When Police Racism is Denied, Does it Go Away?

The Macpherson Report remains a touchstone in and a flashpoint for debates on institutional racism within the London Metropolitan Police. Twenty years after its publication, how well does the capital’s police force fare today in the face of accusations and denials of racism? This article casts a critical look at the evidence to expose how institutional racism within the “Met” remains an uncomfortable reality that cannot be denied without denying the facts, ignoring the truth, or remaining willfully blind to it.

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Dr. Lambros Fatsis is currently Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award’. In September 2019, he will join the University of Brighton as a Lecturer in Criminology.

 

Amid a plethora of Home Affairs Committees, events, debates, and impassioned commentaries that interrogate the legacy of the Macpherson report and muse on the current state of the London Metropolitan Police, as far as institutional racism is concerned, recent statements by the Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, do much to spark further interest in and controversies around the issue. During a Home Affairs Committee session on the Met’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Macpherson Report, including steps taken to address that report’s findings on institutional racism in the police, Cressida Dick reportedly said that the Metropolitan Police is no longer ‘institutionally racist’ and stressed that the label itself is ‘toxic’ and ‘unhelpful’. Insisting that the force has been ‘utterly transformed’ since Macpherson’s time, the Met Police chief added that: ‘The label now does more harm than good, it is something that is immediately interpreted by anyone who hears it as not institutional but racist – full of racists full stop, which we are not. It is a label that puts people off from engaging with the police. It stops people wanting to give us intelligence, evidence, come and join us, work with us’.

The Met Police Commissioner, therefore, seems confident that: (a) institutional racism in today’s Met is a thing of the past, (b) that it harms the reputation of the force, and that (c) when the term is used we hear the word “racist” louder than the word “institutional”; thereby thinking that the police is populated by racists. She then reassuringly claims that not only is the Met not ‘full of racists’ but that this misperception damages the relationship between the public and the police and undermines citizens’ confidence and trust in the force, while also discouraging potential recruits to join. As a result, institutional racism is suddenly pronounced dead, the definition and meaning of the term becomes misunderstood, and we are left to consider the reputational damage of institutional racism on the Met, instead of worrying about its impact on those who suffer from its consequences. On all three counts, this is a deeply unsettling statement which denies the facts, distorts what words mean, and prioritises the public image of a civil force of the state over its accountability to the public that it ostensibly serves and protects.

Starting with the premature obituary of institutional racism within the Met, it should be read against the latest evidence which clearly points to its existence today. Relevant research findings unambiguously demonstrate racial disparities and disproportionality in the use of stop-and-search, the Gangs Matrix, or the policing tactics used to tackle knife crime and clamp down Black music genres like grime and drill. Last year alone, an influential report for Stopwatch and Release by LSE academic Michael Shiner and his colleagues did much to demonstrate the discriminatory effects of stop and search, echoing earlier evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a Criminal Justice Alliance briefing, and other oft-quoted academic research (here, here, and here). The Met’s gang database (the Gangs Matrix) fares just as badly with two damming reports by Amnesty International and Stopwatch exposing its racist logic, as did the Information Commissioner’s Office which noted ‘the potential to cause damage and distress to the disproportionate number of young, black men on the Matrix’. Buttressing claims of the effectiveness of stop-and-search as a vital tool for fighting knife crime, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies condemned the overall approach as ineffective, unjust and damaging to the people that it (cl)aims to protect, as did the Youth Violence Commission which advocates for a public health alternative. As for the policing of UK grime and drill music, my own research demonstrates how the discriminatory policing of both genres serves as a unique case study of institutional racism within the Met today.

Were this not enough, on her visit to the UK last year the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, appeared ‘shocked by the criminalisation of young people from ethnic minorities, especially young black men. They are over-represented in police stop and searches, more likely to face prosecution under the country’s joint enterprise provisions, and are over-represented in the prison system’. None of this is secret knowledge and even a cursory glance at the government’s Race Disparity Unit ‘ethnicity facts and figures’ on stop-and-search and arrests would suffice to convince anyone of the discriminatory treatment of Black people by the police and other UK criminal justice system institutions.

