Thursday, 18 December 2008

Criminology and Sociology research excellence at Keele...

Staff in the School of Sociology and Criminology are delighted today to hear that their research has been rated as excellent in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)* for 2008. The large bulk of staff submitted to the RAE from the School went under the Social Policy and Administration category (covering all of Criminology and some Sociology, as well as other bits of research, for example Social Work and Gerontology). This research grouping scored one of the highest scores in the university as a whole, and nationally, Keele is ranked 12th in the country in this field. This is an excellent result for us since it means Keele is at the forefront of international research in this area, with a large number of scholars of not only international reputation (65%), but also 'world leading' in their field (15%).

In our School, we are particularly proud to have achieved this given the commitment to high quality teaching. At Keele teaching and research are interdependent and we believe strongly in both. This means that students are taught directly by experts in their fields and have access to the best, newest research. At the same time, students are still the backbone of a university and without the best efforts of committed lecturers, our joint successes in teaching quality and research would not have been possible. The School of Sociology and Criminology for example features highly in examples of good teaching practice within the university, almost all of our staff have a Higher Education teaching qualification, our student feedback is fairly consistently good (including in the National Student Survey) and our support systems are efficient and, well, supportive! One of the things that isn't often discussed in the debate about the balance between research and teaching is the way in which teaching students can really enrich and develop research ideas. Most staff in our School teach options in their specialist research areas and this means that students themselves are contributing to the body of knowledge from the university.

Of course, the area where research strength makes the biggest difference is to postgraduate opportunities. World-class staff and a supportive research culture with appropriate resources make a big difference to postgraduates. Keele has a number unique advantages for postgrads.

First, it can rightly claim its place alongside the big hitters in research in these fields and since the choice of postgraduate degree is often based on supervisor's reputation, scoring well in the RAE is crucial here. Keele is a friendly and vibrant place to be a postgraduate student with plenty of research projects ongoing and the small size of the university means it is very easy to tap into the expertise of others. To find out more about the specialist areas of the Sociology and Criminology staff at Keele, please follow the links.

Second, Keele has a well-developed research infrastructure to support postgraduates. The two Research Institutes that cover staff in Sociology and Criminology are the RI for Lifecourse Studies and the RI for Law, Politics and Justice. Each has dedicated space for postgraduates to work, meet, attend a multitude of exciting research seminars, to access funding support for research activities such as conference attendance, and provision of high quality equipment and software. Keele's Graduate School also provides important support for postgraduates, ensuring the process runs smoothly and students are provided with appropriate supervision and resources.

Third, Keele has an amazing self-contained environment. One of the most beautiful rural campuses in the UK, we have acres of parkland and woodland in which to create those big thoughts. We have fully equipped sporting facilities, cultural facilities such as the art gallery and a full programme of music events from the Bach Choir and Keele Philharmonic to big-name bands in the students union, award winning coffee shop (and some of the best cakes - and Staffordshire oatcakes - in Staffordshire!). We have our own bookshop, our own nursery, an excellent school in the beautiful conservation area of Keele village, and even purpose-built housing for staff and postgraduates, as well as undergraduates. Keele is currently establishing new developments to build on our research expertise in Environmental Science/Policy and our amazing campus resource in order to develop Keele as a landmark 'green' campus.

Fourth, Keele is a good place to be, especially if you're visiting the UK from overseas. We are less than an hour from the major cities of Birmingham and Manchester, and Manchester Airport (50 minutes drive away) is a major international hub you can fly into from just about anywhere in the world. London is just under two hours away on the fast train service. We are - literally - minutes from the M6 motorway which can get you to the Lake District within 3 hours, and Scotland within 4.5. More locally, Chester, the Potteries, the beautiful English countryside of Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire and even Wales are well within an hour.

*[The RAE is a measure of the quality of research output and research culture at universities. Every few years academic staff submit examples of their best publications and the research environment is measured by assessing how much funding for research projects staff bring in and how supportive of research the university is. ]

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Purdy Case: Recent developments

By Professor Philip Stenning

Re my earlier (3rd November) blog on the Purdy Case: The Directorof Public Prosecutions has made a very significant statement with respect to prosecutions of those (relatives etc.) who may accompany people abroad for the purposes of assisted suicide. The account of this statement on the front page of the Guardian on 10th December can befound here , while the Crown Prosecution Service press release on it can be found here. The full statement can be found here.

Monday, 15 December 2008

“Tackling knife crime” - the “offence” of BYMIPP

By Professor Philip Stenning

The Home Office announced this week that since introducing its Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) in June of this year, ten police forces have reported having collectively made “over 105,000 stop and searches for offensive weapons”, and that in these police force areas over 2,200 “weapons” have been seized during that period (“Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) Fact Sheet” - December 2008 - accessible here).

Assuming that each “search” involved one individual, that each separate seizure involved only one weapon, and that every illegally possessed weapon that was discovered was seized - assumptions which are not necessarily justified - it does not require a mathematics degree to figure out that only one in every 48 searches uncovered illegal possession of a “weapon” (the Home Office “Fact Sheet” does not indicate how many of the “weapons” seized were actually knives).

Given that police are only justified in taking such action if they have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped and searched is in possession of stolen goods or “prohibited articles”, and assuming that the police have been acting within the law, these figures indicate that in 98% of such stops and searches police suspicions with respect to illegal weapon-carrying were not confirmed. This extremely low “hit rate” would seem to require some explanation. How, one might ask, could police suspicions be so often unconfirmed?

Research on the exercise of stop and search powers by police during the last twenty-five years or so suggests that the answer lies in the fact that reasonable suspicion of illegal weapon possession is probably not the real basis for many, if not most, of these stops and searches. More likely is that the “offence” of Being Young and Male In a Public Place (BYMIPP) is the real trigger for such police interventions - other likely significant criteria include being in a group (read “gang”), being in a deprived area (read council estate), looking “scruffy” (read wearing a “hoodie”, being a “chav” or, as police sometimes refer to them, a “scrote”) and, quite possibly, being non-white.

One can well imagine the outcry if middle class bankers (another recently demonised group) were subjected to such treatment by the police on the streets or in the boardrooms of the City. The young people stopped and searched for knives, however, have none of the political or social capital with which to resist such police attention that bankers have. So instead of being recognised as almost certainly a gross violation of these young people’s civil liberties (as would be the case if the targets were bankers), the statistics produced by the Home Office this week are trumpeted as proof of a highly successful campaign against knife crime.

In support of this claim, the Home office has noted that compared with the same period last year, hospital admissions for assault by a sharp object have declined by 27%, there have been 17% fewer serious knife crimes against young people, and 18% fewer knife crime victims under the age of 20, etc., etc. No evidence is proffered, however, that these changes are a direct product of the dramatic increases in stops and searches (10,000 more every month in the ten police force areas, according to the Home Office) since the TKAP was started, and as every criminologist knows, when dealing with complex social problems such as knife and gun crimes, such correlations cannot be assumed to be causal.

Even if they can be shown to be, however - i.e. that mass, largely unproductive and probably random or plain discriminatory, street searches of young people do actually achieve such reductions - we still need to ask whether such crime control tactics are justifiable in a liberal democracy such as we claim to be. Random breath testing has certainly been accepted as a strategy to reduce automobile accidents and deaths due to alcohol consumption. But the argument put forward in this case is that driving is inherently a potentially dangerous activity, so can be considered a privilege rather than a right.

Last I heard, however, hanging out in public places with your mates is a right, not a privilege, in our society, and BYMIPP should not be considered an offence justifying police attention.

Friday, 21 November 2008


The next meeting
is on
Tuesday 25th November
in room
1pm and 2pm.

Anyone studying Sociology, Criminology or both at Keele is welcome to attend

This week we will discuss criminal punishments:

· Community Punishments: How effective are the punishments of tagging and ASBOs?

· Prison Sentences: Does prison prevent or encourage further crimes to be committed?

· Is it justified that criminals who reflect good behaviour within prison be allowed to have their sentence reduced?

· Is the shortening of criminal sentences more justifiable in some cases more than others? For example, do you think that both convicted murders and thieves equally deserve to have their sentence revoked if both criminals show the same amount of good behaviour while within the confines of a prison?

