From the Beginning

As has been remarked by many within academia, criminology as a discipline is one of the fastest growing in the UK HE sector today. Fewer know that it has a long history and one that the British Society of Criminology (BSC) has been at the heart of since the earliest of days.

Ben Bowling and James Ross (2006) provide a comprehensive yet concise history, documenting how the ‘Association for the Scientific Treatment of Criminals’ was established in 1931, renamed shortly after as the ‘Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency’ (in 1932) and then renamed again as the ‘Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency’ (ISTD) in 1951.

In 1953 [the ISTD] set up ‘The Scientific Group for the Discussion of Delinquency Problems’ … [which] became independent of ISTD in 1955 and in 1961 adopted its current name of ‘The British Society of Criminology’ (Bowling and Ross, 2006:12-13).

Professor Paul Rock was approached for this webpage (together with many other early BSC members cited throughout this article) and he recalls his personal experience of these early days (also see Rock, 2010):

I came to criminology as so many of my contemporaries did, as a matter of chance and contingency rather than clear-sighted, long-nursed and well-informed ambition … knowing next to nothing about what it might be.  Criminology had been introduced to the London School of Economics by Hermann Mannheim, a member of the Law Department since 1935 … it was a rendez-vous  discipline (in David Downes’ phrase) that stemmed variously from law, philosophy, penal and legal reform, psychiatry, criminal anthropology, sociology, political economy, and administration, and its character was manifest in the very diverse men he took to stand as its pioneers. In 1938-9, Mannheim’s ‘Principles of Criminology’ course at the LSE was a potpourri that consisted of: 

  1. The meaning, methods and tasks of Criminology. The use of Criminal Statistics.  History and present character of crime in England and abroad.  II.  The criminal types and the causes of crime:  (1) Physical factors:  the anthropological theory (Lombroso).  The biological theory.  The significance of physical defects.  (2) Psychological and pathological factors:  the intelligence of the criminal.  Insanity and mental deficiency.  The psychoanalytical explanation . . .  (3)  Alcoholism.  Climate.  Race and Religion.  (4)  The age factor . . .  (5) The sex factor:  Female delinquency and prostitution.  (6) Social and economic factors:  Family, broken homes, housing, delinquency areas . . . . The gang.  Profession and Unemployment.  Poverty.  Economic and political crisis.

In 1962, the programme of criminology through which I was led by Eryl Hall Williams, also of the Law Department, was an echo of that scheme.

Professor Roger Hood, President of the BSC (1987-1989), also recalls these years when he was a research assistant to Dr Hermann Mannheim in 1958:

I first attended meetings of the BSC’s precursor: the ‘Scientific Group for the Study of Delinquency Problems’ set up in 1953 by the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency (ISTD). Present were such distinguished criminologists of the day as Max Grünhut, Trevor Gibbens, Peter Scott, and Leslie Wilkins, as well as progressive members of the judiciary, prison and probation services. By 1961, when I returned from Cambridge to the LSE, the Group was on the verge of becoming the independent British Society of Criminology.

The present day BSC is a registered charity which aims to further the interests and knowledge of both academic and professional people who are engaged in any aspect of work or teaching, research or public education about crime, criminal behaviour and the criminal justice systems in the United Kingdom. Our history is long, and at times has been turbulent, but our strength is in our membership and this section of the website aims to capture some of the history and the memories of that membership. If you also have memories to add please email info@britsoccrim.org

The Margins and the Mainstream

Professor Mike Levi, writing for the European Society of Criminology newsletter in 2017, builds on this context of the emergence of British criminology:

non-British European origins of the first generation of ‘British’ criminologists and sociologists of crime: (alphabetically) Norbert Elias, Max Grünhut, Hermann Mannheim, and Sir Leon Radzinowicz, all of them Jews escaping Nazism, giving the contemporary interest in atrocity crimes and State Crime a rounded historical feel.

Up to the 1960s the mainstream positivist criminology maintained that ‘crime’ was the result of a range of physiological, psychological, economic, or structural predeterminants and criminology was a discourse which emerged around the penal-welfare complex. Criminology was largely individualistic in its focus and those working within the field were generally interested in individual behaviour rather than societal context. This began to change, and Paul Rock recalls the rich diversity of the materials they were reading:

Outside the formal confines of the lecture and seminar, a hedge school had begun to emerge amongst sociology students, including Frances Heidensohn (then Doherty), Phil Hughes and Jock Young.  We were effectively autodidacts, piecing together for ourselves what seemed to be the beginnings of a more vibrant and immediate sociology of the here-and-now … It was an approach that at times contrasted markedly with the official curriculum of LSE Sociology in the early 1960s. [Later] there were but three research students in the discipline at Oxford itself, Kit Carson, Dogan Akman and myself, when I entered in 1964.  There were too few of us to form a critical mass.