Factual evidence aside, the Met Police Commissioner’s comments are also striking for the way they misrepresent what institutional racism actually means. In Macpherson’s famous formulation, institutional racism ‘consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The institutional origins of racist behaviour and discriminatory outcomes are not separated in Macpherson’s definition, as they are in Cressida Dick’s interpretation of the term. Yet, she argues that people somehow mentally uncouple the two when the term is used, while also claiming that the term implies that the Met is ‘full of racists’ instead of pointing to a collective failure of an organisation whose processes and attitudes are to blame. The difference between Macpherson and Cressida Dick is that the former points to racism as a feature of the institutional structure and collective mentality of the Met, whereas the latter misunderstands racism as individual prejudice alone. In so doing, a structural characteristic of an entire organisation is denied, and attributed instead to a few individuals who independently act out their own prejudicial attitudes as individuals. Individual officers therefore appear unaffected by their socialisation into an institutionally racist mindset, nor do they act as a team in line with that institution’s logic and unwritten rules. Since racism, according to the Met Commissioner, is an individual trait it has nothing to do with the institutional make-up of the organisation, and since it does not characterise the entire force it cannot exist. The term institutional racism, however, refers to racist attitudes that are built into organisations by design, with the assumption being that individuals take on the prejudices of an organisation and do not act independently of it, especially when they work in groups.

What makes all the above so difficult to stomach is not a logical fallacy, which mistakes something structural and systemic for something individual or (co)incidental, but a dangerous argument which shows little regard for the casualties of such structural arrangements. To perceive institutional, structural, systemic racism merely as a ‘toxic label’ is to deny how toxic the reality of it is for the people and communities that are disproportionately affected by it. Worse still, it reveals a denialist logic which refuses to admit the existence of institutional racism, thereby discounting the relevant evidence. Such a stubborn stance contradicts the Met’s self-understanding as a professional police force which acts on the basis of evidence in order to oversee public safety. On the contrary, such statements give the impression that the Met chooses to defend itself instead of protecting the public to whom it is accountable, and that it chooses to tackle crime by strangling the facts that should guide its mission, its ethos, and its conduct.

Pretending that institutional racism is a thing of the past, is to fail to see how and why it is present today. Yet, the Met chief seems either unable to see all this or willfully blind to it all. If it is the former, she could be dismissed as inadequate. If it is the latter, she might be suspected of being dangerous. Either way, she seems disconcertingly vulnerable to the siren call of hawkish policing and deaf to the evidence that renders it illegitimate. Her pledge to ‘relentlessly’ pursue gangs through increased stop and search doesn’t simply clash with evidence that this police power is ineffective, discriminatory and unjust, but also jars with the lack of concrete evidence to link knife crime and gang membership. Such a stance does chime well, however, with the government’s recent promise to increase stop and search powers and relax rules of conduct to make criminals ‘literally feel terror’. Similarly, the Met chief’s refusal to acknowledge institutional racism as a reality within the force that she leads, eerily echoes statements by the new head of No. 10’s Policy Unit, who famously dismissed institutional racism as a ‘myth’ and decried the establishment of the Race Disparity Audit as serving a ‘phoney race war’ that is ‘dangerous and divisive’.

Twenty years after Macpherson diagnosed the Met with institutional racism steadfast refusals to see it, point to a reluctance to see what is evident through facts. We should, therefore, be reminded that when ‘racism is how the world is seen’, as Sara Ahmed brilliantly put it, ‘it remains possible for racism not to be seen’.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

Copyright free image courtesy of Pexels

 

 

 

Critical Conversations on Criminology and Gender: Innovations in Research

Reflections on dynamic and innovative contemporary research methods in criminology and gender studies

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Dr Marian Duggan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent and the new Chair of the British Society of Criminology Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network.

 

 

British Society of Criminology Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network’s 3rd Annual Event.

Inspired by burgeoning developments in creative and innovative methodologies in criminology, 2019’s annual WCCJ ‘critical conversations’ event showcased an array of innovative ways of doing and communicating criminological research via visual methods, arts and multi-media methods, documents and the positioning of the researcher. While we fore-fronted methodological innovations, the conference reflected a rich feminist tradition of attending to critical issues of power and politics in research. As well as offering opportunities to share knowledge and experiences of using innovative methodologies, we intended that the day also offer opportunities for networking. As the incoming Chair of the BSC’s Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network I am delighted to share my reflections on the day’s events with you in this blog.

