Post by Harry Annison, University of Southampton

Alumni Dr Harry Annison reflects on his studies for the MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice and the DPhil Criminology

The Journey to Oxford

I initially studied Law at university. I never wanted to be a lawyer; rather, I was fascinated by the ways in which studying ‘the law’ brought together legal, theoretical, empirical and normative questions. Arguments about what is ‘right’ tussled with arguments about the likely practical effect, or indeed the commonsense, of this or that legislation – difficult questions in the best possible way.

Having completed my studies, I received two opportunities that have in many ways shaped my career to date. First, Professor Andrew Rutherford asked me to provide research assistance for an article he was writing about the effect of the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence on the Parole Board. Second, I spent a short period of time working with the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (now Centre for Mental Health), a period in which they were also raising concerns about the effect of the IPP sentence. These experiences reinforced my desire to pursue further study, and my interest in the area of penal policy (and its penological, criminological and criminal justice ‘cousins’). We will return to the IPP sentence later in this story.

I explored the options for postgraduate study, and it became clear that Oxford was the only place to be. The academic staff are internationally recognised leaders in their fields; the Centre is incredibly welcoming; Oxford is a great city. Thankfully, they let me in!

The Journey at Oxford

The MSc was the most intense year of my life, and also the most rewarding. I learned a great deal about criminological theory and criminal justice practice. I explored the relationship between politics and criminal justice, considered key issues in sentencing and desistance from crime. I gained an array of research skills that have continued to prove immensely valuable.

In a flash, the MSc was at an end and I commenced my doctoral research. I had remained interested in the IPP sentence and my interest in politics and policymaking had continued to develop. Criminology’s relative lack of interest in the processes by which particular penal outcomes were produced (legislation, case law, administrative decisions) puzzled me. I hoped that studying British policymaking around the intractable issue of ‘dangerous offenders’ (in the form of the IPP sentence) would serve as a ‘way in’ to exploring the beliefs, traditions and practices by which penal politics and policymaking were conducted.

I carried out 53 research interviews with key policymakers, compiled and waded through a mountain of documents; I wrote, I re-wrote (and I re-wrote some more!). All along the way I was supported, advised, cajoled and assisted by my supervisor, Professor Ian Loader. I was privileged to be part of an academic community where I felt valued, where fantastic academics provided detailed feedback on drafts and where world-leading scholars visited the department regularly (and made a point of meeting with postgraduate students). And perhaps most important day-to-day was the community of fellow DPhil researchers – there are literally too many wonderful people to mention.

The Journey Beyond

It is said that criminology is the archetypal ‘rendezvous subject’. Notwithstanding one’s particular interests, the criminologist requires at least a passing knowledge of law, sociology, politics, philosophy, criminal justice practice; as well as a range of research skills. There is clearly a danger that one becomes a ‘jack of all trades’, unmoored and unfocused. However, I was taught at the Centre for Criminology that anything less than detailed, informed and incisive critical analysis was unacceptable. And rightly so.

I came to Oxford hoping that the skills, experience and knowledge I would gain during my studies would stand me in good stead for a long and rewarding academic career. So far, so good. I am now a Lecturer at Southampton University in the School of Law. I currently teach criminal law, criminology, and law and politics. My research currently centres around two themes: penal politics, and identity-formation in criminal justice.

As regards the former, I am currently finalizing my first book, Dangerous Politics, which provides a detailed analysis of penal politics and policymaking. It will be published by Oxford University Press in summer 2015. I have also published several articles on different aspects of criminal justice politics (one regarding the judiciary, one regarding government policymakers). I am working with the Howard League for Penal Reform in relation to their ‘What is Justice’ symposium' (a quick plug: if you have a ‘One Idea for Change’, send it in here!). Further empirical research is currently under development.

As regards the latter theme, an initial research project relating to Integrated Offender Management for Thames Valley Police and Probation has now been completed. An article considering the role of the ‘IOM brand’ has been accepted by Criminology and Criminal Justice and is currently in press. Further work in this area is also currently under development.

If you had told me a decade ago that I would be interviewing national policymakers, publishing peer-reviewed articles in international journals, and publishing a book with Oxford University Press, I would have taken some convincing. Would I be here without the Centre for Criminology? Very likely not. Would I recommend the Centre for Criminology to any budding criminologist? Absolutely.