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In conversation Towards the Rally of Impossible Professions, London 20 Sept 2008.
Dr Keith Hayward, Director of Studies for Criminology at Kent University talks to Veronique Voruz over the internet, in March 2008.
Veronique Voruz: You are an academic criminologist working in the UK, and with considerable experience of other English-speaking countries. In France, crime has only recently become something of an obsession in public discourse. How important is crime as an issue in the countries you are familiar with (in public discourse, media and policy-making)?
Keith Hayward: I would say that crime, along with cognate phenomena like the ‘war on drugs’, ‘fear of crime’ and the latest development, ‘antisocial behaviour’, together constitute something of a fetish within most English speaking counties despite the fact that violent crime levels have actually been falling in Western societies. The question is: how do we account for this? In my opinion, it is the product of two interrelated processes.
To start with, we need to recognise the extent to which crime has permeated popular culture. In the United Sates for example, seven of the ten most-watched TV shows, with a combined audience of some 70 million, have crime, and especially violent crime, as their primary theme. Here criminal justice stumbles over its own image. Whether it’s the spectacle of dashboard-mounted police camera footage, a window on crime that turns police officers into performers and traffic stops into vignettes available for the nightly news or shows such as World’s Wildest Police Videos, or the roaring popularity of fictional shows like CSI, nothing captivates today’s audiences like a slice of televisual transgression. It’s almost as if we’ve become addicted to a culture of crime, a culture enhanced daily by an unending diet of violence and morbidity. The problem of course is that societies hooked on criminal verité, televised violence and forensic pornography all of which present crime as an uncomplicated, black and white, good and evil phenomenon naturally adopt a rather punitive position with regard to those involved in actual criminality. This love/hate relationship is less a contradiction than it seemsmore two sides of the same titillation. The criminal must be constructed and punished as ‘the other’ to successfully serve the viewer’s voyeuristic escape from the everyday; the escapist love of the televised criminal and the punitive hatred of the actual criminal are both acts of distancing, of exclusion, and so both necessary safeguards for the consumer of crime news and entertainment.
All this of course leads us to a second concern: the extent to which politicians are currently falling over themselves to curry favour with a crime-fixated electorate who now see criminals lurking round every corner and want something done about it yesterday. Whether it’s the creation of ‘drug tsars’ or the increasing criminalization of young people via everything from curfew orders to Public Disorder Acts, the UK Government’s only response to the crime problem is to “get tough” or at least to be seen to be getting tough. Needless to say, it’s a tough time to get across a more progressive criminological message!
VV: In France criminology does not exist as a discipline as such. There is sociology of crime and of penalty, there is forensic psychology, but criminology as such is not a taught discipline. Could you tell us what criminology is in the English speaking-world?
KH: Well, on the face of it, criminology should be and to be fair, frequently still is - one of the most interesting and vibrant social science disciplines, and not just because of its compelling subject matter. Famously, it is a “rendezvous discipline”; by that I mean that, from its very inception, it was constituted from an array of other fields, including law, jurisprudence, psychology, penology, sociology, history, social policy, psychiatry, medicine, philosophy, among others. When it stays true to its interdisciplinary roots it produces thoughtful, elegant analyses. However, when it does not, it tends to produce research that is worthy of Foucault’s appellation he called it a “garrulous” discipline. Unfortunately, after many years of sociologically-inspired research, criminology has, over the last decade or so, begun to lurch towards more ostensibly “practical”, policy-driven research; a process that is represented by the growth of so-called criminal justice (as a specific university subject) and the downgrading of more critical theoretical criminology. It is interesting to reflect on why this has happened. Primarily it is the result of the continued expansion the criminal justice system, particularly, of course, in the United States, but also in the majority of Western countries. This seemingly unchecked development involves massive expenditure on prisons, police, treatment regimes, and crime prevention devices, from CCTV to electronic ‘tagging’. It is a process accompanied and augmented by the ‘war’ against drugs and, more recently, ‘the war against terrorism’. Such developments have ensured, of course, that the demand for consultancy and evaluative research has mushroomed. These transformations are clearly reflected in the way criminology is now taught and delivered in Western universities, as departments respond to new demands to train criminal justice personnel, both practitioners and researchers. Students, who once would have studied social policy and administration, now routinely study criminal justice a clear consequence of the movement from welfare to ‘justice system’ interventions as the leading edge of social policy. Sadly, this new ‘culture of control’ demands facts, numbers, quantitative incomes and outcomes it does not demand debates as to the very nature of these battles. Nor for that matter does it want to question definition, rather it wants ‘hard’ facts and ‘concrete’ evidence.
VV: You are a very active figure in a recent international movement known as “cultural criminology”. Could you tell us what is distinct about cultural criminology?
KH: That’s difficult in that it’s such a diverse field but that’s the way we like it. For myself, I see cultural criminology as an intellectual space; a disciplinary launch pad where criminologists and others from outside the discipline who share our goal of moving society towards more progressive ends can join together and jam on ideas, concepts and new strategies to enact political change. However, I recognise that this might sound just a bit too idealistic, so I’ll be more specific.
Cultural criminology sets out to understand the many ways in which cultural forces interweave with the practice of crime and crime control in contemporary society. It emphasizes the centrality of meaning, representation and power in the always-contested construction of crime - whether crime is constructed as televised entertainment or political protest, as ephemeral event or subcultural subversion, as social danger or state-sanctioned violence. From this perspective, the subject matter of any useful and critical criminology must necessarily move beyond narrow notions of crime and criminal justice to incorporate symbolic displays of transgression and control, feelings and emotions that emerge within criminal events, and public and political campaigns designed to define (and delimit) both crime and its consequences. This wider focus allows for a new sort of criminologya cultural criminologymore attuned to prevailing late modern conditions, and so more capable of conceptualizing and confronting both the contemporary crime problem and the inequalities and injustices of much crime control.
