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.