Home » Social science
Category Archives: Social science
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions. Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one.
Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience. It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives. To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story.
Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal. Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations).
Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten. Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure. In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents. Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried.
Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged. The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut. In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced. Likewise, the McGann family did the same. Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one. Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced. This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind.
Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted. People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation. Then there are those whose experience was not even counted. In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery. In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery.
Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence. Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with. These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves. Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery. At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed. In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved? Have we heard their voices? Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives. It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves. The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read.
In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri. Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation. These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget.
“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24. […] My father come from Perry County. He wus named Abernathy. My father’s father was a white man. My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold. De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans. Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers. This was 1832. De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit. Dey had six boys. […] I ve been living here since de Civil War. Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot. What I think ‘bout slavery? Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”.Hannah Allen
“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs. I had two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919. His name was Spot. My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs. Slavery was a mighty hard life. Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children. I nursed in da family one year. Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children. I nurse there two years. Neither family was nice to me.”Mary Bell
When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand? In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn. Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.
Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London
Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford
2020 will be a memorable year for a number of reasons. The big news of course was people across the world going into lockdown and staying home in order to stop the transmission of a coronavirus Covid-19. Suddenly we started counting; people infected, people in hospitals, people dead. The social agenda changed and our priorities altered overnight. During this time, we are trying to come to terms with a new social reality, going for walks, knitting, baking, learning something, reading or simply surviving, hoping to see the end of something so unprecedented.
People are still observing physical distancing, and everything feels so different from the days we were discussing future developments and holiday plans. During the last days before lockdown we (myself and @paulaabowles) were invited to the local radio by April Dawn to talk about, what else, but criminology. In that interview we revealed that the course started 20 years ago and for that reason we shall be having a big party inviting prospective, current and old students together to mark this little milestone. Suffice to say, that did not happen but the thought of celebrating and identifying the path of the programme is very much alive. I have written before about the need to celebrate and the contributions our graduates make to the local, regional and national market. Many of whom have become incredibly successful professionals in the Criminal Justice System.
On this entry I shall stand on something different; the contribution of criminology to professional conduct, social sciences and academia. Back in the 1990s Stan Cohen, wrote the seminal Against Criminology, a vibrant collection of essays, that identified the complexity of issues that once upon a time were identified as radical. Consider an academic in the 1960s imagining a model that addresses the issue of gender equality and exclusion; in some ways things may not have changed as much as expected, but feminism has entered the ontology of social science.
Criminology as a discipline did not speak against the atrocities of the Nazi genocide, like many other disciplines; this is a shame which consecutive generations of colleagues since tried to address and explain. It was in the 1960s that criminology entered adulthood and embraced one of its more fundamental principles. As a theoretical discipline, which people outside academia, thought was about reading criminal minds or counting crime trends only. The discipline, (if it is a discipline) evolved in a way to bring a critical dimension to law and order. This was something more than the original understanding of crime and criminal behaviour and it is deemed significant, because for the first time we recognised that crime does not happen in a social vacuum. The objectives evolved, to introduce scepticism in the order of how systems work and to challenge established views.
Since then, and through a series of events nationally and internationally, criminology is forging a way of critical reflection of social realities and professional practices. We do not have to simply expect a society with less crime, but a society with more fairness and equality for all. The responsibilities of those in position of power and authority is not to use and abuse it in order to gain against public interest. Consider the current pandemic, and the mass losses of human life. If this was preventable, even in the slightest, is there negligence? If people were left unable to defend themselves is that criminal? Surely these are questions criminology asks and this is why regardless of the time and the circumstances there will always be time for criminology to raise these, and many more questions.
I am currently sitting in an empty classroom because, although face to face teaching is not officially suspended until tomorrow, none of my seminar students have turned up. In this rather depressing situation, however, there is much for a psychologist to reflect upon, particularly the process of social influence.