In Scotland, developments in the teaching of criminology were being experienced first-hand. Professor Hazel Croall recalls:

By the time I was in my honours degree (Strathclyde, Social Sciences, 1963), Ian Taylor was at Glasgow University developing a criminology course. The next sort of big decision was to go and do a Masters. I was not allowed to go to Cambridge because they wouldn’t recognise degrees from Scottish universities. I was lucky enough to be offered a university grant to do the Masters at Keele, which was in I think the second or third year.

By the late-1960s an emergent radical criminology began to challenge and question notions of causation, and criticised positivist criminology as being little more than an adjunct of government. Criminology in the latter third of the twentieth century re-connected with the the interplay between structure and agency.

The Rebellion of New Deviancy

Writing for the BSC at the turn of the century, John Muncie explored how the subject matter of criminology in the 1960s moved away from “a sole reliance on those injurious acts defined as such by the criminal law”, to a broader understanding of harms and a recognition that the power to define (and to ignore) certain acts was key to public understanding of crime.

Rather what criminology can and should study are processes of criminalisation: how certain harmful acts/events come to be defined and recognised as ‘crime’ whilst others do not. (Muncie, 2000)

Paul Rock has memories of the beginnings of a modest network, an “invisible college” of research students, from Oxford and beyond:

The invisible college, grounded initially in a web of research students, bolstered when they took academic posts, and ever growing, was to become institutionalised in the National Deviancy Conference after a cabal met at a criminology conference in Cambridge in July 1968 and elected to strike out on its own.


The National Deviancy Symposium (or National Deviancy Conference) formed in July 1968 consisting of a group of British criminologists: Kit Carson, Stan Cohen, David Downes, Mary Susan McIntosh, Ian Taylor, Laurie Taylor, Paul Walton, Mike Hepworth, Jock Young and Paul Rock. Paul Rock continues:

We met regularly at the University of York, the home university of Laurie Taylor, an associate of Stan Cohen. The Conference at first celebrated the ‘new’ deviancy theory, conceiving it to represent a radical break from a past and present somewhat demonised as overly positivistic, overly ensnared by the State, and lacking engagement with sociology proper. 

The group proceeded to organise 13 conferences between 1968 and 1973, and provided a forum for campaign groups around criminal justice, such as Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP). This group led to the formation, in 1974, of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Control which continues to the present time.

Paul Rock expands here on the interpretations of the word ‘radical’ and the ideological rifts that emerged following this time:

The meaning of the word ‘radical’, often attached to the so-called new deviancy theory embraced at the York Symposia,  was always somewhat ambiguous.  For some, like myself, it signified a break with abstracted empiricism and a commitment to policy intervention, a break that was linked to the symbolic interactionism and phenomenology percolating through from North America.  For others, like the authors of The New Criminology, it meant an incorporation of Marx and Marxism, and a framing of criminology as a political and politicised enterprise.  Few of us in the former camp were brave enough to voice our misgivings, until we abandoned caution and produced  Deviant Interpretations in 1979, an edited volume of sceptical essays.  That rift between those who believe that the point of criminology is to interpret the world, and those who would wish to change it, remains, although the acrimony has dwindled as we all got older, more mellow and less enamoured of conflict.

Former BSC President, Professor Mike Hough, remembers the 1970s as a time of change:

My memories of the BSC in the 1970s are of quite regular seminar meetings in Mary Ward House, the beautiful Arts and Crafts building in Bloomsbury.

Interior of Mary Ward House

Mike Hough

Things changed throughout the 1980s, as the Home Office ‘machine’ began increasingly to reduce the autonomy of the research unit (subsequently rebadged the Research and Planning Unit). However, contact with the active academic membership of the BSC remained close, exemplified by the fact that in the mid-1980s I and other HO researchers were involved in the working group that set up the (originally biennial, now annual) British Criminology Conference, the first event being in Sheffield in 1987.

