Friday, 26 September 2008

Keele "Voluntary Sector in Criminal Justice" Conference a Success

Keele criminologists hosted the first national conference on the voluntary sector role in criminal justice on September 16th - 17th. The 'Voluntary Sector in Criminal Justice: Prospects for Citizenship' conference attracted delegates from the academic and voluntary sectors, prison and probation services, and government to discuss the impact of cross-sectoral partnership work with offenders and victims. The keynote speakers were David Faulkner (Oxford University), Frances Flaxington (Ministry of Justice), Clive Martin (Clinks), Stephen Pryor (CAB) and Juliet Lyon (Prison Reform Trust).
The event was organised by Dr. Mary Corcoran, Professor Susanne Karstedt, and PhD students Michelle Jaffe and Clare Jones, who are all members of the Keele Voluntary Sector Research Group. This is the second successful public event held by the group, following their regional symposium in June 2007.

For more information about the conference or the group's activities generally, email or visit

Monday, 22 September 2008

Criminology and Sociology Society

We are reviving the student societies for Sociology and Criminology, but this year we will be combining them (strength in numbers)... Sociology and Criminology societies in the past have: put on parties, balls and other social events; organised field trips and visits to subject-relevant local and national organisations; organised debates; invited visiting speakers to Keele and publicised visiting speakers organised by staff; set up resources for other students to use such as book exchanges. You're not limited to these activities either!

Andy Zieleniec (Lecturer in Sociology - ) will be supporting the development of the society and two sociology students have agreed to kick things off in Freshers' Week. Please contact Andy (email Andy), Sinead Carrol or Amy Jones for information about joining SocCrimSoc, or CrimSocSoc or whatever you will be calling it!

If you haven't been a member of a student society before, you might want to visit the Keele University Students' Union pages, including the page on Societies. Basically you need to sign up a certain number of members, establish a group to run things and then you will get some support from the Students' Union such as a bit of cash to get started and get leaflets printed etc... If you want more information, you can access the Keele Societies' handbook here

Friday, 19 September 2008

Sex is everywhere but knowledge is limited: an analogy for society?

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I sat down in front of the TV in mixed company (two teenagers of either gender) and watched Channel 4’s latest public service contribution to the nation – The Sex Education Show (Tuesdays 8pm) hosted by Anna Robinson .

It cannot have escaped many peoples attention that when it comes to sex we have a problem. Actually, when you think about it we have a lot of problems. Of course, I am not speaking about myself. Yeah right – that’s what everybody says, at least when we are willing to talk about it all. When we do what we find is a huge amount of misinformation, ignorance and downright stupidity.

Sex is everywhere: on TV, papers and magazines, books, music videos, advertisements and of course the internet. Without looking for it we are confronted with full-frontal nudity and with what appears like an endless stream of advice on how much we should be having, how to do it, with whom: what’s in and what’s out so to speak. And yet, when it comes to sex and the consequences of sex, Britain has some serious problems.

The evidence is stark.

We have the worst ever rate of sexually transmitted infections among young people. Almost 400,000 Britons were diagnosed with diseases from Chlamydia to gonorrhea last year - the highest number since current records began three decades ago. Overall, around half of the infections were in under-25s, despite this age group accounting for only one- eighth of the population.

In 2007, 397,990 sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) were diagnosed in those who had previously been free of infection. This compares to 375,843 in 2006 a six per cent increase and represents the eleventh year in a row that STIs have risen year-on-year.

  • Genital herpes saw a 20 per cent rise.
  • Rates of Chlamydia and genital warts increased by seven per cent.
  • The 16 to 24 age group accounted for 65 per cent of Chlamydia cases, 55 per cent of genital warts and 50 per cent of gonorrhea infections.
  • Almost 75 per cent of cases of Chlamydia and gonorrhea in women occurred among those aged between 16 and 24.


Professor Peter Borriello, the director of the Health Protection Agency (HPA) centre for infections, blamed the rise among young people on the prevalence of unsafe sex: "It's increasingly the case that among young people a casual shag is part of the territory, it's part of life," he said. "Increasingly a shag now stands for syphilis, herpes, anal warts and gonorrhoea."

