Month: September 2015

Thinking Through King (week 3)

So here’s the first blog post that is actually up and running in relation to my focus groups. I apologise for the delay and blame a toddler (adorable but time consuming), a conference paper (fascinating but again time consuming), and Game of Thrones (no explanation needed). I also offer my apologies for the fact this post is slightly out of sync – it’s a report on the third week of the group schedule yet feedback from weeks one and two will be appearing subsequently. My mother reminded me recently that I used to enjoy reading chapters out of order when I was younger and it never seemed to do me any harm.

In fact, in many ways, it is perhaps apt that this is my first post. It can serve as a reminder of the dangers of directing all our aspirations into fieldwork that so often has the potential to thwart the best-laid plans. We only had two participants in Monday’s group for various reasons. One on hand, it was a great session with some stimulating ideas and discussion floating round. On the other, my sensible sociological head tells me this is not sufficient for formal research purposes. I may need to think about putting contingency plans into place for such weeks; for instance, asking returning participants next week to complete a questionnaire on the same subject.[i]  As I write this, I’m actually wondering if weekly follow-up questionnaires for all would be worthwhile. Reading romanceIndeed, “Mixed Methods” is now a respected research practice. Janice Radway, in her pioneering Reading the Romance (1984) conducted focus groups alongside individual interviews, questionnaires and textual analysis of romance novels themselves.[ii] As a friend of mine, who was the Queen of Qualitative Research during her academic career, always reminds me, “you can’t aim to get certain answers, but you can aim to get the information you want”. Perhaps complementary questionnaires would help me secure that information when focus groups are unpredictable.

But back to the group itself…  this week we discussed the Jim Crow system and the Civil Rights Movement. If the 1950s and 60s was our context, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) was our primary text for consideration. We read through key sections of the letter with them, wanting to hear their initial reactions before flagging specific sentences. It was worthy of note that one of the participants heard the reference to “victims of a broken promise” and immediately drew links with the character of James Allen from I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) that we studied last week. He also felt the most powerful moment in the letter was when the author referenced how “you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children”.[iii]

If King’s emotional rhetoric sparked fascination, so too did his reference to “just and unjust laws.” We asked them to consider “how does one determine if a law is just or unjust”? This sparked an ardent deliberation about the nature of a crime deserving a different law, as well as the potential to break the law should your life be in danger. I tried to draw links with the UK riots a few years ago, following which the government (making the laws) encouraged judges (doing the sentencing) to enact harsher penalties for crimes committed under the circumstances. At the time, it drew heated debates as to whether this was just / unjust because the two – politicians and judges – should arguably be kept separate. Perhaps more immediately relevant, Russ asked the group to consider the UK’s controversial IPP sentence (Indeterminate Public Protection) – see more information about it here. Though abolished in 2012, there are still over 6000 prisoners here in the UK who remain sentenced under IPP with no release date.  Though the dissolution of it suggests it was deemed by many to be unjust, in their heyday the IPP


sentences garnered widespread support.  While these focus groups are aimed at finding out about how ex-offenders in the UK perceive America (whether American society, the prison system, or prison culture), one way to do that is by drawing parallels with their experiences and understandings of the UK system.

As we moved into the creative writing section of today’s group, Russ had the pair writing “Acrostic poems” whereby the first letters of each line spell out a word. I have to confess I had forgotten what an “Acrostic” was (made me think all afternoon about the vast trench between academic writing and creative writing). But I am also happy to confess I was moved by two of the poems that were written today from two men who until three weeks ago had never even considered the act of creative writing. I have full permission to share them here with you, and any complements received will be communicated to their authors…

Martin is his name

And politics was his game

Running for his people

They’re praying under the steeple

Insisting on equality

Needing to rise up from poverty



Mad anger blinds your sight

Against race which is not right

Rise above and stand tall

The King did right, kept his cool

In all the time that has past

No one can say his name did not last

[i] For more information on the potential limitations of conducting  focus groups (and ways to counterbalance any problems), see the useful document by Anita Gibbs at the University of Surrey, “Focus Groups,” Social Research Update, Issue 19 (Winter 1997): [Accessed 23/9/15]. Note in particular the valuable bibliography at the end for further reading.

[ii] Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy & Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, reprinted 1991).