First there is the phenomenon of obedience to authority. In his seminal series of experiments, Milgram (1974) was trying to understand the destructive power of obedience; the tendency of people to do what they are told even when it is morally wrong and they know it to be so. The current situation is different. While it is always important to question science (as anyone who has studied CRI1007) should be well aware!) large scale public health measures have no hope of working unless everyone obeys. Milgram did not just explore how obedient people can be – he also investigated the conditions under which obedience is strongest. One of the factors that enhanced obedience was an aura of scientific authority. Participants were more likely to obey when they were instructed by a person in a white coat, who worked in a smart laboratory in a reputable university and who made reference to science, research and experiments, than when they were confronted by someone in scruffy clothes in a run-down building in a tatty back street. Boris Johnson has a poor record of telling the truth and inspiring trust. It is no coincidence that he is currently delivering his daily briefings flanked by his chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.
Then there is the phenomenon of panic buying. There is probably a deep-seated evolutionary drive that causes us to hoard food in times of potential shortage. Just as the onset of autumn drives squirrels to bury hazelnuts, so the mention of self-isolation drives humans to buy pasta and tinned tomatoes (or potatoes in the case of one of my elderly relatives). My grandmother, who was her family’s main breadwinner through the Second World War, kept a stash of sugar under her bed until the day she went into a care home. And I guess Freud might have had something to say about the fact that the items we are hoarding most fervently are toilet rolls!
Evolutionary drives are, however, not the whole story and social influences play a part too. We panic buy because everyone else is panic buying. In his research on conformity, Asch (1956) identified two main reasons why people went along with the crowd: some just wanted to fit in and be socially accepted (compliance); others doubted their own judgment and believed that everyone else must be correct (conversion). The latter process is helping to drive the current retail crisis – people think “everyone else is panic buying, so there must be a good reason to do so, so I need to do it too!”
Asch was investigating the influence of majorities but minorities can be influential too, often for similar reasons (Moscovici, 1976). As if we didn’t have enough disease to worry about, I have just passed a screen warning students about outbreaks of mumps in British universities. The reason why mumps is on the rise among students is that 20 years ago, when the current generation of students were babies, a small minority of scientific opinion suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Backed by authoritative sounding research and confident and charismatic individuals, it led parents to doubt mainstream opinion and reject vaccination for their children.
Another topic which has puzzled social psychologists for many years is that of altruism. Are we ever truly, selflessly altruistic? Or are we good to others because it has rewards for us? Looking at the Facebook group for the village where I live, there are some heart-breaking accounts of selfishness over the last few days. The grandmother desperately appealing for Calpol for a 5-month-old baby with chicken pox, because every shop she has tried has been cleared out by panic buyers. And the farm that sells eggs by the side of the road with an honesty box that is now asking customers to phone with orders because someone has stolen all the eggs and all the cash. But there are some lovely examples of altruism too. People offering to shop or collect prescriptions for the elderly and vulnerable. People offering to cook meals for health professionals. People setting up Facebook and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain social contact. And the wonderful woman who offered free mango chutney to anyone in the village, just because she was making a batch and wanted to share the love!
We live in interesting times! Stay safe, keep calm and use this opportunity to read and reflect.
Asch, S.E. (1956) Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: 1 A minority of one against a unanimous majority. In Psychological Monographs, 70, (9) (Whole No. 416).
Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.
Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.
There is no doubt, we are living in a time of crisis. Everywhere we look there are signs of disorder, disruption and chaos, impinging on our real and virtual lives. You can see it in the faces of family, friends, colleagues, the old and the young from children to pensioners, and everyone in between. There is nothing else on anyone’s lips beyond what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen, how they’ve prepared, or haven’t for this human disaster. Scientific words like Covid-19, Coronavirus, criminological words such as isolation, criminalisation and newly minted words; social distancing are being pushed into conversations. These appear alongside the more prosaic questions, which shops have bread? toilet rolls? milk? eggs? Is this open, is that open, can I get there, am I allowed to go out?
Over the past week I have seen this fear develop, evolve and spread. It threatens to swallow us all up in our panic. Many people, myself included, are desperately trying to maintain the everyday, the mundane, some routine, some semblance of normality. My institution is trying to be supportive, lots of extra email, how to move your teaching online, what advice to give students, how to look after your mental and physical health and that of others, at a time like this. All of this advice is well-intentioned and aims to alleviate fear, after all scientia potentia est, or so we are told.
The problem with trying to recreate our real lives in a virtual environment is far more profound than simply changing our modes of operation. When people are worried, frightened and saddened, no amount of pretending that it is “business as usual” will distract them from the everyday lived experience. We can pretend, but when you are worried about your own health, that of your family, when you don’t know where you are going to be able to get the basics of life from, and for many, how on earth you will be able to pay for it with limited or no income, everything else pales into insignificance.
