Sunday, 17 August 2008

Serial Killers and Bees – A sting in the tale?

By Dr Tony Kearon

If recent media stories are to be believed, apparently scientists have suggested that the study of bees can help to catch serial killers .
I’ll resist the temptation to make a joke about beehive-ioral psychology, not least because these news reports unwittingly say something quite interesting about how academic research is often presented to a wider audience by the media. The actual research article itself, published online in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface in July 2008, spectacularly fails to live up to the media hype (and I mean that in a good way). The authors suggest that methods of geographical profiling developed to explore the behaviour of serial offenders (not just serial killers) can be applied to the study of foraging behaviour in animals. Almost as an aside they suggest that if these profiling methods are applied to a much wider range of subjects (like bees) this may help to develop and refine the methodology of geographical profiling in general. It is that final innocuous statement that has spawned the media hype.

However, what ever the possible relationship between the behaviour of offenders and foraging animals, I can't pass up the chance to say something about geographical profiling and the extent to which it may (or may not) help in the fight against crime.

Geographical profiling is predicated on certain assumptions about the spatial distribution and patterning of human behaviour. Humans are domocentric – most of our activities are carried out within a short distance of our domestic space. What ever some of us may think, criminals are human too, and in this respect their criminal activities tend to follow the same pattern of local activity (for example, known burglars committed most of their offences within a 2-3 mile radius of their domestic space). Where crime tends to differ from other forms of activity is that offenders often try to maintain a ‘buffer zone’ around their domestic space when it comes to their criminal activities. If I regularly put on a mask and rob convenience stores at gunpoint (one of my many hobbies), I am unlikely to rob the store at the end of my own street because someone might recognise my voice, clothes, mannerisms, or might see me leave the store after the robbery and enter my own house.

In a very simplified version of geographical profiling, if we map the location of offences committed by a serial offender, ideally we should see something resembling a ring doughnut, a cluster of offences within which is an area where no offences were committed – the buffer zone the offender keeps between his/her offences and domestic space. Brilliant - in the process of trying to avoid detection, ironically the offender pretty much tells us where they live – what’s not to like about this approach?

One problem is that it is actually more difficult than we think to link specific unsolved offences to particular unknown suspects. There is a depressing uniformity about the methods employed in burglaries, street robberies and many violent offences (and in the physical descriptions of their perpetrators) that often make it quite difficult to say with certainty which offences were carried out by one unknown serial offender. Alternatively, in more serious cases like serial murder, while the links between serial offences may be more obvious, the relative scarcity of the offences means that when they are mapped, no nice unproblematic single buffer zone emerges on the map.

In both of these situations, most of what we know about the spatial distribution of serial offending comes from the analysis of offenders who have already been caught and the offences they admit to committing, so at present, the ability of geographical profiling to actually help identify unknown offenders is somewhat limited.

Geographical profiling also has to contend with human agency. Unlike bees, serial offenders may actually be aware of news coverage, or even research, relating to their behaviour. It is possible for serial offenders to make changes to their patterns of offending to disguise the relationship between individual offences. They could even avoid committing crimes in particular areas some distance from their own locale to try to create false buffer zones.

These are some of the reasons why, as a Criminologist, I am interested in geographical profiling. It has the potential to make important contributions to our understanding of the spatial patterning of offending in our society. It is rooted in a quite simple set of assumptions about human behaviour, but once it is applied to real offenders in their complex social contexts it produces a picture which is much more fragmented, speculative and incomplete. This means that it bears all the hallmarks (and problems) of the classic Criminological 'big idea'. It has a superficially simple common sense appeal that could be taken up and over emphasised by sections of the media (and ultimately by politicians looking for the next crime solution to offer the electorate). But the underlying complexities of geographical profiling in practice mean that it would never be able to deliver the 'magic bullet' that such simple accounts seem to promise.
So in the run up to a General Election in which 'The Crime Problem' will feature heavily, I'm honestly not too bothered if the media want to make links between serial killers and bees – but I really hope they don't discover the apparent delights of the geographical profiling of offenders.

News from the Sociology Research at Keele blog...

Take a look at Siobhan Holohan's new post on British Islam after 7/7 on our research blog...