· Finally, is it fair to punish every criminal in the same way? For example, would giving a parking or speeding fine to a person in a lower socio-economic class have the same consequences as giving a fine to a person within a higher socio-economic class? Should penalties distinguish between class variances and punish accordingly?

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Should there be a limit to our faith in limits?

By Dr Helen Wells

Proposals announced by the government today suggest that drivers caught driving at twice the speed limit could receive an automatic driving ban. There are also, however, discussions about whether or not ‘minor speeders’ caught just over the speed limit should receive less points than they do currently – two points instead of three. In the same consultation, the government is also keen to explore the idea that formal ‘drug-drive’ limits should be established to try to help curb the increasing numbers of people killed or seriously injured in crashes where drugs were felt to be a contributing factor.

As expected, the usual pressure and interest groups have spoken out in favour of, or against the proposals, rehearsing the usual arguments about unfairly taxing respectable drivers or, on the other hand, accusing the government of trivialising smaller infringements of the limit.

What strikes me about these proposals, and suggestions that we could soon see ‘drugs breathalysers’ to make prosecutions for drug driving easier, is that they continue to place a great deal of faith in the notion of 'the limit' – as though it had some inherent quality that meant it represented an accurate assessment of the relative levels of danger caused in any particular driving situation.

This faith is demonstrated by campaigns like ‘it’s 30 for a reason’ and the dramatic TV advert where a little girl gets killed by a car travelling at 35mph and then ‘only’ very seriously injured by a car travelling at the 30mph . One wonders if it would not be better to advise motorists that, in such situations, they should drive at whatever speed means that they would not hit the child in the first place – not that 30 is some magic number that, if we all stick to it, means we are inevitably driving ‘safely’. The advert would seem to suggest that 30mph was, in fact, too fast in the circumstances, and that ‘the reason’ ‘it’ is ‘30’ is that it’s technically and administratively far more convenient than if we operated some contextualised, ‘common sense’ interpretation of risky driving practices.

The idea that 29mph is unquestionably safe, while 31mph is inevitably dangerous surely seems somewhat oversimplistic to any driver who has driven past a school gate at 3.15 pm and past the same gate again at 3.15 am.

But the limit is a crucial aspect of the use of ‘techno-fixes’ like the speed camera, and also the any kind of ‘drug-ometer’ as has been suggested today. The speed camera relies upon complex situations being converted into simple dichotomies of safe/unsafe behaviour in order to be able to function and therein, I think, lies the source of a lot of drivers problems with them.

Similarly, a drug-ometer, like an alcohol breathalyser will, presumably, have to operate on some notion of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ levels of drugs, and to do so it will have to ignore issues such as the age, weight, build, health, and previous exposure/using history of the person being tested. Inevitably, as with drink-driving, some people under ‘the limit’ will be a danger to themselves and others while, theoretically, some people over ‘the limit’ could be driving safely. Hence the calls that resurface periodically for a zero-limit for alcohol while driving – a limit that many people chose to self-impose for the very reason that they know that they react differently at different times to different amounts of alcohol.

The Association of Chief Police Officers Head of Roads Policing once suggested to me that the ideal Police tool for tackling road safety problems was an ‘impairmentometer’. This tool, he enthused, would be able to measure not just alcohol, but drug levels, tiredness, eyesight problems, and seemingly limitless (excuse the pun) other potential causes of road crashes.

While such techno-fixes and gadgets are no doubt appealing on ‘efficiency’ and ‘economy’ grounds, being more reliable and cheaper than a human tasked with doing the same job, I would query how we judge their ‘effectiveness’. In reconceptualising the problem to render it ‘techno-fixable’, as we seem to do every time we enforce a limit out of context, are we actually still tackling the problem we set out to tackle? We could wait to find out whether we cut road deaths – or not. Or we could be a bit more canny in designing our interventions to make sure that the tools we have for dealing with the problems on our roads don’t neglect reality for the sake of simplicity.

You can read more about techno-fixing road safety problems here.

Monday, 17 November 2008

On the Perversity of Human Violence

By Dr Mark Featherstone

In response to Professor Stenning’s commentary on the natural origins of human violence, I think we must consider the history of theories on the subject and differentiate between human and animal aggression. On the subject of the parental killing of offspring, we must recognise that no animal kills its own, since it is not possible to talk about murder in the natural world because the idea of murder is a human construct, without natural purpose related to scarcity of food, territorial disputes and so on. On the other hand, as various writers from Freud onwards have shown, humans murder and torture each other for no natural, or rational purpose for that matter, because of psychological perversions caused when nature meets culture in human form.

On that basis, I would suggest that there is very little that is natural about human violence, which is entirely different to similar behaviours found in the natural world, because human aggression is filtered through culture and civilization. For Freud, especially, this combination of nature and culture made humans the most savage creatures on the planet. Given that they are capable of reason, and have lifted themselves above the natural world, human violence always entails some kind of fall, hence the legal category of murder. This propensity to fall from the heights of civilization, which makes people comparable to Gods, is precisely what makes them behave like Devils, in ways that no other animal ever could, simply because no other animal could ever conceive of the kinds of prolonged, sustained, forms of violence and torture that characterise properly human forms of violence.

There is, of course, another form of human violence which is entirely related to explosions of unconscious, pre-rational, aggression, but I do not think that the form of violence suffered by Baby P could be placed in that category. I think that what makes the case of Baby P truly unbearable is that he was the victim of the kind of perverse human violence, which led people to invent ideas of demons and devils in the first place, rather than the kind of natural violence, which is part of the metabolism of nature, which is defined by laws such as ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘eat or be eaten’, and so on.

We now know that one of the main perpetrators of the horrendous violence against Baby P was obsessed with Nazi symbolism. This confirmed my view of the case, which was that Baby P was the victim of terrible, human, violence, since it perfectly coincided with Zygmunt Bauman’s view that Nazism represents the embodiment of human savagery, which combines nature and culture in a new perverse form. Given this position, I doubt it is simply coincidental that one of the men who caused the death of Baby P was interested in Nazism, but more likely that his own psychopathological condition was somehow reflected in the monstrous evil represented by Nazi political iconography and that he was attracted to such symbolism for this reason. For these reasons, I would reject the realist claim that there is something natural about child killings, such as that of Baby P, because I think that the danger of such a position is that it explains such events too easily and makes them seem somehow inevitable, in the way that one would recognise the natural inevitability of a male lion killing a group of cubs in order to become the alpha male of a pride for instance.

Instead, I would argue that we need to enculture instances of horrendous human violence, such as the case of Baby P, regarding them as products of socially constructed individual perversions, in order that we can think them through and try to resolve them. From this point of view, then, I would resist the claim that is not completely natural, or pre-rational, to nurture and care for one’s own children, even though this biological imperative may be strained in the natural world, but instead say that it is human culture, and human civilization, which has introduced the kinds of inconceivable violence that are unknown in the natural world, by simultaneously transforming people into Gods and Devils. It is against the perverse potential of this world, the human-built world, that I think we must oppose the natural ethic to nurture children, rather than say that in order to prevent more cases like Baby P we must further rationalise, or humanise, the base savagery of the nature in people. This latter view suggests that the death of Baby P was an example of primitive, regressive, behaviour on the part of those who caused his death. I do not think there is anything primitive or regressive about torture because animals tend not to torture each other.

