Applying the criminological imagination to the Armed Forces community: Challenge or opportunity?

Many of the significant issues faced by veterans, post service, fall outside of the traditional focus of the criminological lens.



KAlbertsonDr Katherine Albertson, Senior Lecturer, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Department of Law and Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University. Katherine has completed a British Academy funded narrative history interview project with criminal justice engaged veterans; Forces in Mind funded evaluation of a veteran-specific social capital building recovery service; and is currently conducting an Armed Forces Covenant funded community capacity building project working with the Armed Forces community across South Yorkshire.

Two significant yet apparently contradictory anniversaries coincide this year with regard to the public identification of, and with, the UK Armed Forces community. Attention is currently focussed on positively marking the sacrifice this community made in centenary celebrations of the end of the First World War. Meanwhile it is a decade since the 2008 National Association for Probation Officers (NAPO) report identified, distinctly less positively, more than 20,000 ex-service personnel languishing in the UK criminal justice system.

The subsequent lack of debate of this startling finding did not end until the Howard League’s (2011) assertion that members of the Armed Forces community represent the largest occupational subset of the male prisoner population, effectively bringing the problems with some members of the Armed Forces community to the attention of public, political and criminological spheres.  In the same year we saw the ratification of the UK Armed Forces Covenant in which document responsibilities to current and former Armed Forces personnel and their families are formalised. The subsequent Government response came in the form of Lord Ashcroft’s Veterans Transition Review (2014) and for criminal justice specifically – the Phillips Review (2014). Despite a number of initial forays of research work in this area – proffering outmoded explanations of veterans’ offending, largely in terms of individual deficits – developments really seem to be becoming more sophisticated and moving forward much more quickly over the last few years.

During my initial work, focussing on veterans’ contact with the criminal justice system and substance misuse, it became apparent fairly quickly that these classically criminological topics were among a much wider range of social ills faced by veterans, post service. These include concerns such as working age veterans in the UK are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their civilian contemporaries; just 39% of employers would consider employing a veteran without industry specific experience (YouGov, 2017) and that 54% of the general public believe service leavers have a physical, emotional, or mental health problem (ONS, 2017). Personally, being involved in this piece of work highlighted certain restrictions from operating within the traditional criminological canon. Many of the significant issues raised fell outside of the traditional focus of the criminological lens.

The benefits of a strengths-based, culturally competent holistic approach to veteran status as a positive identity marker is highlighted in my evaluation of a veteran-specific peer support service. Veteran status can facilitate reciprocal and generative relationships, for example, supporting desistance from crime identities or sustaining recovery from substance misuse. Key to this relational, social capital building approach to working with veterans is a reduction in social isolation through to the development of a positive community participation-based identity. In short, those engaging in the project successfully attained an alternative positive ‘military veteran citizenship’ identity.

This highlights the fact that traditional research on military veterans may have suffered from taking an inappropriate approach. An initial epidemiological or etiological and incontrovertibly quantitative approach to this topic area effectively marginalised a broader more holistic focus. Such an holistic focus, if grounded in the phenomenology of emotional work, can incorporate into criminology the impacts of “background conditions such as power, gender, social class, ethnicity” (Katz 2002, p 376). The significant impact of class, status and issues of identity and behaviour expectations over the life course were further underlined during our British Academy/ Leverhulme narrative life history interviews with military veterans. Veterans, like all cultural groups, are not homogenous. A veteran’s pre-military background is as important as – and impacts on – their time in the forces and their post service history.

There are general lessons to be learned! Armed Forces community issues, as a case study in point, illustrate that the criminological imagination would benefit from approaching offending from a broader explanatory framework incorporating diversity, human rights and social inclusion agendas. Future studies require a focus on issues of transitions in identity, incorporation of the community and the public’s interaction with, and response to, the Armed Forces community and an assessment of structural opportunities afforded. These studies must also include attention to the impact of decisions of the state and wider international forces which shape transitional experiences. In other words, a focus beyond the ‘offending population’ is required. These holistic explorations, for the time being, remain scarce.

We also cannot ignore the all too familiar underlying (and increasingly global) discourse of undeservedness which tends to infuse such contemporary debates. In this context, competing public images of military veterans and their families represent them as more or less “deserving” or “undeserving” based on circumstances beyond their control. This ultimately introduces a false ‘moral’ or puritanical edge to the discussion and may influence policy and practice decisions concerning the distinction between those we deem the most justified of rights holders within the Armed Forces community, and those we feel have no legitimate claim on our scarce resources. This is however familiar territory for the criminological lens, parallels with the community reintegration of custody leavers.