Friday, 15 August 2008

Criminology and Sociology Society

We are reviving the student societies for Sociology and Criminology, but this year we will be combining them (strength in numbers)... Sociology and Criminology societies in the past have: put on parties, balls and other social events; organised field trips and visits to subject-relevant local and national organisations; organised debates; invited visiting speakers to Keele and publicised visiting speakers organised by staff; set up resources for other students to use such as book exchanges. You're not limited to these activities either!

Andy Zieleniec (Lecturer in Sociology - ) will be supporting the development of the society and two sociology students have agreed to kick things off in Freshers' Week. Please contact Andy (email Andy), Sinead Carrol or Amy Jones for information about joining SocCrimSoc, or CrimSocSoc or whatever you will be calling it!

If you haven't been a member of a student society before, you might want to visit the Keele University Students' Union pages, including the page on Societies. Basically you need to sign up a certain number of members, establish a group to run things and then you will get some support from the Students' Union such as a bit of cash to get started and get leaflets printed etc... If you want more information, you can access the Keele Societies' handbook here

Feel free to join and use the Sociology and Criminology Facebook at Keele page to get things started... Or email one of the contacts above.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Britain from Above...

By Dr Rebecca Leach

The BBC's expensive new flagship documentary series Britain from Above hosted by Andrew Marr launched on Sunday 10th August 2008 with a thrilling roller-coaster ride through 24 hours of British life. It was certainly excellent, if slightly terrifying, television: what would happen if the man in charge of sorting out electricity surges when Eastenders finishes were to sneeze at the wrong moment? And should we pity the poor man who has to carry a sick bag in the helicopter while spotting flaws in the overhead wire network, taking six months to do one patch only to have to begin all over again? And, god forbid, how does London cope when a lorry sheds its load on the North Circular: would civilization end?

Actually, it probably would. To be more precise (and sociological), the programme was such great TV because it was a graphic reminder of how dependent we are on each other and on the complex systems which make things, er, go. And stop. Is it a surprise that a series reminding us of how reliant we are upon complex organisations surfaces at a time when the management of risk has become paramount? Britain - like other complex, Western societies - has been more or less quietly gearing up for what the government likes to call new threats. Yes, bombs are still real threats (and a small paranoid bit of me was watching from behind the sofa, thinking 'No! Don't show us where the important buttons are... I don't actually want the general public to know how to switch off the national grid...') but in the current climate, perhaps the more salient risks are social, economic and environmental against which we must develop 'resilience'. Dull but crucial: the road haulage system was highlighted as being the most important and dependent service for our daily well-being. One shock to this fragile system (and we've seen only short and minor ones over petrol prices lately) which leads to food and basic necessities no longer being available and civil disorder may swiftly ensue.

How depressing this situation is. Depressing, first, because our just-in-time delivery system and economic turnover relies on such carbon-heavy resources. And second, depressing because many people who have watched the show experienced it as revelatory: 'I never knew how much went on behind the scenes' they say. Hmm. So you imagined that your exercise in individual consumer choice was just that? With no other implications, dependencies, systems of provision and distribution, costs and risks? I grudgingly accept that the BBC are doing a good educational job of showing these interdependencies, but it is still awful that people don't think about what 'society' and 'economy' really are when they go about their daily economic activities.

Now, more than ever, it seems the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens are being proved right: are societies re-ordering themselves so that relative risks become the key variables (compared to, for example, social class)? And with such high dependency on incredibly complex, technological but fragile systems as the national grid (in which high-tech solutions have to be juggled alongside cultural behaviour such as TV watching), have we truly entered a phase of reflexive modernisation (according to Beck and Giddens, in which the limits of the modern are fundamentally questioned)?