Despite all of this theoretical explanation, what escapes me about the Baby P case is how anybody could torture and torment a 17 month old child. In the natural world the imperative to nurture one’s child, which is essential to ensure the survival of the species, may well be hampered by natural conditions that cause the parent to kill its offspring, but this is not a problem most people living in rich western nations must confront. Given that one cannot really explain such violence on the basis of natural, environmental, pressures, is it then possible to explain such horrendous episodes through human rationality? I doubt this is feasible because nobody could consider the prolonged torture of a young child rational. If this is, in fact the case, and both nature and reason fail to explain such episodes, what are we left with apart from the unholy fusion of nature and culture in the kinds of violent perversions psychoanalysts explore? Even though I think that this is the case, and that examples of horrendous crimes, such as the killing of Baby P, are the result of perversions of the human condition caught somewhere between nature and culture, this does not mean that I, or anybody else, can understand such events. We may well be able to conceptualise such violence, through psychoanalytic, psycho-sexual, ideas such as sadism and necrophilia, and sociological notions, such as socialisation and the cycle of abuse, but it is not easy to understand them from the outside, precisely because I think that they run counter to the normal, natural, tendency of parents to nurture their own children.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Baby P: a response to Mark Featherstone's blog entry

By Professor Philip Stenning

I have a suspicion that Mark Featherstone's (and perhaps Levinas') underlying assumption (that a parent "naturally" puts his or her child first) may be incorrect. In the animal world, parental killing of offspring at or soon after birth is not uncommon. So if such protection of offspring is not "natural" for animals, it's not easy to see why it should necessarily be "natural" for humans. And of course, we know that infanticide (defined in law as the killing of a child by its mother who is lactating) is not uncommon among humans. It is also an established fact that those who are at greatest risk of homicide are children under 5 years of age, and that parents or step-parents are frequently the perpetrators.

Of course, if we assume that "putting one's child first" is "natural" (rather than just normal) human behaviour, any parent who kills or inflicts such extreme violence on their child must by definition be acting "unnaturally", and this allows us to characterise them as "not human" or as a "monster" or "devil", and to conclude (as you seem to) that such killing is not humanly understandable or explicable.

But if we resist this kind of thinking, and accept that killing of one's child is not "unnatural" in this sense, trying to understand or explain such a killing becomes a matter of trying to understand /explain why the parent has departed from such an established social/ethical norm. This opens up all kinds of possible explanations, such as extreme intoxication, mental illness, delusion or hallucination (there's a famous English case in which a father put his baby on the fire under the delusion that it was a log), supposed divine instruction (there have been many cases - and not just in the Old Testament - in which parents have claimed that God told them to kill their children), or some failure of socialisation against violence (e.g. if the parent was a victim of such extreme violence as a child).

Of course, every right-minded person will be horrified by the circumstances of Baby P's death, and no decent person could accept or excuse the prolonged torture and killing of such a helpless baby. But I think that characterising such behaviour as "unnatural" may not be helpful as far as seeking possible explanations for it, which may in turn help us to prevent similar cases from occurring in the future.

On the Case of Baby P

By Dr Mark Featherstone

I thought about writing this blog entry on Tuesday, but wavered because I could not decide whether it was ethical to write about the Baby P case on a weblog. Surely a blog cannot adequately represent this case or do justice to Baby P who spent much of his short life being beaten and abused? In the end I decided to write the entry on the basis that I think academics have a responsibility on talk and write about such horrendous events, but not include any links because it seems ethically wrong to support any sensationalism in this case. Although we may never be able to do such events justice, and I am sure I cannot do the Baby P case justice for reasons I will explain, commemorating them by remaining silent will do nothing to stop them happening again.

But what can we say about the Baby P case? When I first read about Baby P I found the story of his short life almost unbearable. Beyond this emotional reaction, I found his story impossible to understand. How could this happen? How could anybody torture a 17 month old child in this way? Given that I could not understand how the Baby P case could happen, I knew I would have a hard time writing about it simply because I would not be able to explain anything about it. Over the course of Wednesday I tried to understand why I could not explain the Baby P case, but at the same time felt that I should say something about it.

I now know why I cannot say anything about Baby P, but feel that I should say something about him regardless. Let me explain. The French writer Immanuel Levinas said that we have an ‘infinite responsibility’ for other people. This is his idea of what it is to behave ethically. We have to put other people first. I have studied the works of Levinas for a number of years and thought I understood his theories. I now know that I understood his theories theoretically, which is not really the point of his theory. I now think that it was only when I became a father that I really grasped what it means to put another person first on a pre-rational level, which is what Levinas meant by ‘ethics’.

I am sure every parent feels the same - that their child comes first is never in question. There is no rational debate in the parent’s head about this issue – there is no decision. That the child comes first seems like a pre-rational fact. The parent lives for the child and if they were asked to choose between their own life and that of their child they would choose to save the life of the child without even thinking about it. After a couple of years of parenthood, I think this is what Levinas meant by the idea of the ‘infinite responsibility for the other’. I cannot conceive what it means to ‘feel’ this way about strangers who, incidentally, Levinas thinks we would have to extend infinite responsibility to in order to inhabit a properly ethical society because I think one would have to be a saint in order to put every other person before oneself in the way that one does one’s own child.

However, it is now hard for me to understand how one cannot feel this way about one’s own child because such a reaction seems completely natural to me. I cannot imagine how it could be otherwise. This is precisely why I cannot explain the case of Baby P. Since I believe that it is natural or, because sociologists do not usually use the term natural, perhaps I should say pre-rational, to put one’s child before oneself, I cannot easily understand or conceive how one could put oneself before one’s own child, never mind torment, torture, and murder them over a period of months. I wonder whether this is why the case of Baby P has inspired such reactions in people: we feel horror that a small child who presumably could not even speak was exposed to violence and torture and deep sadness that he suffered for so long and never knew what it was to live in a normal, meaning pre-rational, family environment where he took priority over his parents who put him first. As a leftist sociologist, I am suspicious of new right politics about the need for normal families, meaning Mum, Dad, and kids, but the kind of normal ‘infinite responsibility’ I am talking about is not simply about ‘keeping a miserable family together for the sake of the kids etc.’, but rather a deep pre-rational connection between parent and child that we might not recognise amid the noise of everyday life, but that remains a deep truth of family life nonetheless.

If this is, in fact, the case and there is some kind of deep, unconscious, connection binding parent to child, then it is inconceivable that anybody could torture their own child over a period of many months. Of any crime, and there are many that are difficult to understand, the majority including children, I wonder if violence against one’s own offspring is the most difficult to conceive. But I do not think that it is enough to say that such violence is completely beyond understanding because such a denial of the human ability to reason out an event means that there is nothing we can do to prevent it happening again. This is not acceptable. We must understand if we are to prevent this kind of violence. Given the need to try to understand, then, how can we even begin to think about the case of Baby P? All I can say in this blog entry is that if it is indeed the case that the link between parent and child is entirely natural or pre-rational, then it may be the case that the sadistic violence of a parent against a completely innocent child is a perverse effect of rational society that desensitizes people to violence and that this kind of terrible event is the result of the socialisation of particular individuals into a reality characterised by torture, abuse, and inconceivable levels of inhumanity.

It is hard to reconcile oneself to the existence of the kind of violence characteristic of the case of Baby P, and any kind of consideration of such violence will leave one numb, but if we ever want to understand such cases in order to try to contribute to the effort to ensure that they do not happen again, then we must think about them on the level of a sociological analysis of perversity, violence, and psychopathology. In the past people thought about such horrible episodes through religious ideas. They invoked ideas of demons, the devil, and evil in order to explain these episodes to themselves. However, I think that the problem with these accounts is that they fill in for the fact that people have never been able to understand the kind of violence seen in the Baby P case by conjuring notions of supernatural evil which ultimately distract our attention from the very real horrors that people perpetrate. We need to recognise this fact. It is people, people living in society, who commit these crimes, not devils.

In Laurence Rickel’s book on the cultural history of the Devil, we are told that the Devil is a psychological symbol of the disciplinary father who prevents us getting what we want during our childhood (‘wait until your father comes home!’). Although the traditional psychoanalytic interpretation of the father is the disciplinary figure who denies the child their heart’s desire, and thus socialises them into society where we have to share, it may be that the real horror, the real evil, of the figure of the Devil, the embodiment of evil, resides in the incomprehensible, inconceivable, figure of the father who does not put his child first, and at the same time socialises them into society, but rather turns their life into a living Hell, systematically tormenting, torturing, and murdering them. Given that I cannot understand the case of Baby P, beyond saying why I cannot understand it, it make perfect sense to me that people would invent the Devil to represent such horror.