Approximately 65 attendees congregated at City, University of London, in April 2019. Speakers were invited to step outside of the confines of PowerPoint and were given around 15 minutes to share their research. We were delighted that all accepted the challenge, bringing along films, photos and art-works connected to ongoing projects. Our invited speakers included a mix of committed criminologists and those working in cognate disciplines, as well as a mix of established and early career researchers.

The day was divided into four thematic panels: 1) Film and photo, 2) Arts and multi-media, 3) Words and documents, and 4) Researchers and selves, before finishing up with a critical insight from our Keynote Listener, Dr Emma Wincup (University of Leeds). The day’s events were tweeted out (with presenters’ permission) under the #wccj2019 hashtag to @bsc_wccjn followers. Using these and others’ tweets (particularly those by Stigmatised Sexualities & Sexual Harm Research, @SSSH_research), we bring you this round-up of the day.

In the first panel (film and photo), Dr Wendy Fitzgibbon (University of Leicester) and Dr Camille Stengel (University of Greenwich) shared photos and discussed their use of Photovoice as a research methodology in their respective research projects. The synergies between their studies led them to co-author a journal article which was awarded the WCCJ 2018 Best Paper Prize, so a great start to the day indeed. Photovoice is the method of choice in the project currently being undertaken by Dr Tara Young (Kent) and Dr Susie Hulley (Cambridge) into how joint enterprise is affecting young people. The audience learnt how this creative method was shown to give voice to individuals while increasing their self-worth, proving to be transformative for participants and others who see similar experiences represented in the images. We were also guided on how best to employ the method, with advice including limiting the number of images per participant (to around 10) and having them think carefully when composing the photos. The ethics of such innovations were also covered by speakers, particularly in terms of representation, ownership and respecting anonymity. The final presentation was by Dr Shona Minson (Oxford) who has produced a series of excellent video resources on the impact on children whose mothers are sentenced to prison. Demonstrating how film offers instant communication with target audiences, the presentation was interwoven with snippets from one of the film to indicate how, where, when and why particular strategies had been employed throughout. Ethical considerations were as relevant here too, with issues of power, politics and positionality (of both the researcher and researched) discussed in some depth throughout. Shona highlighted the importance of having ‘buy in’ from participants, particularly those with significant status and authority, to elicit the maximum impact in disseminating the message.

Continuing with the interactive theme, Panel 2 (arts and multi-media) began with Dr Jo Deakin (Manchester) outlining the classroom dynamics of her arts-based research with young people and their thoughts on the Prevent Agenda. This method involved employing poetry writing, drawing, drama and physical games with school-aged young people to gain their trust and foster more open means of communication. Jo showcased several of the drawings produced by participants alongside the narratives they provided before signposting attendees to the online resource: Extremely Safe Radical Preventions. Next up was Dr Magali Peyrefitte (Middlesex) who reflected on her work using objects to open up narratives about migration, belonging and identity. Drawing out the importance of intimacy to her method, Magali described the story circle format she employed and participated in, while also providing pictures of some of the objects which featured in the research. Finally, Dr Fay Dennis (Goldsmiths) provided an interactive presentation whereby she played audio clips of her research participants alongside the pictures they had drawn to explain their experiences of drug taking. This powerful representation of emotion and sensation using image and colour excellently illustrated the additional understanding that can be gleaned beyond text.

After a delicious lunch, Panel 3 (words and documents) began with Dr Alpa Parmer (Oxford) and Dr Coretta Phillips (LSE) outlining their use of oral life history methods to explore race in relation to culture, structure and agency. Important points of note were being aware of what information stays with the researcher once the interview is done, and how sensory experiences can shed greater light on the data being gathered. Next was Dr Tanya Serisier (Birkbeck) who drew on her recently published book about feminism, rape and narrative politics to highlight the prevalence of fairy-tales in published rape memoirs. Finally, Dr Jennifer Fleetwood (Goldsmiths) introduced the audience to innovative research using podcasts, in particular My Favourite Murder, to explore routine, repetition and meaning in women’s first person narratives.

