Thursday, 11 September 2014

Transforming Rehabilitation: and the parade passes on …

by Dr Mary Corcoran, Senior Lecturer in Criminology

“New forces appear on the scene, but they have been marshalled by old assumptions” (Marquand, 1997: 148).

Two events coincided at the end of May, 2014, which illuminate contrary directions in thinking about the future of our social economy.  The first was the conference on Inclusive Capitalism, convened in London to ponder how markets could be rebalanced to be more inclusive and redistributive.  The second was the confirmation by the Ministry of Justice that the public Probation Service would be dissolved on June 1st.  It is succeeded by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which, according to the current shortlist of bidders, comprise consortia of security corporations in partnership with large charities and social enterprises.  These CRCs will take over three quarters of work with offenders in the community deemed to be of ‘low risk’, leaving a much reduced, new National Probation Service to maintain responsibility for ‘high-risk’ offenders.   Without stretching coincidence to a point of conspiracy, their concurrence makes a striking contrast between those who wish to shepherd the global economy, post crisis, towards stability and fairness, and those for whom the remedy to the inequities brought about by decades of free-market social and economic policies is even more market liberalism. 

The marketscape  

The controversy surrounding marketisation can be traced back to wider debates about the present and future scale of absorption of our social institutions, ranging from publicly-owned services to civil society, by private, profit-oriented interests. Since the 1990s, relationships between governments, capital and civil society have been structurally transforming, bringing far-reaching changes.  This shift is exemplified by the rise of a mixed market in the criminal justice sector, where commercial, and latterly charitable, providers are contracted to augment state services (as in the case of privately managed prisons and detention centres), service existing institutions (court translation, prisoner transport or tagging, community-based supervision, for example), or replace them (as with the probation service).

Today, discussion about the market revolution in criminal justice has been rendered more contentious by successive phases of privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation in the UK over three decades.  Proponents justify these as the painfully necessary application of commercial shock to reform moribund state services.   Privatisation, of course, is one aspect of a broader cultural and political alignment of institutional and social behaviour with the laws of the market.  More pragmatically, the lure of market solutions has gained currency among centre-right and centre-left governments (with some marginal differences) in the UK and elsewhere in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of greater efficiency, cheaper costs and better services. 

Undoubtedly, too, greater competitive openness and cultural transformation have been championed by proponents of public sector reform, including the objective of disciplining  ‘vested interests’, which might have included  for-profit providers but was explicitly aimed at professional associations and trade unions.   Julian Le Grand (2007), who advised New Labour on public sector modernisation, proposed that direct accountability to consumers would curb the professional privileges that inhere with provider-led public service hierarchies. Greater direct public accountability creates equality and mutuality of interests among all stakeholders, he argued.   Marketisation is thus quintessentially democratic in handing consumer choice and responsibility from the state back to citizens and providers. 

By contrast, critics have equated the elevation of market forces with an attack on collective welfare, the transfer of public resources to private pockets, and the erosion of a public sector ethos or altruistic values. It is argued that free market concepts and techniques do not transfer unequivocally to the voluntary or public sectors, especially to criminal justice, which is discharged with the grave responsibilities of punishment by rule of law.    Market distribution systems have historically failed to meet significant areas of human need where there is no obvious opportunity to acquire profits or capital. As such, public services evolved because of market failure.

Each position is prone to oversimplify the picture.  This has not been helped by the rancorous political rhetoric and the sometimes risible claims that this is all in the cause of rescuing the welfare state which have emanated from Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Ministers. Elsewhere, I have identified ideological and technocratic prerequisites for converting non-market sectors into profitable markets which have been deployed by successive governments in recent decades (Corcoran, 2014).  These include:

Conflating stubbornly high rates of imprisonment and reoffending with the inadequacies of criminal justice agencies, and by extension, with the failures of public service models.
Encouraging the involvement of for-profit and voluntary sector providers as essential actors in crime prevention and security.
Converting goods or services produced by the state into commodities which can be contracted out to other parties.
Developing competitive service markets which will foster bidding wars among potential providers, irrespective of sector.
Rationalising services to encourage co-production between adjacent private and public competitors.  This includes ‘inter-agency’ partnerships where private and public services ‘share’ the same clients or jointly occupy the same premises, for example. 
Applying managerial techniques for measuring and evaluating performance by public agencies, allied to a punitive culture of league tables, naming and shaming ‘failing’ ones and exploiting the data to further privatise them. 
Responding to lobbying from for-profit and voluntary sector interests to deregulate service markets.
Moderating the rules or specifying different targets, outputs and governance for new entrants to the market. 
Finally, the state underwrites the risks associated with the transfer of public resources to private interests.

