Archive for September, 2014

Memorialising places

September 27, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s just an odd thought I had a while back, looking at the street names of places near my home – but it was also reinforced by watching part of a TV programme on the Welsh mediaeval story collection, the Mabinogion (for the next few days it’s on the BBC iPlayer system if you want to watch it and the content works in your country).

Some of the stories were ‘onomastic’ or ‘toponomastic’, meaning that they explained place names and geographic features. They provided a (perhaps fanciful) explanation for natural features the audience could go and see. This had an advantage for the storyteller that the story could be embedded into locations the audience probably already knew, while the audience having heard the story would always associate it with that place.

However, near where I live there are several estates of new houses. So you have, for example, Monarchs Close. The name is onomastic to an extent, not because of what’s there now but because (I’m told) it memorialises an event many people have forgotten – it apparently was a field in which monarch butterflies were found, and that’s significant because they’re native to North America and only ever appear in the UK as accidental migrants in years where they’re carried across the Atlantic by weather systems (1995, for example). However, since the place is now a housing estate the name simply memorialises the fact that the butterflies are unlikely to ever be seen there again.

So when you walk city streets (or indeed any built environment) it’s worth noting names because they might tell a history that would otherwise be hidden by the current built environment, and which may not be quite what you’d expect. But given the often random choices of housing estate developers – for example naming new streets after members of their family, famous cricket grounds, or whatever, it also seems we’re in the process of covering up and confusing any relationship we may have with the landscape and our own histories.

And the same is true of buildings like stadia, often now named for some corporate sponsor and changed every few years. These names are projections of (brand or corporate) identities that have no intrinsic association with the place beyond the money nexus, but in their own way they’re usually just another layer on a history of power and control, including the control over names, that might go back decades or centuries. And yet… in the future, they might become the seeds of new onomastic stories.

By the way – if you’re interested in names and into horror, there’s a flash fiction piece on, ‘The Name of One‘, you might find amusing. I don’t know why I came across this yesterday, but it’s perhaps a little bit of synchronicity going on.

X-Factor – a short story

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m supposed to be writing about sociological studies of the police. In fact I am writing about this. However in odd moments of downtime I’ve been playing with a story I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s not exactly horror, not exactly science fiction, and neither is it really fantasy or urban or any other easy-to-pigeonhole genre. If anything it’s a gentle meditation on a very limited aspect of unknowns, conspiracy theories, life, the universe and everything, and I don’t really see a commercial market for it. But I’m still vain enough to think you might enjoy reading it.

Rather that just include it in the post (it’s about 4,600 words) I’ve messed around with it, included a couple of images, experimented with prettying it up and saved it as a PDF. Partly, I confess, as an experiment in making PDFs available this way. There’s a download link at the end of this post.

The ‘X-factor’ tag comes from the Global Risks Report 2013  from the World Economic Forum (the ‘world leaders’ meeting that happens in Davos each year). The report outlines what it sees as the major global risks – chronic fiscal imbalances, systemic financial failure, increasing global income disparities, water supply, food shortages, greenhouse gases and other ‘usual suspects’. However it also discusses what it calls ‘X-factors’ – ’emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences’, ‘serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict’.

Here’s the opening of the story:

In crime novels, there’s often a point where the detective turns up at a murder scene and one of the uniforms says ‘A dog-walker found the body.’

That’s because it happens. Twenty-three per cent of dead bodies left in public spaces are found by dog-walkers. Not that I found that out until later.

My watch said 01:41. I’d left Miss Grosgrain at quarter to one, gone home, had a glass of wine, gone out with Daisy. I work unsocial hours. I often walk Daisy late at night.

The street lights around here have been switched to part-night operation as an economy measure. There are signs saying so on every lamp post. They turn off just before one. We’re used to walking in the dark.

On Botts Way there’s a grassed area, the kind of open space that developers put on their estates to add ‘amenity’ to the houses. Parents never let their kids play there.

In the middle of the grassed area there’s a body, face up in the dim starlight. A young guy, late teens or early twenties. Jeans, T-shirt. Much blood. Stabbed, I guess. Eyes open, brown. There’s a thin fuzz of hair on his chin. Close-cropped hair with a widow’s peak. Full lips, nose just a little too wide for the face. A small mole on the right hand side of his face, near his nostril.

I have my mobile phone. I take pics, just in case of… something. I don’t know what, exactly. I lean over the guy, make sure he’s not still breathing. I call the police. And wait.

If you want to read the whole thing, the image below is a link to the PDF of the X-factor story (should open in a new window):


Link to 'X-factor' story

Link to ‘X-factor’ story


And just for fun (sort of) here’s a snap of some notes I made literally on the back of an envelope while writing the thing:


Back-of-envelope notes

Back-of-envelope notes

So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…





‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.


%d bloggers like this: