ESC European Criminology Award Acceptance Speech

Loraine Gelsthorpe

Loraine Gelsthorpe

University of Cambridge


It is a very great honour for me to be awarded the 2021 ESC Lifetime Achievement Award for contribution to European Criminology.  I would like to thank the Award Committee for their work and particularly Michele Burman for nominating me.    The ESC is very dear to me.  The first conference I attended was in September 2001 (the year of 9/11 of course).  I have attended most conferences since and always look forward to them as a highlight of the year, to meet old friends, and to make new friends, to listen, learn, compare and contrast, and I always take away new questions and new things to think about.   Both the Working Group on Women, Crime and Criminal Justice and the Working Group on Community Sanctions have also been hugely important to me in terms of expanding and challenging my thinking, sharing ideas, and forging connections and alliances.   The ESC has achieved genuine openness, inclusiveness and has fostered a spirit of appreciative enquiry, avoiding both silo thinking and internecine methodological debates (for the most part anyway…).

Of course, I did not start life as a criminologist…growing up in a rural community in England (with a German mother I might add, because acknowledging our personal migrant connections is important).   I was going to marry a farmer, have four children and four dogs!   Something went wrong along the way…or something went right insofar as the personal became political.    I was a child of the vicarage, that is, I grew up in a home connected to the church (with a parental figure serving in the Church of England priesthood).   What did I learn from this?     Not to make judgements, for sure.   Our home was open to all comers, those who were homeless, those who were vulnerable.  And I learned something about public service too.   That one’s role and purpose was to serve the community, those who are less fortunate than oneself, and those who are vulnerable.     From the age of 16 I worked in a local psychiatric hospital as a nursing auxiliary during the long summer holidays.   It was here in the 1970s that I had my first sociological experiences and insights…observing the fact that some of the women on the psycho-geriatric ward where I was working were there because simply because they had had illegitimate children when they were in their early teenage years, and here they were totally institutionalised, stripped of dignity.   I remember being told that one patient, whom I shall call Hilda, did not/could not speak and so for 6 weeks I did not speak to her, until one day, when handing her a cup of tea, I said aloud, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t think I’ve put sugar in the tea, I will go and get some’…she said ‘that’s alright dear, I don’t mind’.   To this day I feel ashamed that I made an easy assumption on the basis of what someone had told me, rather than being open, seeking to understand and acting for myself.   The experience at 16 was thus an awakening to the vagaries of the law, moral censure and definitions of psychological impairment that might lead to incarceration (albeit in a hospital).  It was also an awaking to the impact of institutionalisation and to the brutalisation of institutional life for those within, patients and indeed staff.   I sought refuge in the local public library where I explored the work of Isabel Menzies-Lyth on life in institutions.  Menzies-Lyth had produced in 1959 a classic study of hospital systems as defences against the anxieties raised by caring for people in life and death situations (Menzies, 1959). By establishing a rigid hierarchy, fixed psychological roles and a routinisation of work, the hospital was able to diffuse responsibility and anxiety from the individual nurse to the system as a whole. That benefit came, however, at a cost: the use of the primitive defences of splitting, denial and projection prevented more mature forms of coping with anxiety to emerge, and thus stifled individual growth.

So, being aware of people who are vulnerable, and of the deleterious effect of institutional life and public service, and  themes which have guided my Criminological adventures throughout.

I studied History, Philosophy and Social Administration at Sussex University where I was drawn to moral philosophy (and notions of social justice) and 19th century history, the creation and labelling of criminals and the history of criminal justice system responses, the power of the prison and indeed of the asylum.    I was lucky enough to have a personal tutor who was a penal historian (Professor Sean McConville) and from the second year onwards I worked as a research assistant on his major history of prison administration and local prisons.    This work drew me into the world of criminology with wide reading and engagement with the Howard League for Penal Reform.  