In the context of recession, struggling public services, continuing prison overcrowding and proclamations about relaxing the stranglehold of state bureaucracy on enterprise, the idea of  further privatising prisons and probation is politically attractive.  The fundamental question for government is how to promote security and consensus for authoritarian criminal justice measures in conditions of economic shock, financial crisis, social strife, poverty and crime. The message is also more persuasive when it is delivered as the only feasible option.  The construction and articulation of crime and punishment in cash terms has produced an historical opportunity to shrink the state by passing off this political choice as a necessity.  Crime and punishment have been reframed as fiscal burdens, which sustains the political momentum for the state to seek market solutions and approaches. Despite its rhetoric of radical change, this government wants it both ways: to reconcile the upward trajectory of prison expansion that began in the decades before the economic crisis, while masking the social fallout of its economic policies by demonstrating firm management of the casualties of those same policies. 

Since 2007, the fiscal crisis and austerity have provided opportunities for transferring state penal assets and powers to private interests on an unprecedented scale.  A series of scandals relating to fraud and mismanagement by private companies have revealed regulatory gaps and wilful oversight on the part of legislators. It has taken successive governments decades to drive through the endorsement of private profit as a key component of criminal justice against considerable opposition, not only from the labour movement or sections of the political left, but academics, public administrators, lawyers and professionals. The case for privatising the probation service has been widely discredited and it is apparent that the motives for pursuing it lie elsewhere.  The fate of the probation system in England and Wales is determined by the political will to outpace the electoral clock by putting much of it into private domains before the next election.  To quote from the classic tale of vainglorious rulers:

‘The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all. (Hans Christian Anderson, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’). 

Part of this article was published in Criminal Justice Matters, September 2014.  To access the full journal, click here.


Corcoran, M. (2014) ‘The trajectory of penal markets in an age of austerity: The case of England and Wales’, Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, vol 19, 53-74). 

Le Grand, J. (2007) The Other Invisible Hand: Delivering Services through Choice and Competition. Oxford: Princeton U. Press: 

Marquand, D. (1997) The New Reckoning: Capitalism, States and Citizens. Cambridge: Polity. 

Salaman, L. (1987) Of market failure, voluntary failure, and third-party government: toward a theory of government-nonprofit relations in the modern welfare state. Journal of Voluntary Action research, 16, 29-49.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Keele Sociology Students Most Satisfied in the Country

The recent National Student Survey confirmed that Keele Sociology students have an excellent experience of the programme and are the most satisfied Sociology students in the country. The University itself ranked number 1 in the county for student satisfaction. In this respect the Sociology result is a reflection of the excellent work taking place across Keele. 

We are particularly proud that Keele Sociology has been ranked first for student satisfaction, putting our rating here higher than 92 other institutions. In Sociology we have focused on learning and teaching and the student experience. We designed our programme to provide students with active, problem-solving skills, grounded in the exercise of the sociological imagination. We also appreciate that the university experience marks a transitional period in students’ lives and realise that effective learning relies on positive communication and encouragement. For this reason we try to make students feel part of a learning community and encourage them to express themselves in a positive environment. We understand that this is very important in a transitional period and are very happy that our students show such high levels of satisfaction with their experience of our programme. That our students are the most satisfied in the country tells us that we are very successful in our approach to teaching and learning.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

New article - 'The great meeting place: Bradford's city park and inclusive urban space'

Ala Sirriyeh (Keele Sociology) and her colleagues Nathan Manning (University of York) and Anna Barker (University of Bradford) have had an article published in the August edition of the online journal Discover Society. The article looks at the City Park development in Bradford and considers how this may be an example of a more inclusive model of urban regeneration.

Ala has spoken to Bradford Community Radio about this project and her work was featured in a local newspaper.

The full research report from the study (published in June 2014) is available to download here.

