The NonViolence Project takes its symbol from a sculpture inspired by the shooting death of John Lennon. Photo via nonviolence.com.
Horrible events, such as mass shootings, typically gain a lot of media attention, with fear and political outrage not far behind. Social scientific knowledge about topics like violence, gun control, and mental illness, however, is often obscured or excluded from these reports and calls for action. This activity, which can be done as a group or individually, helps readers think about how social scientific evidence can influence policy:
- Browse the Internet to gather two or three news stories from the weeks following a recent mass shooting in the United States.
- What claims are made in these stories about the causes of mass shootings?
- What calls for change are made by victims’ families, politicians, experts, or others?
- What policies are suggested to address mass shootings?
Next, read “A Broader-Based Response to Shootings” by Chis Uggen and think about how social science evidence compares to media reports. What does the evidence suggest we should be doing to address these crimes?
A scene from “The Road from Crime”
In our volume Crime and the Punished, we featured our interview with sociologist-filmmakers Shadd Maruna and Fergus McNeill. This activity builds from their film:
How and why people stop committing crime is an important question. “Discovering Desistance,” by Sarah Lageson and Sarah Shannon describes how two social scientists “co-created” “The Road from Crime,” a film about desistance from the perspective of former prisoners and the practitioners who work with them. Watch the 50-minute film as you consider these discussion questions:
- In what ways might the criminal justice system promote reoffending?
- According to the filmmakers, desistance is both an “internal” and an “external” process. Where do you see internal and external processes in the film.
- What punishment policies might be changed, added, or abandoned to better promote desistance?
- Most people who work in the criminal justice system have never been convicted of serious crimes. How might the system be different if it incorporated more input from people who had been punished under it?
After watching the film, imagine that you are a social worker in a community to which many ex-prisoners return. What resources do you think you’d need to address community needs and help former inmates desist from crime? What community leaders or organizations would you need to enlist for support? Discuss your thoughts in a group and draw up a list of the “stakeholders” whose voices are critical for designing your policy.
New Books in Sociology is an untapped resource for the classroom. In these podcasts, the hosts spend about an hour talking with the author of a new sociological book. While they are all interesting, a recent podcast caught my (aspiring genocide scholar) eye. Evil Men, by James Dawes, draws on firsthand accounts of convicted war criminals. This podcast would make a fantastic assignment in a course covering genocide, human rights, international law, or criminology. Below are a few questions that could accompany the podcast.
- Who did Dawes choose to interview, and why?
- Why were interviews an appropriate research method for this project?
- Were people willing to talk with Dawes? Why do you think this was the case?
- What did Dawes learn about why these “evil men” committed the crimes they did?
- What do his findings tell us about why people commit war crimes? Based on what you have heard, do you find anything problematic about drawing scientific conclusions from his book?
This podcast could also be paired with several other activities on Teaching TSP, such as these activities about the Milgram experiment and this activity about power.
Our own Hollie Nyseth Brehm recently wrote a special feature for TSP entitled “The Crime of Genocide.” The article is a short and concise summary of the conditions that can lead to genocide, as identified by social science research. This would be a great article to use in a course on crime, as criminologists have largely neglected the study of genocide. It’s a great introduction to the topic!
A few questions to get the discussion going:
1. What does the word genocide mean and how did the word come to mean what we understand it to mean today?
2. Why have genocides generally been ignored by criminologists? What do they have in common with other types of crime more often studied by such scholars?
3. What does the metaphor “genocide doesn’t come like rain” mean? Why is this the case?
4. How do psychological and individual factors matter (or not matter) when trying to understand which people become perpetrators of genocide?
5. How can the government and characteristics of the state play a role in encouraging genocide? (The author gives several reasons. List them all.)
6. How can the international community play a role in preventing and stopping genocide? How do connections to other countries matter?
We recommend this great documentary, The Road From Crime, about desistance from crime to show in any crim or intro class. The documentary follows Allan Weaver, a Scottish ex-offender turned probation officer as he explores how individuals like himself get caught up in the criminal justice system, and how some are eventually able to leave a life of crime behind. He discovers that “the system” actually leads to more re-offending, because it encourages labeling and stigmatization of ex-offenders.
The film references the research of American criminologists John Laub and Robert J. Sampson and interviews John Laub and Faye Taxman. Overall, it is a compelling and passionate discussion about what offenders need to become ex-offenders.
Make sure to show the one with English subtitles! The accents are hard to understand with American English ears :)
To listen to an interview with two criminologists who worked on the film (and its parent project, Discovering Desistance), please visit our Office Hours section.
In May, we cross-posted a special edition of Office Hours from the all new Contexts Podcast. In this interview, Jessica Streeter speaks with Henry H. Brownstein and Timothy M. Mulcahy, co-authors of the Winter 2012 Contexts feature, Home Cooking: Marketing Meth.
This podcast or feature article (check if your university library has access to Contexts) would work well on its own in any criminal justice or deviance course. But what really struck me while listening to this podcast is how similar their findings are to the show Breaking Bad.
For those not familiar with the show, Breaking Bad tells the story of a square high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to a life of crime and begins to cook and sell meth to ensure his family’s financial security after he dies.
The authors of Home Cooking: Marketing Meth set up an interesting sociological question of why meth markets are so different from other drug markets. You could show an episode of the Breaking Bad in class and have a discussion about the social worlds of meth users and sellers compared to other drug markets. Or have students watch it at home and do their own analysis for a course paper.
For a comparison, check out “The wire goes to college” from the Summer 2011 issue of Contexts, an exchange between graduate students on the Contexts board and four scholars about the HBO crime drama The Wire, which examined Baltimore’s drug trade.
