The Criminological Ego

Today’s blog was inspired by some of the responses I’ve received regarding my decision to make this blog anonymous. Whilst some have found the anonymity to be intriguing and celebratory, others have been more sceptical, questioning who I am and the purpose of the blog. So here I want to share why I chose to be a faceless, nameless blogger, in the hope to remove scepticism and allow people to just enjoy the posts.

Let me first explain the criminological ego, of which my situation stems. Many years ago as an undergraduate student I remember sitting in a lecture theatre with one of the most inspiring criminology lecturers I have ever come across (still to this day) and it was at that moment I decided academia was the career for me. I sat and listened to his passion for understanding the politics of crime and desire to bring justice to those who were neglected by State. I spend the remaining 3 years of my undergraduate degree attending seminar events, (intended for PhD students, post-docs and lecturers) inspired by the likes of Joe Sim, John Muncie, Jock Young and Frances Heidensohn. As I sat through these events I remember wondering what it must be like to be so well respected by students and fellow academics, to have your name known so widely, surely that’s the goal, right?

Let’s now fast forward a few years to my PhD, this was the time for me to showcase that ambition, write an outstanding thesis and network among these celebrity criminologists. But, it turned out that these people who I had looked up to and respected for many years were not the people I thought, (a bit like when people meet their idols and wished they’d never). I recall attending a seminar being led by two A class criminologists and at the end of their very thought provoking presentation I asked a question, a very reasonable question (well I thought so!) only to be completely shot down in front of peers and seniors. Now I doubt the speaker intended it, but I felt humiliated in front of my peers and mentors and it made me re-evaluate these people. I was an enthusiastic doctoral student, wanting to engage in academic discussions, yet this moment let me feeling like a fool. It was my fault right, I should have sat quietly and said nothing, I mean who was I to ask a challenging question, what right did I have? 15 years on I can now say I did have the right, academia is supposed to be a space for expression, difference of opinion and healthy debate. Ok so I wasn’t in their ‘league’ but I wondered why they didn’t want to encourage a young academic to ask questions and be thankful for someone eagerly engaging in their work. My answer is, what I have come to term, the criminological ego.

I have read many posts over the last 24 months about “asshole professors” and the only way to get to the top is to be a jerk. I hear many stories of PhD students feeling used (or worse, neglected) by supervisors, postdocs who work 24/7 researching and writing, just to be named last on a paper or have their ideas stolen by their professor. These stories aren’t new, and worryingly, not uncommon (I’m sure I or a guest will be contributing a blog post about such experiences some time soon), but I do want to stress not all professors are like this and over my career I have come across many kind and supportive professors. Nevertheless, I have stood at conferences and had readers and professors actually talk over my head, clearly looking to find someone more important to talk to. I’ve even had professors who I work with, completely ignore me at events while they engage with far more high profile criminologists. If you stand back at a conference and actually look around, it is quite fascinating, young ambitious early career researchers desperately trying to impress, professors huddled together discussing their latest achievements and PhD students feeling isolated by the experience, it’s the conference hierarchy, unintentionally designed to separate those who have ‘made it’ and those still battling the academic cargo net (I will be writing more on this whilst attending the forthcoming ESC Conference). It’s funny because some of the most interesting papers I have seen at conferences over the years have come from the PhD and post-doc community, yet it is the professor club who receive the loudest of applause.