But I have noted that the Devil is not enough. Unfortunately the metaphysical figure of the Devil is a fantasy meant to make us feel better about the horrors humans commit against each other. It is people, real people living in society, who commit such horrendous crimes. I cannot pretend that I can explain such events. I cannot explain the case of Baby P, because conceiving such violence is beyond my language and may be beyond language itself, but I think that we must talk about this event and struggle to understand it because Baby P should not be forgotten. His memory should help us prevent such violence ever happening to another child. Although bureaucratic change is, of course, essential it is not enough because it will only ever deal with events that are already occurring. What we really need is to prioritise sociological-criminological study to enable us to understand what is it that produces such horrendous violence in family situations that should be based on the infinite responsibility of parent to child. We need to prioritise this perspective in order that we can address the social roots of such perverse violence and prevent other children having to suffer the fate of Baby P.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Obama, Anti-Bush

By Dr Mark Featherstone

I was interested to see Steve Bell’s Anti-Bush response to Obama’s victory (see previous blog entry) because it nicely captures the political iconography of Dubya and illustrates the essential ‘negativity’ of the utopianism of the new President-elect.

But what is the negativity of the utopianism of Obama (click the linked title, Obama, Anti-Bush)?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Star-spangled shredder...

By Dr Rebecca Leach

And I think just because we can, we should all have a look at Steve Bell's fantastic cartoon...

Obama's Win: an instance of social change?

By Dr Dana Rosenfeld

So Barack Obama won – not by a landslide, but close enough, and certainly by a greater margin than many had predicted. This was, by all accounts, a historically unique election campaign. It was arguably the longest and the most expensive presidential campaign in American history, and one of the most contentious. It had on its slate the first African-American presidential candidate (and one of the youngest), one of the oldest candidates, and the second female vice-presidential candidate in American presidential politics. It galvanized the country, producing what may be the largest voter turnout in United States history; it brought young voters (aged 18-29 – a notoriously hard-to-mobilize group) to the polls in unprecedented numbers. It brought African-American voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers too: 97% of African-Americans registered to vote in the state of Georgia did vote. People who had never voted before – and this included people in their 80s, 90s, and above – voted in this election. It crossed party lines, racial lines, class lines, and gender lines in unexpected ways. It brought race to the fore, and, against the backdrop of the dire economic changes of the last few months, pushed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into the background. It is an election that will inspire discussions and debates for years to come. For we sociologists, there are many questions we can ask, but perhaps the most obvious one is: does this election, and its results, signify social change?

Obama ran on a platform of change: the country, he argued, needed new policies and new directions (and the country clearly agreed). But his platform was also based on a return to long-standing American ideals: a social contract forged on the basis of citizenship and not on gender, race, class, or other social divisions. In America, he argued (and the Republicans did not disagree, not could they), opportunities are open to all. So did Obama’s election change America, or represent it? Will Americans see his election as a change in the country, or as an example of its core character?

This was an election with consequences that were, only a few years ago, unthinkable. A relative political newcomer, and an African-American one at that, will now occupy the White House with his family. Again, is this a cause or an effect of social change? Is an African-American family in the White House, or an African-American president taking the oath of office or meeting with other world leaders, really a discordant image? Do Americans really care about the race of its elected officials? Was this election about race to begin with? Did people vote or against for Obama because of his race, or for or against McCain because of his? As with most instances of political (or any other kind of) decision-making, they are not yes-or-no questions; rather, they signify complex beliefs and understandings about competence, experience, integrity, the relevance of one’s personal biography and attributes to one’s ability to carry out one’s duties, and the like. In a very real sense, these are issues that inform all of our lives, as we make claims about ourselves: campaign, as it were, for jobs and social status and opportunities and even personal connections. These are matters very close to the heart of a core sociological interest in impression management and the production of social identity.

It could be argued, and has been, that Obama actively worked to make his campaign not about race; Obama’s race was noteworthy, but not a critical component of his worthiness as a candidate. Obama and his team – and, indeed, the entire country – worked to produce Obama’s race as relevant in its consequences (we now have an African-American president, and presidential family), but not relevant to those deciding for whom to cast their vote. In other words, Obama’s race was relevant because it was inherently irrelevant – that Obama got elected proved that race could be placed in the background, seen as an important element of self but not as a deal-breaker. In the end, Americans came together around economic issues; race was, it turned out, a much less significant criterion for voting decision-making than people had initially feared.

This is not to rob the African-American community of its hard-earned victory, or to dilute this victory’s social, political, cultural, and even emotional importance. In the aftermath of the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina (which was the disruption – the Bush administration’s failure to respond in anything approximating a responsible way was the disaster), an African-American president with such a strong popular backing is essential for rebuilding America’s image abroad, and for mending internal rifts. The African-American community has endured endless and unspeakable marginalization and worse over the past centuries, and Obama’s win reflects decades of this community’s dedicated political organizing, from the local and community level to corporate boardrooms and the halls of state and federal government. But the issue of how race played out in this election – how it was framed and used, the connections it forged, its symbolic value, and its social, political and cultural consequences – is, as with most social phenomena, extremely complex and, of course, sociologically fascinating.
Dissertation topic, anyone?

America’s Hope

By Dr Mark Featherstone

Early this morning British people learned that Americans had elected Barack Obama president. In many respects it is possible to liken Obama’s victory to that of Tony Blair in the 1997 General Election. Akin to Blair, who was elected off the back of the view that ‘things could only get better’ and a deep sense that Britain could not take any more Conservatism, Obama’s surge to the White House has been sustained by his understanding that what Americans wanted after eight years of Dubya was ‘change’.

However, beyond this basic similarity, which it is possible to say defines more or less all elections in two party states, comparisons end. Despite his carefully managed ‘mondeo man’ image, which ensured that Blair was simultaneously popular with ‘every man’ and also able to escape criticism which would have destroyed lesser politicians (i.e., those who cannot disappear back into the mass when the going gets tough, on the basis of their status as Boorstinian pseudo-individuals), Blair was always an establishment figure.

The same cannot really be said for Obama. Even though he has passed through some of America’s elite institutions – Columbia, Harvard, Chicago – it is impossible to say that Obama is a member of the American establishment for one key reason: he is black. Given the views of contemporary sociologists, such as Loic Wacquant and Douglas Massey, who have written about the completely segregated nature of American society and, in Massey’s case reflected upon ‘American apartheid’, we cannot underestimate the significance of Obama’s rise to the position of President. In my view, the events of yesterday, 4th November, were reflective of the kind of utopian moments Jay Winter talks about in his study of particular episodes which have changed the course of history.

Centrally, Winter conditions his study of these utopian moments, which include the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 and the student revolt in 1968, with a discussion of the dystopias of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to show that in many respects hope and change emerges from the darkest periods of history. There is no doubt that Obama’s victory, and all the utopian talk surrounding hope and change, has similarly been conditioned by a dark period of American politics, presided over by Dubya, who has recently been discussed as the worst American president in history.

Whether Obama can deliver on his promise to change America, and sort through the wreckage left behind by Bush, will very much depend on whether he is able to convert the utopian rhetoric, which has carried him to the White House, into real political practice.



The next meeting for Sociology and Criminology Society is on Tuesday 11th November in room CBA1.078/079, between 1pm and 2pm.

This meeting will debate whether particular illegal acts, should be made legal. Three main aspects will be debated:

What do you think would be the consequences of making these currently illegal acts, legal?

1. Prostitution – Should brothels be legalised in Britain?

2. Drug Taking – Drugs such as cannabis, have been known to aid medical conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Should certain drugs be made legal and easily available?

3. Euthanasia – Repeatedly we find in the news, like recently, cases in which individuals wish their life to end, often for reasons of ill health. However, this act could end up with a prison sentence. Who should decide the future of an individual, the state, medical professionals, or the individual themself?

The last meeting was really good fun and insightful, so we hope to see you there on Tuesday. The more the merrier!!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Purdy v. Director of Public Prosecutions [Divisional Court, October 29th, 2008]

By Philip Stenning

The Purdy application to the Divisional Court, which was rejected in its decision released on October 29th, has received a considerable amount of news coverage in recent weeks.