Presenters in panel 4 (researchers and selves) adopted a different approach, reflecting on their positionality in relation to their research and chosen methods. Dr Hannah Mason-Bish (Sussex) drew her recently published paper in which she outlined methodological issues relating to elitism, power and identity in what she termed the ‘elite delusion’. Returning to the earlier discussion of researching with people in positions of authority, Hannah reflected on the insider/outsider dichotomy and how this shapes the research according to how one’s status is interpreted by participants. Discussions of status and transitions in and out of identities and spaces were also key theme in Dr Ross McGarry’s (Liverpool) work on militarised identities and the meaning given to key sites that formed part of the celebrations of Armed Forces Day. The use of public space was also relevant to Dr Alex Fanghanel’s (Greenwich) presentation, which drew on her recently published book into the use of the sexualised female activist body in women’s and animal rights protests. Alex’s reflection on her own ethnographic participation in the research invoked questions about gender, rape culture and positionality. Finally, Rachel Stuart (Kent) ended on a similarly feminist note by discussing her research into webcammers and the access issues that come with researching stigmatised communities.

Dr Emma Wincup accepted our request to close the conference as our Keynote Listener. Emma is a long-standing network member and an expert in qualitative methods and feminist methods. She artfully drew together some of the latent themes and questions of the day, challenging us to think critically about the use of innovative methodologies for doing and communicating research. She reminded us that feminist research approaches, research on women and methodological innovation haven’t always been valued in criminology. Emma especially thanked our presenters for their candid accounts of their work, and sharing what happens when things don’t quite go to plan, as well as the personal commitments, and emotional impacts of doing criminological research. She made two observations about the potential of innovative methods in particular: firstly, their usefulness in ‘making the familiar strange’, both to respondents and ourselves, and secondly, their capacity to open up the seemingly banal or mundane for analysis. Emma concluded by reflecting on some pragmatic considerations in innovative methodologies – these are time consuming modes of data collection and communicating research, demanding new skills, training and collaboration. Furthermore, ethical issues become magnified and more complex. But, as the day’s presentations demonstrate, the kinds of data that can be generated have the capacity to communicate critical issues in novel and important ways.

This event was made possible thanks to the British Society of Criminology’s annual funding of the women’s network and a significant sponsorship from City, University of London’s Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Planning is already under-way for next year’s events. If you would like to join the Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network, please email our Membership Secretary Dr Emma Milne on e.milne@mdx.ac.uk and provide your details (including up to five research interests) to be added to the WCCJ network database (overseen by Dr Gemma Birkett). Alternatively, to stay in touch and hear news from WCCJ and our members, join the Jisc-mail list. Finally, do take the time to visit our website.

Contact

Dr Marian Duggan,  University of Kent

Email: m.c.duggan@kent.ac.uk

Twitter: @marian_duggan

Images: courtesy of the author

Being a BSC Network Chair

We also have some brilliant ideas that were formulated at this year’s network meeting, thinking about how to involve early careers students, more established academics, and the prison population themselves in the work of the network

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Dr Jennifer Sloan Rainbow, Outgoing Chair of the Prison Research Network

 

Since my appointment as chair of the Prison Research Network, I have been privileged to have a different view of the BSC than I did before. When one becomes a chair, a number of additional responsibilities come into action. For one, you are responsible for the general running of the network – how active that network is often depends on the energy of the chair/co-chairs, as well as the involvement of other members, momentum within the network, and plans put forward at various network meetings. There may be a website to maintain/oversee, a mailing list to administer, events to organise, and prizes to manage. You are also responsible for the budget provided by the BSC to fund various activities and events.

In addition to network-specific events and activities, network chairs have the opportunity to become members of the BSC Executive Committee. This is quite an eye-opening experience! You attend meetings (around every quarter), sometimes in London, sometimes elsewhere, and are directly involved, as trustees of the BSC, in making decisions that can affect the society as a whole, and also, potentially, the entire discipline of criminology in the UK! It is quite exciting!