That is not to say, however, that veterans’ issues are not increasingly being considered critically within British criminological circles. The notion of veterans as victims of state-initiated conflict has been proffered as an analytical challenge; the term ‘Veteranality’ has been introduced to encapsulate how the criminal justice system has barely begun to come to terms with working with veterans who commit crime. Bourdieuian concepts, such as habitus and field have recently been employed to theorise the distinct, yet interconnected, spaces between military and civilian worlds highlighting the long lasting influence or cultural legacy of a military history.

Although potential contributions from cultural and zemiological criminology may have much to offer in this context, it is becoming clear that the Armed Forces community including veterans, as a cultural group, have a unique experience in which a multi-disciplinary approach would appear extremely relevant and from which we could learn lessons more generally. As McGarry and Walklate, in their British Society of Criminology Newsletter piece, “The ‘Criminology of War’, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” advise, we ought to exercise caution in approaching studies from ‘within the confines of established criminological enclaves’ (McGarry and Walklate 2017, p 44).

Wider developments in the criminological literature have shifted a focus on initiation of crime to that of exploring social and relational processes as both protectors and supporters of positive identification markers for desisters from crime. An effective position from which one can explore the shifts in identity and identification with this transitioning ex-military cohort, tied to the importance of wider relational factors in the cementing of desistance processes, is most notably encapsulated within the third stage of the desistance processes – tertiary desistance. Described most eloquently as the result of a ‘dialectical relationship between one’s own personal identity, and the availability of positive social role opportunities’, operating to ensure the individual retains agency, as ‘ultimate concerns emerge from, are immersed in and shape their relational worlds’ (Weaver, 2012, p. 405).

The tertiary desistance framework prioritises opportunities for the processes of gaining a sense of social acceptance, belonging and participation, both within one’s own community and wider society, thus enabling wider less solely ‘criminal’ focussed concepts of citizenship, social justice, integration and solidarity to be considered (Maruna 2012; McNeil 2014; Fox 2015; 2016). This approach can then incorporate the significance of understanding of the nature and patterning of ex-forces personnel’s opportunities to form social connections, community ties and their interactions with the civilian public.

My research indicates, it is from this perspective, borne out of the criminological canon, which allows for the consideration of identity, recognition and group stigma-related issues that can ensure the future development of the criminological imagination can be applied most usefully to the Armed Forces community. It is clear a distinct Critical Veteran Studies approach is the way forward. This will enable a sharper focus on the significance of interconnections between personal experiences, community relations through to wider society and the political sphere for this increasingly politicised and currently targeted community. My current area of project work with the wider Armed Forces community Covenant in South Yorkshire  is informed by this contextualisation.

Katherine is an active member of the Observatory for military veteran affairs ( and a member of the International Advisory Board for the Forces In Mind Trust funded research project at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. The project is focussed on exploring negative transitioning from the British military back into civilian life. Katherine has recently authored a chapter entitled: ‘Building social capital to encourage desistance: Lessons from a veteran-specific project’, in the Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice, due for publication in 2018. Katherine is also co-author, alongside Dr Emma Murray and Dr Paul Taylor, of an international edited collection entitled: Military past, civilian present: International perspectives on veterans’ transitioning from the Armed Forces‘, due for publication in 2019.



Ashcroft Review (2013) The Veterans Transition Review.

Fox, K. J. (2015). Theorizing community integration as desistance-promotion. Criminal justice and behavior, 42(1), 82-94.

Fox, K. J. (2016). Civic commitment: Promoting desistance through community integration. Punishment & Society, 18(1), 68-94.

Howard League (2011) ‘Report of the inquiry into former Armed Service personnel in prison’

Katz, J. (2001) ‘Analytic Induction’, in Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (eds) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Oxford: Elsevier.

McNeil, F. (2014) Three aspects of desistence:

Maruna, S. (2012). Elements of successful desistance signaling. Criminology & Public Policy, 11(1), 73-86.

National Association of Prison Officers (2008) Ex-Armed Forces Personnel and the Criminal Justice System.

Phillips, S. QC, MP (2014) Former Members of the Armed Forces and the Criminal Justice System: A Review on behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice.

Weaver, B. (2012). The relational context of desistance: Some implications and opportunities for social policy. Social policy & Administration, 46(4), 395-412.



Dr Katherine Albertson, Senior Lecturer, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Department of Law and Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University.



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