It’s not just STIs. Britain also has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. As the Department of Health’s published statistics make clear our knowledge and use of contraception both to prevent pregnancy and protect against STIs is sadly lacking despite promotion and education campaigns.

image from:

In 2006, for women resident in England and Wales:
  • the total number of abortions was 193,700, compared with 186,400 in 2005, a rise of 3.9%
  • the abortion rate was highest at 35 per 1,000, for women age 19.
  • the under-16 abortion rate was 3.9 and the under-18 rate was 18.2 per 1,000 women, both higher than in 2005


But it's not just a youth problem: STIs have doubled in the over 45s in less than a decade. So far I haven’t even mentioned AIDS and HIV for which, despite large scale publicity campaigns is on the rise in both heterosexual and homosexuals or the panic of pornography and paedophilia, all of which relates to our ideas and practices concerning sex.

We could, as some attempt to do, put the blame on the rise of the permissive society, on the decline in religious morals, or the lack of parental responsibility, or the inherent hedonism of a rampant individualism that is not only undermining traditional values but is threatening the health of a generation.

This, however, doesn’t get us very far. It is looking at the causes instead of looking for solutions (see the storm of protest over suggestions that appropriate sex education should begin for children as young as four). What all of this suggests in addition to the fact that despite sex being seemingly everywhere and advice and help on contraception, safe sex, and relationships being available in some form for most, we are incredibly ignorant of the potential consequences of sex as well as how to engage in it safely.

It strikes me that there is a corollary here with society.

We are bombarded with references to society: the idea of society doing this, or that or being at fault, or guilty of this or that, or being responsible or under threat or there even that there is no such as society. But, what do we mean by society? There is a commonsense understanding and usage of what society is and what it is for, mostly as some amorphous yet all-encompassing ‘thing’ that hovers over us and has enormous power to influence or affect our lives.
However, there is often a lot of ignorance as to what exactly society means as a concept as well as its origins in a complex of historical, social, political, economic, cultural and geographic factors.

The history of sociological theory is littered with attempts to define society. Marx, Durkheim, Simmel and Weber all had very different conceptions of what society was that underpinned their sociological approaches (see Frisby and Sayer’s 1986 short introductory book on the subject). We also have numerous and varied definitions and descriptions of for example, The Affluent Society (Galbraith); Risk Society (Beck and Giddens), Disciplinary Society (Foucault), The Surveillance Society (Lyon), Post-Industrial Society (Kumar), Global or Network Society (Castells), etc. etc.

In both cases, in sex and in sociology, what is needed is more of an emphasis on education and understanding of contexts and concepts as well as experience. That is, to put more time and effort into explaining and facilitating knowledge and understanding of what are two key areas of our lives – being intimate with others and living socially with others. That is, to find out and learn how we can and should interact and be with each other in safe, mutually respectful and productive ways.

This is perhaps as true for private sexual relations as it is for public social relations, the stuff of sociology.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Credit Crunch or the End of the Capitalist Utopia

By Dr Mark Featherstone

We are currently living through the worst economic crisis the world has seen since the early 1930s. In response to this situation the famous American economist Joseph Stiglitz recently declared the ‘end of neo-liberal capitalism’. Stiglitz explained that the current crisis, signaled by the bursting of the ‘credit bubble’ which has sustained more or less continuous economic growth since the mid 1990s, was a sign of the collapse of the validity of the neo-liberal theory supported by Gordon Brown and George Bush and before them Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

But what is the significance of the current economic situation for sociologists? What the current economic crisis signals is the end of the idea of endless credit. Over the course of the last ten years we have come to believe that it is normal to ‘buy now, pay later’. But this worldview, encapsulated by the idea of instant enjoyment or what we might call ‘climax culture’, is no longer viable today. The neo-liberal utopia, where we can have whatever we want, even if we have no money to pay for it, is finished. As such, we are currently living through the end of an ideology, the end of a utopian idea which has sustained our lives for the last decade.

But what is, or rather was, neo-liberalism? Unlike liberal theory, which championed individual freedom from excessive social constraint, neo-liberal ideology focused the idea of freedom upon freedom from economic constraint. In other words, neo-liberalism wanted us to be free to make as much money as possible or alternatively fall into absolute poverty. This idea was then related to consumer culture, the idea that personal happiness is found in the consumption of things, and the struggle to make more and more money in order to buy more and more things.

If the pursuit of the utopia of capitalism, characterised by consumer happiness, provided the pull factor to encourage people to try to make it big under capitalism, the possibility of the fall into total poverty, the threat of becoming a resident of the dystopia of the same market society, provided a very urgent push factor. Thus neo-liberal society, realised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and augmented by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George Bush, and Gordon Brown in the 1990s and early 21st century, was characterised by voracious desire, enormous excess, complete precariousness, and a heightened state of fear.