It really has been a privilege to be on the BSC Executive Committee – I have been able to work with some phenomenal academics, all of whom make you feel extremely welcome and involved. I remember walking into my first meeting and thinking a combination of ‘Cripes, this is such a big thing!’ and ‘Oh Wow, I cited you in my doctoral thesis!’ (even seven years post-PhD submission, the awe still kicks in every now and then!!).

The Prison Research Network is still relatively new to the scene, and we haven’t been anywhere near as active as I initially planned last year. That said, we have used our funds for good (we didn’t host any events but were able to fund a doctoral student to attend the BSC, something that is becoming even more important in the neoliberal university environment, and a responsibility that networks need to take seriously). We also have some brilliant ideas that were formulated at this year’s network meeting, thinking about how to involve early careers students, more established academics, and the prison population themselves in the work of the network.

Unfortunately, I will not be the one to carry out this work as I need to step down due to personal commitments. As such, we are making an open call for someone to take on the role, be that alone, or as a co-chair with another. If we get more than one applicant, there will be an election, so watch this space! Please could you send all expressions of interest in the role, including a brief paragraph on why you wish to take on the position, to bscprisonsnetwork@gmail.com by September 1, 2018.

It has been a privilege to act as Chair, albeit for a very short period, and I would like to thank everyone who has given their support, ideas and advice over the last year! Now time to pass the baton!

 

Contact

Dr Jennifer Sloan Rainbow, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University.

Email: j.sloan@shu.ac.uk

Twitter: @jsloan12345

 

Copyright free image: from Google images

Thoughts from the British Society of Criminology conference at Birmingham City University

as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content

Susie AthertonThis article was originally posted on the ‘Thoughts from the Criminology Team‘ blog at University of Northampton and is kindly reproduced with the permission of the author.

I attended the BSC conference last week, presenting a paper from my PhD research, doing the usual rounds of seeing familiar faces, meeting some new faces and hoping nobody uttered the words ‘well its more of an observation than a question’. There was one session which particularly inspired me and so is the focus of this blog. The key theme was that as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content. We must continue to introduce students to more challenging ideas and shift their thinking from accepted wisdom of how to ‘do justice’ and ‘why people commit crime’.

The session attended was on ‘Public Criminology’, which included papers on the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Turkey, with regards to police response to victimisation, another on the use of social media and other forms of broadcast used by academics on criminology programmes, the impact of the 2011 riots on social capital in the UK and the need to re-introduce political issues in teaching criminology. As with many sessions at large conferences, you never quite know what will emerge from the range of papers, and you hope there are some common themes for the panel and delegate to engage with in discussions. This certainly happened here, in what seems to be a diverse range of topics, we generated interesting discussions about how we understand crime and justice, how the public understand this, what responsibilities we have in teaching the next generation and how important it is to retain our critical focus. The paper that really resonated with me was delivered by Marc Jacobs from the University of Portsmouth on ‘The Myopia of Public Criminology and the need for a (re) Politicised Criminology Education’.  Marc was an engaging speaker and made a clear point about the need to continue our focus on the work of activist criminologists, who emerged during the 1970s, asking important questions about class, race and gender issues. He cited scholars such as Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Frances Heidensohn as pioneers in shining a light on the need to understand crime and justice from these diverse perspectives.

This is certainly what I remember from studying criminology as a post-graduate, and they have informed my teaching, especially criminological theories – I have always had a closer personal affinity with sociological perspectives, compared to biological and psychological explanations of crime. It also reminded me of a running theme of complaint from some students – political issues are not as interesting as say, examining the motivations of serial killers, neither are those lectures which link class, race and gender to crime, and which highlight how discrimination in society is reflected in who commits crime, why they do it, and why we respond the way we do. There is no doubt presenting students with the broader social, political and cultural contexts means they need to see the problem of crime as a reflection of these contexts, that is does not happen as a rare event which we can always predict and solve. It happens every day, is not always reported, let alone detected and solved, meaning that many people can experience crime, but may not experience justice.