I then had a brief career in social work.  In the training, I had particular responsibility for young people who found themselves in trouble with their families, neighbours and communities, and the police – this served as another awakening in terms of ‘there but for fortune’.   In other words, I became very aware of how easy it was to slip between the cracks of social life, to fall on the wrong side of the law one might say, and that whereas some of us have strong moral socialisation to steer us away from trouble, and strong support networks, many do not have these things.   I learned something about the importance of social and human capital, alongside economic capital.   Throughout history there have always been ‘others’, often based on culture, race/ethnicity, gender or social class, ‘others’ who have been demonised by the majority.   The attribution of negative features of course affects everyone.

A personal tragedy led to study for a Master’s degree at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, where I am now Director.   I expected to return to social work and to become a Probation Officer, and indeed had a job lined up in Bristol with a radical section of the Probation Service which assumed that being able to get a job and create a new identity (beyond that of offender) might actually be helpful.   But this wasn’t to be.   My time at Cambridge served as yet another awakening – this time to issues pertaining to Gender, Crime and Justice.   I want to pay tribute here to the work of Nigel Walker (whose seminal work ‘Why Punish?’ amongst other things, taught me how to think) (Walker, ).   Nigel was an exacting lecturer, but his purpose was to stretch people intellectually and he encouraged us, always, to see things differently, to move away from our first assumptions.  It was during the period of the MPhil course also that I had the good fortune to come under the tuition of Allison Morris who the very year that I was there for the MPhil introduced a new course on Gender, Crime and Justice.   This was mind-blowing; it caught my attention and intellectual curiosity, and of course there were resonances with my first experiences of working with the women in the psychiatric hospital from the age of 16, and with my social work experiences where some of the girls and young women I was working with had been categorised as being in ‘moral danger’.    It was this very topic which led me to stay on for a PhD at the Institute rather than moving to Bristol to serve as a Probation Officer.   My PhD on ‘Sexism and the Female Offender’ was an attempt to look at the treatment of women in the contemporary criminal justice system, focusing on young women in particular.   It was an attempt to move on from descriptive empirical accounts of female offenders, to expose some of the myths, muddles and misconceptions in some early research studies, recording, as I went along, the critical enterprises, mostly feminist, of the 1970s and 1980s.   By looking at how ‘sexism’ works in everyday practice in criminal justice agencies (the police, observation and assessment centres, probation practice and incarceration I probed deeply and critically, going beyond theoretical assertions about sexist ideology to explore how far feminist critiques in themselves helped to explain the internal life of the criminal justice system and of other agencies dealing with women  and girls.    It is through reviews of the published work which emanated from the thesis that I learned to call myself a revisionist feminist (Gelsthorpe, 1989).

I want to offer a few comments on my work, particularly feminist contributions to Criminology, but let me finish my career story first:   After the PhD I had a post-doc position at the University of Lancaster in the Centre for Youth, Crime and Community, but the research was in London in the London Borough of Hounslow in particular, working with the Borough authorities and the Metropolitan Police on issues of young people and diversion from crime, from the criminal justice system and from custody in particular.   A second post-doc position followed – this time with UCNW (Bangor) but the research was on prisoners’ experiences of prison regimes in different types of prisons in the midlands (in England) – nowhere near Wales!   A third post-doc position was back at Lancaster although the research was partly in London and partly in the North West England, this time looking at Crown Prosecution Service decision-making in regard to young people.  A fourth research position was at the LSE, looking at race and gender issues in pre-sentence reports.    When I returned to the Institute of Criminology it was initially as a senior research associate (working on inter-agency aspects of crime prevention), before I became a University Lecturer and subsequently professor.    These different experiences (the making of youth justice and injustice and the role of institutional decision-making, decision-making, consumer experiences of the criminal justice system, discourses and narratives of minorities, and then crime prevention) gave me a broad perspective in terms of understanding interconnections between different parts of the system (or the lack of connection).   Ten years or so on soft money also fired my sympathies for early career researchers and other colleagues who are on soft money.   There are huge insecurities for some colleagues in Criminology. 

