A famous British TV commercial in the 1980s had a Jewish student phoning to tell his grandmother he had passed his exam, but confessing it was ‘only sociology’. His grandma would have none of it: ‘Anthony,’ she trilled, ‘if you get an ology, you’re a scientist!’1 The joke struck a chord because everybody grasps that some -ologies are soft options.2
1The 1987 ad, called ology and featuring Maureen Lipman as grandma Beattie, was once rated fourteenth in the top all-time 100 best British TV commercials (source: Channel 4). It is available on You Tube [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEfKEzX9QLE].
2Robert Coe et al., Relative Difficulty of Examinations in Different Subjects, CEM Centre, Durham Univ, 2008. Research into why science subjects were less popular than those like drama, sociology and media studies showed that in general students thought arts subjects were easier than science ones.
Academics are by nature inquisitive, and criminology is more popular than philosophy, zoology, geology or dentistry and almost as fashionable as journalism.
Accepted applicants by JACS subject line – degree and HND. [Source: www.ucas.com/new/press/news190106.html]
Sometimes it is combined with psychology or law but almost all the 7,500 students who apply for courses each year will mix it with sociology or subjects like film studies, counselling and creative digital music.
In 2020/21, according to the Universities’ Central Council for Admission website, no UK university offered criminology combined with subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, engineering or design technology. (In 2006, according to UCCA, 16 had allowed some combination; so, despite other indications that criminology is becoming more evidence-based, this trend is not propitious.)
The reason might be that most criminology is not concerned with tackling crime. A survey of the top ten criminology courses ranked by The Guardian’s University Guide 2020 revealed 103 second-year (ie midstream) modules. When these were analysed by an inquisitive magistrate, Elizabeth Borgeois, 62 were about offending and sociology (60%), 36 were about the law or other issues, and only 5 related directly to improving public safety (5%).
Criminology is a branch of sociology and is thoroughly steeped in politics; most of it is highly partisan. Tactful critics say it has a ‘sentimental attachment to any breed of “underdog”’
P. A. J. (‘Tank’) Waddington and Peter Neyroud, Editorial to ‘Special Edition on Crime Science’, Policing, OUP, 2008, p. 148.
This is a typical syllabus: ‘Key issues include surveillance and police powers, the politics of imprisonment, the criminalisation of children and young people and international frameworks for rights and justice.’
Criminology prospectus, Edge Hill University (then College of Higher Education), 2006. More recently Edge Hill has taken to putting the word ‘crime’ in inverted commas as though it was a questionable concept, as in, ‘Critical Analysis and Criminal Justice examines key agencies in the criminal justice system and official responses to “crime” and deviance whilst evaluating representations of “crime” and deviance through media and official discourses.’ Edge Hill also provides quack courses in complementary medicine. Since for most people the word ‘critical’ has no political connotation, such indoctrinating courses do not attract the same attention as they would if openly advertised as Marxist. It all sounds analytical rather than biased, as in: ‘At the University of Roehampton, studying Criminology will encourage you to think critically about the creation of law, implementation of criminal justice policy, and the operation of the justice system.’
The Critical Criminology Division is now the largest section in the American Society of Criminology, home for what its members call ‘progressive scholars’ but which most people might well regard as old-fashioned left-wing ideologies peppered with strident feminism and politics of resistance. Crime as they see it is a ‘moral panic’ whipped up by the establishment in collusion with the media, and the real problems of offending are ‘crimes of domination’ by the government, police and business.
These are all quotes from editions of the ASC Critical Criminology Division’s newsletter, The Critical Criminologist, in 2010 – 2012. [See: http://critcrim.org/newsletter]
The consensus has migrated from ‘Left Idealism’ to ‘Left Realism’ and more recently been camouflaged as ‘cultural criminology’. There are now more decent textbooks,1 though most dwell on theory, are silent on statistics or even go out of their way to distance themselves from science. The politics, while still intrinsic, has become more discreet in reputable universities like York or LSE.2
1 See, for example, Criminology by Stephen Jones, OUP, Oxford, 2006, ISBN 0-19-928238-2.
2 In top universities the politicisation of criminology is better disguised in their written materials; you have to talk to criminology students to get the real flavour of the political indoctrination they receive. More postgraduate centres try to recruit police officers rather than regarding it as sleeping with the enemy. But even those that do tend to be trapped in the old paradigm. Courses at the London School of Economics, for example, focus on neo-Marxist ‘social and individual antecedents of crime’, as though crime was the natural response to ‘social divisions such as gender, age, ethnicity, class and community’. LSE’s Mannheim Centre teaches these theories to police, probation officers and criminal justice professionals who don’t appear to mind that they are regarded as repressive elements of ‘crime control’.
