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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
The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.
However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.
Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.
In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive. Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.
But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!
In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories. Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations. It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.
The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”. A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre. These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it. In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”. A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle.
In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other. 23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher. The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed. The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief.
Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest. And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened. We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered. The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder. Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen.
At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses. Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people. Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act. Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands. This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain. A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton). In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once. This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him. We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution. In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns. Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter.
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.
I graduated from the University of Northampton as a Criminology student in July 2016 and not a day goes by where I don’t miss studying. I miss everything about the University experience, from the lectures and seminars, to the countless hours spent working in the library. One of the positive things about being a graduate however, is that any time spent scrolling through social media or binge-watching a Netflix series is guilt-free. There is no dissertation to write or any exams to revise for any more, meaning you can enjoy your leisure time without the dreaded guilt that you’re not spending your time productively. I have, admittedly, taken this privilege too far, and spend far too much time on my phone. Bizarrely, I spend a lot of my time scrolling through comments on social media posts, even when I know there are bound to be comments which will annoy me.
For instance, last month, a video clip from ITV’s ‘This Morning’ emerged on Twitter and Instagram, in which Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby interviewed a young male who had suffered as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of his female partner. He revealed how he had been starved, physically and mentally abused by his girlfriend and that his injuries were so severe, they were almost fatal. What was really encouraging to see, were the hundreds of supportive comments left by people online. The majority of people were praising the man for his bravery and recognised that there needs to be much greater awareness for male victimisation. Sadly, the comments that caught my attention were “what a wimp” and “…he shoulda manned up sooner!”. These comments really riled me, as for my own dissertation, I interviewed an organisation specialising in support for male victims of domestic violence. It was shocking to discover the challenges the organisation face in terms of securing public funding, professional support, and most importantly, encouraging male victims to come forward and seek help. One of the over-arching themes which emerged was that men are still very reluctant to seek help, largely due to embarrassment and fears of being ridiculed. There is still a societal perception that men should be able to deal with problems by themselves, and that if they are unable to, they must be “weak”. It is for this reason that these particular comments left by strangers online infuriated me so much. Quite simply, domestic violence is a human issue, not just a gender one. Not only this, but these few words have the potential to be extremely damaging and may deter men who are suffering in silence from getting the help they need.
Over two years have passed since I carried out my research on this topic area and I am still very passionate about it. I have nothing but admiration for the young male on ‘This Morning’ and am hopeful that his bravery will encourage other male victims to seek help. I also hope that the positive comments online will always overshadow the thoughtless, negative ones. Help is out there and no victim, regardless of their gender, should be discouraged from seeking it.
We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject. This is how specialism is developed and cultivated. We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding. Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity. Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this. When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being. Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.
The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it. This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong. In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries. Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same. The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend. Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.
There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed. Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught. It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection. The curriculum and the ideas behind it. As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer. This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.
On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas. These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification. Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues. During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology. We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.
After reading about the backlash to Shania Twain’s proclamation that she would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Election (BBC News, 2018) I started thinking about the power that social media has over us and our lives. The irony of the fact that I’m writing a blog on the issue, which in itself is a form of social media, is not lost on me. Personally, I’m not a fan of social media yet I, like so many, conform to the pressure of having a facebook or twitter account because that is expected of us both personally and professionally but I wonder if it actually adds value to our lives. It is undeniable that social media platforms allow for greater connectivity between people but is there any quality in that connectivity? News events are instant but are they good quality? Messaging is easy but is it accurate or easy to interpret? Whatsapp or messenger tell us whose online and when but do we need to know that or does it just increase our anxiety when we don’t get a response? Facebook and Instagram document our lives for posterity’s sake but is it necessary to do so, I certainly don’t care what others had for dinner or what I had for dinner 6 months ago to be honest. Scarier still is the tech in our phones which recently allowed someone to tell me exactly when another family member would be home by checking their location on their phone. I recognise the benefit of such technology when it comes to checking on the safety of our children or loved ones but the cynic in me fears the abuse that such software is open to and the potential harm that can be done to others through its use.
Maybe I’m overthinking this or just stuck in the past but before social media we talked, we had physical conversations through which we learnt things, not just information that helped shape us as human beings but also the art of reading signs, body language, social cues and so forth – we actually made time for one another. These things cannot be learnt through text or messaging so how are the younger generation supposed to learn these things? Equally as important is the need for those skills to be practiced so that they are not lost. How many times do you have a conversation with someone who cannot maintain eye contact or who interrupts before you’ve finished your point? Is this a symptom of messaging which puts the pauses in for you and allows you to talk over others without actually doing it, after all messages are presented in a sequential order. That said, the creation of facetime or Skype may bridge the gap between phone conversations and physical ones and therefore enable us to continue learning and practicing these skills but how often do we opt for that over a quick text message? Let’s face it, we live busy lives and its quicker and easier to fire off a text than it is to schedule in an uninterrupted call. I have certainly been accused recently of favouring text messaging over phone calls but then I’ve never liked talking on the phone either. When you add into the mix, the lack of punctuation and the use of text talk the problems become more profound, firstly because this means that the art of writing appropriately is diminishing but secondly because it’s almost impossible to interpret the meaning of a message with no punctuation.
Furthermore, I regularly find myself in the company of people whose lives appear to be lived online and what I’ve observed is that they struggle in a crowd, they are socially anxious and often struggle with the fluidity of a group conversation. Maybe they would be that way regardless of social media but I do wonder whether social media is destroying social skills and how long it will be before the joy of an in-person conversation with like minded people becomes a thing of the past. Obviously, as with most things the simple answer is to find a balance between the two but in a world determined to make us digital natives, this is increasingly difficult.