and sickness absence in other modules too. My students will have heard me banging on about forensic psychologists being “scientist-practitioners” and I feel that teaching at the University of Northampton has allowed me to fulfil this role. As a practitioner, I have lots of interesting real-life examples to use to illustrate points to my students, but teaching also keeps me up-to-date with research and theory which I can use to inform my practice.
My academic journey continues to take me to new places. My position on the Parole Board was a public appointment with a fixed tenure that came to an end in September 2020. I decided at that point to start a part-time Ph.D. with the University of Birmingham. I had not wanted to go into research straight from my M.Phil. because I felt that, in order to understand people who committed offences, I really needed some direct experience of working with them, but after 24 years as a practitioner, the time seemed right. I am now 18 months into a 6-year part-time degree. I am exploring the role of empathy deficits in violent and sexual offending. Trying to undertake research (which ideally requires access to prisoners) has not been easy during a pandemic and I have faced a number of obstacles but nothing insurmountable yet.
I am still keen to maintain a scientist-practitioner balance, and I need to pay my university fees and make a contribution to the family income, so in February of last year I started working as a Forensic Psychologist at St Andrew’s hospital. I am primarily based on a medium-secure ward for men with learning disabilities. Forensic mental health is a new area of practice for me and, although I have plenty of transferable skills from my previous roles, I have had to adapt to a different approach to the people we work with and a completely new set of jargon.
Reflecting on my academic journey, it is the people that stand out. I think that the most profound learning has taken place when I have been able to engage with experts who have shared their enthusiasm. In this respect, my undergraduate tutorials and M.Phil. seminars contrast with my distance learning M.Sc., which was a means of obtaining a qualification rather than an immersive learning experience. I hope that, as a practitioner who also teaches, I have been able to share some of my enthusiasm for forensic psychology with my own students. In order to benefit from this, however, students need to take up the opportunity to engage fully with teaching and not just see their university experience as a means to a qualification. Of course, COVID has not helped this, and the university’s penchant for remote learning placed it in a good position to maintain teaching when the pandemic struck. But it is very difficult to engage students when they are just names on a screen. I hope that, as we return to more face-to-face teaching, I can once again inspire my students, not just to pass their exams but to develop a life-long fascination for understanding criminal behaviour and the people that perpetrate it.
Helen Trinder, M.A., M.Phil., M.Sc., C.Psychol.
Forensic Psychologist and Associate Lecturer
Hi all! My name is Dr Paul Famosaya and I have just joined UoN as a Lecturer in criminology. Prior to joining UoN, I have taught as a Lecturer in criminology and policing at the University of Cumbria – where I contributed to the development and running of modules at both Undergraduate and Masters level. In addition, I have taught criminology at Middlesex University, London as an HP Lecturer (during my PhD days). So, over the years really, I have developed and taught a variety of modules around the theories of crime, the crimes of the powerful, global dimensions of crime, policing, new ideas in criminology, crimes & deviance, social exclusion, criminological frameworks etc. I also serve as a reviewer of a few international reputable journals.
In terms of my academic background, I completed my undergraduate degree in Nigeria, 2010 and then went straight on to complete my Masters in Criminology at Middlesex University, London. I then dived straight in to my PhD, which I completed also at Middlesex in 2019 – with my thesis focusing on police experiences, actions and practices.
I came into the world of Criminology simply for my interest in understanding the logic of corruption and the network of greed. I realised that these two components are largely the foundational problems of my home country Nigeria, and many other countries. So, the plight to unravel these dynamics from both institutional and personal level triggered my interest in the discipline. To a large extent, this interest has continued to strengthen my area of specialisation which concentrates largely on the areas of Critical and Theoretical criminology, Police culture, Social harms and Injustice. Criminology is something I’ve really enjoyed doing and while I have taught it for many years, I still consider myself to be a student of Criminology really.
I am currently completing another article on pandemics and criminology – so it’ll be cool to chat with colleagues looking at similar area(s). Looking forward to meeting everyone soon!
Achieving justice through formal employment
This Sunday 20th February marks the United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice. The theme this year is ‘achieving justice through formal employment’. The focus is on the informal economy, in which 60% of the world’s employed population participate. Those employed in the informal economy are not protected by regulations such as health and safety or employment rights and are not entitled to employment benefits such as sickness and holiday pay. People who work in the informal economy are much more likely to be poor, in which case housing and unsanitary conditions can compound the impact of working in the informal economy.
