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.