Conferences and Publications

Professor Roger Hood became president of the Society in 1987. Now an honorary member of the BSC, he also recalls the Southern branch meetings in London at that time and that the mood was one of change. The potential for a more dynamic and energised society was led by those who believed criminology was more than a disciplinary crossroads. They were a small but more modern and clear-sighted group:

They were attended by fewer of the leading academics of the day. I believed strongly that the BSC needed to transform itself into a recognised Learned Society. A new Constitution was drawn up which introduced the present criteria for different classes of membership, the first being those who had a good claim to be regarded as teachers and researchers in criminology. When Sheffield University organized a national conference in 1987, I was delighted when my motion that future conferences should be held under the auspices of the ‘reformed’ BSC was accepted by a large majority.

Also delighted, but this time due to the fact that London was not chosen as a venue for this first conference, was Hazel Croall:

Gradually, and I don’t really recollect how, there were calls for meetings/ conferences to be more ‘national’ and I do recall some discussion about the venue for  the first BSC ‘national’ conference to be held in Sheffield as it was a central venue. I do recall a large number of eminent and not so eminent criminologists being on the train to Sheffield from London.  Gradually the locations shifted – but it was a long time before a Scottish Conference was acceptable. As I recall distance from London was, and remains, an issue until it became accepted that a conference in Scotland was long overdue.

In fact it took twenty years until the first national conference was held in Scotland (Glasgow, 2006). Professor Joanna Shapland was part of the drive towards the establishment of a broader, more inclusive criminology and it soon began to attract a wider and ethusiastic following:

Joanna Shapland

I was part of that small group of academics who decided to revive an annual conference for criminologists. The first of the new series of British Criminology Conferences was held at the University of Sheffield in 1987. We were worried at the time as to whether, given the theoretical splits in the 1980s, criminologists would want to come together, but were amazed and delighted at the response. We appealed to the University for more rooms and they gallantly found more space for us. I was Treasurer for the first three British Criminology Conferences, which definitely brought on the grey hairs, but which also cemented the need for criminologists to meet and to interact with practitioners and policy makers.

There were conferences held in York, Cardiff and Loughborough in the early 1990s. Professor Anne Worrall recalls the Belfast conference in 1997 being particularly important because it was the year prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and there were some very emotionally charged conference visits to former paramilitary groups, both Catholic and Protestant. Writing in the first Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Jon Vagg and Tim Newburn reflected on the ten years since the first BSC conference:

criminology courses and criminologists proliferate, and the subject is no longer dominated in the way it was then by what Rock (1988) has called the ‘fortunate generation’ – that cohort of criminologists who were recruited in the 1960s and 1970s. At the Sheffield conference, just over 50 papers were given. Eight years later in Loughborough there were approaching 250 papers, and almost 500 participants. There is no longer any doubt of the capacity of British criminology to support a large bi-annual conference – the only question is whether this is frequent enough. The likelihood is that it will become an annual conference by the year 2000. (Vagg and Newburn, 1998)


They were not far wrong.  The creation of Papers from the British Criminology Conference (PBCC) in 1998 led to a conference journal that continues to this day. Reflecting ten years after the establishment of the journal, the then editor of PBCC, Professor Andrew Millie stated:

This online journal continued for a further six volumes … After a brief hiatus it was decided that the online journal was too good a vehicle for  presenting papers from the conference to see it slip into history, and so the  journal was re‐launched for the 2008 Conference (Millie, 2008)

The first volume had set the tone for this vehicle, the aim being to present high quality published papers that also gave a flavour of the conference. Today the PBCC journal is published in December of the same year as the conference. This quick turnaround puts a great deal of pressure on authors and editors (who in recent years have also included, Dr Charlotte Harris, Dr Helen Jones and Dr Lizzie Seal).  The journal is available free for all BSC members.

Also becoming increasingly involved in the BSC in the mid-80s was Professor Tim Newburn, then working in the Home Office Research Unit.

Tim Newburn

I joined the BSC around 1986/87. There were monthly meetings, held in those days at the National Institute for Social Work on Tavistock Place, attended by a wide variety of professionals as well as academics. I held various posts over the next 10 years or so, first as Branch Secretary, then Southern Branch Chair, helping to organise the London meetings, and also becoming the Book Reviews Editor for the Society’s newsletter.

He goes on to highlight that “the thing that stands out for me is the acquisition of the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice. The agreement reached with Sage was both very positive intellectually and financially for the Society, offering a new income stream as well as ensuring, as any Professional Society ought, that the BSC had its own academic journal”.

