Category Archives: Criminology

Shades of Deviance – interview

On the day the film is released that partly inspired the title, here are some thoughts on the collection and what it was intended for.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Well, my doctoral research looked at the ‘invisible’ problem of household displacement in London, I was always interested in social problems and particularly those that hadn’t really seen much attention – displacement from gentrification was often discussed but had never really been measured before. When I finished this work I moved to Glasgow as a research assistant and began to do a lot of contract related research around social exclusion and marginality in the peripheral housing estates there, and in Edinburgh. With John Flint I did work on processes of informal social control; we were both fascinated by the way that residents in poorer communities were stigmatised as being disorderly and antagonistic to the police. Though the story was more complex what we often found was that residents often saw the police as the first line of action against problems. I like to think that my work is always relevant but also trying to work with middle-range theories and ideas. Much of the work I have done on gated communities and the privatisation of public space, for example, has tried to problematize the self-segregation of the wealthy when many policy-makers and the public tend to start from the position that we should look inside poorer areas. We know from such work that many of the problems of ‘poor’ areas is not only about the lack of opportunities but also the discrimination and exit of the middle-classes from such areas as well as the way that higher income groups argue for the kind of defunding and policing measures that characterise many public approaches today.

The cover art

The cover art

What got you interested in deviance as a speciality?

I think that like many people working in and around criminology I like to see my work as being broader than the problem of crime. When Simon Winlow and I organised the first York Deviancy Meeting for forty years I remember phoning Stan Cohen (who died only this year, 2013) and when he asked what kind of things I was working on I said sheepishly that my main interest was in gated communities and that perhaps that wasn’t a key area in criminology, his response was ‘well, surely those kind of issues are absolutely central to criminology!’ I think this gave me more confidence to address the field of criminology with the voice of someone who was interested in crime and harm, but through the background of someone who had emerged out of the field of urban and housing studies, rather than perhaps the more conventional route of a criminology degree (my first degree was at Kingston University, in sociology). Yet the more I have thought on these ‘boundary’ issues I have felt that criminology is in many ways an ‘urban’ field when we look at its primary concerns, and that urban studies has perhaps tended to neglect or underplay a concern with disorder and human harm when, in so many ways, it is concerned with the harm to human potential that emerges from poverty and hardship, the geography of opportunity, inequality, low-skills and housing systems.

What sets this book apart from others in the field?

Shades of Deviance emerged over dinner conversations at the European Group for the Study of Crime and Deviance at Nicosia in 2012. Some of us were talking about the need to translate complex ideas without sacrificing too much subtlety, as well as the need to connect early students to more of the politics and critique that we find in criminology today. In my earlier work I had tried to work on applied areas in social research (such as public housing and gated communities for the wealthy) for a lay audience and so Shades of Deviance became ultimately an attempt to bring together a wide range of experts who were told – look, stop trying to write in a neutral way, write something short (this was a struggle for some of the academics of course!), energetic and authoritative that tells the newcomer something of the lie of the land as well as its political constitution; rather than pretending that complex and contested crimes and harms could somehow be explained without that kind of background. I wrote a very clear brief so that all of the authors wrote to a similar ‘recipe’ and asked each to provide the title of a film that somehow distilled many of the issues for their particular contribution. So I think these elements are distinctive but I also intended the collection to be for students leaving their first phase of full-time education and moving to a degree environment. In my institution many students will ask for some suggested reading before arriving and we often scratch our heads about what to recommend; I would like to think that thumbing through Shades of Deviance would be just a great way of preparing for a degree but I also wanted to achieve something that I hoped Routledge would price in such a way that the audience could be extended to those outside criminology completely.

How have you organised the layout of this book?

The book has 56 entries with a general introduction to the concepts of crime and deviance which says something about the complexity of the debates within the field. At first I wanted to perhaps order all of the entries from forms of social rule-breaking with no real harm, through to the most obvious problems and crimes, but I then realise how fraught with problems this would be (of course this is a great exercise to get some really heated debates going in the classroom!). So I created a series of thematic headings that reflected some attempt to bundle-up groups of crimes, forms of deviance and patterns of harm that made sense but also still retained some sense of severity. I couldn’t help adding a final word about how to be (in the widest possible sense) a student of crime and deviance that stems from the way I teach my students and my beliefs about the need to be well-informed and politically engaged as well as just getting on with studies.

Finally, what do you see as the main emerging trend in the study of deviance?

Speaking really from my interests I would have to say that I think there will be more and more to say about growing urbanization globally is producing a wide range of strains and harms for humanity generally. Not only do inequalities between regions drive many forms of crime like the drugs trade and trafficking but also see a lack of government co-ordination and investment generating problems of ill-health, poor education, unemployment and poverty that criminologists increasingly see as forms of harm that they should respond to. Those complexities come on top of the more obvious issues like urban violence and violence towards women which, I think, is beginning to finally see greater awareness and action globally. I think we will also see a major return to questions about the relationship between media technologies and the kinds of crimes and harms circulating around exposure and immersion in forms of extreme content that include pornography and violent gaming which have become ubiquitous and yet remain denied as the roots of harm by many liberal commentators and researchers. I think that our theories in this area need bringing up to speed given the leaps in processing power and complexity of networking and entertainment today. All of this is to say nothing of the links between climate change and various kind of crime and social pressures that it is generating and which seem likely to get much worse, and rapidly so. Criminologists are certainly likely to be busy in the coming years.

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Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.

Autotomically speaking

The Chambers English dictionary defines autotomy as: noun. a reflex reaction in certain animals in which part of the body drops off, especially in order to allow them to escape when being attacked, eg some lizards shed their tails in this way. Reading a dictionary is not often considered very fruitful and yet sometimes it pays dividends! Not only is the capacity of some animals to respond in this way a curiosity but it gives us a metaphor for the way in which the city (its systems of governance at least) may act towards particularly ungovernable, deprived, or disorderly spaces. I’ve called this blog autotomically because the term captures much of what I have been thinking and researching in the past few years, identifying spaces of the wealthy and the excluded that are more or less detached from the political, social and sometimes spatial, fabric of the city. Zones of exception like refugee camps, gated communities of the wealthy, no-go areas for policing authorities, reputationally damaged areas that are avoided by citizens. Simon Parker (University of York) and I have been working around these themes of ‘sensitive’ urban space for sometime now, they form the backdrop to the post-crash conference series we organised at CURB (York) and the backdrop to a series of papers (imminently to be published!) exploring these ideas. So this first note is a nod to acknowledge the ways in which lizards, worms and spiders can help us think about how cities operate and to the benefit of sitting with a cup of tea reading a dictionary looking for inspiration.