When we in the global North talk about the informal economy, there is often an assumption that this occurs in poorer, less developed countries (it is semantics – here in the UK we use the preferred term of the ‘gig economy’). However, this is a global problem and often the richest industries and countries engage in abusive employment practices that form part of the problem of the informal economy. Let’s take Qatar as an example. Qatar has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but it also has an extremely high level of income inequality. I heard Natasha Iskandar recently discussing the case of migrant workers in Qatar during construction for the football world cup. Migrant workers are vulnerable to the informal economy due to various labour and visa restrictions throughout the world. In Qatar migrant workers were needed to build the stadia, however this came at a cost to employment conditions including wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation. At the time in Qatar, it was illegal for such workers to withhold labour and they could not voluntarily leave the country without the consent of their employers. The often-abusive employment conditions within the Kafala system of sponsored migrant labour would push people into the informal economy. Having come under some criticism, Qatar has since reformed the Kafala system to improve social protections for migrant workers and were the first of the Gulf countries to do so.
The informalisation of the education economy
On a global scale, the problem of the informal economy is vast there are unique challenges to different groups and social contexts. It will take a large-scale effort to make changes needed to abolish the informal economy globally if it ever can be abolished. Perhaps though we can start by looking a little closer to home and see if we can make a difference there. Academia has traditionally been perceived by those outside of it as a sector of elite institutions, the ‘ivory towers’, where highly paid, highly skilled academics talk from their parapets in a language those outside of it cannot understand. There is a perception that academics are highly paid, highly skilled workers with job security, good pensions, and a comfortable working life. Higher education management in some institutions have been known to refer to academics using derogatory terms such as ‘slackademics’. As every hard-working academic will tell you, this cannot be further from the truth.
What used to be a place of free thinking, sharing of ideas, and encouraging students to do the same (note: I’m told academics used to have time to think and read) has become a place where profit and business ethos overrides such niceties. The marketisation of education, which can be traced back to the early 1990s has seen a growth in informal employment putting paid to the myths of job security inter alia, lecturing staff well-being. As Vicky Canning put it in the below Tweet, this constitutes institutional violence, something we criminologists are charged with speaking up against.
The university industry has become increasingly reliant on casualised contracts leading to staff not being able to get mortgages or tenancies. During my time at a previous institution, I worked on fixed term contracts as a teaching assistant. The teaching contracts would typically last for 10-12 weeks, there were constant HR errors with contracts, which were often not confirmed until the week before teaching or even after teaching had started. Each semester there would be at least a few teaching assistants who got paid incorrectly or did not get paid at all. These are the people delivering teaching to students paying at least £9,250 per year for their education. Is this value for money? Is this fair? In a previous round of strikes at that institution I let my students know that after all the work they put into writing, I only got paid for 20 minutes to mark one of their 3,500-word essays. They did not seem to think this was value for money.
While I was working under such contracts, I had to move to a new house. I visited many properties and faced a series of affordability checks. As the contracts were short term, landlords would not accept this income as secure, and I was rejected for several properties. I eventually had to ask a friend to be a guarantor but without this, I could easily have ended up homeless and this has happened to other university teaching staff. It was reported recently in the Guardian that a casualised lecturer was living in a tent because she was not able to afford accommodation. All this, on top of stressful, unmanageable workloads. These are the kinds of things casualised university staff must contend with in their lives. These are the humans teaching our students.
This is just one of the problems in the higher education machine. The problems of wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation seen in Qatar are also seen in the institutionally violent higher education economy, albeit to a lesser (or less visible) extent. Let’s talk about wage theft. A number of universities have threatened 100% salary deductions for staff engaging in action short of strike, or in simple terms, working the hours they are contracted to do. Academics throughout the country are being threatened with wage theft if they cannot complete their contractual duties within the hours they are paid for. Essentially then, some higher education establishments are coercing staff to undertake unpaid overtime, not dissimilar to the forced overtime faced by exploited migrant workers building stadia in Qatar.
Academics across the country need to see change in these academic workloads so we can research the exploitation of migrants in the informal labour market, to work towards UN sustainability goals to help address the informal economy, to engage in social justice projects within the informal economy in our local area, and to think about how we can engage our students in such projects. In effect academics need to work in an environment where they can be academics.