For the last 13 years, Debbie Purdy, who is now 45, has been suffering from primary progressive multiple sclerosis. This is a particularly aggressive form of the disease in which, unlike the more benign “relapse-remission” form of it under which people may live quite normal lives for many years, the sufferer never goes into remission - the disease just gets progressively worse until the person eventually becomes completely incapacitated and dies. Purdy’s illness is already quite far advanced, and she has been confined to a wheelchair for the last seven years. Progress of this disease is quite unpredictable, but it is quite possible that Purdy does not have many more years to live.

She has decided that she would like the option of “death with dignity” if her condition deteriorates to the point where she no longer has any real quality of life and experiences extreme pain or discomfort. But because of the nature of her disease, by the time that she gets to the stage at which she would wish to die rather than continue to live, she would almost certainly not be able to commit suicide unaided. While suicide is not illegal in the UK, aiding and abetting someone to commit suicide is (Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act, 1961). To fulfil her wishes at that point, therefore, she would need to go to a country like Switzerland in which “assisted suicide” is not illegal.

Purdy is concerned, however, that if she asks her husband to travel with her to Switzerland for an assisted suicide (an organisation called Dignitas provides this service there), and he goes with her and stays with her during the procedure, he may subsequently be prosecuted when he returns to the UK afterwards. The punishment prescribed in the Suicide Act for aiding and abetting suicide is a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The Act requires the consent of the Director of public Prosecutions for such a prosecution, and the law requires the DPP to consider, in addition to whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, whether such a prosecution would be “in the public interest”. Although the Code for Crown Prosecutors sets out general criteria for determining the public interest in making prosecutorial decisions, the DPP has not identified any specific criteria to govern the exercise of his discretion in giving or withholding consent for a prosecution under the Suicide Act (as he has done, for instance for prosecutions for domestic violence, football hooliganism, and some driving offences). So Purdy applied to the court for a declaration requiring the DPP to issue such guidelines, and in particular to provide some indication as to whether, if her husband merely accompanied her to Switzerland and held her hand while she died, he would be likely to be prosecuted. Evidence at the hearing indicated that in the last 6 years, “at least 90 United Kingdom citizens have travelled abroad for the purpose of lawfully obtaining an assisted suicide, but that in no single instance has a prosecution resulted, notwithstanding some investigations by police.”

The judgment of the court is quite technical (it included an appeal to provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights), but the bottom line of it is that the court held that it could not force the DPP to issue such guidelines, that the general guidelines in the Code for Crown Prosecutors are sufficient to ensure that the DPP’s decisions under the Suicide Act cannot and will not be “arbitrary”, and that it is only Parliament which has the authority to clarify the law in the way Purdy would like.

The law thus so far leaves people like Purdy with a really difficult dilemma, and she argues that it is discriminatory, in that it denies to people like her the right to self-determination (in this case, to choose the time and manner of her death, and to have her husband present with her at that time without fear that he will be punished afterwards - a risk she’s not prepared to take), which others who are able to commit suicide without assistance enjoy. In addition to addressing this substantive issue, the case also is an important decision with respect to the nature and scope of prosecutorial discretion in this country, and the extent to which courts are or are not prepared to intervene with respect to it.

The court gave Purdy permission to appeal its decision. But of course, even if she pursued such an appeal, she might not live long enough to benefit from a favourable outcome. Her only other recourse, it seems, would be to take her campaign to Parliament to try to persuade legislators to change the law in her favour. But that could well take more time than she has left too.

So do you think she’s received justice?

(If you’re interested, you can find the court’s decision in the Purdy case at

Monday, 27 October 2008

Lies, damned lies and (crime) statistics

By Dr Bill Dixon

‘Statistics are like politicians … they tell lies.’ These are the words of ‘Michael’ reacting online to a story in the Daily Mail about the revelation that police forces up and down the country have been undercounting the most serious types of violent crime. With his very 21st century distrust of politicians it is ironic that ‘Michael’s’ words echo those of the 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who once said that there were ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.

But is such scepticism justified? Are the crime statistics published by the Home Office every quarter, and then for a full year each July, really just ‘damn lies’ – or worse? It’s almost second nature for criminologists to be critical of crime statistics, whatever their source and ‘Michael’ would have been nearer the mark if he’d said that crime statistics are like cigarettes: they should always carry a health warning. Crimes can’t be counted like sheep because what counts as crime is both constantly changing – think of homosexuality and rape in marriage. And, at least for criminologists, they are endlessly controversial.

According to the Daily Mail, the admission that the police have been ‘downplaying’ (note the none-too-subtle hint of a conspiracy in that word) serious violence has dealt a ‘devastating blow’ to public confidence in official crime figures. Later in the story Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, weighs in with the view that the figures ‘fatally undermine government spin that violent crime [is] getting better’. ‘If you can’t count a problem’, he adds, ‘You can’t combat it’.

Crime statistics, as criminologists like to put it, are socially constructed. In other words, they are the outcome of very complicated social processes and should never be (mis)treated as ‘hard facts’. It should come as no surprise then as many as 17 of England and Wales’ 43 police forces have been categorising offences involving intent to cause grievous bodily harm where no such harm is actually caused as ‘other violence against the person’ rather than as the ‘most serious violence against the person’. Leaving aside the possibility that the Daily Mail and the Shadow Home Secretary might be using this revelation as a handy stick with which to beat the government, what their shock and outrage betrays is not so much a world-weary cynicism about crime statistics but a touching faith in the ability of numbers to reflect social reality. But for ‘government spin’ and the pressure put on police forces to meet crime reduction targets, they seem to believe that crime could be counted accurately, and then combated effectively.

If crime statistics are neither ‘damned lies’ nor ‘hard facts’, what do they tell us? Well, despite the failings documented with such loving care by the Daily Mail, and seized on with such relish by Mr Grieve, they can tell us something. And what they tell us is a rather more optimistic story than headlines about a 22% increase in violent crime might suggest. In fact, the most recent annual figures (for 2007/8) published in July indicate that violent crime, indeed all crime, has fallen by more than 40% since 1995. These statistics, derived from the British Crime Survey (BCS) rather than police figures, rarely make the headlines but almost certainly represent reality more accurately than the fevered imaginings of Opposition politicians and middle market tabloids obsessed with the idea that Britain is an increasingly violent and lawless place.

Like all statistics – and cigarettes – these figures should be treated with caution. But – unlike cigarettes – it would be very foolish to make no use of them at all.


Read Matthew Hickley’s story about the police under-recording violent crime in the Daily Mail online at

For Home Office crime statistics for the quarter to June 2008, go to
And for the full year April 2007 to March 2008, go to

Friday, 24 October 2008

Shaking the hand that shook the hand of our Queen!

By Dr Lydia Martens

“Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will visit South Korea on April 19-22 to become the first British head of state ever to visit the Korean Peninsula since Korea and Britain established diplomatic relations in 1883, officials said Monday. A South Korean presidential spokesman said the queen will meet President Kim Dae Jung at the Blue House presidential office April 19. "The British queen's upcoming visit to (South) Korea is expected to provide momentum for friendly and cooperative relations between Britain and Korea to be upgraded to a higher level," the spokesman said. During her stay, the queen will try to visit as many places as possible in an effort to get first-hand experience of the different aspects of South Korean society and help deepen mutual understanding between the British and South Korean peoples, the spokesman said. The queen's itinerary includes visits to Hahoe village, an ancient folk village at Andong, North Kyongsang Province, ...”

What luck that this piece of newspaper reporting could still be found on the internet, as the Queen’s visit to South Korea, which I doubt many Brits will remember, took place in 1999. Not so the Koreans! If Hahoe (pronounce ‘hachway’) village is not solely known in Korea as an important national and historical heritage site, then the visit there by the Queen in 1999 is remembered by many. Following in the globe-trotting shoes of the Queen (albeit without the precious outfits and jewels) I travelled to Korea last week, to participate in the 25th anniversary conference of the Seoul Association for Public Administration (SAPA). The Association is currently debating the need to move towards greater use of qualitative methodologies, and I was invited by the Association’s President, Professor Soon-Bok Soe and the organiser of the methodology sessions, Professor Kwang-Sok Lee, to present a Keynote address to discuss the state of qualitative research in the United Kingdom.

