Main Focus

The main focus of the project is the examination of the ways in which societies past and present utilise the concepts of law and punishment to identify and regulate what is identified as 'bad' or 'offensive' behaviour - thereby making certain types of conduct more socially visible and labeling these as 'crime'. Despite research undertaken into the social context of the development of the legal system, including that pioneered by SOLON in recent years, much still needs to be done to comprehend the dimensions of the media, presentation of the legal process, and the links between the legal system and the media - via personalities and their socio-cultural and political networks. It is a significant omission: correlations are regularly made between the criminal legal process and popular pressures on legislators and legal practitioners to conform to a variety of socio-cultural agendas, and most people’s understanding of the legal process is gleaned from a variety of media formats, factual and fictional.

Contributors are working on an interdisciplinary series of research initiatives, associated with plans for publications, with the aim of promoting perspectives which cross a range of boundaries. These include not only academic ones, such as those imposed by discrete subjects on chronologies, locations, races and cultures, but also the boundaries between academics and practitioners in various fields who have an interest in issues relating to bad behaviour and socially visible 'crime' - legal practitioners, social workers etc. We welcome new contributors to the project (academics from a wide range of disciplines and practitioners) - please contact any of the Directors, Anne-Marie Kilday, David Nash, Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson, Lorie Charlesworth or Sam Pegg for further details and to set up a discussion.

Research Aims

One of the research aims is to highlight the extent to which law is enhanced by the development of an essentially historical consciousness of the mutable nature over time and place of what constitutes the legal process in societies; along with the processes of identifying types of offensive behaviour, both formal and informal, criminal and civil. Concepts such as social panic and moral outrage provide unifying themes and the basis for research strategies, highlighting historical perspectives with modern implications thus providing a link with past and present attitudes to civil offending and informal regulation of bad behaviour within society. The project explicitly seeks to develop aspects of research already undertaken by academics into issues of crime and its socio-economic and cultural contexts. Some of this relates to work resulting from the recent ESRC thematic priorities on Crime and Social Inclusion and Exclusion, as well as ongoing thematic priorities. In addition, the two founding Directors of the project, Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson, won an ESRC small grant which led to development of a qualitative database of Victorian crime reportage. The first SOLON edited collection, Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage –Victorian and Modern Parallels (Ashgate, 2003) led to a further edited volume Criminal Conversations: Victorians Behaving Badly (Ohio State University Press, 2005), which will be available in both hardback and CD Rom.

The project network and research outcomes involve academics from law, history, criminology and humanities departments from universities not only in the UK but in America, Canada and Australia (contributors). The purpose of the contributors’ network is to provide an arena for people to contact others working in similar or complementary areas, and so to advance a range of research projects.


Research Objectives

Research linked to the project has a number of objectives which include:

  • a comparative and interdisciplinary exploration, through the notion of social panic and socio-cultural change, of the fluid nature of the boundaries between crime and bad behaviour, utilising both continuities and discontinuities to drive the analysis
  • engendering a greater understanding of the significance, causation and effect of concepts of bad behaviour
  • examining the public discourse of control via the paradox created between what is demanded by the populace and what the state and/or the legal process can or will do when focusing on the concept of bad behaviour
  • identifications of typical perpetrators and the role played by the media in promoting popular representations of such perpetrators and the nature of 'offensive' behaviour
  • developing a broader comprehension of the process of identifying or distinguishing those who can stereotypically be classified as victims taking into account issues of race, gender and social hierarchy
  • expanding the available information on legal sources, including petty sessions and on popular media sources


Research Strategies

In order to achieve the research aims outlined research strategies will include:

  • undertaking empirically-driven surveys of media sources both aural and audio-visual, including popular sources intended for mass audiences (newspapers and periodicals), and those intended for more professional or elite audiences, identifying thereby the experts or key figures involved in the legal process and in the media
  • the creation of a series of database projects resulting from the thematic collation of the material gathered, based on a series of conceptual identifiers with the potential for key-word searches
  • the utilisation of such databases in analysis towards what constitutes bad behaviour, how and why the boundaries between ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ behaviour change over time, and the strategies evolved in different periods, under similar and differing pressures, for dealing with this - highlighting both continuities and discontinuities over time, and the implications thereof.


SOLON Database

A model for this is the SOLON Victorian Crime Reportage Database: one of the earliest initiatives of this project was concerned with developing, via a qualitative database, a deeper comprehension of the mutable nature of public udnerstanding of crime, criminals and criminality and of the fluid boundaries between 'crime' and the broader concept of bad or offensive behaviour, especially during periods of social panic. The database thus aims to:

  • aid development of a set of perspectives on offensive conduct potential in its socio-cultural context that moves beyond chronological narratives in seeking to understand patterns of development, and the issues of both long and term short-term factors
  • emphasise the importance of taking account of the historical dimension in seeking to comprehend offensive behaviour in its various manifestations enabling alternative, essentially comparative, perspectives into this area
  • establish a practical framework to complement the conceptual framework provided by the notion of ‘social panic’.
  • aid wider explorations of this concept and its association with changing parameters of ‘bad’ behaviour, along with strategies for dealing with it, across historical time periods, geographical locations and cultural contexts
  • provide further, largely untapped, material to inform ongoing debates amongst both academics and non-academics interested in the socio-cultural context of the public policy and law-making processes.


Research Questions

The objective of the project is thus to promote work enabling comparative, interdisciplinary explorations of the fluid nature of the boundaries between crime and bad behaviour, in order to engender a greater understanding of the significance, causation and effect of stereotypes of bad behaviour, particularly but not exclusively utilising information drawn from popular media sources.

Questions which the project will address in evolving policy and plans for major research bids include:

  1. Do the sources indicate that it is possible to distinguish between behaviour which is criminal and that which society finds offensive?
  2. Is the distinction between behaviour which is merely offensive and that which is actually criminal a helpful one in seeking to achieve an understanding of the myths surrounding supposed long term patterns of deviance, and of consequent responses to these?
  3. In what ways can it be seen that there was/is, firstly acknowledgement of, and subsequently definition of a social panic at different periods, emerging and promoting a heightened consciousness of media representations of bad behaviour, ranging over both the broader context and the more specific types of criminality?
  4. In what ways is it possible to see linkages between the development of responses to crime and critical reactions to particular types of individuals or groups within society?


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