Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Who’s driving roads policing?

By Helen Wells, Lecturer in Criminology

Towards the end of last week, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Norfolk, Stephen Bett drew critical attention for suggesting that, in some circumstances, speed limits in his county should be abolished and (skilled) drivers be allowed to “go flat out”. The Chief Constable of Norfolk constabulary, Phil Gormley, does not appear to have commented on the statement but it is reasonable to assume that, as former ACPO lead on roads policing, he would not approve. The week before, both PCC and CC had been more in tune when commenting on the case of the Norfolk WPC who was claiming damages against a theft victim who she had been injured whilst assisting. Why, then, should the issue of speeding, within the context of roads policing more generally, be the source of disagreement between two figureheads of the new accountability structure operating in British policing?

Roads policing has been described as “the public face of the police for many citizens” (Corbett, 2008) and is the most likely unsolicited encounter between a police officer and a member of the public. As a specialised policing area it has undergone significant retrenchment and change in recent years, and its relationship with the general public is complex. Since the first days of motor car use, the police have been accused of unfairly targeting the ‘law-abiding’ and ‘the respectable’ who are more used to encountering the police as a service (summoned when required) than they are as potential targets for enforcement action. Roads policing has always thrust the police into potentially negative encounters with people who, for whatever reason, do not feel that they are the proper target of police activity.

So how does this relate to the issue of Mr Bett and his comments about the (non-) enforcement of road traffic law? The specific issue of speeding is a vexed one, and I have written at length about it elsewhere, but what does the fact that one of the characters in this story is a relatively newly elected PCC tell us about police accountability, decision making and priority-setting in these new times?

Elected Police and Crime Commissioners will be increasingly concerned with policing that reflects what they see as public priorities, and the vast majority did not campaign around, or even mention, roads policing in their campaigns. Of a total of 1900 priority issues raised by prospective PCCs in their election material, only 18 references were made to roads policing. Five of these were ambiguously noted in the research as being references to speed cameras (it is not possible to establish whether these were ‘for’ or ‘against’), while two were openly opposed to the ‘persecution of the motorist’.

Unlike issues such as community engagement (1908 mentions), addressing the needs of victims (115 mentions) or ‘keeping bobbies on the beat’ (113 mentions), roads policing has a somewhat ambiguous status with the general public that are at once its target for enforcement, the victims it is trying to protect and, in Mr Bett’s case, the electorate. Unlike the ‘real crime’ issues mentioned frequently by PCC candidates, where there is little question of public support for action against these ‘real’ criminals, Mr Bett may have been reflecting the ambiguous position of the general public in relation to road traffic laws when making his comments. He is unlikely to have been thinking about the views of burglars when making his statement, but he may well have been thinking as both a driver himself and as a representative of drivers with votes.

It remains to be seen how prominently roads policing will feature in the Police and Crime Plans that are emerging nationally, but, meanwhile, Chief Constables remain responsible for addressing recent increases in road death and injury despite shrinking budgets and reduced officer numbers. Hence roads policing is facing both de-prioritisation and re-politicisation, and incidents like that involving Stephen Bett may be symptomatic of the problems of reconciling an (at times) unpopular policing necessity with democratic accountability, in a context where that general public is (uniquely) constructed as, at once, potential offender, potential victim and potential voter.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

New publication - ‘Being-in-Hull, Being-on-Bransholme: Socio-economic decline, regeneration and working-class experience on a peri-urban council estate.’

A new paper by Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, has been published in City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. The abstract for the paper follows and more details can be accessed here.