I decided to concentrate on innovations in qualitative research in UK social sciences over the past 15 years, and outlined factors that influence innovative and traditionalising forces in the disposition of individual scholars, drawing group and institutional dimensions into the discussion. Social, economic and cultural change clearly drive new research agendas, which in turn encourage researchers to explore new ways of seeking answers through their research practices. Technological developments join into the mix, offering new tools which may be utilised during the different phases of the research process. These innovative forces are juxtaposed by traditionalising forces which, for instance, connect with scholarly debate on the diverse quality dimensions in qualitative research in its broadest sense. I spent a bit of time outlining the grander innovative initiatives the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) has resourced in the past 15 years, pointing to its support for qualitative data archiving, longitudinal qualitative research, and hypermedia/digitised opportunities. The Keynote address was well received, and conference delegates were keen to discuss the issues with me. During the two-day conference, I also presented a paper on the video methodology adopted in a completed ESRC project Domestic Kitchen Practices and provided a demonstration of NVivo 8; software used by qualitative researchers for project management and data analysis. Dr Se-Kwang Hwang, my former PhD student from Durham University, accompanied me by presenting on the methodological approach of his own research, in which children created videos to illustrate their everyday experiences of what life is like to live with a sibling with autism.

The conference took place at the National University of Gong Ju; one of South Korea’s historical cities, the lore of which was communicated to me by various conference delegates. I did not at all mind listening to the same story more than once. Given our European language focus, I can assure you that my ear took a while to get accustomed to recognising and remembering Korean sounds, names and events, though that thankfully improved as the visit progressed.

Apart from the conference, my stay provided an opportunity to take in some of what everyday life is like in Korea. It is striking how ‘high-rise’ Korean society is, and how, even in a historic city like Gong Ju, there are few, if any, older buildings that reiterate this fact. The dominance of rice as the staple food is quite obvious when travelling between cities. All flat and lower lying areas are used for the horticulture of rice, and other staples, like Chinese cabbage, used for the preparation of Kimchi, a vegetable relish eaten at every meal. Coming to Korea in the autumn meant that the rice fields were an appealing golden colour. These agricultural areas are separated by Korea’s hills and mountains, which take up a good proportion of the country’s space, and which are covered in trees and ... electricity pylons. Korea is, after all, a modern society, drawing inspiration in its design of cities and building from the US. Many of these hills also feature some tree-free areas, where the more affluent Koreans have their family tombs. Seen from the vantage point of my motorway observation, it struck me that Korea’s deceased clearly do not always ‘need’ a quiet place to rest, though it is clear that space is of a premium here. Not so ‘everyday’, perhaps, was the festival which was taking place in Gong Ju during the conference. Delegates enjoyed a walk along Gong Ju’s riverside and street scene in the evening, taking in the many different light displays along the way. We were accompanied by the major of the city (dressed in the cream coloured jacket in the picture above) part of the way. The major had been a former colleague of some SAPA members, and they welcomed each other warmly. If I learned anything about social relations in Korea it must surely be that face-to-face interaction is extremely salient for maintaining contact with people in your social network, and this takes up considerable commitment time-wise. This is further demarcated by cultural hierarchies associated with seniority. Knowing how to express deference in the right cultural context to the right people is very important.

But let me return to where I started: the story of Hahoe village and the traditional mask dance. Like the Queen, I was taken there for a visit by Professor Kwang Sok Lee. We parked at the workshop of the master mask maker, Kim Jong-Heung, which is situated along the side of the road and surrounded by brilliantly carved totems. The wood artist was clearly very proud of having met the British Queen in 1999, something illustrated by the various pictures on the wall (see the first picture above). I am uncertain whether it is this fact, or his amazing array of wooden sculptures, that attracts visitors here. The announcement by my Korean companions that I was from the UK was cause for special attention, as I soon discovered, when Kim Jong-Heung warmly shook my hands. Eventually, after pictures were taken and the necessary mask souvenirs purchased, we were sent on our way with a visitor card showing Kim Jong-Heung with the Queen.

Later that day, after we had enjoyed some lunch in one of the small, straw roofed, eating establishments on site (no sight of McDonalds or American style fast food anywhere!), we encountered Kim Jong-Heung again, this time behind one of his masks playing the figure of the monk in Hahoe’s traditional mask dance drama. Performance of the drama has been formalised today by the construction of a special theatre with frequent performances. In past times, the drama would have taken place in the village itself, performed by and for the villagers, and moving between different sites in the village, accompanied by nong-ak dance musicians. Walking through the village of Hahoe itself felt somewhat peculiar, as the tribe of people who originally populated it still live there today. We got the opportunity to visit the home of one of the village families, and observed the vegetable garden (full of spring onions, chillies and sesame seed plants), the kitchen and the courtyard of the extensive buildings, with its array of large earthenware pots containing soya sauce and other, frequently used ingredients for cooking. Two women sat along one side, cleaning fish, without engaging with the visitors. OK, the village and all that comes with it, is now a national heritage site, and visitors pay entrance fees which presumably go to benefit the villagers. Nevertheless! On our return to the car, we were caught once again by Kim Jong-Heung, who insisted that I had a go at wood carving. I hope I did not destroy his early efforts at carving the next totem. On reflection, I must admit that this tourist site visit was entirely relaxing for me! I did not encounter any blasé site staff here and found the interest shown by mask dancers and Kim Jong-Heung, not only towards myself, but also to other visitors, entirely friendly. If more Koreans show the kind of interest in ‘foreigners’ as was exhibited by the 9 year old boy on the bus, who proudly sported his Arsenal football top and told me he loved England and soccer, perhaps the Korean spokesmen who commented on the visit by the Queen in 1999 may be right in suggesting that relationships between Koreans and those from ‘the West’ may stand to improve further in the future. Given we are increasingly living in a globalised world, this is surely a necessity and should be welcomed.

I would like to thank Professor Kwang-Sok Lee and Professor Soon-Bok Soe of the SAPA association for inviting me to participate in the conference, and for giving me an opportunity to develop my insight into and appreciation of, Korean society. I look forward to future communications with the SAPA organisation.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Bog standards?

By Dr Rebecca Leach

Caught short? Don't be: your search for a public loo may be futile...

Public toilets are under threat, according to the BBC today. Public toilets are increasingly disappearing from high streets and other public spaces. Councils argue that toilets are costly to maintain in times of shrinking economic resource, requiring regular cleaning, maintenance and often policing or 'target hardening' (since public toilets are often used by drug users for example).

So what? Why should any of us, especially social scientists, care about the public toilet? The key issue that campaigners for public loos, such as the marvellously titled British Toilet Association, remind us of, is that access to toilets is an issue of social (and sociological) concern. Access to public spaces and services is unequally distributed in the population at large, with the usual suspects being excluded. In the case of toilets, some social groups have higher levels of need which places very real constraints on their ability to function as full members of society.

For example, older people may need more frequent access to toilet facilities: more than half of people with urinary incontinence are over 65 according to Help the Aged. Lack of access to public toilets is one of the things that keeps some older people cooped up in their homes. Women are also more in need of public toilets than men, for a number of reasons but mostly that women typically take longer to use the toilet. Why? Well, let's be frank: finding a free loo, unfastening, sitting down, wiping, refastening etc. all take longer than a quick unzip, whizz, shake, zip, don't they? And men are less likely to wash their hands than women... More seriously, women have additional requirements from their toilets: dealing with periods, not to mention the higher levels of incontinence suffered by large numbers of women who are pregnant, after childbirth or taking HRT. It all adds to the level of need. And since, in the majority, it is women who are out and about with babies and small children, there are additional, dare I say, urgencies.

Existing public toilets are often inadequate for the task: are there many women who haven't experienced queueing for hours because there just aren't enough cubicles while men breeze in and out? Many of us have given up and just used the Men's on numerous occasions. Facilities for people with mobility issues are even thinner on the ground, despite the recent Disability Discrimination Acts. Many authorities are unable to keep on top of cleaning requirements, let alone provide adequate handwashing facilities or baby changing areas. For many members of those groups who need the most good-quality access to public toilets, it is often hard enough already to get out and about to play a full role in society: older people, people with mobility impairments, women with small children in pushchairs spend far too much time as it is negotiating physical obstacles or staying home because it is just easier.

