Don't confuse influence with progress

Richard Garside
Thursday, 16 March 2017

The title of this event is 'Communicating criminology'.

I want to start by offering three orientating thoughts.

First, when we talk about communicating criminology it is easy to get overly preoccupied with the techniques and tactics.

With media strategies, media training, press releases and soundbites.
With TV and radio, newspapers and blogging, Youtube and Instagram.
With 'Do you Tweet?' and 'See my latest Facebook post'.

My professional background is in policy and communications and in my day job I am involved in many of these issues.

Communications techniques and tactics are also but a means to achieving certain communications ends. And it is these ends that I really want to focus on in my opening remarks.

Second, when we talk about communicating criminology, what kind of communication are we talking about?

One of the main ways criminology is communicated is through lectures, university courses, scholarly books and articles intended for a scholarly audience.

I am assuming that this is not the kind of criminological communication we are talking about here.

But rather, communication with a non-specialist audience, which might include:

  • Politicians, policy makers, civil servants and practitioners
  • Journalists and opinion formers
  • Interested members of the public

This public communication is something that I and my colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies do a lot of.

Third, when we talk about communicating criminology, what kind of criminology are we talking about?

I find this a more difficult question to answer.

For one thing, though a consumer of criminological knowledge and someone who writes on broadly criminological matters, I do not consider myself, nor claim to be, an academic, nor a criminologist.

For another thing, and as this audience will know only too well, criminology as a discipline is broad and rich, heterogeneous and interdisciplinary.

So when we talk about communicating criminology, we are talking about communicating criminologies.

I would offer the rather prosaic observation that the diversity and variety of criminological knowledge strikes me as a strength of the discipline, rather than a weakness. But more than that, it is not for me to adjudicate on the relative value of different criminologies.

What I do want to argue is that the reason why one chooses to communicate criminology, one’s motivations for doing so, do matter. I want to say a little bit about this.

Public criminology

So what are we talking about when we talk about the public communication of criminology/ies?

Several years ago, there was a fair bit of talk and writing about so-called ‘Public Criminology’.

When I was preparing my thoughts for this meeting, I went back to a piece that was a reference point for a number of these discussions: Michael Burawoy’s 2004 American Sociological Association address: For Public Sociology (pdf).

This will no doubt be familiar to many in this room, and you will be glad to hear that I don’t plan to offer a detailed parsing of it tonight. But I did want to draw out a couple of Burawoy’s remarks.

First of all, Burawoy notes that:

We can distinguish between different types of public sociologist and speak of different publics but how are the two sides – the academic and the extra-academic – brought into dialogue? Why should anyone listen to us?

This ‘why’ question strikes me as rather important, and is one I will try to answer in a minute.

Second, he poses some ‘what’ questions. ‘Should we be concerned with the ends of society’, he asks, ‘or only the means to reach these ends?’ Or, more pithily, ‘knowledge for whom and knowledge for what?’

Underlying these questions is a concern Burawoy expresses early in his address:

If our predecessors set out to change the world we have too often ended up conserving it.

In my view, the single biggest challenge involved in communicating criminology is doing so in a way that seeks to challenge and change the policy and practice status quo, rather than merely help to sustain and replicate it.

Indeed, I would go further than this and state that it is an obligation on critical social scientists – including criminologists – to draw on their individual and collective knowledge and expertise to challenge bad policy and dangerous political ideas and to champion public policies and approaches in the public interest.

I appreciate that there are all sorts of normative assumptions built into what I have just said. I cannot here unpack them all here. But I do want to explain how we at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies seek to embed them in our work.

Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

The Centre is an educational charity that seeks to advance public understanding of crime, criminal justice and social harm. Through partnership and coalition-building, advocacy and research, we work to inspire social justice solutions to the problems society faces, so that many responses that criminalise and punish are no longer required.

In fulfilling this purpose, we engage in a range of public-facing activities.

This work is motivated by a belief, based on evidence and our values, that many of the current practices of criminal justice are harmful, rather than helpful: harmful for those criminalised, for their families and communities, for victims of crime and for wider society.

Much of our routine public engagement work, however, involves the communication of the mundane, of the widely known (within criminological circles). Such as:

  • Imprisonment is generally not a great way of reforming people.
  • It is implausible to think that we can police ourselves to a safer society.
  • The relationship between the official crime rate and the operations of the justice system is, at best, a weak one.
  • That more police do not translate into greater safety and that policing practices are regularly discriminatory, racist, alienating and dangerous.

In our interventions, we seek to disrupt, rather than conserve, the policy status quo, grounded in our standpoint about the harmfulness of much criminal justice practice and a commitment to better policy solutions. So our focus is rather more on the ends than the means.

Why should anyone listen to us?

And to return to Burawoy’s earlier question: Why should anyone listen to us?

One answer might be: they listen to us because they think we have something relevant to say, that explains the world better to them or inspires them to believe a different world is possible; that offers helpful insights on policy challenges, or potential solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Another answer might be: many don’t listen to us. We sit at the heart of a growing network of supporters and collaborators committed to promoting change. But, frankly, the majority of our potential audience have never heard of us and may not be that interested in what we say even if they did. Part of the challenge of communicating ones work and ideas is involves creating, developing and sustaining one audience and collaborators. They are unlikely to be passively sitting there, just waiting to be informed.

A final answer might be: certainly not because we have spent x number of months or years developing a really amazing understanding of something very important that everyone should know about. While that may be true, brilliance is no guarantee of influence. And influence is, in any case, not to be confused with progress.