Dr. Sarah Armstrong presented her paper ‘Seeing and Seeing-As: Towards a Politics of Visibility in Criminology’ at the All Souls Criminology Seminar Series on Thursday, 1 February, 2018. Dr. Armstrong is a Senior Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Glasgow, as well as the Director of The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

A recording of this is available here

At the start of Dr. Armstrong’s presentation, she displayed three visualisations of a Scottish prison: a graph showing the change in prison population over time, a photo of New Slains castle (constructed of the same stone as a new prison in northeast Scotland), and a photo of the sterile interior of a storage room in a contemporary prison. These three images, Dr. Armstrong explained, were all visualisations of the same object—a prison—albeit from very different perspectives. She described the phenomenon of ‘seeing’ an object as a process entailing not only a sensory perception, but also a cognitive processing. In the processing of an image, the mind invariably draws on a prior frame of reference in order to understand what the eye is perceiving. Dr. Armstrong introduced the concept of ‘seeing-as,’ referring to an imaginative process whereby a person embraces multiple, sometimes contradicting frames of reference to help envision the ideal form of an object such as the criminal justice system.

According to Dr. Armstrong, ‘seeing-as’ is a solution for criminologists who endeavour to describe and critique the criminal justice system without simultaneously reproducing and entrenching problematic imagery, tropes, and frames of crime and justice. To illustrate her point, Dr. Armstrong gave the example of how the popular image of a prison in the United States is defined by notions of race and poverty. The dilemma for a criminologist is to critique the American penal institution, without incidentally normalising and naturalising the common association between race, poverty, and prison.

To demonstrate how a scholar can ‘see’ a prison as comprised of multiple realities, all occupying the same Euclidean space, Dr. Armstrong described her recent visit to a new Scottish prison. This prison was intended to be a modern, progressive facility operated in pursuance of a new policy of community-facing prisons. Indeed, Dr. Armstrong described this building as more closely resembling a new college or hospital than a prison. The prison managers described the facility with superlatives and boasted about how much it would facilitate progressive programmes.

The prisoners, on the other hand, described the facility in a manner that seemed to directly contradict the reality held by the managers. They felt alienated from the community—not more connected to it—because the prison was built in a rural area situated two hours from the nearest city by car. For them, this environment fostered rioting, boredom, and the absence of regime. In a particularly poignant excerpt from her field notes, Dr. Armstrong described the juxtaposition of staff and prisoners in medical facility within the prison. The staff were huddled around a reception desk, chatting and laughing with one another casually, while just to the right a glass box held several quiet prisoners soberly waiting to be treated.

‘Seeing as’ embraces elements of multiplicity, contradiction, and absence. Multiplicity refers to the plurality of realities that constitute an object of study. The element of contradiction requires that we not discount any reality merely because it contradicts another. Finally, absence refers to the how realities are assembled across space and time such that all objects are defined by both presences and absences. With respect to the new Scottish prison, ‘seeing as’ meant that this prison was simultaneously a modern facility built for progressive community-facing programming and an alienating institution susceptible to rioting and boredom. It also means accounting for the ‘absent’ forces shaping the prison, such as the political process that led the government to build a ‘community-facing’ prison so far away from the prisoners’ communities.

To conclude, Dr. Armstrong returned to the idea that ‘seeing as’ is an imaginative act by which we as criminologists can reach beyond traditional, stereotyped, and problematic images of the criminal justice system. We can use multiplicity, contradiction, and absence not only to describe the system but also to challenge the dominant images and narratives associated with its various aspects. In addition, we can begin to develop a politics of visibility by bringing into the light not only the plurality of presences and absences that currently define the objects we study, but also ideal alternative representations of these objects. The act of imagining such alternative representations is an effort to enact a new and better social order.

Sarah Armstrong’s paper is published as a chapter in the Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology.

Lisa Saccomano is a current MSc student in the Centre for Criminology