These conditions, desire, excess, precariousness, and fear, which have more or less characterised society since the early 1980s, were largely caused by the neo-liberal refusal to interfere with the economy on the basis of the idea that politics could never really manage economics effectively. The idea that the market should govern itself can be dated back to the 18th century founder of economics, Adam Smith, and the later American economist Milton Friedman, who argued that economic crises were normal and that squeamish politicians should not interfere with the market even when economic fluctuations begin to hurt normal people, because eventually the market will stabilise itself and find a new equilibrium.

Smith’s idea were extremely popular until the early 20th century when the Wall Street Crash and the related rise of Nazism in Germany led most political and social commentators to reach the conclusion that some kind of economic management was necessary to maintain social order and ensure that radical political groups did not come to power on the back of economic crises. Following World War II the idea of the social state dominated Western Society. Although Eastern Europe was controlled by so-called Communists, the capitalism of the west was no longer totally untamed. Instead, it was controlled by the state in order to ensure some sense of social security.

By the late 1970s the Anglo-American elites threw out the idea of the social state in favour of a new idea of pure capitalism on the basis that the working classes held too much power and had begun to interfere with productivity and profit in the major capitalist countries. Thus Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan destroyed the union movements in Britain and America and started to champion the idea of unfettered individualism. The idea of self realisation became the new secular religion of capitalist society. People no longer thought about how they could improve society, but rather spent time trying to achieve personal happiness through consumerism.

The problem with this idea was, of course, that the pursuit of happiness through consumption requires money and not many people had an endless pot of money to pursue personal happiness, which is by definition not something that we can ever really achieve. Hence we witnessed the emergence of the credit society, premised on the idea that we can ‘buy now, pay later’, and the fantasy of endless enjoyment, which was sustained by the fact that nobody worried about the harsh reality of scarcity or the unpopular truth that there is simply not enough money or resource for everybody to consume endlessly.

The convenient by-product of this situation for everybody was that more consumption meant more production which meant more consumption and so on ad nauseam. Hence, we found ourselves locked into a cycle of apparently endless economic growth and began to forget about the essential problem with this situation: the entire edifice was premised on credit that we could only manage if prices were kept artificially low by political interference and we never had to confront the truth of scarcity.

Unfortunately, it is this situation, the harsh truth of scarcity, that confronts us today. The fantasy of endless credit, debt which could be endlessly deferred into some fictional future when we would have to make our repayments, has collapsed before the truth that we do not actually possess the monetary resources our consumption habits require. In other words, the truth that most of us have been living beyond our means for many years has been cruelly exposed by the realisation of scarce raw materials on the global market.

That this situation was, in many respects, fated by planned de-industrialisation in the 1980s, which meant that western nations had to import cheap fuels that have since become extremely expensive, simply confirms that the utopianism of the credit society, built on the belief that we would never have to repay our debts, was supported by another utopian belief, the idea that the world’s raw materials would never become expensive scarce commodities. This fantasy of abundance has been similarly exposed by the contemporary credit crunch.

On an everyday level, what this means is that the enormous rise in the price of food and fuel has caused people who were largely ‘living in credit’ to find themselves unable to keep up their repayments. Thus the credit society has begun to collapse before the truth of scarce raw materials. Consequently, as our ability to manage our credit has collapsed, so lenders have begun to tighten their own belts, consumption has started to fail, with the knock-on effect that the entire economic cycle of western society has begun to stall. But where will this end? What the failure of the credit system is likely to produce, beyond the economic shock waves caused by the fundamental inter-relatedness of the world finance system and a renewed trend towards monopoly capitalism, is even more urgency on the part of nation states to posses the scarce raw materials that form the bedrock of economic value.

We have seen the first example of a major ‘resource war’ in Iraq. I think this trend towards what Karl Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’, that is the attempt to obtain scarce raw materials through violence, is likely to continue over the course of the next fifty years. Given this turn to imperialism, brutalist politics is also likely to become more and more popular with the masses, who are likely to turn on the other, the stranger, in response to their dire economic situation, simply because it is easier to understand economic pain in terms of fantasies about strangers stealing our jobs than it is to fathom the complexities of the world economic system.