Featherstone, M. (2013) ‘‘Being-in-Hull, Being-on-Bransholme: Socio-economic decline, regeneration and working-class experience on a peri-urban council estate’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action.
The objective of this paper is to investigate the sociological and existential situation of the inhabitants of Bransholme, a peri-urban council estate on the northern edge of Hull, in the context of the current economic downturn and contemporary regeneration discourses. In ‘reading’ life on the estate against economic decline and regeneration practices, I aim to show why the latter cannot really succeed because they are premised on (a) a failure to understand the situation of the socially excluded and (b) injustices and inequalities hard-wired into the very form of late capitalism itself. In light of this thesis, my claim is that only large-scale changes to the neo-liberal socio-economic system will save Hull, and as a consequence, the people of Bransholme, because only this will oppose the ‘winner takes all’, exclusive neo-liberal politics Meagher discusses in her 2009 work on ‘urbs sacra’ and ‘rurban America’ and offer hope for some kind of spatial justice. In order to reach this conclusion, I divide my paper into three sections. First, I explore recession, decline, dislocation and the socio-economic condition of the city. Second, I consider regeneration as discourse and offer some theoretical considerations towards the development of what I call ‘the language game of post-Thatcherite hyper-rational utopianism’ which constructs the de-industrialised city as a business to be saved through the advance of market principles. Finally, I turn to thinking about life on the estate through reference to my own ethnographic observations in order to suggest that the condition of the excluded is not somehow a natural state, but rather an effect of their immersion in a temporal and spatial environment, which has been destroyed by market forces premised on the objectivity of processes such as creative destruction. Thus, I explore ‘Being-in-Hull’ and ‘Being-on-Bransholme’ in terms of notions of territoriality, marginality and what I call ‘the culture of despair’ in contemporary working-class life.

Monday, 22 April 2013

What is the purpose of early years childcare?

By Emma Head, Lecturer in Sociology

The views of Elizabeth Truss (Minister for Education and Childcare) on early years childcare, were in the news again today. The Daily Mail is running an interview with Truss where she laments the manners of children in nurseries and talks regretfully about the fact that children in some nurseries appear to spend their days ‘running around with no sense of purpose’. In the interview, Truss also compares British nurseries unfavorably with their French counterparts.  This interview picks up on some of the plans for childcare that were published earlier this year in a document titled 'More great childcare'.  

Truss' comments on childcare settings are interesting as they echo some of the criticisms that social researchers have made about the way that children tend to be understood in government policy.  I also think that her comments should raise some points of concerns for anyone interested in early years setting and the well-being of children who are cared for in them.  Truss' remarks that children run around with ‘no purpose’ hints at an understanding of childhood that comes from an adult looking down on children; rather than seeking to understand how young children experience the world. A quick example of this – I recently arrived early to pick up my three year old from nursery. Through the door, I saw him charging around the nursery, wearing a witch's hat and cloak.  For Truss, this might be a good example of free flow play with no purpose; a childcare worker (or his mum), might think he was engaging in an imaginative game; getting some exercise, and being part of a friendship group. For my son, I guess it would be understood as something fun to do.

Truss’s vision of childcare services then, seems to chime with what sociologists of childhood would understand as an emphasis on children as ‘becomings’. In government policy there is a tendency to focus on childhood and children’s services as a place to solve the social and economic problems of wider society. So, we think about childcare settings in terms of their future outcomes, rather than thinking about young children as important in their own right. The problem with this focus on children as adults-in-waiting, is that it ignores what kinds of services are best for them as small children. It also helps to obscure the wider problems with childcare in Britain, which are about the lack of state investment in nursery buildings and facilities; and how expensive childcare is for parents in Britain. Indeed, Truss has personal experience of some of this; in another interview she talks about her own difficulties in finding a full-time nursery place in London and instead opting for a nanny.

Truss’ wider plans for childcare are about increasing the ratios of children to carers; of providing tax breaks to couples in paid work, and a concern with improving the formal qualifications of childcare workers. It is difficult to see how these plans will work together to improve early years services for young children. A plan for childcare services is needed that is much more supportive of the caring work that childcare workers do; that pays attention to the needs, well-being and happiness of young children; and crucially, has a much clearer sense of purpose.

Friday, 19 April 2013

New publication - Baby boomers, consumption and social change: the bridging generation?

A new paper by Rebecca Leach, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, has been published in International Review of Sociology. This is the latest publication from the 'Boomers and beyond project' that studied issues of consumption and generation amongst the post-war baby boomers. This was an ESRC funded project, that formed part of the Cultures of Consumption research programme. The abstract for the paper follows and more details can be accessed here.