Criminology and Criminal Justice is the official journal of the British Society of Criminology

Some people assume the British Journal of Criminology is owned by the BSC. Certainly, for full members of the Society, it is a benefit of membership. But Criminology & Criminal Justice is the official journal of the BSC. It is a leading, peer reviewed journal of original research and thinking of the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice, both throughout the UK and internationally.  It is interdisciplinary and provides an international forum for critical debate and policy discussions. First published in February 2001, it now has a Online First outlet to facilitate the delivery of the latest research as quickly as possible.

Further recollections of these early conferences are provided by Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero, who demonstrates that it was not all plain-sailing but certainly always lively:

I have attended many BSC conferences since the early 1990s, and although I hold a pleasant memory of most, a few episodes scattered through the years stick to my mind, either because of funny or perplexing events. In Cardiff, I heard Leon Radzinowicz lambasting edited books and their editors, amid the embarrassment and fury of colleagues who had only produced edited books.  In Keele, I remember some criminologists attacking a colleague for not being a Marxist, although their own Marxism was of a wishy-washy nature.

Ideological conflicts were frequent as the desire to develop and support interdisciplinary research came face to face with competing perspectives. Professor Adam Crawford, Editor-in-Chief of the BSC’s official journal Criminology and Criminal Justice between 2010-16, saw interdisciplinary as a strength of criminology. Another BSC Honorary member, Professor Nigel Fielding,  also discusses the ‘rendezvous’ nature of criminology (a term first coined by Professor David Downes) claiming that through its:

conferences, journals, and networking activities, the British Society of Criminology has long promoted work across disciplinary borders. This is something I have greatly valued. At the Society’s meetings one witnesses a genuine enthusiasm for coming at issues of crime, deviance and social control from a variety of perspectives, and without divisions into ‘camps’ like those sometimes found elsewhere. This does not mean that debate has not been at times passionate and committed. But there is always the feeling of a shared fascination with how society plays out the high dramas of what is right and what is wrong.

The memories made at conference can last a lifetime.  Professor John Muncie, now an honorary member of the BSC and then a regular delegate and speaker at BSC conferences during the 1990s and 2000s, fondly remembers the Liverpool conference held at the Adelphi Hotel in 1999. Hazel Croall also remembers the conferences of these years as being the birthplace of a more critical and expansive criminology:

Another point of issue from my perspective with many of these bi-annual conferences was the inclusion or otherwise of papers, streams or themes covering white collar or corporate crime. While feminist criminologists had been largely successful in having workshops focussing on women and gender issues, and so too did victimology, white collar crime remained largely neglected – having an occasional workshop or being tacked on to others.

The Liverpool conference changed this with its approach to inclusivity and a broader conceptualiaion of crimnology. Vincenzo Ruggiero adds:

In Liverpool, I saw a mixture of speakers and members of the audience exchanging views and borrowing concepts, words and expressions from each other’s language, in a magic discussion, a feast of polyglot participations, that made this BSC conference the most exciting international event I have ever attended. I hope this is the future of the BSC and of the conferences and other events it will organize.

Hazel Croall was centrally involved in the Liverpool conference and in organising the subsequent Glasgow conference. She  continues:

The interests of conference organisers led them to include and actively seek papers for multiple workshops or themes on the subject of white collar crime. Organising the Glasgow conference was a challenge – particularly with the scrupulous attention to cost and detail imposed by the BSC representatives and of course the difficulties of dealing with University departments and procedures. We decided to run it as a co-operative venture between all Glasgow Universities which added expertise to the committee. We also called on members across Scotland to be responsible for the different themes, again reflecting multiple interests in feminism, gender, victimology, white collar and corporate and green criminology as well as more traditional areas and including Scottish contributions and those from other devolved nations. We actively sought to attract some really good speakers some from abroad – indeed one speaker at the theme on green criminology mentioned the non environmental air miles travelled by green criminologists!  

Constant Changes

As we have seen, the BSC adopted its current structure in the mid 1980s after its establishment as a professional association in 1961. It has an important role in helping to promote criminology and better represent the knowledge, utility and vitality of contemporary criminological thinking.  The President and Executive Committee decide what strategic direction the Society should take and select priorities.

