‘Everything starts at the crime scene’, said Professor Peter Squires in the first session of the British Society of Criminology conference, which I attended last week in Nottingham. So what is criminology really for? To answer this question Professor Squires put forward a number of stimulating remarks. The obvious function is to provide voices for the excluded but criminology must also remain critical in questioning authority and the power to punish. As all of the conference presentations demonstrated well, the criminological thinking in Britain has been informed by a variety of robust and interesting research. Nonetheless, according to Professor Squires, the purpose of this should not be to advance criminology as such but to have a say about the quality of justice in a given society. What the profession needs more are critical criminologists who acknowledge the broader context of crime and punishment and take the research evidence further.
The broader context of current criminology affairs was then discussed by two conference plenary speakers, Will Hutton and Professor Kelly Hannah Moffat. Will Hutton addressed, among other things, the fact that criminology should better accommodate the notion of inequality as its levels have become exceptionally dysfunctional. This observation was later interestingly echoed in a couple of sessions in which I participated. For example Dr John Moore’s presentation, Built For Inequality in a Diverse World: A Brief History of Criminal Justice showed brilliantly how important is to understand the origins of the criminal justice system, which was built on the premise of and destined for inequality; therefore criminal justice systems in general will probably never become the best mechanisms through which to achieve social justice. Furthermore, as we know there are different kinds of inequalities and Professor Harry Blagg’s presentation, Southern Theory and Southern Criminology: A Postcolonial Critique demonstrated how to maintain a critical stance towards the unequal production of criminological knowledge. Based on his observations related to the situation of indigenous populations in Australia, Professor Blagg said that the information from the ‘Global South’ becomes knowledge only if it is processed by the ‘Global North’. In the light of this highly pertinent argument, my own reflection would be that there is a significant imbalance in the knowledge recognition within the Global North itself, for example between Western and Eastern European countries.
The choice of the conference theme proved that criminology is capable of accommodating and discussing the notion of inequality. However it is still debatable whether the same applies to achieving practical outcomes, or in other words how to do public criminology well. A very interesting remark was made by a member of the audience after Will Hutton’s lecture – universities are institutions that are good at creating a sense of purpose and moral alignment but they are not good at creating conditions for moral actions. This point was played out in another session that I attended, entitled What is to be done about crime and punishment? Professor Roger Matthews, who chaired the session, made a rather strong introductory statement, saying that contemporary criminology has become theoretically weak and empirically dubious, and has no policy relevance and as a result is disentangled with the real world. Although this claim was then challenged by Professor Philip Stenning, who said that the problem lies in the political elites who are not listening, not in criminologists, in my view Professor Matthews’ opening comment was an interesting provocation that aimed to generate emotions, and possibly actions. Professor Roger Matthews’s point was that the contemporary research might be informative and interesting but lacks a tangible policy impact. To prove that research can be communicated differently he then introduced three panellists (who are also contributors to his new book, What is to Be Done About Crime and Punishment? Towards a ‘Public Criminology’) who presented fascinating and policy-focused papers on policing (Professor Ben Bowling), drug policy (Dr Caroline Chatwin) and youth gangs (Professor John Pitts).
The organization of the conference made it evident that there is an enormous willingness to engage with the wider public on the part of criminologists. Communicating criminological thinking in the form of blogging, tweeting, or poster presentations interestingly mirrored Professor Kelly Hannah Maffot’s plenary lecture, which made me rethink how criminologists have increasingly become involved in networked social activism. Nonetheless, as indicated by Professor Kelly Hannah Moffat, risk is constructed in a non-neutral way and the production of knowledge about crime in times of an information avalanche has begun to be constructed by new tech-savvy players – it is worth remembering that the profession of criminologists is only one of these players. Although we might strive for real and tangible policy outcomes, we also have to consider carefully how we should take our research to the next level.
On a more personal note, the conference took place in the shadow of the Brexit vote – a subject that appeared in almost every presentation and informal conversation. I might be a PhD candidate at a great university with promising career prospects. However since 24th June it has felt as if my identity has been limited to the ‘migrant other’. Attending the BSC conference somehow helped alleviate my disappointment in the referendum outcome and recreate a sense of belonging. I should not forget that Britain will always be the place where I gained my very first research experience, met inspirational academics and made a beginning as a criminologist. The conference experience reminded me of how much I have learnt and developed throughout my academic migrant years in the UK.
Whatever the future holds for me professionally, I promised myself to deeply cherish this thought.