[iii] Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16th April 1963, transcript available online: [Accessed 23/9/15].


‘The Perpetrator Self’ conference

A number of critics and commentators have contended that there is no such thing as “meaningless violence” and hence the perpetrator warrants studying, as discussed at a conference last week. Organised by the wonderful Dr Clare Bielby at WISE, University of Hull (and supported by Technische Universität Dresden and the German History Society), the conference was entitled ‘The Perpetrator Self: Violence, Gender and Emotion in Conflict and Culture in the Long Twentieth Century’. Though this blog site is first and foremost aimed at documenting my current focus group work (those posts are coming soon, I promise!), this is an opportunity to look at further research work, both in the field of American Studies and beyond. I need to thank Clare for pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Indeed, there is always a temptation for area studies academics, to fail to look beyond their immediate geographical remit, at the risk of missing valuable opportunities to draw points of comparison and contrast with other texts and contexts that may enrich our own ideas and fields.

As asked in the opening comments, if we don’t seek to understand violence, how can we ever seek to handle or manage it? What are the implications of seeking to understand the perpetrator? The conference organisers sought to push delegates beyond straightforward interpretations of violence, asking them to consider what may be the emotions or affects that violence is bound up with (whether positive or negative), and whether the violent perpetrator can “easily” be gendered. Certainly, taking emotion and gender into account in perpetrator studies in a sustained way is missing. Along both emotional and gendered lines, in what ways might we understand violence as something productive (for the self), rather than just a destructive force?

I was interested to learn the etymology of the word “perpetrator”; taken from the Latin perpetrare, “to perform, to accomplish”. If we are to discuss the “performance” of violence, then surely – as was raised in the opening hours of the conference – we need to consider simultaneously the role of the audience. Coincidentally, this fit with my own paper in which I included a consideration for how a series of violent books may (sometimes problematically) be consumed. I explored a trilogy by UK born Shaun Attwood, who was arrested in the US for drug-dealing. The so-called English Shaun Trilogy (2010-2014) details his life as a raver, inside jail, and once sentenced in prison. Attwood certainly boasts attributes pertaining to “classic” American prison authors, embracing reading and self-education as a means of redemption, and putting forward commentary on the problems with the system and the state. And yet his status as an “outsider” offers a fascinating pedestal from which to detail the frisson of violent prison exploits. The narrator offers sensationalist descriptions of aggressive episodes; as his publisher must surely be aware, (American) violence sells! Including materials garnered from an interview I conducted with the smart and savvy Attwood, I sought to explore the cultural constructions of violence in his books and the politics of violent representation.

Sitting on a panel entitled “Social Violence” (the others included State-Sanctioned Violence, Revolutionary Violence, Exhibiting Violence), I learnt from Professor Sarah Colvin about the field of Narrative Criminology. A growing field, according to Oxford Bibliographies Narrative Criminology’s cross-discipline approach considers the relationship between stories and crime, “that is, the narrative itself, as opposed to the events and circumstances reported in the narrative, is taken to be the immediate cause of offending”.[i] I anticipate that this domain will aid me greatly as I develop the paper into a longer article and I look forward to reading more. Furthermore, I believe that a good conference will – in addition to generating a hefty amazon bill – inspire teaching as well as research. I was captivated by “Hearts and Minds: the Interrogation Project”, a virtual reality 3D artwork based on interviews of American soldiers, conducted by Dr. John Tsukayama.[ii] Originating as a PhD thesis with the graphics added later, the voiceover details uncomfortable stories of “ordinary” American soldiers conducting torture post-9/11, and the PTSD they subsequently suffered. Given that I incorporate discussions of Abu Ghraib / Guantanamo Bay into my American Prison Culture module in a week on “War-time Imprisonment”, as does  my colleague Barnaby Haran on his American Photography module, I do hope we can perhaps seek to bring this memorable project to our students in future. I thank all those from whom I learnt so much throughout the course of the two days of conference.

[i]  Lois Presser, “Narrative Criminology,” Oxford Bibliographies Online: [Accessed 21/9/15].

[ii] See various websites connected to the project, including:;; [all accessed 21/9/15].