Monday, 11 August 2008

Keele Sociologist of the Week: Siobhan Holohan

Whilst studying for her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Cultural Studies Siobhan stumbled upon her main research area. She was initially stumped - as many students are - when asked to think of a dissertation topic. Tutors advised her to opt for something that she loved; instead she chose something that she hated: crime appeal programmes, Crimewatch UK and its then Midlands regional variation Crime Stalker. The attraction of spending so much time with these programmes lay in the visceral pleasure of shouting abuse at the TV screen as Nick Ross or John Stalker delivered yet another sweeping monologue on the moral dangers of drink, drugs or prostitution, while attempting to turn us into agents of the state ('grasses') by asking us to phone in with information based on grainy re-enactments of murders, rapes and vicious assaults. and then telling us to not have nightmares. Siobhan's Masters' thesis in Social and Cultural Theory continued to exploit this subject matter, this time focussing on the budding trend in 'campaign' television: the exposure of miscarriages of justice. Now the law itself was under scrutiny: is the whole system corrupt? Is the very fabric of society is under threat? The answer was, as ever, to create new laws to stop civilization - the public, the police, etc - spiralling out of control.

Siobhan's research continues to centre on the relationship between representation and the reinforcement of governing norms and values in society by examining media narratives of crime and the criminal justice system. For example her book The Search for Justice in a Media Age, based on her PhD research, followed the high-profile cases of Louise Woodward and Stephen Lawrence, as they were made-over by their media representations - from killer nanny to English Rose and from dangerous black man to innocent victim of racist violence. By unravelling the various constructions of identity in these two cases, she suggested how we might achieve an ethical form of representation based on selected theories of human rights and multiculturalism. Continuing this theme, following the terrorist acts of 9/11 and 7/7 she has recently written on the representation of another demonised Other: Muslims. Throughout her work, Siobhan has sought to unravel the biased and stereotypical constructions of those who do not quite fit in with the 'norms' of society.

More recently Siobhan has been examining the idea of confession. This is part of a current book project, 'The Culture of Confession', which seeks to unravel the history of confession from Ancient Greece to present day media confessions.In this book, Siobhan argues that, for example, 'kiss and tell' stories, reality TV appearances, or in-depth interviews such as those conducted by Martin Bashir with Princess Diana and Michael Jackson,are the contemporary Western version of self-regulation via confessional activities. So while our ancestors may have been happy to talk to their priest about their transgressions and atone for their sins with a few hail Marys, today people are more likely to 'confess' to Oprah Winfrey or Jeremy Kyle. However, while the public performance of confession acts like therapy for the confessor, if we consider the finger-wagging that accompanies it, we can see that it continues to contribute to the reproduction of moral order in society.

British Sociological Association conference 2009

The British Sociological Association has put out a call for contributions to its 2009 conference. Conference themes are open this year but broadly in line with the study group themes, which include:
  • Work
  • Economy and Society
  • Medicine, Health and Illness
  • Consumption
  • Culture, Media and Society
  • Theory
  • Methods
  • Generations and the Lifecourse
  • Religion
  • Social Divisions/Social Identities
  • Science and Technology Studies
  • Space and Place
  • Social Relationships
  • Education
  • Open Stream(s)
You can find the conference call details here

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Post-Doc fellow in Criminology arrives at Keele

Günter Stummvoll from Austria arrives in Keele today and is the first Marie Curie Post-Doc Fellow in Criminology (Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development). This is the second time Günter has come to Keele. He studied as a Marie Curie Doctoral Fellow at Criminology's dedicated training site in 2003. Starting in August 2008, he will research the standardisation of crime prevention through environmental design in Europe, and he will focus on various policy processes involved in the application of design-led crime prevention in European cities. He will stay for two years with a grant of 160.000,- € from the EU. He will work with Profs. Susanne Karstedt and Tim Hope from Criminology and John Vogler from SPIRE. Günter would be happy to talk to any students and colleagues who are interested in the area of crime prevention through environmental design.

Keep up to date with crime in the news

Want to keep up to date with the big crime-related stories that are hitting the news? The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London produces handy summaries of all the crime stories that are occupying the tabloid and broadsheet media, as well as the big press releases on topics of criminological interest.
For example, today's bulletin includes the information behind headlines such as`Lords say 42 day law will put fair trials at risk', 'Bad dads blamed on lads' mags', `Go easier on inmates, prison told (and try using their first names)', `Pensioner who strangled wife is sentenced to one year pub ban',`I will send violent drinkers to jail, says judge', and `Highway robbers: Revenue from speeding tickets has almost quadrupled to £200 a minute since Labour came to power'.
You can subscribe (for free!) to receive the bulletin on either a daily or monthly basis. Visit the website below to join up.