Leach, R., Phillipson, C., Biggs, S., and Money, A. (2013) ‘Baby boomers, consumption and social change: the bridging generation?’, International Review of Sociology.
This paper outlines the ways in which the cohort born immediately following the Second World War illustrates changes in consumption patterns within their lives. The paper suggests that this cohort (often known as baby boomers) view themselves to be a ‘bridging’ generation between the ‘old’ ways of their own parents and the radically different views of the next generation. Now nearing or entering retirement and later life, the discussion considers the accounts of boomers themselves having experienced post-war consumer culture and shifting family relations. This paper focuses primarily on qualitative accounts from 150 detailed interviews followed by 30 in-depth interviews, and is framed by analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. It explores central emergent themes in the accounts of respondents which demonstrate evidence for a ‘bridging’ identity maintained by baby boomers in relation to their consumption practices.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sixty-six Seconds of Criminological Video Art in Meymac (France): A Short Note on Cameras, Discipline and Resistance

By Ronnie Lippens, Professor of Criminology

Meymac is a small town in the Limousin region of France. The Limousin region is about the size of Yorkshire. Throughout the ages it has witnessed its fair share of war, atrocity, and hardship. ‘History’ we call these things. Do Google ‘Limousin’, or ‘Oradour-sur-Glane’, for example, and you’ll know what I mean. Wherever you go in the Limousin you are very likely to stumble across sleepy villages and small towns full of ancient buildings, either ruined or restored, that seem to be whispering something like this: ‘Yes we’ve seen it all, we’ve gone through everything, but look, we’re still here, but would you believe, we ain’t giving up just yet’. So yes, there is this massive weight of the past that seems to be dragging the landscape down into the stones and mortar of its ancient architecture. But you also have, in the Limousin, this spark of stubborn resistance against this very being dragged down that is almost palpable even in the tiniest of Limousin towns. It should be noted in passing that during the Second World War the Limousin was the heartland of the French resistance (La Resistance) against the Nazi occupying forces. Resistance is the Limousin’s middle name.

No, giving up is not the Limousin way. In a bid to revive the economic fortunes of the region the Limousin authorities have made serious attempts to encourage the arts and culture. Modern art (painting and sculpture in particular) were at the heart of their endeavours. Let us face the facts though: there isn’t a lot of sunshine around in the Limousin (you’d have to travel further south for that), and so the type of tourist that the Limousin authorities must have had in mind when they went all ‘modern art’, some 20 or so years ago, is bound to have been of the slightly cultured, slightly discerning, but not too wealthy variety (those who like the sunshine go elsewhere, and so do those who can afford it). Not that I myself am even remotely cultured or discerning (I hasten to add though that I think I can tell a Rembrandt from a Vermeer) but one thing that I can say is that my wife and I tend to spend time in the Limousin whenever we can. When we do we always make an effort to visit one of the region’s very many centres of modern art. They are everywhere. A short while ago we went to the “Centre d’Art Contemporain” in Meymac, another small Limousin town. The centre is housed in the nicely restored 11th century abbey of Saint André (now what did I tell you about the weight of the past and the spark of the new?). One of the installations drew my attention –as it would have any criminologist’s, it should be said. The installation I’m referring to here is a very short video (it lasts only 66 seconds) by the French artist Jacques Lisène who shot it in 1971. Remember that date. The title of the video is “Tentative de Dressage d’une Caméra” (in English: “An Attempt to Train (or Discipline) a Camera”). To be honest, video isn’t my medium. I’m much more a painting kind of person. But let me say a few words about the video regardless of my incompetence in all matters video art.

There isn’t much to be seen or heard in the video, to be frank. The frame is taken up by a man (I take it the artist himself) who simply but joyfully announces that the video is about an attempt to train (the word is used here in the sense of ‘discipline’) a camera. He quickly adds (in French of course) “in the twentieth century”). The rest of the video shows him looking straight into the lens of the camera (i.e. straight at us) whilst simultaneously commanding the camera (or us?) to first “look up, go upwards” (which the camera, or we ourselves, then do: the camera follows the artist’s hands upwards), then to “lay down” and “lay down, camera”. The camera dutifully follows the command and the hand downwards and, like a good dog, finally rests on the ground at the feet of the artist, to hear the latter murmuring, contentedly, “well done, well done”. And that’s it, that’s the 66 seconds gone. So then, what’s criminological about this video?

