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Thinking about ‘Thoughts from the Criminology Team’
March 3, 2023 13:14 / Leave a comment
This is the sixth anniversary of the blog, and I am proud to have been a contributor since its inception. Although, initially I only somewhat reluctantly agreed to contribute. I dislike social media with a passion, something to be avoided at all costs, and I saw this as yet more intrusive social media. A dinosaur, perhaps, but one that has years of experience in the art of self-preservation. Open up to the world and you risk ridicule and all sorts of backlash and yet, the blog somehow felt and feels different. It is not a university blog, it is our team;s blog, it belongs to us and the contributors. What is written are our own personal opinions and observations, it is not edited, save for the usual grammar and spelling faux pas, it is not restricted in any way save that there is an inherent intolerance within the team for anything that may cause offence or hurt. Government, management, organisations, structures, and processes are fair game for criticism or indeed ridicule, including at times our own organisation. And our own organisation deserves some credit for not attempting to censure our points of view. Attempts at bringing the blog into the university fold have been strongly resisted and for good reason, it is our blog, it does not belong to an institution.
As contributors, and there are many, students, academics and guests, we have all been able to write about topics that matter to us. The blog it seems to me serves no one purpose other than to allow people space to write and to air their views in a safe environment. For me it serves as a cathartic release. A chance to tell the world (well at least those that read the blog) my views on diverse topics, not just my views but my feelings, there is something of me that goes into most of my writing. It gives me an opportunity to have fun as well, to play with words, to poke fun without being too obvious. It has allowed us all to pursue issues around social injustices, to question the country, indeed the world in which we live. And it has allowed writers to provide us all with an insight into what goes on elsewhere in the world, a departure from a western colonial viewpoint. I think, as blogs go it is a pretty good blog or collection of blogs, I’m not sure of the terminology but it is certainly better than being a twit on Twitter.
Is the cost of living crisis just state inflicted violence
February 16, 2023 14:21 / Leave a comment
Back in November 2022, social media influencer Lydia Millen was seen to spark controversy on the popular app ‘TikTok’ when she claimed that her heating was broken, so she therefore was going to check into the Savoy in London.
Her video, which she filmed whilst wearing an outfit worth over £30,000, sparked outrage on the app and across popular social media platforms. People began to argue that her comment was not well received in our current social climate, where people have to choose whether they should spend money on heating or groceries. For many, no matter your financial situation, problems with heating rarely resorts in a luxury stay in London.
With pressure mounting, Lydia decided to reply to comments on her video. When one individual stated “My heating is off because I can’t afford to put it on”, Lydia replied “It’s honestly heart breaking I just hope you know that other people’s realities can be different and that’s not wrong”. Sorry, Lydia; it is wrong. Realities are not different; they are miles apart. This is clearly seen in the fact that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimate that 1.5 million households in the UK over the next year will be landed in poverty (NIESR, 2022).
Ultimately, this is a social issue. Like Lydia said, in a society in which individuals are stratified based on their economic, cultural and social capital, we are conditioned to believe that this is just the way it is, and therefore, it is not wrong that other people have different realities. However, for me, it is not ‘different realities’, it is a matter of being able to eat and be warm versus being able to stay in a luxury hotel in London.
So, why is this a criminological issue? The cost of living crisis is simply just state inflicted poverty. Alike to Lydia with her social following, the government have the power to make change and use their position in society to remedy cost of living issues, but they don’t. This is not a mark of their failure as a government, it is a mark of their success. You only have to look at the government’s complete denial surrounding social issues to realise that this was their plan all along, and the longer this denial continues, the longer they succeed. This is seen in the case of Lydia Millen, who has acted as a metaphor for the level of negligence in which the government exercises over its citizens. Ultimately, for Lydia, it is very easy to tuck yourself into a luxury bed in the Savoy and close the curtains on the real world. The people affected by the crisis are not people like Lydia Millen, they are everyday people who work 40+ hours a week, and still cannot make ends meet. For the government, the cost of living crisis is the perfect way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Ultimately, the cost of living crisis is not too dissimilar to the strikes that the UK is currently experiencing. Alike to the strikes, the cost of living crisis was always going to happen at the hands of a negligent government. The only way we can begin to address this problem is by giving our support, by supporting strikes all across the country, and by standing up for what is right. After all, the powers in our country have shown that our needs as a society are not a priority, so it is time to support ourselves.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
National Institute of Economic and Social Research (2022) What Can Be Done About the Cost-of-Living Crisis? NIESR [online]. Available from: https://www.niesr.ac.uk/blog/what-can-be-done-about-the-cost-of-living-crisis [Accessed 23/01/23].
Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness
June 18, 2021 14:04 / Leave a comment
Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.
Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.
On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.
The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.
This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.
Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.
Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.
April Showers: so many tears
April 15, 2021 22:02 / 2 Comments on April Showers: so many tears
What does April mean to you? April showers as the title would suggest, April Fools which I detest, or the beginning of winter’s rest? Today I am going to argue that April is the most criminogenic month of the year. No doubt, my colleagues and readers will disagree, but here goes….
What follows is discussion on three events which apart from their occurrence in the month of April are ostensibly unrelated. Nevertheless, scratch beneath the surface and you will see why they are so important to the development of my criminological understanding, forging the importance I place on social justice.
On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, with more than 1,500 lost lives. We know the story reasonably well, even if just through film. Fewer people are aware that this tragedy led to inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well, as Limitation of Liability Hearings. These acknowledged profound failings on the part of White Star and made recommendations primarily relating to lifeboats, staffing and structures of ships. Each of these were to be enshrined in law. Like many institutional inquiries these reports, thankfully digitised so anyone can read them, are very dry, neutral, inhumane documents. There is very little evidence of the human tragedy, instead there are questions and answers which focus on procedural and engineering matters. However, if you look carefully, there are glimpses of life at that time and criminological questions to be raised.
The table below is taken from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry Report and details both passengers and staff onboard RMS Titanic. This table allows us to do the maths, to see how many survived this ordeal. Here we can see the violence of social class, where the minority take precedence over the majority. For those on that ship and many others of that time, your experiences could only be mediated through a class based system. Yet when that ship went down, tragedy becomes the great equaliser.
On 15th April, 1989 fans did as they do (pandemics aside) every Saturday during the football season, they went to the game. On that sunny spring day, Liverpool Football Club were playing Nottingham Forest, both away from home and over 50,000 fans had travelled some distance to watch their team with family and friends. Tragically 96 of those fans died that day or shortly after. @anfieldbhoy has written a far more extensive piece on the Hillsborough Disaster and I don’t plan to revisit the details here. Nevertheless, as with RMS Titanic, questions were asked in relation to the loss of life and institutional or corporate failings which led to this tragedy. Currently it is not possible to access the Taylor Report due to ongoing investigation, but it makes for equally dry, neutral and inhuman, reading. It is hard to catch sight of 96 lives in pages dense with text, focused on answering questions that never quite focus on what survivors and families need. The Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] is far more focused on people as are the Inquests (also currently unavailable) which followed. Criminologically, HIP’s very independence takes it outside of powerful institutions. So whilst it can “speak truth to power” it has no ability to coerce answers from power or enforce change. For the survivors and family it brings some respite, some acknowledgement that what happened that day should have never have happened. However, for those individuals and wider society, there appears to be no semblance of justice, despite the passing of 32 years.
On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He was the victim of a horrific, racially motivated, violent assault by a group of young white man. This much was known, immediately to his friend Duwayne Brooks, but was apparently not clear to the attending police officers. Instead, as became clear during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry the police investigation was riddled with institutional racism from the outset. The Macpherson report (1999) tries extremely hard to keep focus on Stephen Lawrence as a human being, try to read the evidence given by Duwayne Brooks and Stephen’s parents without shedding a tear. However, much of the text is taken is taken up with procedural detail, arguments and denial. In 2012 two of the men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were found guilty and sentenced to be detained under Her Majesty’s pleasure (both were juveniles in 1993). Since 1999, when the report was published we’ve learnt even more about the police’s institutional racism and their continual attacks on Stephen’s family and friends designed to undermine and harm. So whilst institutions can be compelled to reflect upon their behaviour and coerced into recognising the need for change, for evolution, in reality this appears to be a surface activity. Criminologically, we recognise that Stephen was the victim of a brutal crime, some, but not all, of those that carried out the attack have been held accountable. Justice for Stephen Lawrence, albeit a long time coming, has been served to some degree. But what about his family? Traumatised by the loss of one of their own, a child who had been nurtured to adulthood, loved and respected, this is a family deserving of care and support. What about the institutions, the police, the government? It seems very much business as usual, despite the publication of Lammy (2017) and Williams (2018) which provide detailed accounts of the continual institutional racism within our society. Instead, we have the highly criticised Sewell Report (2021) which completely dismisses the very idea of institutional racism. I have not linked to this document, it is beneath contempt, but if you desperately want to read it, a simple google search will locate it.