So far we have seen so much evidence of privilege: those that aren’t worried because they’re healthy, those that stockpile food and other essential products, because they can afford to and those that isolate themselves in the lap of luxury, because they have access to money, property and contacts. All of which feeds the fear by the second, minute and hour. Competing with this negativity are the stories around kindness, the narratives from the NHS, the police, carers, shop workers, the list goes on showing that the human spirit is still burning strong, that we have a choice about our behaviour, our thoughts and our feelings. That we can make a difference, if only we want to.
This week has felt like a nightmare, so dark, so stressed, the walls are closing in on all of us, forcing us into confinement. We look out of the window and nobody is moving outside. It has all the ingredients of my favourite genre, dystopic fiction, but this time we’re all fully immersed and we have no idea how the novel ends. How many will die, how many will find their finances, relationships, employment, education disrupted and/or destroyed?
That changed for me yesterday, when I stumbled upon a message from the artist David Hockney. The message was incredibly simple ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’. I should declare in advance, I am a little biased, he’s one of my favourite artists, but with Hockney’s simple statement he touched on a profound truth. We are humans, infinitely resourceful, extremely adaptable, incredibly social.
Look after yourselves and each other, if not face to face, then virtually. Check in, touch base and create a life line for each other. But also remember to take some time away from the screens, look out of the window and remember the world is still a beautiful place, filled with many wonders, including humankind.
This year marks 20 years that we have been offering criminology at the University of Northampton and understandably it has made us reflect and consider the direction of the discipline. In general, criminology has always been a broad theoretical discipline that allows people to engage in various ways to talk about crime. Since the early days when Garofalo coined the term criminology (still open to debate!) there have been 106 years of different interpretations of the term.
Originally criminology focused on philosophical ideas around personal responsibility and free will. Western societies at the time were rapidly evolving into something new that unsettled its citizens. Urbanisation meant that people felt out of place in a society where industrialisation had made the pace of life fast and the demands even greater. These societies engaged in a relentless global competition that in the 20th century led into two wars. The biggest regret for criminology at the time, was/is that most criminologists did not identify the inherent criminality in war and the destruction they imbued, including genocide.
In the ashes of war in the 20th century, criminology became more aware that criminality goes beyond individual responsibility. Social movements identified that not all citizens are equal with half the population seeking suffrage and social rights. It was at the time the influence of sociology that challenged the legitimacy of justice and the importance of human rights. In pure criminological terms, a woman who throws a brick at a window for the sake of rights is a crime, but one that is arguably provoked by a society that legitimises inequality and exclusion. Under that gaze what can be regarded as the highest crime?
Criminologists do not always agree on the parameters of their discipline and there is not always consensus about the nature of the discipline itself. There are those who see criminology as a social science, looking at the bigger picture of crime and those who see it as a humanity, a looser collective of areas that explore crime in different guises. Neither of these perspectives are more important than the other, but they demonstrate the interesting position criminology rests in. The lack of rigidity allows for new areas of exploration to become part of it, like victimology did in the 1960s onwards, to the more scientific forensic and cyber types of criminology that emerged in the new millennium.
In the last 20 years at Northampton we have managed to take onboard these big, small, individual and collective responses to crime into the curriculum. Our reflections on the nature of criminology as balancing different perspectives providing a multi-disciplinary approach to answering (or attempting to, at least) what crime is and what criminology is all about. One thing for certain, criminology can reflect and expand on issues in a multiplicity of ways. For example, at the beginning of 21st terrorism emerged as a global crime following 9/11. This event prompted some of the current criminological debates.
So, what is the future of criminology? Current discourses are moving the discipline in new ways. The environment and the need for its protection has emerge as a new criminological direction. The movement of people and the criminalisation of refugees and other migrants is another. Trans rights is another civil rights issue to consider. There are also more and more calls for moving the debates more globally, away from a purely Westernised perspective. Deconstructing what is crime, by accommodating transnational ideas and including more colleagues from non-westernised criminological traditions, seem likely to be burning issues that we shall be discussing in the next decade. Whatever the future hold there is never a dull moment with criminology.