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Guardians of the Galaxy meet D. W. Winnicott in Outer and Inner Space

Mark Featherstone

I recently saw the new Marvel film The Guardians of the Galaxy at the cinema with my son who has become a Marvel fanatic over the course of the last couple of years. Indeed, Marvel comic books and comic characters have become our mutual obsession, taking me back to my own childhood when I lived in a world populated by ‘Spiderman’, ‘Daredevil’, ‘Doctor Doom’, and ‘Galactus’. Many of the characters he encounters, however, are new to me and his interest has opened up new worlds for us to explore together. Hence we watched The Guardians of Galaxy who we had previously encountered in various cartoon series and comic books and waited to see how Marvel had realised its outer space heroes on film. Of course, he enjoyed the film immensely, and reviewers also noted that the film was great fun. In fact, unlike other Marvel characters, and films, which seem to contain a clear moral or philosophical dimension, the general impression of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the rest of the Marvel cosmic tradition seems to be that it is largely meaningless, and is simply a kind of overblown space opera, populated by Galactic Gods obsessed with death and destruction and lonely space travelers who wander the vast expanse of the universe in search of peace. Of course, this short description is enough to show that even these stories are deeply mythological and concerned with the meaning of the human condition and so on. Like fairy tales, comic books, such as those of Marvel and DC, always speak to us, and especially our children, of the deeper meaning of life, addressing our anxieties, fears, and desires. In this respect The Guardians of the Galaxy is no different from any other comic book and I think the film contains an underlying, psychoanalytic, text which speaks to family relations and beyond this our sense of who we are and what makes us human. But how can a story which makes a talking raccoon – ‘Rocket’ – and a walking tree – ‘Groot’ – key characters possibly say anything about the real world we inhabit? Humour me, because the main point I want to make in this post is that no product of human culture is meaningless, and, I would suggest, probably cannot be meaningless, since everything we make must in some way reflect the world we live in, and as a result say something about the society we occupy.

Back to The Guardians of the Galaxy. What is its social, cultural, and psychoanalytic meaning? Well, I would suggest that the key scene of the film occurs very early on – the young ‘Star Lord’, Peter Quill, visits his dying mother. He listens to his Walkman. Peter cannot bring himself to speak to his mother or acknowledge her because of the pain her impending death will cause him. However, this resistance is shattered when she dies in front of him. At this point Peter is torn away from his mother by a male family member, perhaps his Grandfather, and taken outside. He is subsequently abducted by a band of space pirates and his adventure as Guardian of the Galaxy begins. What is interesting about this scene is first, the music young Peter listens to on his Walkman. The scene opens with Peter sitting on his own waiting. He listens to 10CC’s ‘I’m not in love’ and this track essentially frames the scene. This is, of course, a strange choice of music, because it is not the kind of song which one would imagine should capture a young boy’s relationship to his mother. The song is essentially about denial. ‘I’m not in love, so don’t forget it, it’s just a silly phase I’m going through’. One does not need to be a psychoanalyst to understand that the words of denial are really a sign of affirmation. ‘I’m not in love’ essentially means ‘I’m in love but I would prefer not to be because of the pain it causes me’. In his case Peter denies his love for his mother, because he cannot accept her impending departure. So far so good. However, the 10CC song does not speak of the love of a son for his mother, but rather of the love of a man for his ex. Or at least I think this is the most likely story. So how can we interpret this disjuncture, which means that the song does not seem to fit with the scene it accompanies?

The answer resides in Freud’s theory of Oedipus, where every male child takes his mother as his first object of love. According to Freud, the young son jealously defends his mother, because she gives him everything, and competes for her attention. Centrally, this is not a phallic, or what we would normally consider sexual love, but rather what psychoanalysts call polymorphic eroticism, where care and attention provide pleasure, but not mature, sexual, genital, arousal. Freud’s point was, of course, that this kind of love is acceptable to young children, but at some point they must grow up. He suggested that the father’s role in the family is essentially to cut the ‘apron strings’ (an umbilical metaphor) and tell his son when enough is enough. At some point the young son must let go of his mother and start to invest his interest in society, and eventually the world of other men and women. This is exactly what we see dramatized in The Guardians of the Galaxy. The young Peter is torn away from his mother in traumatic fashion – and the resolution of the Oedipus complex is always traumatic in Freudian psychoanalysis – and the 10CC song captures this moment by highlighting his borderline state. What does this mean? Well, the song captures Peter’s emotional state – ‘I’m in love, but I need to deny it’ – but also highlights the reason he has to let go – because the song concerns the thwarted love of lovers, rather than a son and mother. This is where Peter must go now – his future lay in the world of grown-ups where we live in a state of loss and melancholia ultimately anticipated by Oedipus. The song captures this condition and the trick of the film is to link the sense of loss captured in the key line of denial ‘I’m not in love’ to the Oedipal loss Peter experiences when he is torn away from his mother. Okay, so where do we go from here?