Roger Hood (1986 to 1989)
David Farrington (1990 to 1993)
Robert Reiner (1993 to 1996)
Philip Bean (1996 to 1999)
Keith Bottomley (2000 to 2003)
Maureen Cain (2003 to 2005)
Tim Newburn (2005 to 2008)
Mike Hough (2008 to 2011)
Loraine Gelsthorpe (2011 to 2015)
Peter Squires (2015 to 2019)
Sandra Walklate (2019 to 2023)
Pamela Davies (2023 onwards)

Mike Hough experienced the changing face of British Criminology, firstly from his perspective within the Home Office as a government researcher, then as an active academic criminologist, and subsequently as a President of the BSC:

By the 1990s, life as a government researcher felt very different, and our work was much more tightly circumscribed by political requirements. Pressures on us to ‘deliver’ – and not to rock the boat, even when it needed rocking – altered and strained our relations with academic criminology. I was part of the diaspora of Home Office researchers to university posts, leaving the Home Office in 1994 to set up a policy research centre, based first at London South Bank University, then at King’s College London and currently at Birkbeck. Although my centre initially survived largely on government contracts, I saw relationships between government researchers and academics progressively attenuate. I have very few recollections of involvement with the Society at this time beyond regular attendance at the criminology conference – until Tim Newburn, the then president,  approached me in 2007 to suggest that I stood  as a candidate to replace him. I was president from 2008 until 2011, and one of the main things I wanted to do was to help rebuild relationships between academic and government criminologists. I find it very hard to judge whether I had any success in this ambition whatsoever.

Another BSC President, Professor Peter Squires, also comments on the structure of the BSC in recent years:

I don’t think there have been many elections for BSC Presidents, people with longer memories might have to verify this, but that has been my impression.  When Loraine Gelsthorpe’s term of office came towards its conclusion I offered to take on the role.  Loraine ended up serving an extra year, I think we had to adjust the constitution to permit it and it led us to introduce the Vice President role so as to ensure future continuity.  It seemed important (to me and others) that a President should have some experience on the executive prior to taking on the role. In the event, I was not the only nominee and we had an election for the president for the first time in many years; there were a number of other elections during 2015 for a range of other posts on the Executive.  Democracy was breaking out in the BSC.  I’m inclined to think it a good thing, a little more energising for the organisation, greater accountability to colleagues within the discipline.

Another aspect of the changing face of organisational structure and national engagement was the development of regional and special interest groups. Mike Hough adds:

I also thought that the development of special interest networks within the Society was an excellent idea, and I did my best to support this. 

Special Interest Networks

The BSC currently has nine Specialist Networks that cover areas of criminological and criminal justice interest, from crime statistics to youth justice. Many of these networks hold regular meetings and award prizes. Their members comprise some of the most well-known researchers, educators, activists and policymakers in the UK today.

Hazel Croall echoes many within criminology who value the emergence of specialist networks. Speaking about the Learning and Teaching Network she comments:

I was very interested in the development of international exchange networks using the internet and was delighted that colleagues played an active role in these, along with the development of awards for prizes in teaching methods and disseminating good teaching practice.

Dr Liz Frondigoun and Dr Helen Jones had been collaborating on such international exchange networks (together with partners in the USA) for a number of years before proposing a Learning and Teaching Network to the BSC Executive in 2009. Helen Jones recalls:

The Executive seemed a little reluctant to begin with in considering a specialist network on teaching. We had written a proposal for how the group would operate, the level of support it had from across the membership and what goals the group had. We had support from the Higher Education Academy and SAGE (who still sponsor the annual teaching award) but there was still some dissent from those who felt it detracted from the focus on research. Our argument was, for the majority of academic criminologists, teaching takes up at least as much of our time as does research. As we are spending so much of our professional lives to this pursuit, it should be acknowledged and supported by our professional association, to enable us to be the best educators we can be.

This is indicative of all the specialist networks. They exist to provide a valuable space to criminologists who have a passion for working in – and across – various aspects of our discipline. Often travelling across the country to attend network meetings and events, there are also ‘virtual’ communities on Twitter, JISCMail, Facebook and across blog sites:

The BSC Blog (starting in 2018) – Blog

Crime and Justice Statistics Network – JISC maillist
Early Career Researchers Network – Facebook group
Learning and Teaching Network – Blog
Policing Network – Blog
Victims Network – Curated Newspaper & Blog
Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network – JISC maillist
Youth Criminology/Youth Justice Network – JISC mailist

