Crime time: how a Festival event inspired my teaching

Ruth Shaw 150Ruth Shaw is Curriculum Leader for Social Sciences at Nelson and Colne College, where she teaches A-level Sociology.

In November 2016 she attended a crime-themed event, hosted by OCR as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. The event gave her some real-world inspiration for teaching her students

As a teacher of sociology, this event was a rare and refreshing opportunity to think about how research into crime spans across a range of social science subjects – it was great to discuss ideas that spanned across geography, law, citizenship, psychology and sociology – and as you can probably tell from what I go on to write next, there was lots packed into a day!

A glossy map activity

If you’re like me, I immediately associate maps with geography. But crime mapping is something I will now be applying to some positivist analysis in my first year sociology classes.

GIS crime mapping is a way of sharing and analysing data where students can see maps of crime along with census data to look at patterns of crime and deviance. There are various overlays that can be used to look at the data including density of crime, drug crime, violent crime and also (and most interesting to me) multiple deprivation data where we can look at correlations between deprived areas and occurrences of crime.

There are many amazing things students (and teachers) can do with this technology and it’s the same technology the police are using to map crime. Whilst I inevitably look at this from a sociological standpoint and will use these maps to look at crime in my area and compare this with more affluent areas, the technology will be undoubtedly useful across the curriculum and I really urge you to check it out.

Media representations of serial murderers

IS245-003I have to admit, I felt a little star struck in the second session with a talk from Professor David Wilson on studying media representations of serial murderers. The recent ITV drama series Dark Angel was a media representation of his work on Mary-Ann Cotton, England’s first serial killer who preceded Jack the Ripper but is much less well-known. A reason for this, according to Wilson is the lack of media representation at the time which is indicative of gender roles of women being weak, passive and controllable (not the typical view of a murderer). The murders were all committed through arsenic poisoning and could be ‘explained away’. As I was listening my brain was making some nice links to chivalry thesis which I will be discussing as part of the A-level Sociology curriculum.

In relation to the drama series, Wilson discussed the nature of media representations of serial murder and how this is often not a true representation of the ‘typical’. He expressed how media constructs drive the narratives that are not always the truth. For Wilson, the first representations of Cotton in the drama were not dark enough to show her nature, yet the media felt that it was too dark for mass consumption.

Clink! Prison life

It was a real insight to hear first-hand experiences of being a Programmes Treatment Manager in a UK prison. The crime statistics Michelle Dunnings shared were really interesting. For example the national average of those re-offending who serve a 12 month or shorter sentence is 60 per cent, for those serving a 12 month or longer sentence this is 45-49 per cent. This led into a discussion on reducing re-offending rates and restorative justice.

prisoner DTAs well as sociological links, it made me think about the pastoral courses we hold at our sixth form college and the work we do with students around thinking skills, alcohol awareness, health and wellbeing, and links to crime. Many young people in prison miss this vital support in schools and colleges as they have higher drop out and lower attendance rates (85 per cent of young offenders are NEETs). This is also a good link to youth deviance, and criminal subcultures are covered by A-level Sociology too. It also links to the values of education and anti-school subcultures.

A converted mini-bus with a hot chocolate dispenser

This is what Dr Simon Edwards set up with his wife, and over a five year period helped very disparate youth in Worthing. The young people were often high on illegal substances and in and out of prison but the mini-bus offered a place where they could talk, get help on jobs, and raise money for positive activities.

Dr Simon Edwards discussed the language used by some educators and adults with young people and the negative impact this can have on achievement when they cannot access such language. This got me thinking about middle class values of education and the links to the A-level Sociology curriculum. There were also some good links to social marginalisation – young boys being labelled and criminalised, and the benefit of not always focusing on how they’ve messed up but highlighting when they’ve made a positive impact.

The ugly web

The final speaker of the day considered the question, is crime changing? Chief Inspector James Sutherland of South Cambridgeshire Police Force concluded that crime is not changing but evolving with the emergence of new technology.

Criminals tend to make a risk-reward analysis. It used to be lucrative to rob a red telephone box (if students can even remember these) but now, they tend to have hardly any money in and so the risk of being caught wouldn’t be worth it. However, cybercrime and hacking can wield huge rewards. The scam emails we are all familiar with can be sent to billions of people at once.

Whilst we can now think about this example and be confident we would never fall for this, Chief Inspector James Sutherland pointed out that there is actually a scam for everyone, and all they need to do is find what appeals to the individual to make them fall for it. He referred to the persuasion of fraud with elements including;

  • Being agreeable to authority
    Some people will fall for the ruse that someone in authority can sell us something (doctors have a new amazing anti-wrinkle cream…)
  • Scarcity
    If we are told this amazing, one of a kind watch is selling fast some people are more likely to fall for it
  • Similarity
    Those doing the scamming target those who have a sense of similarity and we tend to trust that person more – if they sound like us or have the same background as us.

This I will also be using in my pastoral role to educate young people on the power of persuasion and the dangers of fraud and the dark net.

A great day

Armed with new, up to date and specific information I can confidently apply this to my A-level lessons so my students can also benefit. It really was a wonderful opportunity to speak and share ideas with fellow teachers and social scientists, and a real reminder as to how crucial and relevant social science research is to us understanding how society works.

If this blog inspired you to share your own research, why not apply to be a part of this year’s Festival?  The call for applications for the 2017 Festival of Social Science is open until early May. Follow updates about the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.

This blog is based on ‘OCR and the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2016 Event‘, which first appeared on the OCR blog.


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