How can we begin to be critical of or help address global issues such as the informal economy when our education system is engaging in questionable employment practices, the kind of which drive people into the informal economy, the kind of employment practices that border the informal economy. Perhaps higher education needs to look inwards before looking out
I had my first Covid-19 vaccine recently and the day was emotional, to say the least. I am 99% compliant with Covid-19 restrictions, partly because it is the law but primarily because I believe it is the right thing to do to protect others. In fact, there have been many times over the last 15 months where I have avoided the news for my own sanity so half the time, I do not exactly know what the latest rules are. I am guided by my own risk assessments and am probably more restrictive than the law in most scenarios. Up until vaccine day I thought that I wasn’t scared of contracting Covid-19, that I was complying as an act of altruism and that I would not be able to live with myself if I unwittingly passed the virus on to somebody vulnerable to severe illness and death.
Back in March 2020 when infections then the death toll started to rise, and the NHS became increasingly overwhelmed I would watch what my daughter and I called ‘the Boris show’ where the Prime Minister and the scientists would recall the daily death data, hospitalisations and cases. Each ‘next slide please’ bringing more bad news. Each day I would think about the families of every single one of those people who had died. It was quite overwhelming, and I eventually had to limit the information I ingested, living in both a physical and informational bubble. I recall the death toll announcements were met with responses from the covid-deniers, ‘but they’re old or ill anyway’, and ‘but they could have been hit by a bus and still counted as a covid death’. As a victimologist, this infuriated me. Who were these people to flippantly dismiss right to life based on age or health? It frustrated me that people with no knowledge of statistics, medicine or science were making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence from Bob on Facebook. But then again perhaps these are the tales people told themselves to get through. If they deny it, they have nothing to fear.
A few months later in June 2020, my somebody close to me contracted Covid-19. I was told they were doing well and seemed to be recovering from the virus. They died more than 28 days after having first being diagnosed with Covid-19, but it was Covid-19 that killed them. I know because I saw them to say goodbye a couple of hours before they died. This person who was always so full of life, love and who saw the good in everyone and everything, was now fading away. But what haunts me to this day was the sound of their lungs. The sound I’d heard people talk about on the news. Crisp packet lungs. And it was that sound that was like an earworm in my head on my way to the vaccination centre.
I’ve been looking forward to getting vaccinated since vaccines were on the horizon so I was excited when I received the text invitation. I booked to attend the Greater Manchester vaccination centre at the Etihad stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club. It was well organised, despite the large numbers of people coming through. First, I was required to check in and was allocated the Moderna vaccine and a green sticker which ensured staff could direct me to the correct queue. Then I checked in at another desk where I was given some information, asked some health questions and, most importantly, I was asked, ‘do you want the vaccine?’. Those who have sat one of the research methods modules I have taught this year will have heard me discuss the importance of informed consent and this also applies to real life situations such as this. After this I joined another queue and finally reached the vaccination point, had the jab, waited for 15 minutes and left. Just like that. The whole thing took about an hour and given the volume of people being vaccinated (the site is a mass vaccination hub for a large area), I found it to be incredibly efficient. Every staff member I met was informative and did what they could to put people at ease.
From the moment I left home to go to the vaccination centre, to the moment my head hit the pillow that evening, I couldn’t help reflecting on the last 15 months. I felt a wave of emotions. I felt extreme sadness and sorrow at all the lives lost and all the families and friends left behind. It has been a traumatic time for so many of us. Getting the vaccine, I felt some sort of release from this, like it was nearly over. I have worked from home throughout and have had little social interaction, except when the gyms have been open or I have undertaken caring responsibilities for various friends and family. There were also a few weeks towards the end of lockdown 1 where my sister came to stay after returning from India. Overall, I have been alone with a teenager at a desk in my living room. It’s been awful. I’m tired and I need a break. I am well overdue a mum-cation. I felt some hope that sometime soon I might be able to get a parenting break and that my daughter can also get a break from me. I said earlier how I believed I had not feared contracting covid but having the vaccine and the relief I felt made me realise that I was more scared than I would care to admit. I am young(ish) and extremely healthy and I would probably be at low risk of developing serious symptoms but what if I was an unlucky one?