Also check out Maria Kefalas‘ book review of the New York Times bestseller Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, entitled “from the music man to methland.“
Below is a guest post from TSP’s Sarah Shannon. Sarah is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota and a TSP Graduate Student Board member. She studies law, crime, and deviance, especially the intersections between crime, punishment, and public welfare programs.
We’d all love to bring renowned sociologists and other social scientists into our classrooms as guest speakers, but budget and logistical constraints tend to get in the way. The good news is podcast interviews, such as TSP’s Office Hours, mean that “virtual guest speakers” are a mere click away!
This is how I have approached using podcasts in the classroom – as an opportunity to bring in the real voice of the scholars whose theories and research we cover through course readings and lectures. I’ve found that using audio technology in the classroom can enhance students’ grasp and interest in what might otherwise seem like mundane course material.
For example, last February I interviewed Dr. Robert Agnew for TSP’s Office Hours. We discussed a recent article he published in Theoretical Criminology on the potential consequences of climate change for crime. During our conversation, Dr. Agnew described the potential physical and social consequences of climate change and then applied his General Strain Theory of crime to explain how climate change might become a driver for increasing crime rates in the years ahead.
This past May, I taught a course in criminological theory for juniors and seniors at the University of Minnesota. On the day that we covered strain theory, including Dr. Agnew’s General Strain Theory, I played back the podcast and had students respond to the following two questions:
1) How does Dr. Agnew apply strain theory to climate change? Be specific.
2) Do you find his argument persuasive? Why or why not.
Because Dr. Agnew’s description in our podcast interview is so clear, students had little trouble explaining how the theory might apply should climate change play out the way many experts anticipate and most found this very persuasive. One student later commented in course evaluations that this particular activity helped him see how criminological theories apply in “real life.”
Office Hours offers a wealth of other such interviews that, as Teaching TSP bloggers have noted before, can be used in the classroom, covering such topics as crime, inequality, demographic change, social movements, politics, and more!
Photo by codepinkphoenix via flickr.com
The Office Hours Team recently sat down with Dr. David Garland, professor of sociology and law at New York University. He spoke with the team about his most recent book, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition. The podcast, found here, would be a great assignment, as it provides a concise review of key arguments he makes in the book. Below are a few discussion questions you could use in class or assign with the podcast.
1) In Garland’s eyes, why is the death penalty a peculiar U.S. institution?
2) What reasons are usually given in favor of the death penalty in the U.S., and what does Garland think about them?
3) Are there patterns found among defendants on death row?
4) Do you have an opinion about the use of the death penalty in the U.S.? If so, what is it?
5) What is one thing you learned from this podcast?
If the questions are assigned as homework:
6) Conduct some quick online research. When did states start outlawing the death penalty? How many states allow it?
The TSP Office Hours team just posted their first “Drop In,” which are shorter versions of Office Hours Podcasts. Drop Ins (about 10 minutes) would make great assignments or are even short enough to listen to in class. In the first Drop In, TSP talks with Matt Snodgrass about his work on the relationship between time served in prison and reoffending. Here are some questions you could assign or discuss in class:
1. Why might some people expect that there is a relationship between the amount of time spent in prison and reoffending after release?
2. Snodgrass talks briefly about his methodology. What makes this type of study tricky, and what did he and his colleagues do to get around this?
3. What are the policy implications of the results found in this study and similar studies?
Below is an activity written by Amy Alsup, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. The activity utilizes a clip from The Wire to teach about crime and deviance.
Turf War: The Wire: Season 2, Episode 8 “Duck & Cover” (10 minutes 13 seconds)
Location: YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HmPZyrGGdk&feature=related)
“At the Towers, Bodie organizes his crew to arrive at the disputed corner at 7 a.m., in order to beat their rivals to the spot. They bring guns and bats and when the other dealer finally shows, he threatens Bodie: “You gon’ see me in your sleep.” The other gang leaves, but Bodie knows they’ll be back.”
This scene illustrates a turf war that occurs between two rival gangs in Baltimore. Members of the Barksdale crew, featured at the beginning of the scene, find rival gang members dealing drugs on the block that they normally occupy. After a brief confrontation, a gunfight ensues. A shot is fired through the window of an apartment building, where a mother finds her son dead on his bedroom floor. Stringer Bell, who is running operations while gang leader Avon Barksdale is in jail, is angered by the carelessness of his crew and orders Bodie to take a time-out. Bodie and his crew dispose of the guns by dumping them in the water.
This clip could be used to discuss crime, police surveillance, drug wars, gangs and general difficulties and hardships of life in impoverished communities. The rival gang scene could be shown to introduce the politics of the underground drug economy. It would provide an excellent introduction to a lecture, discussion or active learning exercise about social conditions which lead to criminal activity and the consequences of crime on the wider community.
Active Learning Exercise Idea:
Begin class with a brief lecture on theories of crime and deviance and social conditions in impoverished communities that lead to criminal activity. Show the clip and have students break up into small groups to discuss what actions they would take to improve conditions in this community.
Ask students to (1) identify and list five problems in the Baltimore community (ie: drug dealing, gun violence, poverty, dangerous conditions for children, etc). (2) Discuss 5 ways in which these problems could be prevented.
Then, have the full class congregate once again. Have one representative from each group write the problematic conditions in the community on the board and then return to their seats. Go through the list of problematic conditions in the community. Ask students:
- Are these personal troubles or sociological issues? (For students who are unfamiliar with C. Wright Mills, this can be rephrased as: “Are these problems in the community psychological? social? local? global?”)
- What caused these problematic conditions in the community? Do you think problems arise due to cultural factors, social inequalities, or individual decisions? Why?
Then, ask students to identify the solutions they provided. Challenge students to use theories about crime and deviance to rationalize their choices.