We have, of course, seen many examples of the turn to xenophobia in response to economic crises, but reference to the economic situation of early 1930s Europe which perhaps best parallels our current predicament, provides a truly horrifying comparison. We know that the economic crisis of the 1930s eventually led to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. We must be aware of the parallel between the 1930s and the contemporary economic crisis today.

It may well be the case, as Joseph Stiglitz suggests, that neo-liberalism and the capitalist utopia is dead, but we really have to keep an eye on the kind of political form that steps into the breach. This is surely why sociology is today more important than ever before. What is sociology if it is not the form of knowledge which enables us to connect our private fears to public understandings in order that we might avoid repeating the terrible mistakes of the past?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Good turns to excellent: National Student Survey results for Sociology

The National Student Survey results for 2007-8 have just been published and in just about every category, Sociology at Keele has shown a significant improvement. In some areas, scores have improved by 5 or 10%.

These excellent improvements for Sociology contributed to the overall 3% percentage increase in student satisfaction with Keele University as a whole. Students graduating from Keele show a satisfaction rate of 88%, considerably better than the national average.

Lecturers in Sociology are delighted that students agree strongly that staff are very enthusiastic about teaching, an excellent outcome for a research active group.

Programme Director for Sociology, Mark Featherstone said: “We’re delighted with the improvement in levels of student satisfaction. This is the outcome of lots of hard work by staff to listen to students. We are also reaping the benefits of investment in staff in Sociology over the last couple of years, which means that students get more time being taught and advised. For example, students now get more tutorial time in the first year than they did a few years back, and turnaround times for essays are getting quicker. We have also implemented improved personal tutoring systems so that students know who to turn to if they have a problem.”

Monday, 15 September 2008

Hands up who's a better than average driver?

By Dr Helen Wells

The President of the Police Superintendent’s Association Ian Johnston will next week talk to his Association’s conference about how the public’s confidence in the police is “dented and bruised” . One policy which will be receiving his attention is the use of speed cameras, which he suggests are one of the causes of this decline in public confidence. He will note that more needs to be done to convince the motoring public that using speed cameras to catch speeding drivers is “a legitimate and fair activity”. But why does a technology which, we are constantly told, is helping to save hundreds of lives a year on our roads need to be justified, and why does the public continue to resist the message that they are a legitimate road safety tool?

Whenever I think about these questions I come back to the statistic that 80% of drivers think that they are better than average. What this means out on the roads is that we are unlikely to respond well to measures that are introduced to limit the amount of danger that ‘average’ drivers cause in a specific set of circumstances. Unfortunately for the government, police and the variously-titled Safety Camera/Road Safety/Casualty Reduction Partnerships that operate speed cameras, the speed limit is one such manifestation of the average – set at a level at which it is believed the average motorist will be causing a risk, based on average levels of traffic flow, in average weather conditions, with average amounts of pedestrians around. As such, the majority of above-average drivers are likely to consider themselves unfairly restricted by limits that are applicable to drivers with what they consider to be inferior skills to their own. They are also, of course, going to consider themselves unfairly punished when they engage in behaviour that would be risky if other people were doing it, but they feel is perfectly safe for themselves.

Viewing things from this perspective may also help explain the government’s often-quoted statistic that between 70 and 90% of drivers ‘support the use of speed cameras as a road safety tool’. Perhaps, logically, we are accepting of interventions that promise to protect us from the inferior driving of others, while hostile to those which seem to punish us for engaging in behaviour that we believe to be safe. After all, receiving a Notice of Intended Prosecution through your letter box a couple of weeks after you engaged in the punishable act is testament to the fact that you got home safely and hence that your behaviour didn’t hurt anyone. Punishing people for behaviour that causes risk – not necessarily harm – is perhaps always going to appear a little unnecessary, regardless of any legitimate deterrent effect it may have.

If most drivers do, indeed, consider themselves to be less risky than those they share the road with, then speed camera enforcement can be viewed as not just illegitimate, but as a risk in itself. Drivers who, for various reasons, consider their driving licence to be essential to their day to day functioning may well feel that the ‘real’ risk being posed on the roads is not caused by their driving at 34 mph in a 30 mph zone, but in the potential revocation of their licence as a result of four speeding convictions. The camera can then be viewed as a source of risk, not a source of protection from it, and become fair-game for a variety of increasingly popular ‘personal crime prevention’ measures, ranging from radar detectors, to false number plates to direct vandalism of cameras – all of which protect the ‘victimised’ driver from the risks of punishment.