In each of the cases above and many others, we know instinctively that something is fundamentally wrong. That what has happened has caused such great harm to individuals, families, communities, that it must surely be a crime. But a crime as we commonly understand it involves victim(s) and perpetrator(s). If the Classical School of Criminology is to be believed, it involves somebody making a deliberate choice to do harm to others to benefit ourselves. If there is a crime, somebody has to pay the price, whatever that may be in terms of punishment. We look to the institutions within our society; policing, the courts, the government for answers, but instead receive official inquiries that appear to explore everything but the important questions. As a society we do not seem keen to grapple with complexity, maybe it’s because we are frightened that our institutions will also turn against us?
The current government assures us that there will be an inquiry into their handling of the pandemic, that there will be some answers for the families of the 126,000 plus who have died due to Covid-19. They say this inquiry will come when the time is right, but right for who?
Maybe you can think of other reasons why April is a criminologically important month, or maybe you think there are other contenders? Either way, why not get in touch?
Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management
February 1, 2021 10:10 / 2 Comments on Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management
Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.
I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.
In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.
Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.
The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex.
With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.
Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally. History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.
When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.
Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.
In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.
Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.
Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.
Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.
In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8
My Criminology Journey: Haley
October 23, 2020 08:21 / 1 Comment on My Criminology Journey: Haley
The start of my criminology journey is not very exciting. I am not fully sure of how or why I ended up studying the subject. I was advised to study hairdressing at school as my predicted grades were not good enough for university, but the idea of trusting myself with a pair of scissors was very unnerving. I had a dilemma at college as I was unable to decide whether I wanted to study healthcare or construction – two courses which bore no similarity. In the end I give up trying to make decisions and studied A Levels because that was what my friends were doing.
University may as well have been on Mars at this point, as it was completely mysterious and unknown to me. Whilst at college, I was asked by my tutor to go to an open day at Oxford University. I saw this as an opportunity to unmask this university ‘thing’ for what it really was, so I agreed to go. I felt completely out of place throughout the day and found myself gobsmacked by the sheer privilege of the place, the culture and the students etc. At the same time, I was fascinated by the available courses, so I decided to continue my studies into higher education.
My first attempt at university did not go as well as I had intended it to. I had other issues to contend with at the time, so I dropped out after two weeks. However, in 2010 I enrolled at the UoN and never really left. I had a great time studying criminology at UoN as I thought that my course was very interesting and the teaching staff (aka @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou) were spectacular.
I did not realise this it at the time but I was well prepared for critical criminological discussions because I came from a background where people would be demonized for a whole host of social problems – it was clear to me at the time that this was unfair. Whilst enjoying the course content I did have to make a considered effort to improve on my writing skills, but it was worth the effort as this improvement worked wonders on my grades. As an undergraduate, I used my overdraft and savings from working part-time jobs to go travelling at the end of each academic year, this was beneficial for helping me to understand criminological issues outside of the UK.
In 2015 I began teaching as an associate lecturer at UoN and I really enjoyed it. I also completed an MA degree in Social Research. To fast-forward to today, I now work as a lecturer in criminology – and this really is, beyond my wildest dreams!
Studying is not always a smooth ride for some, but if you work hard, you never know where you might end up.
Witches and warlocks
October 9, 2020 19:23 / Leave a comment
Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities. Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities. We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less.
One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers. One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”. Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice. Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional.
Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands. Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters. People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence. People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected. Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.
I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it. Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”. When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis.
As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel. Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson. In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch. The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific. An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh. It was the embodiment of true evil. In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin. The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives. This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories.
This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies. The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic. In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames.
Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.
The reality of course is slightly different. The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means. They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them. The victories are not complete, but gradual and small. If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity. It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.
Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?
Is justice fair?
September 4, 2020 10:17 / 2 Comments on Is justice fair?
There is a representation of justice. A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other. This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority. The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair. To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life. Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.
The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public. The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata. Well, at least in principle. There is a difference between representation and reality. This is something we learn from early on. As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup. It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations. Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet. Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing.
Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need. It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth. Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era. Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism. The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised. Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice. Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing.
This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”. Desirable and available to all citizens. A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account. Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation. The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring. There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart. The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo.
On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened. Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical. Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive. Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people. For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice. If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental. Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations.
Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system. It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems. From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented. Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower. Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change. Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.
“I can’t breathe”: Criminology, Science and Society
August 14, 2020 10:00 / Leave a comment
Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect. In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder. Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon. After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth. This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder. The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment.
There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point. Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society. In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool. As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced. The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.
When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.
This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law. It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton). In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.*
The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.
Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.
Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.
If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong. If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement. For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression.
Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.
Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.
If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.
*Even that can now be given as an affirmation
“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Natalie Humphrey, 1st Year student
July 25, 2020 13:21 / Leave a comment
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!
The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: At the beginning of the year I believed the True Crime module to be the most important in understanding why crimes are caused. However, I quickly learned that these are not always the best source of information! The Science module is the basis of Criminology in the first year, laying down where it emerged, with Lombroso and Bertillon. I believe these figures are important to understand to grasp criminology.
The academic criminology book you must read:
The SAGE dictionary of Criminology has helped me with the basics of the subject. If there was something I became stuck on, this book would usually have an explanation for it. It also has examples which make it much easier to apply
The academic journal article you must read:
Attitudes towards the use of Racial/Ethical Profiling to Prevent Crime and Terrorism, by Johnson, D et al.(2011)
I came across this article when researching my Independant Project on racial stereotyping. It goes into the systematic racism that black people face and how disproportionate racism truly is. With more recently, the George Floyd case, this is still a very prominent article that is true to date
The criminology documentary you must watch:
I am a lover of many true crime documentaries and am always first to watch the new one that has been added to Netflix! The famous ones, such as Ted Bundy’s confession tapes, are fascinating to me, Bundy especially. However, there are many injustices that need to be addressed, not just the notorious serial killers. Jeffrey Epstein’s new documentary is very important in understanding sexual abuse that happened to over 200 underage girls. Athlete A also shows the sexual abuse of underage girls who were part of USA gymnastics.
The most important criminologist you must read:
Becker stood out to me this year as a very important figure. Understanding how young people are so heavily influenced by the labels people and society give, so much so it can shape their lives. Even older people can be easily labelled. This was quite surprising to me at the beginning of my studies.
Something criminological that fascinates me:
DNA and fingerprinting are fascinating to me. I find the science behind the discovery of what occurred at a crime scene and how they unpick it very interesting. This is definitely something I would like to study further.
The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
It is a much wider subject than I first thought, it involves so much more than you could imagine. It questions everything in society.
The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
I have learned how unjust our criminal justice system is and how much, we as individuals, stereotype every person we meet. I’ve become more aware of this and have a better understanding of what needs to change.
The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Racism is a massive problem today. The racism black people face, especially in the US, is hard to understand as a white woman, but difficult to even contemplate people are treated in such ways. George Floyd, as I mentioned before, was killed because of his race. Problems like this would not happen to a white male, especially when his alleged crime was not violent. Young black men are labelled by the media to be seen as a thug and dangerous, causing many to be assumed of acts they just would not commit. Jane Elliott’s experiment on racism and eye colour from the 1970s is still a lesson that needs to be learned today!
When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Its more than it seems. Most just think it's about crime, which yes it is, but there is so much more to it. It is not one subject, it is so many put together. Science, psychology, sociology for example.