At the end of this scene Peter is taken away from his mother by a male family member, is subsequently abducted, and becomes a superhero. From a psychoanalytic point of view, and following the above discussion of Oedipal trauma, what follows is Peter’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of his mother. In other words, the entire story of the film, where ‘Star Lord’ teams up with ‘Drax’, ‘Gamora’, ‘Rocket’, and ‘Groot’ to fight the evil Kree warlord ‘Ronan’, is a fantasy which Peter plays out in order to make up for the loss of maternal love. It is important under these circumstances to recognise what the symbolism of the galaxy represents because like the idea of ‘mother earth’ the galaxy is a sign of maternity and the loving mother. The galaxy is, thus, a kind of universal mother – the origin of everybody and everything. What this means is that Peter leaves his mother in real life only to save her in his fantasy in the form of the galaxy which he protects from monstrous villains who want to destroy her. On the villains themselves, what is the significance of ‘Ronan’ and the other monsters who populate the pages of Marvel’s cosmic comic books, such as the nercophilliac ‘Thanos’ and the space God ‘Galactus’ who eats entire planets? Our meeting with ‘Thanos’ in The Guardians of the Galaxy explains everything, I think. ‘Thanos’, the galactic Titan who is obsessed with death, wants to destroy the galaxy, and reduce the universe to a state of nothingness, is essentially a hyperbolic symbol of the father, or the male authority figure, who tears Peter away from his mother. ‘Thanos’ make his sovereign, phallic, power clear to everybody. He is the grumpy king of pain, death, and destruction, and we know this because he sits on a throne looking miserable on a barren meteorite flying through space. There is no adornment in ‘Thanos’’ world – he occupies a cold place surrounded by nothing and this is what he wants to impose upon the galaxy. Again, one does not have to be a psychoanalyst to imagine how he might be the result of the borderline son’s vision of the male authority figure who tells him he needs to leave his mother behind and start to grow up. ‘Thanos’ represents the cold world of the Freudian father – the symbol of death, where death is the end of care, attention, affection, and the love provided by the mother.

So finally, does this mean that The Guardians of the Galaxy is only a story about a boy losing his mother to some terminal condition when he is very young? It is this, but it is also more than this, because for psychoanalysts society is premised on the process of growing up and learning to be adults – in this respect, the mother’s death in the film may be metaphorical and essentially reflect the loss everybody must face when they start to grow up. In the psychoanalyst’s view this process of growth and maturation is not possible without encountering loss, even if this is the very normal loss of Mom who does everything for us. We cannot grow up without it. Moreover, this loss is essential because it is only out of loss that we create a world around us, and make things, which is precisely what Peter achieves in his fantasy world that speaks of his own sense of loss and love for his mother who finds symbolisation in the figure of the galaxy. Psychoanalysts call this process sublimation – essentially ‘symbolisation’ through redirection of libidinal energy - and it is what drives humans’ cultural lives. We create in order to express our emotional selves – and this is exactly what The Guardians of the Galaxy reflects upon. In short, then, The Guardians of the Galaxy is great fun, but it is also a film which has deeper significance and is more than simply a meaningless summer blockbuster. Centrally, I found that this piece of fun stuck with me for far longer than I imagined precisely because of its unconscious message which speaks of the drama of childhood, loss, growth, and joy. I think that The Guardians of the Galaxy speaks of the human condition, and our world more than the world of aliens and monsters, and yet it does so in a gentle, under-stated, self-depreciating way that never proclaims the importance or asserts the seriousness of ‘Star Lord’ and the other characters. Thus the film is told from the perspective of the child, precisely because it refuses to recognise the cold and serious world of adults that waits in the future, and reminds us of the world of play, creation, and imagination which we can always return to in our cultural lives. It is precisely this space, what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott spoke about in terms of a transitional space of imagination and cultural creativity, which I share with my son through our immersion in the pages of Marvel comics and the universe of The Guardians of the Galaxy