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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.

Nothing is black and white: the intransigence of fools

“Burglar!” by Maydela is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

Ask the expert, if you can find one

It was around four years ago I discovered the title of ‘Doctor’ extended beyond medical staff. I’m not sure many people outside of the academic world fully understand or have any reason to know the order in which post nominal letters are awarded or titles are given. Gaining the title of ‘doctor’ at the very beginning of any academic journey, seems so distantly part of any future plan, its barely imaginable. Some career paths seem wildly ambitious. Wanting to be an ‘expert’ in your field for the humble student, feels much like aspiring to become an astronaut midway through a physics degree.

Once you enter the world of academia, the titles people hold seem to determine an awful lot of their credibility. It’s rare to find a university lecturer who isn’t working towards doctoral qualification, most already have one. The papers, books and research journals are filled with the knowledge of individuals who once were nothing more than students. I often wonder though, at what point someone becomes an expert? At what point, (if ever) do the most academically qualified individuals refer to themselves as experts within a narrow area of their field.

The government often talks about relying on ‘expert’ evidence. Watching the experts stand beside the PM discussing the current pandemic, they appear uneasy, particularly when questions are raised about a different expert having a contradicting opinion. One thing I feel quite sure of is that experts seem to rarely agree. As Bertrand Russell (1927/42) states, “even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken” . Maybe that’s because it’s questionable if anyone can ever truly know everything on a given subject area.

The scientific committee seems to be buzzing with accusations that the experts are not quite what they seem. The ‘data scientists’ advising government and sitting on SAGE are not all from a background which comfortably implies they are qualified to discuss virology or immunology. In the background lingers the fact with such a new virus, with so little known about it, expert knowledge in a narrow sense, is undoubtedly in its infancy and will probably require some degree of hindsight later on.

In the past week one of the UK’s leading experts has resigned from his job after breaking his own guidance. Meanwhile the public watched Matt Hancock ‘snap’ at an opposition MP in parliament. A woman who despite being no more of an ‘expert’ than himself, at least has experience as a qualified A&E doctor to base her opinions and views on. It seems last week’s experts and heroes are this week’s victims in the ongoing witch-hunt for someone to blame.

I’ve started to wonder if labelling someone an ‘expert’ is something other people do to install confidence that a piece of research being relied upon is credible, rather than the experts referring to themselves that way. There’s almost an assumption of arrogance for anyone who dares to protest that their knowledge should be recognised with a title, outside of the academic world anyway. Maybe people simply don’t understand what it took to reach that level of knowledge in the first place.

I’ve looked a lot at ‘labelling’ within the criminological context and it seems to me the labels that are attached to us, almost always seem to come from someone else. In an age of self-proclaimed ‘internet experts’ the real experts, it seems are hard to find.

Reference

Russell, Bertrand (1927/1942) cited in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: A Fresh Look at Empiricism, 1927-42, edited by by John Slater and Assisted by Peter Köllner, (London: Routledge)

Criminology 2020 AD

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.    

#CriminologyBookClub: The Yellow Room

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…

@jesjames50 and @haleysread – founding members of the #CriminologyBookClub

Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?

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!

“Στον πατέρα μου χρωστώ το ζην, στον δάσκαλό μου το ευ ζειν” To my father I owe living, to my teacher I owe my wellbeing (Alexander the Great)

Alexander1256

I remember this phrase from school, among with other ones about the importance of education in life.  Since then there have been several years but education is something that we carry with us and as such we take little memories of knowledge like pieces of a gigantic jigsaw that is our lives and put them together.  Experience is that glue that makes each piece of knowledge to stick at the right time whenever you want to find the words or feelings to express the world around us. Education plays such an immense part in this process because it give us these words that explain our world a little more clearly, precisely, deeply

This phrase had great resonance with me as I have never known my father and therefore I had no obvious person to relate this to or to have a way to express gratitude for living to anyone (obviously from my paternal family branch).  So for a very long time, I immerse myself in education. Teachers in and out of the classroom, living or dead, have left a trail of knowledge with me that defined me, shaped my thoughts and forge some intense memories that is now is my turn to share with my students.

Education has been my refuge, my friend  and a place of great discovery. Knowledge has that power to subvert injustice and challenge ignorance.  Arguably education comes in different guises and a formal school curriculum sometimes restricts the student into normatives of performance that relegates knowledge into bitesize information, easily digestible and reproduced. The question, of a fellow student of mine who asked, “sir, why do I need algebra?”  could have only be met from the bemused teacher’s response…”for your education”! Maybe I am romanticizing my own education and potentially forget that formal compulsory education is always challenging and challenged because of the purpose it is called to play.

Maybe this is why, what I consider of value in education, I have always attributed to my own journey, things that I read without being in any curriculum, or discussions I had with my teachers that took us away from the strict requirements of a lesson plan.  The greatest journey in education can start with one of the most basic of observations, situations, words that lead to an entire discussion on many complex ideas, theories and perspectives. These journeys were and are the most rewarding because you realise that behind a question is the accumulated human curiosity spanning the entire history of life.

One of the greatest places for anyone to quench this thirst for learning is the University. In and out of the classroom knowledge is there, ready to become part of a learners’ experience.  It is not bestowed in the latest gadget or the most recent software and other gimmicky apparatus but in the willingness to dwell into knowledge, whether it is reading late in the library or having a conversation with fellow students or a tutor (under a tree as one of my students, once professed).  Perhaps my trust in education is hyperbolic even obstinate but as I see it, those of us who have the choice, can choose to live or to live well. For the first, we can carry on existing, but for the latter the journey of knowledge is neither a short one nor one that comes easy but at least it will be rewarding.

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