Regional Events

There are currently ten regional groups that host events, mostly free to attend, and some groups are more active than others. The origins of these groups stem from the early 1980s when the first regional group was established. Professor Robert Reiner remembers becoming a BSC member in the 1980s, and attending the Southern Branch seminars in Mary Ward House, Bloomsbury, London. He went on to chair the Southern Branch from 1989-93 and recalls “for several years Tim Newburn and I organised the London seminars together in various capacities”. Professor Joanna Shapland also recalls these events “I found the monthly seminars at Mary Ward House in Bloomsbury a real lifeline and bonus to keep me up to date with new research and to inspire me, as well as an occasion to meet both academics and practitioners in London”. Participation  included a diverse range of people, as Executive Committe member Nic Groombridge recollects:

Nic Groombridge

A Wednesday evening in the mid 90s at the National Institute of Social Work in Bloomsbury. Betsy Stanko is knitting, senior Home Office staff (no such thing as MoJ then) and young researchers from its Research and Planning Unit (RPU) are in attendance as are Professors from a variety of Institutions. I’m a low-level Home Office civil servant in a policy/administration Division responsible for Probation.
The venue has changed several times for these meetings of the Southern (but essentially London) Branch and the Chair has passed between Professors Tim Newburn, Robert Reiner, Kevin Stenson and Simon Hallsworth before settling on me until 2016.  Meetings are now held at the LSE. The prestige of this institution used to mean a regular supply of high profile visiting speakers each year. This has declined over the past few years. Attendance by the professoriate has become more patchy and that by civil servants and crime professionals virtually non-existent but interested members of the public occasionally attend.

This perception of attendance at the London meetings is echoed by other attendees, including Vincenzo Ruggiero:

In the southern branch of the BSC, I met extraordinary colleagues and friends, who make me think that our discipline can still give a lot to the national and international debate. Most of them, however, do not describe themselves as criminologists.

Indeed, even Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, speaking at a BSC South Branch meeting in March 2017 echoed this as he stated  “though a consumer of criminological knowledge and someone who writes on broadly criminological matters, I do not consider myself, nor claim to be, an academic, nor a criminologist”. For many, an appeal of the BSC has been this diverse membership. Former Chief Superintendent with the Greater Manchester Police, Paul Cook, was one of the earliest members of the restructured BSC.  Involvement within the Society from practitioners helped to strengthen the connections between theory, research, policy and practice.

Professor Philip Bean, former BSC President (1996-1999), orginally began his involvement with the BSC as a member involved in the Midlands Branch. He oversaw a number of constitutional changes including changing the BSC’s legal status from an Association to a Company Limited by Guarantee and making it a Charity. He was committed to the notion of a local, regional, branch structure and continued to work closely with the Midlands Branch.

Further north however, the London centric nature of the BSC became a recurring issue. Hazel Croall makes the point:

It was called the BRITISH society  but based in London and dominated by the Home Office, and academics from London and Oxbridge (see my previous comment about the timing of meetings). Many aspects of the early BSC networking (meetings where one could catch up on latest thinking, conferences which broadened networks and latterly teaching and learning initiatives such as benchmarks) were particularly invaluable for many academics who were not in the ‘big’ criminology departments but could be somewhat isolated by being the only person (or part of a small group) teaching criminology in sociology, psychology or law departments.

Thanks to the efforts of the numerous regional convenors across the country this is no longer the problem it once was. Regional and Network groups contribute to the vibrancy of the Society and play a crucial role in providing networking opportunities, career progression through involvement in matters beyond ones own institution and a platform from which to extend the reach and impact of criminological research.

Research Excellence Framework

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) – and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) prior to it – is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. The primary purpose of the REF is to assess the quality of research and inform the selective allocation of monies for research to the institutions which they fund. It provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment.

Peter Squires reflects on recent discussions surrounding the Research Excellence Framework:

The struggle over the REF and the panel ‘name game’, goes back to the changing character of the BSC since the beginning of the 21st century, and specifically the expansion of criminology in the new universities. Some of the issues alluded to in regard to BSC ‘democratisation’ surfaced in other ways during the consultation on the future of the REF organised by HEFCE.  My recollection, bolstered by conversations with Mike Hough and Loraine Gelsthorpe had been that the BSC’s view on the REF panel name was pretty settled before I became President.  Because of the size, scale and expansion of criminology in the newer post-92 universities, and the number of REF submissions, we wanted criminology to have its own named panel – or at least – that it be named in one of the panel titles. 

