After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author

Co-ordinating a research project in 6 continents

We live in a world where we can communicate with someone across the oceans with a single click and this facilitated research on sexual harassment and sexual assault in transit environments.

The challenge and joy of coordinating a research project in 6 continents in the era of the internet

Vania Ceccato

 

Vania Ceccato is a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. She is also a BSC International Ambassador.

 

This story is about the challenges and potentialities of doing collaborative work in Criminology using your own computer, with no funding, but supported by a ‘gaggle’ of a highly motivated researchers, ready to work.  Back in early 2016 I was teaching undergraduates how to put together a graduation thesis and teaching them how to apply a survey to general population. I incentivized my students to explore their own mobile phones and digital devices to make the data collection. Through this I taught them how to carry out an online survey and later critically analyze the collected data. I had long wished to question Metro passengers about their safety perceptions; so I handed my students questions on sexual violence and sexual harassment in transit in particular.

That did not work very well. Students were, overall, reluctant to ask such questions and passengers were unwilling to answer them. However, I do not attribute this failure to the students or passengers.  At that time, most of us did not feel comfortable talking openly about sexual harassment, at least when compared to recent years. Therefore, it was no surprise that my students were fairly reluctant to ask transit riders about their experiences of sexual harassment while using transit. Just a year later, the appearance of the #MeToo! Movement on the internet and outside cyberspace made it easier to get information about these problematic daily-life experiences. I decided then to have another go with the survey but this time asking my own students about sexual harassment.

Things went much better—the survey was answered by more than 1500 university students in the Stockholm region. Additionally, it later gained answers from 13,323 students worldwide, in 18 cities (as shown in map below)!

Ceccato Globe

What prompted this sudden change? This project originally began with the suggestion from a colleague in USA. She thought we should extend the original survey, apply it in our respective universities, and write a comparative paper. So we did. In the process, I mentioned our ideas with colleagues in a global user-list and suddenly, we were 14 universities engaged in this global project: researchers wanted to take part and apply the survey in their own universities, from Lagos- Nigeria to Vancouver-Canada, from Tokyo-Japan to Bogota-Colombia, 3 others came along during the process. It was amazing to see so many people, determined to see this project succeed. We did not have any funding to offer and I thought it would be a big of waste of everybody’s time if people would give up along the process … but it was worth it the risk.

I was lucky in having my colleague and mentor Prof Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris at UCLA coordinating this research enterprise with me. She was equally engaged and very interested in getting an overall picture on sexual violence/harassment in transit environments. Apart from the time difference (when she was waking up in Los Angeles, I was ready to go home from work!), it was lovely to have Anastasia to discuss ideas, worries, share instructions and support anyone in the group.

Of course, in a project of such global scope, there will always be incongruences and challenges when collecting and analyzing the data. This study was no exception, we faced a number of challenges: particularly when communicating over email and using various online sharing-platforms. Interestingly enough, most of the challenges we faced had nothing to do with technology or limited funding.

One of the earliest problems was the need to obtain approval from the university and/or from a special Ethical Review Board before approaching the students with the questionnaire. This process turned out to be longer than we expected and varied from country to country (taking around one to four months). I thought some of my colleagues would give up along the way, but thankfully they persevered!

Then came translation. In order to make comparisons with other cities possible, questions were later translated into seven languages (English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese) using Google Docs. This sharing platform ended up working very well and greatly simplified the process.

More complicated, were the differences in local and cultural norms. It was impossible to standardize all questions. In some cities the ‘race’ question in the USA (‘ethnic background’ in Sweden) was substituted with “country of birth/origin question”. In certain cases, the race/ethnicity question had to be omitted because in cities, the law does not allow asking questions on race, ethnicity or religious beliefs. Similarly in some cities, it is not considered appropriate to ask about someone’s sexual orientation in surveys, and our colleagues had to omit such questions.

We exchanged information mostly by email, and during the process of data collection and analysis, we split ourselves into smaller groups. Many of our meetings were performed over Skype or the similar communication platforms. Remote meetings did not always work but ultimately, we were able to put together a schedule of tasks to accommodate time differences between Manila, Stockholm and Los Angeles.