A professional driver once told me that there are three things that people hate being told they are bad at – parenting, driving and sex. Ian Johnston’s task, however, may be to convince drivers that they are not actually as good as they think they are. If he wants to improve the image of the police in the eyes of the public, this might not be a good place to start.

Read more about the unintended consequences of speed cameras in Helen Wells' research article in the Internet Journal of Criminology.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Big Bang Day or The End of the World as we Know It

By Mark Featherstone

[You can read a longer version of this post on our Sociology Research Blog: ]

Sometime on Wednesday 10th September Scientists at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, will turn on the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) or ‘God Machine’ in an attempt to re-create the conditions of the big bang which originally gave birth to the universe. The LHC, dubbed the ‘God Machine’, is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Constructed under the Earth’s surface near the French-Swiss border, the objective of the LHC is to fire particles around its 17-mile circumference 11,000 times every second before smashing them together to simulate the conditions at the moment of the birth of the universe. According to CERN scientists the colliding particles will produce temperatures 100,000 hotter than the sun and enable them to observe the production of the famous Higgs-Boson particle which, in theoretical terms at least, gives all other particles their mass or weight. Thus CERN scientists believe that they will be able to observe the very production of mass or, in philosophical terms, the emergence of something from nothing through conditions generated by the ‘God Machine’.

The history of modern culture is characterised by critiques of supposed scientific attempts to play God. In this respect the invention of the LHC is no different. Less than ten days before the proposed turn-on date for the ‘God Machine’, critics from the scientific community, led by German Chemist Otto Rossler, launched a legal bid against CERN in the European Court of Human Rights. Rossler’s claim was that the attempt to replicate the conditions of the big bang could inadvertently produce microscopic black holes which could subsequently grow uncontrollably until they swallowed the entire planet and everybody on it. CERN’s position, which was that theoretical evidence suggests that any microscopic black holes produced by the ‘God Machine’, would immediately collapse in on themselves long before they could have macroscopic effects, was upheld by EU scientists. As a result the clock is ticking. According to critics of the ‘God Machine’ if we are not swallowed by a black hole, we will suffer through the production of ‘strangelets’, a ‘vacuum bubble’, or a variety of other totally theoretical un-intended consequences.

Given that I am not a theoretical physicist, I am in no position to comment on the relative value of Rossler’s apocalyptic view, which seems to have been dismissed by the scientific community, but there is more to the ‘God Machine’ than its scientific significance. For sociologists and cultural critics what is significant about the LHC, and the various responses to its creation, which range from quasi-theological claims about unlocking the secrets of creation itself to apocalyptic fears about the collapse of the planet into a man-made black hole, is that it has captured the public imagination in ways that the theoretical science which underpins its construction never could. What is this wider cultural significance?

In the first instance the LHC’s promise to unlock the secrets of the origins of the universe touches humanity’s primal need to understand the conditions of its own existence. Long before the Ancient Greeks first began to develop theoretical physics, prehistoric people had contemplated the stars and imagined their own origins. Before science became the dominant mode of thought, the form of knowledge which we turn to in order to understand our own existence, people thought about the world through religion. In much the same way that the ideas of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein failed to unseat religion, it is unlikely that the ‘God Machine’, which may uncover the origins of the universe and eventually explain how nothing suddenly became something, will ever stop people believing in their various Gods, simply because what it will never be able to uncover, or provide, is the human ‘meaning’ of the universe. No matter what the ‘God Machine’ enables scientists to say, it will never allow them to tell us why life matters.

Perhaps one day in the near future, the ‘God Machine’ may allow scientists to explain how nothing became something, and thus solve one of the most vexing problems in the history of philosophy, but they will never be able to answer the more trouble question that haunts the only self-conscious animal on the planet. Given that there is something, rather than nothing, what is the significance of existence? Why does ‘the something’ matter? If, as modern philosophers have long suspected, there is no meaning in existence, how should we live? How can we live in a meaningless universe? The beauty of the religious answer to this question of existence was, of course, that it was insoluble, in that nobody could prove the existence of God one way or the other, and that the more or less likely existence of what philosopher’s call a prime mover meant that somebody or something had cared enough to invent people in the first place. What would it mean if we were to discover that the universe was truly self-generating and that explanations about origins do not require a prime mover?