But I want to return to feminist perspectives.   This is not the place to talk at length about the way in which feminist criminology has reshaped the contours of criminology, but perhaps I can give a few highlights.   The range of feminist work in criminology has been extraordinarily wide, ranging from empirical studies to theoretical developments.   My own empirical excursion led me to some theoretical revisionism and to recognition of the need to acknowledge intersectionality (although this wasn’t the language used at the time).  The search for sexism in the criminal justice system revealed complications and contradictions, as well as evidence of discrimination against women in conflict with the law, with a myriad of discourses (and oppressions) shaping responses to them.   A core tranche of early feminist work of course was to critique the neglect of women in Criminology and the dominant unreflective thinking about gender-role stereotypes.   This ‘doing gender’ phase became very influential in Criminology following arguments that for many men, crime serves as a ‘resource’ for doing gender (Messerschmidt, 1993) and that different crimes are useful for demonstrating masculinity, depending on men’s structural positions across the axes of race and social class.   Feminist theoretical work on the social construction of gender and that on concepts and practices of gender converged with this work to (re)assert the crucial role and enactment of male power, leading to a paradigm shift in thinking about gender and gender inequality.   Perhaps most importantly, drawing attention to the contingent nature of gender and the social processes through which it is enacted, mediated, and accomplished, gender as a social practice also allows for a theorization of the relationship between agency and structural inequalities such as race, class and age, and the role of agency in resistance and social change (McNay, 2000).   (It was pleasing that the ESC recognised the need to focus on ‘gender’ and not just women when the Working Group on Gender, Crime and Justice was set up in 2010).

From ‘doing gender’ we can see a shift to ‘doing difference’ and some of my own work falls into this category.    ‘Doing difference’ involves both a political project and a methodological one:  the political project has involved illuminating discriminatory practices.    In the mid-1990s, alongside a colleagues working in the Government’s research department in the Home Office I was commissioned to do a major study on Understanding the Sentencing of Women – this was to resolve the issue of whether or not women are treated more harshly or leniently than men (Hedderman and Gelsthorpe, 1997).   Needless to say, the answer was ‘it is complicated’, with examples of both leniency (or paternalism we might argue) and harshness, depending on the crime, the marital status of the women, and other presenting factors. It was during this research, interviewing magistrates in the courts, that I learned to pack up my tape recorder and papers after an interview very very slowly…as interviewees made their most revealing comments after the end of a formal interview, and whilst I could not use any quotations, what I learned in these moments informed my interpretation of what they had said in the interview.

This phase of ‘doing difference’ also led to recognition of the correspondences between policing everyday life and policing/controlling men and women through more formal mechanisms of social control…in other words looking at how ‘conformity’ is reproduced.  A focus on women’s prisons revealed outdated, outmoded and gender insensitive discourses and practices, with skilled analysis of regimes producing such memorable phrases as ‘women’s prisons infantalize, feminize, domesticize their occupants’ (Carlen et al., 1985: 182).  Women and girls’ confinement was revealed to be shaped by powerful and pervasive ideologies about femininity and the ‘proper place of women’ (Gelsthorpe, 1989; Worrall, 1990).

The subsequent push for broader gender-specific understandings of women’s experiences and needs in the criminal justice system has prompted a range of policy and practice developments in different countries over time.  Examples in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (making up the UK) include a Women’s Offending Reduction Programme (the Together Women community based project offering holistic provision for women at risk, women under cjs supervision, and women leaving prison), a major review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system (Corston, 2007) and a Commission on Female Offenders (2012) in Scotland.   There has been a good deal of community-based activity to ensure more appropriate responses to vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system.  Centre 218 in Scotland (Loucks et al,. 2006), for example.   I have been involved in a number of the evaluations of this work, and reviews, as well as being a critical commentator on the stop-start progress (or rather ‘two steps forwards, three steps backwards’) as funding and political support has ebbed and flowed.  