In all but two cases, the researchers were able to gather the minimum requested sample size of 300 students (some got more than 1000 students). To do so, they often had to follow different strategies such as adding an additional university, having a raffle with small rewards of “lucky money”. The questionnaire was distributed in different ways. For the large majority of cases, the survey was distributed electronically, either using a web platform, (for example, WordPress, Google Docs, etc.) email lists, or university pages with links to social media and to external electronic questionnaires. In a few cases, researchers distributed hard copies combined with an electronic version while in two cases, the link to the survey was posted on social media. 18 cities in 6 continents resulted in 13,323 students worldwide.

With data in hand, we provided instructions to all researchers to follow a particular set of research questions. Out of 18 case studies, 10 researchers presented their preliminary results in the Conference Crime and Fear in Public Places in Stockholm in October 2018, when a proposal for an edited book was suggested (the book proposal was later approved in early 2019). In order to homogenize the analysis and presentation processes, we created a framework of analysis and shared this via email with our colleagues. They were later invited to write essays of 2,500 words discussing their findings and contextual facts about their city. Using Skype or other communication platforms, they also worked in groups in four chapters putting together data, forming statistical analysis together and then writing.

However, our broad analysis brought with it some problems. For example, why did city A have 35% while city B had 78% in a particular question? Did they understand the instructions of analysis? This process was not always straightforward. It took months until we could agree upon a minimum set of questions and answers that were the same for everyone. Together with my co-coordinator in the USA, we combined statistics, compared results, checked and double-checked numbers and references. During that time we sent hundreds of emails, back and forth, before finally writing the final chapters, often with help from my colleagues. By August 2019, the edited volume was nearly complete. Yet, it took more than a month or so for us to get all permissions and high resolution pictures into one place before we finally submitted the book. There were many complications but eventually we did it!

So what can we take away from this research? The survey showed, without any doubt, that sexual violence/harassment in transit environments is unfortunately a common occurrence globally. However, the extent of harassment, ranges considerably from one city to the other. Additionally, the omnipresence of the potential for harassment in transit settings, leads to the adoption of certain behaviors on the transit riders behalf. Avoidance strategies prompt transit riders to avoid particular times, travel routes, and settings that are deemed as, particularly risky, or even avoid using transit completely, opting for other transportation options. This, of course, demands changes in the way transit systems are built, but also long term changes in society’s values and attitudes towards mobility and safety—both being highly gendered. We finalized this research by critically drawing from the results of the empirical work and proposing recommendations on how to respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault in transit environments.

So what can be learnt from the experience of doing research over emails and communication platforms?

We live in a world where we can communicate with someone across the oceans with a single click! This opens a door to a new world of possibilities, whether it be contacting a family member, friend, or doing research with colleagues.  It was a long and bumpy journey, but a worthwhile one. Our experience shows that it is possible to carry out a Global study like this one.  If you want to try to do something similar in the future, make sure you have three things before you start:

  1. Clear aim and objectives and some pretty good ideas how to achieve them
  2. A computer, internet and some ‘basic internet knowledge’
  3. (Most importantly) A great motivated group of researchers you can rely on to ensure that things are done on time, ethically, and with good care for the research process and quality of data. You might want to share the research coordination with someone senior, more experienced researcher in the area.

A book summarizes this joint efforts (Transit Crime and Sexual Violence in Cities: International Evidence and Prevention) and is coming out soon from Routledge. Country reports might be available on requestA special issue of International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice will be available in March 2020. On behalf of my colleague Prof Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris at UCLA, USA, I would like to thank everybody that took part in this project, and in particular, a friend from the UK who directly contributed to the original survey applied in Stockholm in 2016. Thanks!

 

Contact

Vania Ceccato, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Email: vania.ceccato@abe.kth.se

 

Images: courtesy of the author

 

Do we know enough now?

Academics need to engage with policy makers and the public to implement what we already know about the causes of crime and the implications of law and order policies.

