National Deviancy Symposium 1968-1973

Before leaving the Department of Sociology at Aberdeen University I went to two meetings of the National Deviancy Symposium at York in 1969 and 1970. as well as publishing, together with Gerry Popplestone, an article on labelling theory. I had also bought three other books of the period Stanley Cohen‘s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), falling apart after decades of re-reading it, Laurie Taylor Deviance and Society (1971) and Eric Hobsbawm Primitive Rebels (1959).

There the similarity ends, as Jock Young became a leading researcher in critical criminology while I went on to do research on ordoliberalism. Yet my interest in symbolic interaction remained, and has been the one constant in my research life ever since the mid 1960s.

The third and final book of Jock’s trilogy dealt much with symbolic interactionism,  in the context of C. Wright Mills The Sociological ImaginationThe Criminological Imagination published in 2011 turned out to be Jock’s last book. It has as a major theme the concept of abstracted empiricism and as Young argues the return to positivism reflects the obsession with statistics, not only as a prime example of what Mills called abstracted empiricism, but also as an example of Grand Theory which has little of nothing to say about the experiences of real life people in everyday situations.

Indeed the combination of abstracted empiricism and grand theory have produced a sterile neoliberal criminology fixated on gobbledygook like statistical measure of journals “performance” in terms of impact factor. It also leads to an obsession with measuring across the board, for example ranking universities and departments.

Another even more serious consequence is “grant capture”: a wonderful description of the competitive hunt for grant funding.

Grant capture is a topic I discussed in my chapter of The Knowledge Business: the commodification of housing and urban research Chris Allen and Rob Imrie (eds) where I criticised the whole idea. With a 90% failure rate, the assessment bureaucracies of grant-allocators has been assessed by Agneta Stark (Principal of the Higher Education College of Dalarna) in an article in Tvärsnitt (2004) “The Mathematics of Research Applications” (3/04, pp.32-33). She estimates, conservatively, the amount of time spent on producing the 5,400 grant applications to the Swedish Research Council for a share of SEK 2 billion in grants at a staggering total of nearly four centuries. 389 working years spent on this hardly bears contemplating. And this is just one grant giving body and one SEK 2 billion’s grant allocation. She questions the creation and maintenance of these gigantic sorting bureaucracies and their social inequality in terms of gender, class and ethnicity).

Mechanistic data processing was, I felt, far too distanced from the research act, the collecting and sorting the data into simple yes-no answers using knitting needles to shake out the number of cards. The more advanced this became the more alienating I felt it to be from “gathering” data. This, more than anything else, made me feel that the research process was potentially corruptible. C. Wright Mills wrote about this in The Sociological Imagination, the appendix On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1970 Edition, Pelican pp. 217-218):

“One of the very worst things that happens to social scientists is that they feel the need to write of their ‘plans’ on only one occasion: when they are going to ask for money for a specific piece of research or ‘a project’. It is as a request for funds that most ‘planning’ is done, or at least carefully written about. However standard the practice, I think this very bad: it is bound in some degree to be salesmanship, and given prevailing explanations, very likely to result in painstaking pretensions; the project is likely to be ‘presented’, rounded out in some arbitrary manner long before it ought to be; it is often a contrived thing, aimed at getting money for ulterior purposes, however valuable, as well as for the research presented.”

I decided to check out a chapter in a book edited by Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998), where the cusp of change was the subject of chapter 14 by Jock Young Writing on the Cusp of Change: a new criminology for an age of late modernity. Here Young shows how the two first volumes were united by the spread of neoliberalism:

“The two intellectual currents that signalled the supposed ‘end of history’ are neoliberalism – the market philosophy of the new right – and postmodernism, one reviving a laissez-faire past as the key to effective government policy, the other basing its claims on a post-industrial future where all enlightenment certainties are rendered inapplicable.” Jock Young “Writing on the Cusp of Change: a new criminology for an age of late modernity” in Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998) Ch. 14 pp. 262-263).

Chapter 6 by Stan Cohen was also of great interest, and there were several others as well.

The tragedy is that now many of the key critical criminologists including Jock Young are dead. Many died surprisingly young. Ian Taylor was only 56 in 2001. I remember the time Phil Strong brought him round to my Aberdeen flat in Prospect Terrace. Stanley Cohen died in the same year as Jock Young, also born in 1942, Eric Hobsbawm also passed away in 2012, aged 95. Laurie Taylor is retired. Anyone who has been to the National Deviancy Symposium has met Laurie Taylor, however briefly, as it was his job to greet them and give them their rooms.

But there are many more to continue the work of the founders, and my folder on critical criminology is rather large. Several have contributed to Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998). Feminist issues figure prominently. Pat Carlen is now Honorary Professor at Leicester University. Jock Young’s old website has been taken over by Dave Harris and Colleagues. Some of the file on the original website have been retrieved, like this one on Sub-cultures, or this one on techniques of neutralisation:(Sykes and Matza), and on Critical Criminology.  See also Martin Niklaus on Fat-Cat Sociology at the Colorado University website.

This was a period of seemingly unlimited horizons. Deconstruction was in the air:

“The deconstructionist impulse commenced in the United States, around the work of the labelling theorists: Edwin Lemert, Howard Becker, John Kitsuse, Kai Erikson, Edwin Schur, and many others. It was revolutionary in its discourse (social control generates deviance rather than deviance necessitates social control), it was relativistic in its analysis (deviance is not an inherent property of an act but a quality bestowed upon an act), it inverted orthodoxies, lambasted positivism, defended and celebrated human diversity: it was tremendously attractive to the young and to the radical at this time of change.” Jock Young The Criminological Imagination (2011 p. 208)

This was exactly as I remember that time, down to the roll-call of names of symbolic interactionists. Sadly, the euphoria was short-lived and from the mid 1970’s the neoliberal reaction set in with a vengeance. But before that, we had more than a year in Minnesota.

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