Thus feminist criminologists and practitioners alike have been at the core of campaigns for a better understanding of women and girls’ needs and concerns, attempts to reduce women’s imprisonment, and attempts to explain that women offenders are often the victims of domestic circumstances and structural oppressions (Annison et al., 2015).   Together, they have played a key part in the quest for ‘better justice’ – social justice, not simply formal criminal justice.    A good deal of feminist research keeps a human perspective in mind, a good deal of research findings regarding what works with women in conflict with the law emphasises relational dimensions, building genuine relationships that demonstrate ‘care’ about the person being supervised, their desistance, and their future, not just control/monitoring/surveillance is one of the keys to effective supervision we learn.    The work with women, in communities, where women who have offended are alongside other women, and where (largely third sector staff) in conjunction with visiting probation staff have demonstrated that a non-judgmental attitude can bring hope to individual women.   

The creation of international protocols have assisted some of the endeavours, from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to the Bangkok Rules (united Nations Rules regarding the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders).

Continuing with the theme of a political project and feminist contributions, it is important to mention the generation of large and multi-disciplinary body of theoretical, methodological and empirical literature on violence against women in recent years.  I have added my voice through research and writings to challenge the hidden and privatized nature of violence against women, and have sought to position it as a public matter.   This work has broadened the focus of criminology and has added a critical edge – increasing awareness of different forms of violence – emotional and physical, in the home, in war, in the street.  And socio-critical feminist work has made put hegemonic masculinity of criminological work and criminal justice agencies under critical scrutiny and has pointed the way to gender-conscious research and practice.

A new generation of feminist scholars in criminology, informed by broader currents in feminist theory (McNay, 2000) have been producing empirically informed critical analyses on women’s power, agency, and choice, which recognise and acknowledge the duality between victimization and agency.   Members of the ESC Working Group on Gender, Crime and Justice are contributing to this new agenda in creative and effective ways.

The second element of the feminist impulse concerns a methodological project.   Here my role has been to question some of the dictats that feminist research has to be ‘on, by and for’ women, and have rather suggested that feminist research be conceived broadly, with men playing a role in pro-feminist approaches, and work on men contributing to the broader cause of reducing oppression.   After all, if we allow prisons to brutalise men, this will help neither women nor men.   

I have also opposed what Pat Carlen has called ‘theoreticist, libertarian, separatist and gender-centric tendencies’ in some feminist writings (1992: 63) by arguing for greater attention to intersectionality.    And, in my writings, I have argued that feminist research should be neither exclusively qualitative nor narrative-based (the focus on women’s experiences and voices has sometimes given rise to such a precept).   My argument is essentially that all good social scientists, all good criminologists need a full methodological toolkit….one wouldn’t expect a plumber to arrive at one’s home with only a bag of spanners.   Similarly, a good criminologist needs a full toolkit to be able to choose the tool most appropriate for the task.    This is more of my revisionism; there is need to move on from entrenched and overly simplistic dichotomization between quantitative (positivist, objective, statistical, masculinist) and qualitative methods (interpretive, textual, subject, feminist).   One of the wonderful things about the ESC is that each year it demonstrates methodological pluralism and the value and salience of different research methods.   I would add that I think that ESC conferences each year show methodological reflexivity and increased willingness to recognise methodological limitations and the ways in which the knowledge, experience, values and identity of the research influence and affect the research process and knowledge production.

There are new research agendas too; again, each year at the ESC we learn of new directions in gender-related research, with researchers looking at correspondences between different agencies (education, welfare, housing) as well as criminal justice system agencies.   Both the feminization and criminalization of poverty come into play here, with increasing recognition of the different ways in which poverty is penalized.  There is recognition of new victims too (violence amongst women who are disabled, for example, and violence against older women; violence in ‘care homes’; Gender and terrorism work on gender, punishment citizenship and identity; gendered dimensions of cyber-crime, and immigration control, forced migration, market relations in the domain of sexuality is all coming to the fore (see Burman and Gelsthorpe, 2017).

My own contribution to a new agenda relates to the criminalisation of migrant women who have been subject to human trafficking and the vagaries of smuggling.  With a colleague who had been working in probation practice for a number of years in 2011-12 I interviewed a number of women in prisons and immigration centres whose victimisation had been missed by the very agencies set up to identify victims of human trafficking through a National Referral Mechanism (Hales and Gelsthorpe, 2012).  Close scrutiny of over a hundred cases and the decision-making practices surrounding them revealed major flaws in the system.

I have drawn attention to a few developments regarding feminist work in criminology, noting some of my own modest contributions along the way.   There is further to go of course, and I shall hope to continue to voice ideas and concerns for a good while yet.  Feminist work has been hugely important work, but that we should not assume for one moment that the criminal justice system works well for men.   It does not.   There are areas of neglect in regard to race and ethnicity, foreign national prisoners, migrants, and other marginalised groups.

My career has not finished of course, and even when I do retire I think that it will take several years to clear my desk of things I have promised to do, but I am sure that we all reflect backwards as well as forwards sometimes, and I find myself wanting to include some messages to my younger self…or messages to early career researchers.     The first is to get involved.  As a PhD student I was not one to push myself forwards, but I was encouraged by my wonderful supervisor (Allison Morris) to do so…and by offering to assist with a newsletter I soon found myself involved in the British Society of Criminology alongside notable criminologists:  Paul Rock, David Downes, Frances Heidensohn, and the late Geoff Pearson, for example, all of whom were encouraging.   This was before the birth of the European Society of Criminology of course, and I want to pay tribute to the inspired founders of the Society.  Perhaps there is scope for a European network of Early Career researchers and active promotion of mentoring (reverse mentoring too I might add).  A second message is to avoid silo thinking and practice; have more than one research interest on the go perhaps (the one might feed the other) but more particularly don’t be afraid to cross disciplinary boundaries for sources of inspiration and illustration.   Capacity and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries is important; after all, one will very often find as much criminology in History, Geography, Sociology, Social Anthropology, and Social Work, for example, as in Criminology or Law.

A third message is to aim to have a full methodological toolkit…as a modern social scientist or criminologist working in Law, Psychology, or with the police, you never know what tool you will need, so be prepared.  A fourth message is not to be put off by the rejection of articles which you have put forward for publication.   We have all had such rejections – and I sometimes think that we don’t talk about these things enough so that it can seem as if it has all been plain sailing.     

A fifth message is to reach out to people too; academics can be busy, of course, but in my experience they don’t mind prompts to address emails if they have been neglected.    As a PhD student I wrote to a few people for sources of information and to check out ideas, and received very positive responses.  In this sense the ESC is a large community made up of smaller communities (working groups) and it should be possible for those earlier in their careers than others to draw on these different  communities for support and advice.

I said at the beginning that the personal is political.  My Vicarage childhood never seems far away, with recognition of those who are vulnerable (including offenders as well as victims and offender/victims and victim/offenders), and commitment to public service through my academic research (engaging with policy makers where I can and seeking to influence government policy-making in constructive fashion).   My hospital experiences introduced some sociological insights, and I have tried to hold on to them when looking at decision-making in the criminal justice system and allied agencies.  My feminist impulses and my revisionist thinking have been informed by reading widely and engagement with a very wide range of scholars, some of whom I have met at the ESC conferences, and from learning from consumers of criminal justice, practitioners, offenders, victims.    My work is mostly applied work and deliberately so, reflecting my quest for humane values within Criminology and Criminal Justice.    This is something which Professor Sonia Snacken mentioned in 2015 in her own acceptance speech for this award and it is something which Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms has alluded to in his notion of critical morality (Bottoms, 2002).  