VV: Why do you set cultural criminology so squarely against mainstream criminology?
KH: If I had to reduce it to a sound bite, I’d say it’s because too much mainstream criminology has lost sight of the simple fact that what society needs today is not more criminal justice but more social justice. It’s amazing how many criminologists are happy to proceed oblivious to the fact that we are hurtling at warp speed towards an unmediated market society organised and dominated by neo-liberal thinking in both the economic and political spheres. It seems to me that too many criminologists have lost sight of the big picture: either they are too preoccupied with securing their latest research grant or negotiating their next consultancy fee, or they simply just don’t care enough about anything outside their own micro specialism. Quite simply, as a critical theorist I have no choice but to try to kick against this situation. If ever we could afford the fiction of an ‘objective’ criminologya criminology devoid of moral passion and political meaning we certainly cannot now. The day-to-day inequalities of criminal justice, the sour drift toward institutionalized meanness and legal retribution, the ongoing abrogation of human rights in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘free trade’all carry criminology with them, willingly or not. Building upon existing inequalities of ethnicity, gender, age, and social class, such injustices reinforce these inequalities and harden the hopelessness they produce. Increasingly crafted as media spectacles, consistently masked as information or entertainment, the inequitable dynamics of law and social control remain essential to the maintenance of political power, and so operate to prop up the system that produces them.
VV: Your work is consistently set against the reduction of subjectivity to something calculable, and as such you denounce both the use of mathematical formulas in administrative criminology and the use of statistics in policy-making. Could you tell us a little bit more about these two issues?
KH: Increasingly orthodox criminology is dominated by two approaches: rational choice theories of crime and positivism. Both these approaches to crime are predicated on hugely reductive rational/instrumental narratives. In rational choice theory, crime is simply a result of weighing up the costs and benefits of committing crime - it derives from availability of opportunity and low levels of social control, particularly where individuals are impulsive and short-term oriented. In the second approach, sociological positivism, concerns such as social deprivation, the availability of jobs and educational opportunities are considered, but the analytic bridge from deprivation to crime, particularly violent crime, is not built but assumed. In both these approaches, human beings and their lives are distilled down to measurable phenomena. The result is faceless, quantifiable ciphers who routinely obey probabilistic laws of deviancy; they can be represented by statistical formulae, their actions and existential motivations captured in the intricacies of regression analysis and tabulated spreadsheets.
But can we really understand crime and victimization through such blunt approaches? Consider, for example, the statistics on street gang membership in the U.S. Since 1995 the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has conducted a National Youth Gang Survey. In the past they have come up with some disturbing numbers, such as the 2004 claim that there were over three quarters of a million gang members in the US. Yet, this bureau neither studies nor surveys actual gang members. Rather, its surveys are mailed only to law enforcement agencies; organisations who clearly have their own vested interests to protect. Those filling out the survey are asked to base their responses on ‘records or personal knowledge’ and all this without there ever being a recognized definition of what actually constitutes a gang! But let’s not let reality get in the way of the important production of aesthetically authoritative data; typically these annual reports contain dozens of tables and charts with statistical formulae offered in Appendices A through J. Likewise, what does it mean when a UK victim survey claims that Three out of five UK Citizens say that they are afraid of crime? To whom do they say it, and in what way? Are they afraid of crime, or afraid of what the media presents as crime? And what does ‘afraid of crime’ mean for their lives, for the choices they make when no researcher or reporter is present?
As I said before, crime is far too important an issue and causes far too much social harm to reduce it to mindless, abstract quantification just so that it can be routinely churned through personal computers and then written up in academic journals for a specialists to mull over or worse still used to add weight to our neo liberal world of performance indicators and vapid league tables.
VV: Could you tell us how you came to define your own research interests?
KH: Much of my thinking about crime stems from my early experiences as a young criminological researcher in the US. My research goal was to try and unearth the hidden practices used by street gangs to deal drugs during the crack epidemic of the early 1990s. To cut a long story short, two things struck me about those communities and the people that lived there: first, the fact that it was possible to have a fully functioning crack house, only a few yards from well maintained family homes. This taught me very early on that structural forces need to be carefully understood and not rolled out unthinkingly; second, that one should never discount either the power of subcultures or the existential attractions associated with many forms of criminal activity. Whether it’s dealing drugs at a “copping corner” or sticking up a corner store, crime has its seductive, existential appeals. Both these insights taught me that crime is a complex and multi-facetted phenomenon. This being the case, one should constantly guard against both simplistic ‘silver bullet’ solutions, and modes of criminological analysis that approach crime as a mundane or uniform event.
VV: What are you working on at present?
KH: I’ve just finished the definitive statement book on cultural criminology (co-written with colleagues Jeff Ferrell and Jock Young), which is due out later in the year (Cultural Criminology: an Invitation, London: Sage). I’m also putting the finishing touches to a new illustrated book on criminology and the force of the image. My research focus now is firmly on the way crime, violence and victimization are filtered and understood through visual culture and my next book will be in this area. My goal with this one is to make my ideas, and those of cultural criminology more generally, more accessible to the general public. For better or for worse, people are fascinated by crime, and thus I hope to take advantage of that by producing a popular and engaging text that at least tries to contradict the way crime is currently presented in the news and popular culture.
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