Monday, 11 August 2008

Keele Sociologist of the Week: Siobhan Holohan

Whilst studying for her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Cultural Studies Siobhan stumbled upon her main research area. She was initially stumped - as many students are - when asked to think of a dissertation topic. Tutors advised her to opt for something that she loved; instead she chose something that she hated: crime appeal programmes, Crimewatch UK and its then Midlands regional variation Crime Stalker. The attraction of spending so much time with these programmes lay in the visceral pleasure of shouting abuse at the TV screen as Nick Ross or John Stalker delivered yet another sweeping monologue on the moral dangers of drink, drugs or prostitution, while attempting to turn us into agents of the state ('grasses') by asking us to phone in with information based on grainy re-enactments of murders, rapes and vicious assaults. and then telling us to not have nightmares. Siobhan's Masters' thesis in Social and Cultural Theory continued to exploit this subject matter, this time focussing on the budding trend in 'campaign' television: the exposure of miscarriages of justice. Now the law itself was under scrutiny: is the whole system corrupt? Is the very fabric of society is under threat? The answer was, as ever, to create new laws to stop civilization - the public, the police, etc - spiralling out of control.

Siobhan's research continues to centre on the relationship between representation and the reinforcement of governing norms and values in society by examining media narratives of crime and the criminal justice system. For example her book The Search for Justice in a Media Age, based on her PhD research, followed the high-profile cases of Louise Woodward and Stephen Lawrence, as they were made-over by their media representations - from killer nanny to English Rose and from dangerous black man to innocent victim of racist violence. By unravelling the various constructions of identity in these two cases, she suggested how we might achieve an ethical form of representation based on selected theories of human rights and multiculturalism. Continuing this theme, following the terrorist acts of 9/11 and 7/7 she has recently written on the representation of another demonised Other: Muslims. Throughout her work, Siobhan has sought to unravel the biased and stereotypical constructions of those who do not quite fit in with the 'norms' of society.

More recently Siobhan has been examining the idea of confession. This is part of a current book project, 'The Culture of Confession', which seeks to unravel the history of confession from Ancient Greece to present day media confessions.In this book, Siobhan argues that, for example, 'kiss and tell' stories, reality TV appearances, or in-depth interviews such as those conducted by Martin Bashir with Princess Diana and Michael Jackson,are the contemporary Western version of self-regulation via confessional activities. So while our ancestors may have been happy to talk to their priest about their transgressions and atone for their sins with a few hail Marys, today people are more likely to 'confess' to Oprah Winfrey or Jeremy Kyle. However, while the public performance of confession acts like therapy for the confessor, if we consider the finger-wagging that accompanies it, we can see that it continues to contribute to the reproduction of moral order in society.

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