Aside from my personal experiences, I felt a collective relief. The global pandemic has created global trauma. There are still countries being ravished by the virus without the resources to operate mass vaccination of entire populations. I worry for the world and wonder what borders will look like after, if there ever is an after but I’ll ponder this further in another blog later. Getting vaccinated and being part of a mass vaccination programme made me feel cautiously optimistic. However, a few weeks on and we are now in a situation where the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Deaths have risen by 42.5% in the last week and hospital admissions by 44.7%. The numbers are still incredibly low in comparison to the first and second wave but every one of those deaths and hospitalisations matter. They are not a number on a presentation slide. They are people who have families and friends, who are cared for by the NHS. Every one of the deaths is a loss to these people, and has a butterfly effect in terms of the impact each death has.
Restrictions are set to lift imminently I believe (still avoiding the news) and it makes me feel uneasy to say the least. I’ve seen experts whom I trust argue on both sides of the fence. Some say this is dangerous, others suggest summer is the best opportunity to lift restrictions. It sometimes feels like we are living in some kind of twisted experiment. Regardless, I will continue to assess and manage the risk to myself and those around me. I’ll probably wear masks way after it is legal to do so and expect I will still be cautious about who I am physically close to and how I socialise. There’s things that I love and miss such as the theatre, cinema and the occasional gig but I don’t feel ready. I have a feeling this pandemic is far from over.
Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service
Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.
I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.
Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.
Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.
This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.
Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.
Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.
I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.
When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.
The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.
- Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
- Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
- Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
- Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
- Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?
I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.
Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.
*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records
Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties. The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex. After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield. It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!
There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time. I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing.
So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality. This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry. This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating. In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make.
A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions. In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation. The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter.
This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience. The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience.
Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice. Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic. The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each. This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information. The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence. The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.
This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance. We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest.
Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London
In our society consumerism seems to rain supreme. We can buy stuff to make us feel better and we can buy more stuff to express our feeling to others and mark almost most events around us. Retail and especially all the shops have long been aware of this and so they have developed their seasonal material. These seasonal promotions may have become consumer events now although they do signify something incredibly important to culture and our collective consciousness. There is time for Christmas decorations and festive foods, Easter time and chocolate eggs, mother’s day and nauseating cards father’s day for equally grinchworthy cards. There is valentine’s day to say I love you in full fat chocolates, Halloween to give little kids rotten teeth and a red poppy to remember some of our dead. To those add the summer season with the disposable BBQs and of course the back to school season!
The back to school is one of the interesting ones. Geared to prepare pupils and parents for going back to school and plan ahead. From ordering the uniforms to getting all the stationery and books required. I remember this time of the year with some rather mixed emotions. It was the end of my summer holidays, but it was also the time to get back to school. Until one day I finished school and I went to university. Education is seen as part of a continuous process that we are actively involved from the first day at school to the last day in high school and more recently for more people also involve the first day of going to university. Every year is more challenging than the next, but we move up and continue. For those of us who enjoy education we continue the journey further to further or high education.
There is something to said about the preparation process coming to University; it is interesting seeing advertisements on education this time of the year on the tv and social media promoting stuff for this transition; from the got to have smartphone to the best laptop, the fastest printer scanner all in one thingy to the greatest sound system and many more stuff that would get you ready for the year ahead. Do they really help us out and if not, what do we got to do to prepare for coming to university?
Unfortunately, there is no standard formula here but there is a reason for that. Higher education is adult education. This is the first time in our educational journey that we are sitting firmly on the driving seat. We choose to study (or ought to) what we wish to study. It is an incredibly liberating process to have choice. This however is only the beginning. We make plans of our time. In higher education the bulk of the time required is independent study, and as such we got to negotiate how we will plan our time. We got to decide which reading we are going to do first which notes to read what seminar we shall prepare and what assignment we will make a draft of.
There will be days spent in the library looking for a book, days in a coffee shop talking to fellow students about the seminar reading, days in the learning hub working on an assignment. There are highs, lows and everything in between. But regardless of the emotion at every stage thee will be a sense of ownership of knowledge.
In the first couple of sessions, the bulk of the students keep quiet expecting the correct answer to be given. One interpretation or one truth that describes all. It takes a few times before the realisation emerges that the way we analyse, and project knowledge can be different provided we go through the same processes of scrutiny and analysis. Then conversation emerges and the more reading the better the quality of the ideas that shall emerge.
The first year at University is definitely a declaration of independence and the realisation that we all have a voice. Getting on to the road on empowerment. This is a long journey, and on occasions arduous but incredibly rewarding because it leads to an insight greater than before that removes ignorance and lifts the veil of the unfamiliar.
To our newest students – Welcome to the University and to our returning 2 and 3 years – Welcome back!
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.
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