A bit of background…

I’m excited that this project, despite hiccups, is finally underway. But first things first, a bit of background…


There is arguably a “need” in this contemporary climate for consideration into how the UK (or indeed any other countries) regards and evaluates the US. Something similar occurred post 9/11 with the chaos of the Bush Administration, but it is happening again now for a range of complex reasons (political, economic, social and cultural). Furthermore, the American prison system is in many ways unique (for instance, because of its sheer numbers of prisoners, use of the death penalty, discriminatory justice system etc) and hence warrants scrutiny. The facebook page for “The House I Live In” is a wonderful resource for statistics and information about the contemporary US system of incarceration.

books 1This project will scrutinize the US prison system and contemporary US society more widely through the prism of former UK prisoners. During a number of focus and reading groups, we will discuss and study American prison pop-culture (such as Hollywood films about Alcatraz or memoirs from death row inmates). In addition to producing an academic book analyzing the discussions, we will also publish a formal collection of poetry / creative writings from the prisoners that reflects on American (penal) culture. Transatlantic research and thought is currently highly topical and I believe a project which takes both an academic and a more creative path will prove fruitful.

Furthermore, there has been much recent discussion concerning the UK making moves towards “super-prisons”. While not necessarily on a par with the US supermax facilities, our emphasis on prison expansion is far removed from more “successful” European models of incarceration (as seen in Norway and Sweden, for example) that boast declining statistics for sheer numbers of prisoners and rates of recidivism. It is arguably an apt time to consider the ways in which the UK is inching ever closer to the fierce penal system witnessed across the pond.


I am extremely grateful to the YMCA Humber – Turning Point Project (TPP) for permitting these groups to go ahead with their service users. As detailed on their website, TPP continues YMCA Humber’s provision of accommodation and support for ex-offenders. TPP offers accommodation units as well as a popular drop-in centre. See the TP website here for more information on this inspiring organisation.

I am also very fortunate to have Russ Litten leading the weekly focus groups (supported by myself). Russ is a talented Hull-based novelist and for many years served as the Writer-in-Residence at HMP Everthorpe in East Yorkshire, teaching creative writing to groups of prisoners. You can read more about Russ and his novels on his website here. His most recent work was an edited collection from the inmates of Everthorpe entitled Burn; Writing from Inside (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015). I have witnessed Russ’s work at Everthorpe (more on this in a future post), and am looking forward to his enthusiasm for creative writing once again.

We will study a piece of prison culture weekly (whether music / music videos, film, poetry, fiction etc).  I have selected the texts carefully; they are all cultural lightning rods for serious debates about US prison life and America more generally. For instance, Mark Falkoff’s edited collection The Detainees Speak; Poems from Guantanamo Bay and the movie Dead Man Walking. I hope they will give us opportunity to discuss a number of key American prison discussion points including race and class, as well as key “American” concepts including liberty, the American Dream, the Constitution and American Exceptionalism.


I am not a trained psychologist or criminologist and nor do I aspire to be (as fascinating as I think these fields are). Instead, in theoretical terms this project is built on Cultural Studies foundations. Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary academic field which explores a wide variety of forms of cultural expression in order to understand history as well as everyday life, society and power. Scholars such as Tricia Rose working in this discipline have powerfully asserted the need to consider text and context simultaneously and with equal importance. Focus groups will reveal the responses of former UK prisoners to US prison texts, offering grass-roots social commentary on prison and associated “incarceration themes.” But there is a need for a more concrete approach to such textual readings, so I intend to feed such reception work into larger academic conversations about America.books 3

The importance of exploring reader responses is worth noting here. At A-Level, I know English Literature students are encouraged to produce their own sophisticated reading of a book in which they learn much about the structure (eg literary devices) of that particular text. Yet in many ways their readings sit in a cultural vacuum with little understanding of the tangible uses of that text. Such analyses can be greatly enriched by considering what different audiences or individual readers may do with a text. The engagement with ex-offenders as the reading group is apt as Cultural Studies has shown particular concern with subordinate groups. Oftentimes, Cultural Studies scholars examine those very social groups who are suffering – or have suffered – any form of control over their lives and explore their practices.

Two great sources that I would highly recommend in these fields are as follows:

  • Greg Dimitradis & George Kambereli, Focus Groups (Routledge, 2013)
  • Andrew Milner & Jeff Browitt, Contemporary Cultural Theory (3rd, Routledge, 2002)