As tempting as it might be to focus teaching and engage students through examining the motivation for serious crimes to reinforce students’ expectations of criminology being about offender profiling and CSI techniques which solve cases and allow us all to sleep safely, I’m afraid this means neglecting something which will affect their lives when they do look up from the fascinating case files. I am not advocating the exclusion of any knowledge, far from it, but we need to ensure that we continue to inform students about the foundations of our discipline, and that it is the every day events and the lack of access to justice which they also need to know about. They reflect the broader inequalities which feed into the incidences of crime, the discriminatory policies and practice in the CJS, and the acceptance of this by the public. Rawls (1971) presented justice as a ‘stabilising force’, a premise picked up by New Labour in their active citizenship and neighbourhood renewal agenda. There was an attempt to shift justice away from punitive and retributive responses, to make use of approaches which were more effective, more humane and less discriminatory. The probation services and courts were an important focus, using restorative and problem-solving approaches to genuinely implement Tony Blair’s manifesto promise to be tough on the causes of crime. However, he also continued the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and so there was sense of using community sentencing and community justice in a tokenistic way, and not tackling the broader inequalities and problems sufficiently to allow the CJS to have a more transformative and socially meaningful effect on crime (Donoghue, 2014; Ward, 2014). Since then, the punitive responses to crime have returned, accepted by the public, press and politicians, as anything else is simply too difficult a problem to solve, and requires meaningful and sustained investment. This has been a feature of community justice, half hearted attempts to innovate and adopt different approaches, all too easily overtaken by the need for a day in court and a custodial sentence. It shows what happens when the public accept this as justice and the function of the CJS, even though they are not effective, put the public at risk, and mean entrenched biases continue to occur.

This all emphasises the need to remember the foundations of our discipline as a critical examination of criminal justice and of society. In my own department, we have the debates about where we place theory as part of these foundations. These discussions occur in the context of how to engage students and maintain our focus on this, and it remains an important part of higher education to review practice, content and adapt to broader changes. Moving to a new campus means we have to re-think these issues in the context of the delivery of teaching, and I am all for innovations in teaching to engage students, making use of new technologies, but I firmly believe we need to retain our focus on the content which will challenge students. This is the point of higher education, to advance knowledge, to raise students’ expectations of their own potential and ask them to rethink what they know. The focus on ‘public criminology’ has justified using different forms of broadcast, from TV, tabloid press and social networking to disseminate knowledge and, hopefully, better inform the public, as a counter measure to biased reporting.  I don’t think it is desirable to TV producers to replace ‘I am a Killer’ on the Crime and Investigation network with ‘Adventures of a Problem-Solving Court’ or ‘Restorative Justice: The Facts’. Writing for the tabloid press seems to me an act of futility, as they have editorial control, they can easily misrepresent findings, and are not really interested in anything which shifts the notion of justice as needing to have a deterrent effect and to be a retributive act. Perhaps social networking can overcome this bias, but in an age of claims of fake news and echo chambers, this surely also has a limited affect. So, our focus must remain on our students, to those who will work within the CJS, social policy departments as practitioners, researchers and future academics. They need to continue to raise the debates about crime and justice which affect the marginalised, which highlight prejudice, discrimination and which ensure we continue to ask questions about these thorny, difficult and controversial issues. That, I think, is the responsibility we need to grasp, and it should form a core function of learning about criminology and criminal justice at University.

 

DONOGHUE, J. (2014) Transforming Criminal Justice? Problem-solving and court specialisation. London: Routledge.

RAWLS, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WARD, J. (2014) Are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? London: Howard League for Penal Reform.

 

Contact

Susie Atherton, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Northampton

Email: susieath@live.co.uk

Twitter: @SusieAtherton

 

Image: courtesy of the author

Safety in Numbers?

Twenty-first century criminology is increasingly predicated on numbers. Whilst quantitative research is perceived to be “hard data”; the scientific, gold standard, it runs the risk of dehumanising vulnerable people with very little benefit.

PBowles

Paula Bowles has taught Criminology at the University of Northampton since 2010. Her research interests focus on historical criminology, zemiology, state and institutional violence.

 

In childhood, I loved numbers, the ability to manipulate, rearrange, reorder, substitute one for another, to create symmetry and yet always end up with an answer. Numbers were as abstract as a jigsaw puzzle, lots of meaningless pieces that, if assembled in the right way, meant that eventually the whole picture would emerge. Along the way the process could go awry, but there was always certainty, always an answer: a solution to the problem. Importantly, that puzzle or equation could be tackled again and again, and provided all the pieces were in order, the solution would be rendered visible once more.