One don complained bitterly he had heard from the Home Office that ‘it’s very rare that we employ people who have got degrees in criminology, because they don’t have any skills’. … But in any case what he regards as ‘the most violent aspect of contemporary British society’ is far removed from the anxieties of the very people, the ‘poor and powerless’, whom he claims to represent and who are most often victims of crime and most likely to be arrested for it.
Reece Walters, ‘Government manipulation of criminological knowledge and policies of deceit’, in ‘Critical thinking about the uses of research’, Criminal Justice Matters, 2008, p. 13. [http://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/opus557/Evidencebasedpolicyfinal.pdf] Reece Walters was Professor in Criminology at the Open University where he became an Academic Visitor having joined the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology in 2011. Incidentally, his exasperation reveals an uncanny parallel between the angry left and what it despises on the angry right: a quickness to blame and a penchant for denunciation.
In 1932 a devastating critique concluded that while an empirical science of criminology is possible, ‘it does not now exist’. This so-called Michael-Adler Report had been commissioned in New York to evaluate the desirability of establishing a national institute to train criminological researchers.
Jerome Michael and Mortimer J. Adler, Crime, Law and Social Science, Harcourt, Brace & Co., NY, 1933. It was commissioned by the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City in collaboration with the School of Law at Columbia University.
Professor David Kennedy is one of the few criminologists to make a big and measurable cut in crime rates, having tackled gun crime in several US cities. But he acknowledges there are not many who do research as he does with such practical and palpable outcomes. ‘The literature on the theoretical and descriptive side is rich on this subject; on the action side it is almost silent.’
David Kennedy, Taking criminology seriously: narratives, norms, networks and common ground, symposium in honour of Professor Irving Spergel, University of Chicago, 2006.
Since few criminologists are good at maths the emphasis is on what they call ‘qualitative research’, a term that covers just about everything – especially interviews – as opposed to quantitative research, which involves measurement and statistics.
Quantitative research can involve, ‘bits and pieces of almost anything’*, including observation, photography or direct participation, but it normally means interviews and surveys. Strictly speaking it means you have no numbers (if you did it would be quantitative research). Of course such things are valuable, especially if done methodically. They can provide rich feedback and are often how experiments start out. On rare occasions an observation is so clear-cut there is no need of further proof, as when the primatologist Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees make tools; or when astronomers observe collisions or explosions in the cosmos. But neither Goodall nor NASA engineers use the term ‘qualitative science’. Nor do journalists like me who use the same techniques. (*Tom O’Connor, who is Associate Professor of Justice Studies at North Carolina Wesleyan College and cites many definitions). [http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/308/308lect09.htm]
When once I addressed the British Criminology Society, comparing qualitative research to journalism and urging the adoption of more scientific methodology, I was dismissed in the BCS’s journal as empty-headed: ‘Someone who thinks we should understand a little less and control a little more … In future, perhaps an opening speaker “fit for purpose” would be better suited.’
BSC Newsletter, No. 57, June 2005, pp. 19–21.
The social science research council almost rejected UCL’s application for a grant because there was neither enough sociological explanation for criminality nor qualitative research.
The Economic and Social Research Council allocated over £180 million a year of government cash for work in this field. In its refusal letter it complained that while we had an ‘innovative course, in that it concentrates on specific and preventable aspects of crime and adopts an extremely positivistic orientation towards its subject matter, it does not attempt to cover sociological approaches to the study of crime, or sociological explanations for criminality’.
The Campbell Collaboration is an international network of investigators based on an influential development in medicine called the Cochrane Collaboration, which weeds out the best research from the bad and mediocre.
www.campbellcollaboration.org. The Campbell Collaboration (sometimes called C2) is a network of investigators who collaborate across borders to conduct systematic reviews of research in crime, welfare and education.
Science is humankind’s most powerful invention. It is sometimes so badly taught at school that many people think of it as people in white coats
Several US science centres including Fermilab (the US National Accelerator Laboratory) have invited schoolchildren to draw a sketch of scientists from imagination and then again after they had toured a science facility. The contrasts are always amusing: strange men with white coats (often labelled ‘crazy’) are replaced by smiling men and women in ordinary clothes who are described as ‘normal’.