Historically, criminology submissions had been split between the panels for Social Policy & Social Work, Sociology, and Law.  The majority went to Social Policy & Social Work, and there was a particular irony in the fact that more criminology went to this panel than social work, although the latter discipline was mentioned in the panel title.  Accordingly the BSC prepared a draft response to the consultation reiterating what was, and had been for a while, the Executive’s position.

Extract from the 2017 BSC submission to HEFCE’s consultation on REF structure:

The BSC Executive view is that the current REF structure disadvantages and obscures criminological work as no REF Sub-Panel identifies criminology in its title … Criminology has the hallmarks of a discipline, including its own QAA benchmarks, indicating both coherence and professional identity. Furthermore, the growth and popularity of the discipline continues unabated with the UK also leading the world in many areas of criminological research. Criminological expertise informs national government on a wide range of issues, featuring strongly in a number of Impact Case Studies. Taken together, this amounts to a strong case for formally recognising Criminology within the REF panel structure … We do not accept the argument that this will prevent criminology-related submissions going to other sub-panels; on the contrary, developing inter-disciplinarity implies that academic boundaries will become increasingly porous; primarily legal or sociological criminology might still go to other sub-panels, much as some psychological criminology did in 2014, such boundary judgements will always be necessary. Our primary concern is the coherence and academic recognition of our subject area, not hard and fast subject classifications or divisiveness.

This position was criticised by a small but significant number of BSC members, a number of who had been REF assessors in 2014.  They argued that Criminology was not a discipline, as such, but a ‘rendezvous‘ subject with many influences, and that the opportunity to submit to the different panels was important. The position of the Executive was that, far from reiterating the ‘rendezvous‘ concept, it was necessary to go beyond it. Criminology, is not a simple meeting place or crossroads for ideas from a range of disciplines. Instead it is a discipline whose roots include sociology, psychology, law, social policy, geography and philosophy. The roots nourish the main body: the discipline of Criminology.

Peter Squires continues:

Significantly, we received a few submissions from criminologists, some of them members, working in Law schools who argued that their institutional submissions would be weakened if the ‘criminal justice’ research outputs/impacts were peeled away to go to a named criminology panel rather than stay with their own institutional law submissions as had been the case in 2014. I confess I’ve never really understood this position, inter-disciplinarity occurs all over the REF, it is positively encouraged, it doesn’t stop disciplines being recognised for what they are, and as a QAA-benchmarked subject, criminology certainly meets the discipline threshold.  There is little problem here, criminology submissions could go to a criminology panel, law and criminal justice submissions could stay with law.  Overall, greater consistency, one of the REFs criteria, could have been met. In November 2017  HEFCE rejected our case to be named on a panel, even though to do so would have been consistent with 3 of their four aims and objectives: Supporting consistency in the assessment across the sub-panels; Encouraging the submission of interdisciplinary research and; Minimising the fluidity between the UOA boundaries. Arguably, having criminological work submitted to three panels flies directly in the face of HEFCE’s third principle. Strange.

The Role of Teaching

To understand the role of teaching and its importance to the current day BSC we have to go back in time. The first School of Criminology in the USA was opened in 1950 at the University of California, Berkeley. Here in the UK, the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, was founded by Sir Leon Radzinowicz in 1959, after establishing the Department of Criminal Science within the Faculty of Law there during the 1940s. Criminology as a field of study emerged throughout the 60s and 70s. Paul Rock recalls:

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time when universities and student numbers were expanding in the wake of the Robbins Report on higher education (1963).  Up until 1950, there had only been twenty-nine British universities; eight were then founded in the 1950s; and fourteen in the 1960s, eight in 1966 and 1967 alone.  The total number of ‘home acceptance’ students doubled between 1963 and 1969, and were then to increase by another 40% by 1980.  Staff were recruited in proportion:  there were 13% more staff in universities in the second half of the 1970s than in the first.  Publishers commissioned and accepted books to feed a swelling readership, and writing moved smoothly and as if on a conveyor belt into print (the saying about academics then was that they ‘never had an unpublished thought’.) Rock, 2010

Universities including Cardiff, Keele, Middlesex, Leicester and Nottingham were amongst the first to teach criminology at undergraduate level in the UK. Mike Levi reflects on his own experience:

The only criminology postgraduate course in 1971 was at Cambridge, where we were awarded a Diploma, the subject not being deemed yet worthy of the masters’ title  … Cardiff was the first of the UK research-intensive Russell Group universities to offer a single honours undergraduate criminology degree. ESC Newsletter, 2017

The BSC has always welcomed the involvement of postgraduates, as confirmed by Ursula Smartt, now an honorary member of the BSC. She recalls:

Ursula Smartt

I became a member of the British Society of Criminology in 1992 when I started my prison research and enrolled for the PHD in Social Policy and Criminology at Hull University. From 2002 to 2009 I was firstly Secretary of the London Branch for three years with regular meetings at the LSE and Dr Ben Bowling as Chair of that branch, followed by being a member of the National Advisory Committee with the office of ‘Media and Public Relations’.

