Bringing Realism to Criminology: Roger Matthews, 1948-2020

Roger Matthews
Nic Groombridge tweeted this picture of Roger Matthews in 2014, noting that Matthews was denouncing “‘so what’ criminology” at the time.

Roger Matthews, one a group of influential British criminologists who challenged both the dominant rightist “administrative” conception of law and order and what they viewed an idealistic perspective of crime from the left, has died from the effects of the coronavirus. Born in 1948 in Kilburn, north London, he died April 8.

Matthews was professor of criminology at the University of Kent and director of studies for the MA in Criminology at Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, and his passing was marked by an outpouring on social media that highlighted his scholarship, his mentorship, and his “rumbustiousness.” As Nicolas Trajtenberg, a criminologist at Cardiff University tweeted, “Roger Matthews was one of the last Rolling Stones of Criminology. His sense of humor and attitude toward criminological bullshit is synthesized in Borges words: ‘Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.’”

Other criminologists mourned the loss. Michael Rove wrote that Matthews was “supportive, intellectual, and often rumbustious: a great person to be around and a massive contribution to British criminology,” while Alex Stevens hailed him as “a real exponent of the power of criminological research to effect change, and a leading thinker in the field.”

Outside of academe, journalist and activist Julie Bindel, who co-wrote Exiting Prostitution: A Study in Female Desistance with Matthews and two others, hailed his scholarship and added that “Roger was one of the very few male academics that considered prostitution to be abuse.”

That maverick stand was perhaps expected by virtue of questioning conventional wisdom across the spectrum. As Phil Hubbard tweeted, Matthews “sometimes rubbed up people the wrong way, not afraid to court controversy, an independent thinker and a real loss to criminology.” Even Palgrave, the publisher of his book Realist Criminology, saw fit to describe him as both “renowned” and “controversial.”

That that might be so is evidenced in the prologue of his edited volume What Is To Be Done About Crime And Punishment? Towards a ‘Public Criminology’, where he addressed applications of academic criminology. “The major barrier, however, to making a significant contribution to the policy process comes not so much from a fear of failure of co-option but the reality that a great deal of criminological investigation is poorly conceived and researched. Indeed, there is a growing body of criminological material that has been described as ‘So What?’ criminology. This material tends to be theoretically weak, methodologically inadequate and had s little or no policy relevance.”

Noting the decline or theory and rise of “weak” conceptualization, he wrote, “Thus there is a need to link theory, method and policy to produce forms of ‘joined up’ criminology that can combine theoretical sophistication and methodological rigour with policy relevance.”

What did Matthews bring that met his own standards?

As his frequent co-author, the late Jock Young, wrote in 1996, “The essential flaw of establishment criminology is, of course, the attempt to explain crime without touching upon reality, constantly to distance explanation from basic social and economic problems of a divided society.” To address this, Matthews in turn trained his “realist” lens, as his Kent webpage put it, “around issues of crime and punishment with a particular focus on crime prevention and community safety on one hand and prisons and penal policy on the other.” Some of his specific inquiries touched, on the crime side, on armed robbery, shoplifting, the use of CCTV cameras, disorder and anti-social behavior, and on the punishment side, on diversion from custody, alternatives to prison and community based sanctions. At the time of his death, Matthews was working on a new book, Critical Penology, with SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space. (SAGE editor Natalie Aguilera tweeted that Matthews’ “energy and commitment to the process were impressive.”)

His 2014 book, Realist Criminology, proved particularly influential – Stevens called it “an inspiration” – but it was his work on prostitution and sex trafficking which gained the widest public acclaim. His wide-ranging research began in 1985 (when he studied a plan to close certain roads in Finsbury Park to curtail street prostitution there), but gained visibility after the notorious 2006 Ipswich murders of five women involved in prostitution. His 2008 book, Prostitution, Politics and Policy, ran counter to the liberalizing tide around ‘sex work,’ in large part because he saw no way that inherent abuse could be banished from the trade.

Bindel interviewed him then for The Guardian, and noted his demeanor and his impact: “everything about his brusque, down-to-earth manner belies the fact that his groundbreaking research on street prostitution has been cited worldwide – most recently by the Home Office during its ongoing consultation into the sex trade.”

In addition to the 2014 book with Bindel, Matthews advised the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade that same year and co-authored Shifting The Burden: Inquiry to Assess the Operation of the Current Legal Settlement on Prostitution in England and Wales.

Matthews began his higher education at Middlesex University, where he earned a bachelor’s, with honors, in social science, before earning a masters in sociology/criminology at the University of Sussex and a PhD at the University of Essex. He lectured at his alma mater, Middlesex, from 1977 to 1990, then lectured at the University of Leicester from 1990 to 1993, before returning to Middlesex as a professor in 1993. He left Middlesex in 2004 to serve at London South Bank University from 2004 to 2011, when he joined Kent. 

He was a member of both the British and American Societies of Criminology and a founding member of the Latin American Society on Penal Law and Criminology.

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