Despite grisly newspaper headlines about murders and other acts of violence, some data show the UK enjoying historically low levels of crime.
But a new research centre at Teesside University is taking a stand against this rather encouraging picture. The bold mandate of the Centre for Realist Criminology is to question the idea that the “world is becoming a nicer place and our society is becoming more civilised and humane”.
Steve Hall, professor of criminology at Teesside and co-director of the centre, told Times Higher Education that crime statistics were “useless”, except for those on homicide, given the difficulty of hiding a body.
“We have a statistics fetish. We think that counting things means explaining things. Every first-year student is taught not to trust statistics,” he said.
Professor Hall acknowledged that what he calls the “control state” has made it much harder to commit some crimes. It is “almost impossible to steal a car these days”, he said. “But do we want to live in a police state? It’s doing nothing to reduce the motivation for crime.”
“Criminal energy” is just as lively as ever, but it has been diverted into the unrecorded worlds of online, corporate and environmental crime, Professor Hall contended.
Researchers should instead use ethnographic methods – speaking to people on tough estates about “hidden crime”, for example – to get a richer, more truthful assessment of crime, he said. Although the work is expensive and surveys only one location, repeat visits can track crime trends over a number of decades, he said.
“We’re not trying to say the world is going to hell in a handcart,” he said. The centre will be the “first to admit” if its ethnographic studies reveal a fall in criminality, he said.
Loraine Gelsthorpe, president of the British Society of Criminology and professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Cambridge, said she welcomed the centre’s arrival.
Professor Gelsthorpe said: “Few criminologists in the UK, if any, have been taken in by claims that ‘because the crime rate appears to be falling, the world is a nicer place’.”