Friday, 24 June 2011

School of Sociology and Criminology moves up in all three major league tables

The Times Good University guide, released on June 23rd 2011, has confirmed the place of the School of Sociology and Criminology at Keele University as a rising star.  The Times guide showed the Sociology subject area at 26th, moving two places closer to a Top 20 rating.  As there are nearly 90 Sociology departments across the UK, this improvement to an already impressive rating is welcome news.  In the two other key league tables, Sociology showed some dramatic improvements, moving nine places to 21st in the Complete University Guide and moving seventeen places to 20th in the Guardian University Guide.  Meanwhile Criminology (listed in the tables under the ‘Social Policy’ heading) confirmed its place as a Top 20 subject scoring 16th in the Times, 14th in the Guardian and 20th in the Complete University Guide.

Dr Bill Dixon, Head of the School of Sociology and Criminology said: “We are delighted that our teaching and research excellence is showing through.  Staff in our School are committed to providing a high-quality and well-supported learning experience for our students”.  This commitment shows through in student feedback: the national student survey rates Keele overall 11th in the country for student satisfaction and ten members of the staff (half of the teaching team) in the School of Sociology and Criminology were nominated this year for Teaching Excellence awards with Dr Dixon himself receiving an award.

While providing excellent teaching and student support is a priority, the School of Sociology and Criminology also achieved a number of key successes for students and staff in community and workplace engagement.  A student from our School again won the prestigious Neil and Gina Smith Student of the Year award for 2010-11.  Amy Chapman, a local mature student who came to Keele from an Access to HE course at South Cheshire College, won this award for her academic excellence while playing an active role locally improving opportunities and aspirations for other young people.  Two out of the three runners up in this year’s award – Dani Hughes and Danielle Bremner - are also from our School. Amy is the third winner from our School in only six years that the award has been running.  Sociology and Criminology student Matt Bedding managed to get elected as Student Union Vice-President for Welfare while continuing his work with Nightline for which he received a national lifetime award.  All of these students will graduate with first class honours.

The School also successfully launched its new Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice, which is taught in blocks to allow professionals to study while maintaining their employment, and a new module ‘Working for Justice’ which enables undergraduate students to find out more about the Criminal Justice field from professionals.  A further scheme with work experience opportunities is in development for both Sociology and Criminology students, following the award of a Teaching Innovation grant for employer engagement to Dr Rebecca Leach.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ghost Town Beijing

By Dr Mark Featherstone

Following a presentation on urban utopianism and dystopianism in Beijing last night, I was surprised to find myself in an indie bar playing late 1970s-early 1980s British punk-new wave music. The surreal effect of listening to music by The Undertones, Buzzcocks, and Vapours that I grew up with in late 1970s Hull in the middle of Beijing was cemented when The Specials’ anthem to Thatcherite urban decay, Ghost Town, began to play. Visiting the bar, I was even more surprised to see the video for the record running on a large screen on the wall, and I could not help but remember seeing images of Terry Hall et al packed into a car for the first time on TV in 1981. While many of the other records I heard last night reminded me of growing up in the 1980s, what was different about Ghost Town was that it said everything to me about my experience of the social condition of Hull and the decay and decline of the city in a kind of urban gothic that I found simultaneously depressing and frightening, but also exciting because of the sense of possibility I found in the ruins of a society slipping away into history.

Ghost Town is thirty years old this year, having been released in 1981, the year of widespread riots across the UK, but I cannot help but feel that is has renewed relevance to British society today. The destruction of industrial Britain which took place under the Thatcher governments in the 1980s and produced the kind of urban gothic so brilliantly captured by The Specials is today being repeated at a more advanced level by the coalition government which is similarly in the process of wasting large parts of the country which are heavily reliant on the public sector for employment. It is ironic that I heard Ghost Town for the first time in many years in Beijing because the Chinese capital would initially appear to be about as far away from a ghost town as it is possible to imagine. Contrary to English cities such as Hull and Stoke-on-Trent, which are haunted by ghosts that have never been laid to rest, Beijing recalls the sci-fi urban imaginary from Blade Runner, and seems completely devoid of history. Whereas it would seem appropriate to understand places such as Hull through Ghost Town, if you need to understand Beijing I would suggest looking to French post-modern theorists, such as Paul Virilio, and other contemporary urban thinkers, such as Mike Davis, for guidance.