Well there is a lot that can be said about this short video. Let me just say a couple of things. The video is about discipline “in the twentieth century”. Whoever says “discipline”, says “Michel Foucault”. All sociologists and all criminologists of course know about the importance of Foucault’s work. One of his well known insights is the one into the crucial role and place of Panopticism in modern “disciplinary” societies. Modern industrial societies, claimed Foucault, have tended to discipline and indeed normalise whole populations according to principles that were already discernible in Jeremy Bentham’s plans (1787) for a circular prison, the Panopticon. Do have another look at your textbook on this point! As the word Panopticon suggests, the visual sphere is very important, indeed key, when modern discipline is concerned. It is the gaze of the controllers that is supposed to be doing a lot, if not most of the work of discipline. In late modern societies there is still some of that around e.g. in the massive deployment of CCTV cameras. Not that in late modern societies disciplined normalisation is still the ultimate goal of this Panoptic deployment, or, if it is, not that it will always be effective (on the contrary, one should think). But the link between the visual (the camera) and discipline can be made and it is this link that the artist Jacques Lisène was able to grasp and exploit in his short video, years before Foucault got down to work on his book about “discipline and punish”, and ages before anything even remotely resembling a CCTV culture was able to get a foothold, however feeble, in a place like France. Sometimes artists simply are ahead of the pack.

But the video tells us something more than just the above. In the video the work of discipline is not done by or through the camera. It is the camera itself that is being disciplined, or “trained”! That, the artist tells us, should be the nature of “dressage” in what remains of the twentieth century. In other words: it is not the gaze of those that hold cameras (or who watch and analyse what happens on monitors) that should discipline us; on the contrary, it is us who should discipline all those who hold cameras. We should gaze back at them. We should discipline them back. We should discipline back all those that wield disciplinary power. We should actually treat them like dogs; make them perform all kinds of tricks for us; make them kneel at our feet; give them treats, but only when we feel like it. I suppose that “resistance” is a word that could be used to describe what goes on in this video. It’s a word that is not all that much out of place in the Limousin. Now remember: Jacques Lisène shot his “resistance” video in 1971, at about the time when Foucault was getting involved himself with an activist group of academics and prisoners who were beginning to critically “gaze back” at the gazers. So here again: it seems the artist was slightly ahead of the activist pack.

The camera in Lisène’s video could also stand for “Hollywood”, i.e. the dream factory that, from the early “twentieth century” onwards, has been spouting images that have if not disciplined then certainly controlled, or at least pre-occupied the minds of billions of people. It could also stand for what has come to be known as consumer culture, i.e. the endless stream of mediatised images of “things to have” and “things to be” which so few are able to ...... resist. This is the kind of resistance that authors and philosophers such as Guy Debord were (and are) writing about. This is about resistance against the deep, tremendously deep ocean of consumer items and images that seems to structure, if not determine our desires, our thoughts, our actions, and our many, very many frustrations. Debord wrote his famous book “The Society of the Spectacle” on precisely this topic. It got published in 1967. In the book Debord asked himself the question about how one could possibly resist this consumerist tsunami. Four years later the artist Jacques Lisène seems to have come up with his own artful answer: treat this tsunami like a dog. Look it squarely in the eye. Make it kneel at your feet. Then give it a small treat. Whether or not Lisène’s answer is the right one, I leave open for now. Counter-discipline is still ...discipline. I’m not sure if real resistance should itself be built on discipline. Well I have a few ideas on this topic (and critics such as Debord had many more!), but those are for another contribution to this blog.

Let me conclude on a slightly different note: criminology is everywhere. You can find it in the shortest of video-installations in the tiniest of towns in the remotest of places. You can find it in art. Anywhere. Everywhere.