Today there is an Early Career Researchers Network and a  Postgraduate committee with an active following of supporters and in 2016 the BSC began a programme of group memberships for undergraduates.

According to UCAS, criminology is now taught at over 100 institutions in the UK, and members of the British Society of Criminology were central to the development and further revision of the QAA benchmarks for criminology (QAA, 2014). Hazel Croall was involved in this endeavour from the start and recalls:

I was able to get involved in the work on benchmarking with the British Society of Criminology. I was on the first benchmark committee with some lovely people from many different perspectives. We felt as if we were creating criminology which had to stretch as one member said from Ken Pease to Joe Sim! As an academic who had spent much of my career teaching (with never enough time for writing and researching!), developing new courses and actively valued teaching, as opposed to seeing it as an unwelcome aspect of an academic career, I welcomed the somewhat belated interest of the BSC in teaching issues through benchmarks and groups dedicated to innovative teaching methods.

The benchmarking exercise was no easy task but the BSC learned from the experience and was even more involved in the second iteration of the QAA benchmarks. Chaired by the BSC’s then Learning and Teaching Network chair, half of all the benchmarking panel were BSC members. The panel meet on numerous occasions, usually face to face but sometimes through the medium of video-conferencing, and the new benchmarks took the whole of 2013 to formulate, finally being published in 2014.

Into the Future

Much has changed since the turn of the 21st century but our recent history continues the desire to talk about the study of crime. Every year there is a themed annual conference and in 2010 we were featured on the Radio 4 programme ‘Thinking Allowed‘. BSC Networks utilise blogs, Facebook and Twitter as a way of reaching out and expanding their audiences beyond conventional membership. The BSC main Twitter account now has a following of over 23,000 people and the annual conference attracts criminologists from every continent except Antartica! In 2021 (in response to the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic) we ran our first ever fully online, annual conference. It was a great success and attracted participation from people much further afield than ever before.

Conference delegates 2016 - non UK
Conference attendance from non-UK countries 2016

During the past 60 years, criminology has emerged as one of the most dynamic and fastest growing disciplines. Today, it stands on clear commitments to methodological rigor, interdisciplinary theory and concepts of rights and justice. The British Society of Criminology continues as a meeting point for a growing network of supporters committed to critical dialogue within our multi-faceted and diverse discipline.

As Professor Pat Calen has stated “the British Society of Criminology’s main value is as the guardian of professional ethics and academic values within criminology”.  This is endorsed by Professor John Lea: “I see criminology as a healthily eclectic discipline drawing together people from a variety of academic disciplines and practitioner backgrounds. The British Society of Criminology is important for maintaining a common set of values and professional identity”.

With a growing membership, the BSC attracts criminologists from the four nations of the UK and across the globe. Regional groups and specialist networks means that there is always something going on and this helps to secure the dynamic future of the discipline.

As this history of the British Society of Criminology has shown, we stand firmly on the shoulders of many individuals.  Part of the challenge of the next 60 years lies in developing and sustaining the dynamic future of the discipline.

Grateful thanks for details from our honorary members and other long-standing members of the Society whose correspondence helped frame this history.

Bowling, B. and Ross, J. (2006) ‘A brief history of criminology’, in Criminal Justice Matters

Millie, A. (2008) ‘Editor’s Note’, in Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Vol. 8.

Muncie, J. (2000) ‘Decriminalising Criminology’, in Papers from the British Society of Criminology Conference, Vol. 3.

Rock, P. (2010) Victims, Policy Making and Criminological Theory: Selected Essays. Ashgate.

Vagg, J. and Newburn, T. (1998) ‘Editors’ Introduction’, in Selected papers from the 1995 British Criminology Conference, Loughborough, Vol.1.

Compiled by Dr Helen Jones, 2017 (updated, 2023)