Barry GodfreyBarry Godfrey is Professor of Social Justice and has published over twenty books on the history of crime. He is currently editing a Special Edition of the Howard League Journal on the impact of crime history.

 

 

There have been thousands of studies of criminal behavior and of society’s attempts to control it over the last two centuries. Academics think that even more research will enlarge, challenge, and refine our knowledge, and indeed it will. However, because – or perhaps despite of – the vast number of academics now involved in the criminological enterprise, there is considerable agreement about the causes and consequences of crime and punishment.

Historians of crime would find a similar consensus. The vast majority agree that crime is a social and historical construct; that institutions of control are shaped by their histories; that class, gender, and race all conditioned treatment in, and by, the criminal justice system (and still do); that economic inequalities were broadly linked to crime (and still are); and that society has long relied on ineffective nineteenth century forms of punishment (and still does).

I accept that these conclusions lack nuance. Different viewpoints, theoretical perspectives, and empirical wrangles are important, but I would suggest that any differences are dwarfed by the general agreement. Internal liturgical debates are important to us, but not to the general public and are confusing for policy makers (who often find our debates exclusionary, irrelevant, and frankly, bewildering). I am coming around to their point of view. At the very least, we should concede that our research is sometime incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’ and is not user-friendly to anyone who might transform it into practice or policy. Given that we have a common(ish) platform of academic understanding about crime, I would join others to argue that the greatest challenge for academics is for us to use our research to create a strong, meaningful, and persuasive dialogue which influences policy makers to improve the criminal justice system, and to engender more positive public attitudes towards offenders and ex-offenders.

In 2002 Paul Wiles noted that there was a growing gap between academic and public debate, lamenting that we have ‘lost the knack of engaging’. Sociology seems to do much better – according to Michael Burawoy in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association.  Later, in 2010, Uggen and Inderbitzen encouraged criminologists to follow the sociological lead in order to bring together “empirically sound research and comprehensible messages to diverse publics”. This meets the zeitgeist. The ‘impact agenda’ of various research exercises in the UK and elsewhere is of course a half-hearted and largely ‘half-arsed’ attempt to measure our worth in terms and criteria not of our choosing, but it has undoubtedly encouraged a greater level of engagement between academia and policymakers/practitioners. We are also in the business of making sure that our research ‘does something’ to improve policy and practice whether we like it or not. If we fail to engage with the policy realm, then are we at best academic parvenus, at worst a costly (remembering that most of our research is publicly funded) irrelevance?

Having influence over policy and practice is not easy to arrive by, of course. There are unforeseen consequences, and even the predictable outcomes are complex. Policy makers have different agendas, often serve political interests which are antipathetic to our own and require simplicity where we privilege complexity. For every example of the policy realm successfully using our research, there is a disaster story; yet for every disaster story, there is an example of our research being successfully used.

Teaching crime history and criminology may be the biggest impact any of us will have. Our lectures later become the common-sense attitudes towards crime that thousands of students take with them as they graduate from universities every year. However, we also know that sharper and more direct relationships with partners outside of the university can lead to more immediate positive impacts on society. Changing attitudes amongst the student body, hoping that our teaching will cause them to be more pro-social in the future, is a long game. To address the multiple crises society faces today, we need something quicker. We need to press our case. I am not, by any means, suggesting that we stop doing research. That would be perverse given the advantages and opportunities afforded by the second data revolution and the conjunction of readily available digitized crime records, the development of visual methods, and the number and increasing diversity of crime historians nationally and internationally. It would also, I suspect, go against the fundamental essence of being a researcher: research is what we like to do. However, we now have a broad consensus about the causes and consequences of crime, and the shaping of that consensus seems to demand action.  None of us are happy that there are still so many biases in the system, that Victorian penology still predominates, and that class and race still determine outcomes in the criminal justice process. So, is it now time to devote our efforts, not to collecting more and more evidence, but to use what we already know to influence others, and to bring about the change that we, and society, needs?

Contact

Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool

Email: Barry.Godfrey@Liverpool.ac.uk

Copyright free images courtesy of author