Those public toilets that do exist ought to be maintained with pride by local authorities, since they are a key feature of a healthy society, often developed in the real crucible of civic responsibility and concern over public health in the Victorian era. (To find out more about the history of the toilet, a good place to start is the wittily-named Flushed with Pride exhibition at the Gladstone Pottery museum, just up the road from Keele University.) Providing for a civilised society's basic needs for both biological relief and privacy has to be a key goal, surely?

Monday, 20 October 2008

Reflections from a research trip down under; A case of networking or notworking?

By Julie Trebilcock

If I had been able to secure a pound or two from every sceptical individual that I have come across in the last few months upon hearing about my research trip to Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, Australia, I could more than likely afford to go back. And on this occasion, I could probably afford to return and not actually do any work!

The concepts of ‘research trip’ and ‘networking’ seem to raise considerable suspicion, especially when it’s revealed that they are taking place somewhere as far away and as idyllic as Australia. But, my trip, no doubt like the majority of research trips, involved both considerable planning in the 12 months leading up to my visit, and a busy schedule of work during my 4 weeks away.

My aims for the trip were broad, but because my research centres around a relatively controversial development in the UK, the “dangerous and severe personality disorder” (DSPD) programme, I was interested to explore how the State of Victoria deals with individuals who may be similarly defined, as well as to consider their approach to mentally disordered offenders more generally. I was fortunate to receive a very welcoming response from my hosts, the University of Melbourne, but also from a number of criminal justice and mental health agencies based in the community, the courts, and high security, who agreed to spend time with me.

While I expected the Victorian approach to mentally disordered offenders to differ from the UK approach, not least because in contrast to England and Wales, personality disorder is excluded from their mental health legislation, I was surprised to find out just how different their approach was.

During one visit to the Thomas Embling Hospital, the most secure psychiatric facility in Victoria, the Senior Nurse who was kindly showing me around, commented “you can probably tell we are very risk averse here”. My reaction was one of bemusement and shock, as this had certainly not been my impression, not just in terms of this facility, but more generally with Victoria’s approach to both forensic patients and offenders.

Instead, I had found Victoria’s response, to be framed in therapeutic rather than punitive terms, reliant most often on the community, while prisons and high security psychiatric facilities were reserved for use as a last resort. As a PhD student from the UK, who has witnessed more criminal justice legislation under Labour than in the preceding 100 years; dramatic increases in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences; and recent moves to build our way out of a prison crisis, this approach was particularly refreshing to see. Rather than being the poor relation to the prison service, the community, was presented as Victoria’s most valuable resource in their response to offending behaviour.

While it would be naive to be completely seduced by the Victorian response, not least because comparative research has shown that the context in which a policy is placed is as significant in terms of success as the programme or policy itself, it is felt that there is much that we could learn from the Victorian example, and at the very least, the fact that such an approach is possible.

This reflects that while in many respects I was notworking on my PhD during my networking trip, I was instead able to consider approaches and services that are very different to those that I usually study, and to think about what might be possible outside of the assumptions that structure the UK response to offending. In this respect, I feel the trip was particularly helpful for provoking thought in the final stages of my PhD, generating ideas for future research, and for my personal development as an academic. I only wish that I could say that all my work was this profitable and enjoyable!
Julie would like to take this opportunity to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the University of Melbourne, Monash University, Forensicare, Stateswide Forensic Services, the Department of Corrections, the Court Integrated Services Programme (CISP) & the Mental Health Review Board of Victoria.
Julie Trebilcock first graduated from Keele in 2004 with an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Applied Social Studies. Today, Julie is in the final stages of a Criminology PhD and working part time as a researcher for the Ministry of Justice.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Sixties generation heading for a conventional old age?

By Dr Rebecca Leach

Dr Rebecca Leach, who led the Baby Boomers' consumption patterns research project at Keele, was in demand last week as the press picked up on the idea that the Sixties generation might not be heading for a radically different old age compared to older cohorts. Rebecca and her colleague Professor Chris Phillipson, who also worked on the project, gave nearly 20 interviews to different local radio stations, interviews for the print media and had the research featured in the national and international press and on Radio 4's Today programme. (Listen again to the segment on R4)

The baby boomers - born during the explosion in the birth rate after the Second World War - are often lambasted in the media. They have been described as the 'selfish' generation, people who have 'had it all' and are pulling up the ladder behind them. Boomers themselves (now entering their late 50s and early 60s and facing retirement) certainly recognise their 'luck': born into post-war austerity, their lives ran alongside some of the most favourable economic conditions Western capitalism has ever seen. While the boomers' parents were categorically from a wartime, 'make-do-and-mend' culture, the children born post-war grew up out of rationing and poverty into full employment, the burgeoning consumer culture focused almost entirely on giving them their own consumer category, the 'teenager'. More importantly, it was the expansion of the Welfare State that provided the crucial safety net for boomers. Propped up by a free health service, social security provision and, crucially, the expansion of the universities in the 1960s, the boomers had opportunities for health, education and social mobility that simply were not available to previous generations. The grammar school and university opened up horizons previously closed to large numbers of those from ordinary backgrounds.

In terms of consumption, the pop record and the mini-skirt were important but probably less so than the things that gave teenagers in the 50s and 60s a new sense of freedom: the public transport system, the motorbike and perhaps the coffee shop. Not only were teenagers able to spend their money freely in the shops on clothes and music just for them, they were also able to escape from parental culture and define their own spaces. The importance of consumption and style to this cohort was documented extensively in the work of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (the CCCS or Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) between 1964 and 1991. Found by Richard Hoggart and later managed by the sociologist Stuart Hall (and spawning Keele's own Tony Jefferson and Paul Willis...), the CCCS publications Resistance Through Rituals (Hall & Jefferson, 1976) and Subculture: the meaning of style (Hebdige, 1979) identified the class dislocations and cultural shifts that made this cohort the first teenage subcultures.

It is tempting to speculate that what happened in the past had a formative effect on the future. Mannheim's notion of generation suggests that there are shared histories that create particular worldviews which become generational identities. Having lived through the same kinds of radical social change, indeed having pushed through some of those social changes themselves, the boomer generation ought to be showing up some of the evidence of generational culture that the CCCS thought they'd identified 30 or 40 years ago.

Our data demonstrates some 'generationality'. Certainly boomers feel their horizons were widened - they often see themselves as the 'lucky' generation: benefiting from the expansion of the welfare state in the post-war period, they had a social safety net in the social security reforms, expansion of higher education and health service that their parents had never had. The opening up of global consciousness with the advent of television and mass air travel means that boomers see themselves as cosmopolitan compared to their parents' generation. And certainly, they think of themselves as 'young' in outlook: taking responsibility for health and their bodies, caring about how they look (but not as much as they used to) and feeling more like their children than their parents, they believe they are not ageing like people used to.

But let's not forget that less than 10% of boomers have ever been on a political demonstration and only very tiny numbers now engage in the sort of 'alternative' lifestyles or politics that one associates with that generation. This just reinforces the point that while we can see some hints of generational identity, these things are often just as much about class and education rather than cohort. The retirement plans of boomers are limited: few have considered what they will do in later life, other than to keep working a bit and to keep healthy. The extent of ambition is often to spend more time with the grandchildren and do more in the garden. For some, the lure of the big trip calls; but for many, multiple responsibilities - often for adult children, for younger children (especially after remarriage) and for ageing parents - limits their horizons.

And for all the media hysteria about boomers 'SKI-ing' (spending the kids' inheritance) the reality is most of them ARE spending it, but ON the kids... Boomers are slightly more likely than older and younger cohorts to agree with the statement 'money should be spent rather than saved for an inheritance', but they are also funding their childrens' consumption, their university places, paying off student loans, supporting children's housing choices or helping out their parents. And equally, while boomers are a relatively wealthy generation overall, this is not universal: gender differences are a key point - many women 'missed the sixties' since the Pill was not available to unmarried women until 1967. This meant many women were already married and pregnant and often dependent on men's salaries by the time contraception, legislation and cultural shifts allowed women more freedom. For those women subsequently divorced and bringing up kids on their own, large numbers of them were left on low-incomes and will little pension provision.