In recent months I have been reading Tony Bottoms and Ronald Preston’s The Coming Penal Crisis (Bottoms and Preston, 1980).   It was about a search for values.   This is a good place to reassert the importance of values:  hope for the future requires good social science, good criminology, reflexive criminology, and respect for persons must not be abandoned in penal systems.   This is one of the things that feminist criminology means to me.

What will the Future bring for me?    More research on women and sentencing and provision for women in criminal justice systems,  international comparisons of provision for women and for vulnerable men, work on vicarious trauma amongst those at the front line (especially in third sector/voluntary organisations) working with women and other vulnerable groups, research on deaths under community supervision.   There has been considerable research on deaths in penal custody and deaths in police custody, but hardly any on deaths under community supervision and yet many of those discharged from prison under the supervision of probation or parole officers remain vulnerable, their lives compounded by poverty, homelessness and substance abuse.

Again, I would like to thank the Award Committee, many colleagues and friends, and successive generations of students for their excitement, intellectual curiosity and challenges which have spurred me on to think more broadly and deeply.    

Colleagues who know me well know that I enjoy both writing and reading poetry.   Indeed, it has become a custom to produce  haiku for gatherings of  the Community Sanctions Working Group in response to papers and presentations and on occasion, for the Gender, Crime, and Justice Working Group too.

With a nod to Green Criminology and concerns about consumerism, and a nod to Critical Criminology regarding the need to humanise criminology and to avoid a tendency to pathologise people who have offended, I want to end with a poem:

The Delegates:   Simon Armitage

At the annual Conference of Advanced Criminal Psychology, Dr Amsterdam and myself skipped the afternoon seminar on Offending Behaviours Within Gated Communities and went into town to go nicking stuff.

In Halfords, he pilfered a shiny aluminium gizmo for measuring the tread depth on a car tyre and I nabbed a four-digit combination lock.    In the gardening section of John Lewis’s (a department store) he filched a Butterflies of the British countryside wallchart, while I pocketed a squirrel -proof bird feeder.  In Poundstretcher he shipped a small tin of Magic Stain Remover and I helped myself to a signed 2005 official McFly calendar.    In Specsavers he purloined a pair of silver -rimmed varifocals and I lifted an origami snowflake from the window display.   In Waterstone’s he slipped an unauthorised biography of the disgraced South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje inside his raincoat and I sneaked out with an Original Magnetic Poetry Kit.

In Oxfam he appropriated a five-hundred piece Serengeti at Dusk jigsaw and I swiped a set of six coasters designed by authenticated aborigines.   Then with our laminated delegate passes streaming over our shoulders on lanyards of pink and purple ribbon we legged it out of the precinct and across the park.

And from the high iron bridge we slung the lot over the ornate railings into the filthy river below until every last item of merchandise had either sunk without trace or was drifting away downstream.

‘Remind me, Stephen, why do we do this,’ said Dr Amsterdam.    I said, ‘I really don’t recall’.  

Peeling a brown calfskin glove from the cold moulded fingers of his prosthetic hand he said ‘Let’s make this our last, shall we?’   We shook on the deal and even managed a partial embrace.   A mute swan pecked idly at a Paisley-patterned chiffon scarf before it picked up speed and slithered over the weir.

‘The Delegates’, Simon Armitage,  Paper Aeroplane.  Selected Poems 1989-2014.  (Faber & Faber)


Thus we return to the notion that we all do things we don’t understand, we are all human, and ‘there but for fortune go I’.  Our work as criminologists must be guided by social scientific endeavour, but also ethical and moral precepts. 



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Bottoms, A. E. and Preston, R. (1980) The Coming Penal Crisis; A Criminological and Theological Exploration. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

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Messerschmidt, J. W. (1993)  Masculinities and Crime:  Critique and Reconceptualization.  Maryland, USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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Walker, N. (1991) Why Punish?  Oxford; Oxford University Press.

Worrall, A. (1990) Offending Women.  London: Routledge.