There is an ego in criminology, one I haven’t witnessed to the same extent in other disciplines (but I’m sure it exists), which I reflected on in my first blog What’s the point in criminology. This ego is manifesting in different ways, examples include, the TV celebrity criminologists (adored by the public, despised by many academics), the conference celebrity criminologists, those who will say almost anything in the keynote presentation just to get a reaction and the textbook celebrities, who are often perceived as experts but actually they rely on the work of others to get their name known. For me, the most celebrated criminologists should be those who are the most understated, those who don’t compete to be well known but rather work hard because they are passionate about their subject area. Over the years I noticed that much of the ego witnessed in criminology actually stems from insecurities, it seems to me that academics today want that sign of acceptance, that they have somehow made it. For me, the acceptance came from my first peer reviewed journal articles after years of rejections. For others it is their monograph or their invitation to be a keynote speaker. The peer review system in place for academics encourages insecurity; funding applications being denied, journal articles being rejected, continuous unsuccessful job applications. These cycles of rejection breed insecurities amongst criminologists, feelings of failure almost, and the result is that when people do ‘make it’ the ego overshadows the insecurities. All of a sudden all those years of hearing no, you are finally accepted and celebrated for your success, whilst in the background your colleagues are struggling, wondering if it’s all worth it because they feel they will never be able to overcome that cargo net. In a career that breeds insecurities, it breeds egos and to compete in this you need the ability to please those in the hierarchy, because it is them who will decide on your success or failure.

I learnt very early on that in criminology it is not what you know but who you know that will get you where you want to be. Invitations to contribute to that special edition, acceptance of a book chapter, getting research funded and even book proposals. You constantly have to prove your worth in terms of not what you have to contribute but where you stand in the hierarchy. Now I know that this might not be the experience of everyone and that someone reading this will have had a very different perspective, what I say to you is well done. You are lucky to not of been a postdoc dogsbody, whilst sacrificing your own career path, you are fortunate to have never experienced constant rejection and you should be grateful for having a professor who believes in your work and supports you. For many criminologists, we are not blessed with this luck but instead waste our time wondering if there’s any point to all of it.

If you have ever felt the way I used to feel, I would say firstly, don’t worry, you are not alone and, secondly, it’s ok.  There is a dark side to seeking celebrity status, whether you are a musician, actor, writer or indeed a criminologist, you need to appeal to the right people and your insecurities can often lead you down an ego driven role where you may become well known in your field but that doesn’t mean you will be liked. From my point of view, the true appeal of academia was the freedom of thought, the ability to construct your own opinions and arguments, even if people disliked them. The opportunity to stand up for what you believe in and make positive changes through research and writing and, importantly, the ability to inspire people, is what drives me. I made the decision years ago not to try and make it in criminology, I didn’t want to take the asshole path I have seen so many of my colleagues take. I just wanted to do what I love most; trying to answer those tricky questions about why crime happens and what can we do to prevent it; stand up and inspire students to think outside the box; and publish a little to share my thoughts with others. This is why I entered academia and this is why I remain.

So how does this all tie into the anonymous blog? I am opinionated but have found myself too fearful to express my opinion. After years of rejection in research and writing I have come to realise that whilst freedom of thought might still be promoted by the old school criminologists, my job security and future prospects rely on me playing by the rules. My first blog criticising the non-existent field of criminology will not of been received well by many, but it’s my perception and I wanted to share it. My blog on balancing academia with motherhood could only be written anonymously without revealing the identity of the people involved in the discrimination, which could be considered slander. It doesn’t really matter who I am to you reading the blog, I am not using it to progress my career or fit into one of the celebrity slots and this blog certainly won’t get me rich! To be honest it doesn’t even matter if no-one reads this, it’s my space to reflect in the comfort of knowing, for the first, time I cannot be judged personally. For the first time after a long time working in academia I am safe in the knowledge that any criticisms that come my way as a result of my blog are not personal. After years of being shunned at conferences or not being invited to contribute in my subject area, and taking it very personally (thinking do they not like me? Is it because I’m a woman? Have I done something to offend them?), I can write freely and help ease some of those insecurities.

This blog space allows me to be open about working in criminology, my reality, and for the first time I feel like I have finally achieved the academic freedom I desired as an undergraduate.





6 thoughts on “The Criminological Ego

  1. Brilliant! The language was easy to read.I can relate to a lot of what you have said and I’m an undergrad! I see the behavior of some academics who make criminology look like a cult .Stay anonymous!it will keep you honest 😆


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