Barry 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?
Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool
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