So, yes, let's talk about the boomers as a distinctive generation. But let's look at the facts, and not base our assumptions on the people we meet. It's easy to generalise from our own milieu, imagining all the world is like us (especially perhaps if we're working for a media outlet in London and living in comfortable Chattering Class-Land in Stoke Newington).

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Dead Shark and the Immorality of the Markets

By Dr Mark Featherstone
Two totally unrelated pieces in the current London Review of Books caught my eye: the famous art critic Hal Foster’s piece on the art market and an advertisement for the John Templeton Foundation containing excerpts of a debate on moral character and the market contained on the organisation’s website. In the former piece, Foster focuses on the expansion of the art market and the irresistible rise of Damien Hirst who has continued to sell work and make enormous profits despite the onset of the global credit crunch. The latter piece excerpts essays from some of the world’s most famous writers and theorists, including Bernard-Henri Levy, John Gray, and Michael Walzer, organised around the question ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’ Although I read the two pieces independently, I could not help but think that Foster’s piece could shed some light on the Templeton debate and provide an interesting angle on the various positions taken by Levy, Gray, Walzer, and the other essayists.

(To read the rest of this blog please visit the Sociology Research site...)

Thursday, 9 October 2008


First Meeting


1PM -2PM


Monday, 6 October 2008

Blair, Boris, politics and the police

By Dr Bill Dixon

The resignation of Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (and ‘Britain’s top cop’) following a meeting with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has led to bitter recriminations about ‘playing politics with the police’, and to unprecedented levels of interest in the constitutional position of the police.

As Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), Mr Johnson has been accused of overstepping the constitutional mark by forcing Sir Ian out of office. Worse still he’s been condemned for politicizing policing in London at a time when the capital is plagued by knife crime and faces a continuing terrorist threat. Meanwhile, Sir Ian himself has been blamed for contributing to his own downfall, amongst other things by lobbying too enthusiastically in favour of key New Labour policies. Stuck in the middle of this firestorm is Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who will eventually have to appoint Blair’s successor.

Although Commissioners don’t resign every day – the last Commissioner to fall on his sword was Sir Edward Henry in 1918 – control over policing in London, has been fiercely contested by national and local politicians, and successive Commissioners, since the Metropolitan Police was established way back in 1829.

In the early days, the Home Secretary had the whip hand and one of Jacqui Smith’s predecessors, Lord Melbourne, even went so far as to give detailed instructions on how the police were to handle a demonstration at Cold Bath Fields in Clerkenwell in 1833. As it turned out, the operation was a disaster and ended with a running fight between police and demonstrators in the course of which an officer was stabbed and killed. Half a century later, in 1888, local politicians called on the government to transfer the management of the city’s police to the newly elected London County Council.

The high point of what became known as the ‘doctrine of constabulary independence’, and the heyday of the Met’s chief officer as the master of all he surveyed, came 40 years ago when one of the most famous judges of the 20th century, Lord Denning, ruled that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was ‘answerable to law and to the law alone’. The responsibility for enforcing the law in Britain’s capital city, he went on, was the Commissioner’s, and no mere ‘Minister of the Crown’ or ‘police authority’ could tell him how he should discharge it.

Then, 15 years later, the soon to be abolished Greater London Council (GLC) published a consultation paper calling for the Metropolitan Police to be brought under democratic control. Under the GLC’s proposals an elected police authority for London would be given a statutory duty to enforce the law and have ‘ultimate control of all decisions relating to deployment and policing methods’. The Leader of the GLC at the time was none other than Ken Livingstone, the recently unseated Mayor of London and one of the sternest critics of his successor Boris Johnson’s ousting of Sir Ian Blair.

The politicization of policing in London and the desire of locally elected politicians – be they mayors or councillors – is nothing new. In attempting to exert a measure of control over policing in London by toppling Sir Ian, despite the continued - if lukewarm and ultimately ineffectual - support of the Home Secretary, Boris Johnson has only succeeded in doing what generations of local politicians have tried but failed to do. Whether you prefer the politician or the policeman, Boris or Blair, is beside the point. Policing is too important to be left to the police. It is also, as Robert Reiner has reminded us, ineluctably political. If the sad end of Sir Ian Blair means that policing in London has become politicized again, and given locally elected representatives some influence over the strategic direction of their city’s police force, his resignation will not have been entirely in vain, and Johnson’s part in it not quite as reprehensible as Livingstone and others would have us believe.

Reference Robert Reiner (2000) The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Land of Hypocrisy

By Andy Zieleniec

It’d been a strange summer, weather wise that is. Warm and wet but not too much of either to bring out the doom merchants complaining of meltdown, drought or trench foot.

But, as is usually the case, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no body no good’. It’s mushroom season again and by all accounts it may well be a bumper season. In woods, gardens, hedgerows, verges and playing fields mycelium have been at work in ideal conditions and the evidence is in the fruiting bodies that spring up seemingly miraculous underfoot. So far, and I’m no expert, I’ve seen shaggy ink caps, puff balls, fly agarics, boletus, oyster and parasol. I’ve also noted the near death experiences of two separate cases of people mistakenly eating poisonous wild mushrooms.

But, I digress.

I spotted a company of three, heads down hoods up, combing the football pitches in search of bounty (magic mushrooms or psilocybin I presume) and it made me wonder again about the hypocrisy and bias inherent in the drink and drugs laws not to mention certain prevalent social attitudes concerning the consumption of mind altering substances.

There is a long list of substances that are proscribed and that carry with them judicial penalties. If you’re tempted you should be aware of the potential consequences, social and financial as well as time-served at Her Majesty’s pleasure (see the following links for key facts about drugs and penalties for possession and supply.)
Yet it is also clear that the worst offenders in terms of medical and social consequences as well as mortality are those that are not only legal but also which provide large tax returns for the state. Alcohol and tobacco carry with them restrictions on where and to whom they can be sold (hence the current political and public debate over their advertising and sales, as well as consumption, specifically but not exclusively to young people) as well as advertising campaigns to deter consumption or at least to consume ‘responsibly’.

However, despite the evidence for the catastrophic consequences on the physical and social health of the nation from tobacco and alcohol use it is those ‘drugs’ that are not licensed and legal that carry a stigma and a penalty that appears to outweigh their effects.Tobacco kills far far more that cocaine and heroin. Alcohol fuels much more violence, domestic and social, and destroys more families than ecstasy or cannabis. Yet both are legal and very accessible. There is more than a smack of hypocrisy here. Whose interests does the current law protect? There are regular reviews of the categorisation of illegal drugs and the penalties associated with their use, possession and sale. As recently as last week the governments Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was considering the reclassification of ecstasy and has aroused strong resistance from amongst others the police whilst support from other quarters (see below for a selection of arguments and opinions)

Indeed, last year in a study, published in The Lancet, scientists from The Academy of Medical Sciences called for a new classification scheme that would rank all drugs by the harm they do
As social scientists we need to question some of the unpalatable ‘truths’ that pervade political, judicial and social rhetoric concerning amongst other things what people take as their ‘drug of choice’. We need to search beneath the seeming ‘reality’ of legal and social constraints and norms that penalise the pursuit of pleasure from some substances whilst promoting or tolerating the use of others. This is not just a personal question of whether one prefers to open and consume a bottle of wine or roll and smoke a ‘spliff’ with friends in the privacy of one’s own home. How and why we choose as individuals this, that or the other is always done in a social context. That context has been for 150 years or more one of vested interests. Whether, for different but overlapping reasons, including the state, business and/or moral (religious) groupings the outcome is the same. The promotion of some pleasures at the expense and restriction of others is in part about moral judgements as it is about medical, social and judicial ones.

I make no statement of personal preference here nor do I want to give the impression that I think all drugs are the same or that there should be a ‘free-for-all’ attitude. What I would suggest though, is that we can tell a lot about our society and ‘the state we’re in’ by our ‘official’ as well as by the unofficial, common, popular attitudes and practices to those substances that large numbers of people choose and use, for whatever reason, as part and parcel of their social life. In this, we as social scientists can make a contribution to social and political debates that affect, one way or another, most of us.