In adult life, my love of numbers has dissipated, primarily because of their application to people. With a global population inexorably heading toward 8 billion, we have to accept that there are an awful lot of us, even so, the relegation of human beings to a mere number is discomfiting. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Nazi Holocaust, which was facilitated by a determination to reduce individual human lives, first to digits, and then to ashes. It also comes from lived experience: in criminology, as in education, there is a plethora of evidence demonstrating that people can, and do change, often in dramatic ways.

Over sixty years ago, Mannheim accused criminologists of creating an ‘almost general impression […] that everything is known in this field,’ suggesting that ‘most of our “knowledge consists of half-baked truths and slogans, of unwarranted generalizations derived from a small body of observations and inadequate samples’ (1955: 133). Furthermore, criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws, inherent in much of what we now consider the bedrock of scientific criminology. They identify how numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, pulling readers down a route, whereby those numbers are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning. Such meaning is entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Additionally, those numbers are deemed precise scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than any qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.

Despite my antipathy to numbers, recently my attention has been drawn to the concept of self-efficacy, in relation to offender desistance, often focused on prisoners. Much of this research appears flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead of answering what appears be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements. Certainly, Young’s evocative ‘Datasaur,’ with its belly bloated with complex statistical analysis, seems to loom large in such research (2011: 15)

One recent paper which caught my eye, purports to measure self-efficacy within a local prison, HMP Onley, suggesting that a particular programme can improve both mental health and behaviour (Kelley et al., 2017).  This paper, like very many others in Criminology, appears to offer the promise of tackling a deeply engrained historical penal problem.  This article is formatted in the expected manner, contains lots of academic references and appears in a well-respected journal, all of which sounds extremely encouraging. There is no apparent ethical consideration, but the use of academic language, inclusion of 8 hypotheses, as well as the use of a range of different measures (all represented by acronyms) gives a perception of scientific rigour. There are lots of equations, lots of authoritative statements, even some tables.

However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, very little. It is clear that out of 179 prisoners able to take part in the programme, 53 actually completed it, furthermore another 39 made up a control group. From here, the language changes from numbers to percentages to discuss the demographic background of the men involved in the project. In relation to crimes committed and sentences handed down, the paper becomes far vaguer and there is not even the illusion of measurable activity.

Whilst this is but one article, of very many, the repercussions to such research can be profound. The lack of awareness around the pains of incarceration and the reduction of human experiences to quantitative tests as a measure of “self-efficaciousness” is troubling. Furthermore, such a focus implies that individuals have total control over their improvement: if they do not score well on the tests, this can only be due to their inertia, inability or incompetence. By ignoring the carceral experience, any such numbers can only be indicative, as fundamentally, those numbers represent people with their own ideas, fears, worries and behaviours. Discussions around the types of programmes, particularly when based on payment by results, seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve measurable results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful, not just a series of bland statements, algebraic equations and tedious charts.

As Christie makes clear, far too many criminologists focus on ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13). Instead of rushing to amass quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, yet tells us virtually nothing, we need to consider what Criminology is really about. Instead of continuing to churn out criminology that is ‘dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights’, Christie insists we look to the roots of our discipline (1997: 13). He insists that criminology is ‘a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices’ (Christie, 1997: 13).

As criminologists, we have a duty to be far more critical, taking nothing for granted and avoiding the dissemination of the trivial!

References:

Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Kelley, Thomas M., Hollows, Jacqueline, Lambert, Eric G., Savard, Dennis M. and Pransky, Jack, (2017), Teaching Health Versus Treating Illness: The Efficacy of Three Principles Correctional Counseling with People in an English Prison’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X17735253: 1-26

Mannheim, Hermann, (1955), Group Problems in Crime and Punishment and Other Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited)

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)

Contact

Paula Bowles, Senior Lecturer in Criminology,  University of Northampton

Email: Paula.Bowles@northampton.ac.uk

Twitter: @paulabowles

https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.wordpress.com/

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