I studied for my A Level Sociology under an unreconstructed Marxist who grudgingly included on our reading list a couple of works by Emile Durkheim, but warned us that his ‘positivist’ approach was vastly inferior to Marxism or to interactionism. Despite this lead, from an inspiring teacher, I read and enjoyed Suicide and it influenced my approach to social sciences by teaching me that statistics can be horribly misleading. In trying to identify those variables associated with suicide, he shows that quantitative research without further qualitative scrutiny can produce spurious correlations. This taught me at an impressionable age (I still am at an impressionable age) that empirical science can only take us so far; social scientists need to start their investigations with a theoretical framework to guide our methodological approach and within which tounderstand the data we produce. It’s a lesson I, and my colleagues, are keen to pass on to our students.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
In the age of the REF, when academics are judged not only by the quality but by the number of their publications, and most novelists churn out new books every other Christmas, it amuses me that the book that most inspired me as a young teenager was Harper Lee’s only novel. Much to the irritation and confusion of my conservative family, I was developing interests in politics, and in concepts of justice in particular. Being a rather privileged teenager in Margaret Thatcher’s England, I was embarrassed and angered by injustices in the class system and began to read Marxism Today (which I barely understood, but thought it made me look cool) and listened to 1970s ‘angry pop music’ (particularly Elvis Costello and The Jam). But then I stumbled across To Kill a Mockingbird and was shaken out of my parochial stew. The novel exposed me to racial violence and discrimination, to the flaws in criminal justice systems, and in particular to the uncomfortable realisation that innocent people can be convicted of serious offences; all of which continue to inform my research and teaching. But the book is not only about racial discrimination, but also about difference and imagining life from others’ perspectives. In this sense, it expounds not only tolerance and fair process but empathy; qualities that should be at the core of the criminological endeavour.