However, first impressions are not always correct and there is a sense in which perhaps post-modern Beijing is also haunted by its own particular ghosts and possessed by a kind of melancholia related to the destruction of the old city and gradual decline of traditional life, as documented in classic books such as Beijing Record. Perhaps, then, Beijing is also a kind of post-modern ghost town and in some ways this has been confirmed by my impressions of the place. Apart from my alienation from the architecture of Chinese power, my overwhelming feeling about Beijing is that it represents a hyper-divided society inhabited by a kind of ultra-poor who live in urban villages, strange slum spaces constructed on the basis of some rural imaginary of feudal China, and a post-modern super-rich, who live in upscale apartments in the Central Business District and enjoy wealth and opportunity similar to the super-rich in other global cities, London, New York, and Tokyo.

As a Marxist sociologist, speaking to Chinese academics about urban division has been a strange experience, primarily because the standard western notion that what is required to tame the worst excesses of capitalism is leftism and socialism makes no sense in a society where the Communist party is in league with business and drives the destruction of community. Unfortunately, my response to my Chinese colleagues who have celebrated the freedoms of the west, and talked positively about rightism, is that neo-liberalism with personal freedom is really little better than neo-liberalism with Chinese characteristics because both are essentially anti-democratic and controlled by elite business interests set on the money making policy of creative destruction which produces the kind of ghost towns The Specials sang about in the early 1980s. As you can imagine, the result of my response led us towards a kind of impasse, and we had to try to imagine a new way forward beyond traditional leftism and liberalism, since both of these approaches seem today to be totally under the thumb of business. Although we did not reach any conclusions, beyond ideas about progressive taxation and incorruptible politicians, we agreed that the importance of imagining a new kind of utopian politics today that transcends divisions between left and right, and centrally is willing and able to control business.

If my work in Beijing has taught me anything, apart from the fact that the Chinese have good taste in late 1970s-early 1980s punk / new wave music, it is that the task of contemporary sociology has to be to find this utopian anti-economic middle way between left and right. Unfortunately, this task may have been made more difficult by the idea of the third way, which was essentially neo-liberalism with a human face, but I think that the size of the challenge means that we must try to rethink solutions of social inequality on a macro scale which does not involve becoming servants of a state which has already made all of the important political decisions and simply wants sociologists to produce raw data. If we are not willing do this I think we can forget about resolving the problems of the ghost town and should instead simply accept the teenage kicks of the consumer society, when and where we can get them.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Making a difference: Amy Chapman, Neil & Gina Smith Student of the Year 2011

The School of Sociology and Criminology are delighted to see the 2011 Neil & Gina Smith Student of the Year Award go to Amy Chapman, a Criminology Major in our School. Amy was a mature entrant via an Access course and the first in her family (from Crewe) to attend university.  As well as achieving academic excellence while supporting herself financially throughout her studies, she has played an important role in 'making a difference' to the lives of other local young people.  The Student of the Year award is given in recognition of outstanding academic achievement alongside outstanding commitment to public service, citizenship and/or overcoming hardship.  Students from our School - Danielle Hughes (Criminology) and Danielle Bremner (Sociology) were also two out of the three runners' up for this award.  Congratulations to all of you.

We are particularly pleased because Amy is the THIRD annual winner from our School in the six years that the award has been running.  Previous winners from our School are Rachel Cason (nee Wiggett) and the first winner Heather Phillips.  A prize of £5000 is made and both our previous winners have made good use of the fund to continue their studies at Keele.

Alongside Matt Bedding's national award this year for his work with Keele Nightline, it is clearer than ever that our students are graduating ready to put their studies in Sociology and Criminology to good use in 'making a difference' in society.  And we also know that for every exceptional individual who receives the awards and plaudits, there are many more of you who are working away at your studies while seeking to make things better in your communities, or those of people less fortunate.  This makes us very happy, because it is often one of the key reasons people study our subjects: that you are enabled to put this into practice while studying with us is a testament to your commitment and to the relevance of the teaching programmes in Sociology and Criminology at Keele.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Ray Pahl - RIP

We were saddened to hear of the death of Ray Pahl last week, just a few days after he donated his papers to the Keele University library, as an extension to the Foundations of Sociology archive.  Ray was - among many other roles - an honorary Visiting Professor in Sociology at Keele in the last few years of his life and he worked with a number of Keele staff (in particular Graham Allan and Chris Phillipson) as well as taking an active interest in the work of Keele's staff and students.  We were very pleased that he chose to leave his papers in the archives here, which will give future scholars at Keele and beyond the opportunity to explore further the enormous legacy he left to British sociology.  I am sure there will be many obituaries and plaudits for his life, his work and his contribution to communities across Britain, but for now, we'd just like to note a gentle 'thanks' for his engagement with us.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Two Months In

By Adam Snow, PhD Candidate at Keele

So here I am two months into a 3 year PhD and already the to-do list is piling up!  I started my PhD in April, I’m undertaking a funded study into “on the spot” fines and the future of the magistracy.  Fixed penalty notices are now the primary way in which most “crimes” are dealt with, accounting for over half of all punishments given out by the state.  They are the primary way in which “ordinary” people come into contact with the justice system, either as drivers, receiving FPNs, or social drinkers receiving PND’s (Penalty Notices Disorder).   My study aims to examine both the debates about the use of on the spot fines and the theories underpinning their use.

By now I had planned to have it all worked out, the reading planned out and a very definite direction.  I was so excited when I started that I thought 3 years, pah! I’ll get this done in 12 months no problem.  And then the books and articles started piling up and you realise just how much work is involved, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is literally a book for every idea that has ever been.

You start off with a very definite idea of where you want the study to go; you have completed your masterful research proposal.  Surely it’s just a matter of following this to its conclusion.  And then you begin reading.  That’s when it starts to kick in how naive your research proposal is.  You start off thinking that this study is going to shake the very foundations of knowledge, then soon start to fear that (within about a week) you’ll be lucky if anyone but your supervisor and external examiners will want to read it!

Having worked for years prior to starting my PhD was a blessing; I am used to the early mornings and work day monotony, following the Dolly Parton day 9-5.  It wasn’t like this as an undergraduate: I had friends, we had fun; now I have books and concepts to keep me entertained!  Only 34 months to go...

One question that I keep bugging the other PhD candidates with is when does the study start to take shape, when do you really know what you are doing?  A third year candidate told me to give them a ring if I ever find out because they haven’t found an answer yet.

Having said all that I would still choose a PhD over work every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.  The freedom to determine what you do on a day to day basis is a precious liberty and one that will not be afforded to you at work!

I still count my blessings every day that I obtained this position, Keele is a wonderful place to work and study and the people are incredibly friendly.  The best tip I can give, with all my 2 months of experience, is to get a good supervisor! (I have) It makes all the difference.  I remember a friend of mine telling me how when she was training to become a surgeon her supervisor would boast how he was unhappy if he did not make his students cry at least once a day.  Luckily Dr Wells, my supervisor, doesn’t subscribe to this mantra. Well, not yet anyway.

Anyway it’s time to get back to work: there are books to read!  I’ll keep you posted throughout my study as to how things are developing.

Adam’s project is partly funded by the Magistrates’ Association, and is linked to their ongoing seminar series ‘The Magistracy in the 21st Century’. It is being supervised by Dr Helen Wells, Professor Barry Godfrey and Dr Mary Corcoran. If you are interested in Adam’s project or his experiences as a new PhD student at Keele, you can contact him at  He is looking for volunteers to take part in focus groups or interviews later in the study, so if you have ever received “on the spot” fine he would love to hear about your experience.