Science has been responsible for such colossal leaps in imagination as that the earth moves round the sun, that living things evolved, and that solid matter is really just a force field.
Just in case you weren’t aware: solids are made of molecules which in turn are made of atoms which are particles held in orbit by electromagnetism, the whole assembly having huge gaps which allow x-rays, for example, to pass through.
… some criminologists assert there is no such thing as objectivity, or tangible evidence of natural laws, merely competing evidence, each bit of which is as valid as any other. Science is a tyranny devised to impose one world view upon all others. This load of piffle has been dignified with terms like ‘constructivism’ or ‘postmodernism’, and has the singular advantage that you can ignore facts that don’t fit with your beliefs. In fact its advocates claim the rest of us are just deluding ourselves about reality.
The physicist Alan Sokal illustrated some barmy quotes from prominent sociologists and criminologist in the third annual Sense About Science Lecture in London, 27 February 2008: ‘For the relativist [such as ourselves] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such’ (Barry Barnes and David Bloor); ‘The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence’ (Kenneth Gergen); ‘The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge’ (Harry Collins); ‘Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome, Nature, to explain how and why a controversy has been settled’ (Bruno Latour); ‘Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power, a connection which determines (not merely influences) what counts as reliable knowledge’ (Stanley Aronowitz). I particularly like the feminist critique from Katherine Hayles, not a sociologist but professor of English at UCLA, who sees physics, and even the arcane rules of fluid mechanics, not so much as a neutral and testable observation with high predictive power but as an expression of masculine imperialism: ‘Almost without exception, conservation laws were formulated, developed, and experimentally tested by men. If conservation laws represent particular emphases and not inevitable facts, then people living in different kinds of bodies and identifying with different gender constructions might well have arrived at different models for [fluid] flow.’ Mmm… maybe if more of our physicists were reptilian, Martian – or female – rivers would flow uphill. As Alan Sokal points out: ‘Suffice it to say that postmodernist writings systematically confuse truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge – and then sometimes go so far as to deny that these distinctions have any meaning.’ [http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/PDF/AlanSokalLecture2008.pdf]
Yet this is dismissed as ‘scientific positivism’. One textbook, Criminology, says the discipline should instead be judged by ‘complexity, erudition, elegance, profundity, reflexivity, originality and ethical stance’.
Criminology, edited by Chris Hale et al., OUP, Oxford, 2005, ISBN 0-19-927036-8, devotes an early chapter to asserting that much of the best criminology is theory or moral philosophy and is ‘not reducible to judgement by the scientific “positivist” criminologies’. Instead criminological theory should be judged by ‘complexity, erudition, elegance, profundity, reflexivity, originality and ethical stance’ (pp. 91–2). This is a fine list of qualities (though I would have thought simplicity should trump complexity) but it conspicuously excludes measurement, experiment, replication or protection from bias and chance.
Recognising its weaknesses, the Economics and Social Research Council appointed a statistician as chief executive, who, at least in private, echoed my despair at what had been going on and began to put things right. He was succeeded by a geographer who was the President of Science Europe
The statistician Professor Ian Diamond was appointed ESRC chief executive in 2002 and was succeeded in 2010 by a geographer, Professor Paul Boyle.
Some critical criminology courses are being withdrawn
For example, in 2012 Critical Criminology Perspectives at the Open University ceased to be available for new students.
Meanwhile the funding body for science and engineering has moved in, supporting a wide variety of projects such as tackling gun crime, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has applied itself, for example with a project to cut bike theft.
The British Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) funded ‘Bikeoff ‘ research project at the Design Against Crime Research Centre at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, in collaboration with Jill Dando Institute at UCL.
At last the mainstream British Society of Criminology became embarrassed by its threadbare reputation. In 2006 the editor of its journal (the one who had supported me) went off to start a scientific research group, and soon afterwards the president himself conceded that criminology was in ‘a pretty parlous state of affairs’, with its researchers ‘more or less irrelevant to policymakers’.1 More recently the American Society of Criminology was told much the same thing: ‘The time has come for criminologists to choose a different future.’2
1Tim Newburn, President of the British Society of Criminology, The importance of research in the UK crime policy debate, Cracking Crime conference, Royal Statistical Society, London, 27 November 2006.
2 Francis T. Cullen, Sutherland Address to the American Society of Criminology, 2010.