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One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.
In times of crisis it is beneficial to occupy yourself with things to do. This helps us to cope with boredom, and to distract us from the bleakness of reality. What better way to help with this than to start a book club? That’s right, whilst some of us were sitting at home twiddling our thumbs, @paulaabowles had sent us all a book that we were to read and discuss in virtual book club meetings. Little did we know that this book club was to be our very own ray of sunshine during such an unprecedented time.
Our first book is The Yellow Room by Mary Robert Rinehart (dubbed the American Agatha Christie by the blurb, which is generous). Set in Maine (USA) during WWII, this is a classic whodunit crime novel. With the wealthy Spencer family finding themselves tangled in a web of evidence that instigates their involvement with a dead woman that is found in the closet of their holiday home. The book is filled with intrigue and the plot thickens with each chapter, with more and more clues being thrown into the mix. Until too much is thrown in, and what is left of the book is quite simply… a mess.
The book consists of 30 chapters, and we think the club is in agreeance that the first 20-24 chapters are pretty great. Rinehart throws a number of spanners in the works, with near misses, burning hillsides, death by frights, illegitimate children and secret marriages. We all had our theories, some boarding on plagiarism (they know who they are!). However as it turns out a few of us were half right, and then so were some of the others. We will not give away any spoilers, but the ending, the answer we were all waiting for was disappointing and quite frankly we are still not 100% sure who did it, and what was actually done. The leading lady of the book Carol Spencer, dubbed drippy Carol by the club, because she is, well… DRIPPY, does nothing but smoke and drink coffee, whilst surrounded by crime and uncertainty. But, alas, when all is righted, she finds herself in the arms of an arrogant moody man, all happily engaged! Possibly a romance (although a bad one) or possible a classic whodunit (a half decent one), who can tell?
Overall the book was a success: it inspired intrigue and discussion! The virtual book club even more so! A bunch of misfits, gathered together (20minutes after the allotted time because one member of the group is late- @manosdaskalou), discussing the book, thinking about the social context, the characters, and how it is received today. It is a fantastic virtual club consisting of familiar suspects: the princess, the athlete, the criminal, the brain, the basket case, the parent and the “carol” (representations may not be literal or accurate). What will the misfits think of the next book? Will they all agree? Will one read ahead and sit silently and sheepishly, without the others knowing? Stay tuned…
A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology. I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah. As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.
In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked. As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work). The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way. These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.
There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm. I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values. Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms. To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known. I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.
As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do. I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university. That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience.
Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend. Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.
Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request. My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk. Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere. And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time. Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!