Social harm and the structure of societies

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Simon Pemberton
Recorded: 08/02/2012
Broadcast: 04/04/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Today I’m with Dr Simon Pemberton who is a Birmingham Fellow and he is in both the School of Social Policy and the School of Law. Simon, you’re split across two schools.

Simon: That’s correct.

Lucy: Tell us what you’re doing with your Fellowship.

Simon: My Fellowship is to essentially develop the concept of social harm, to develop a working definition and ensure that that definition will be used to measure social harm within society.

Lucy: So, social harm is a term within criminology?

Simon: Well that’s where it began. Social harm originates out of a series of debates within criminology about the narrowness of the definition of crime, that essentially, focuses on individual acts of harm, things like inter-personal violence, theft, so on and so forth. So the idea of social harm originally was to expand that notion of harm to encompass the harms that organisations cause that nation states cause. But latterly the idea of social harm really now transcends criminology so there are a group of writers who think that – and I would include myself there – that actually there's something to social harm that could be very useful in terms of trying to understand the harms that occur within society, to produce an objective and well-rounded analyses of harm. It’s to take all the harms that occur in society and to understand the sorts of harms that causes the greatest level of harm, the way that those harms are disproportionately located amongst different groups within society.

Lucy: So to give us an example?

Simon: If you go back to the idea of ‘yes, well will it escape criminology?’, then yes, we say OK, well there are, I don’t know, there are something like 600 murders a year in the UK and of course those cause immense suffering and devastation to not only the victim of course who loses their life, but to the families and other people connected to that individual. But also to think, you know, if you take that as a physical harm, the other forms of physical harm. So to use an example: of the deaths caused by air pollution, so deaths brought forward in the UK each year through air pollution are estimated at 20,000 deaths a year. There are something like 8,000 deaths that occur through contraction of cancer as a result of the work that people do.

Lucy: 20,000 people a year die prematurely due to air pollution in this country?

Simon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lucy: That seems like an incredible figure.

Simon: It is. It’s a figure -

Lucy: And we worry about being murdered.

Simon: There are different narratives that frame these events and the point is that social harm tries to escape those narratives to basically analyse in the round harms in society because there’s a great level of sort of morality that surrounds particular forms of death and the point of social harm is to take a step back and think about harm as being a preventable social phenomena.

Lucy: So it’s to think about how could we prevent some of these deaths from happening?

Simon: Yes, that’s right. Whereas obviously crime is concerned with issues around intent, less commonly criminal negligence, the point of social harm is to think about harm as a preventable incident. That means that we can have a far broader lens if you like, so we can take a whole host of different harms that otherwise would have been left out of the notion of crime and left out of the remit of other social sciences, to think about harm as a preventable event and to think about, well OK then, when we compare those harms, which ones are the most regular, which ones cause the most damage to our life? So that really is the kind of second strand to this idea of defining social harm.

Lucy: So it’s looking at perhaps a mission or indifference where companies are pursuing profit rather than looking after their workforce and then that ends up with workplace cancers or other injuries.

Simon: Yes, that’s right. So one of the strictures of criminal law is that criminal law has a fascination with intent. Well actually, the greatest level of harms that are probably caused in our society are caused by indifference. Whilst corporations do many things for us that are positive, they create jobs, they deliver services for us, you know, there are also a whole host of harms that are caused by corporations through indifference, as you quite rightly say. But also social harm allows us to look at the structures of our society. There are a lot of harms that are generated through the very way we organise our society in terms of inequality, in terms of harms associated to poverty, homelessness, you know, where not one organisation, not one individual, is necessarily to blame but actually the decisions that we make as a society, the way that we structure our social relationships, the way we structure our markets, produce a whole host of harms.

Lucy: On the face of it, saying how could we reduce say the 8,000 people that contract cancer as a result of what they’ve done in the workplace, sounds great. The other end of the stick is, is this the health and safety gone mad approach, you know, is that what you end up with when you try to reduce this?

Simon: There are a number of societies, capitalist societies that have greater levels of regulation. If you use the jargon of red tape then ‘burdens on business’, one could empirically, it would appear that their societies – so if you take Scandinavian countries – tend to have far greater levels of legal regulation around the workplace. It would appear that those societies perform as well, if not better, economically than societies who have less red tape, less regulation, less burdens on business. So I’m not convinced empirically that that is necessarily proven.

Lucy: And how does the UK square up when you compare us with say Scandinavian countries, in this area of social harm?

Simon: I mean on the face of it, with work that I’ve done previously, suggests that actually neo-liberal countries like the US, I would argue increasingly the UK has a neo-liberal thorn of governance and policy. But those countries demonstrate higher levels of harm on a range of different indicators in terms of inequality, in terms of economic insecurity, in terms of physical insecurity, in terms of workplace injuries and harm. When you look, on the face of it, social democratic countries they appear to have a number of facets to their organisation that protect people within those nation states from some of the harms that capitalism itself generates.

Lucy: And having done this research, what do you lie in bed at night worrying about?

Simon: I worry most about the forms of analysis of harm that persist at the moment. There's a very individualised analysis of harm that dominates a whole host of debates around responsibility for crime, around the current debates around welfare as well. So that in essence we’ve used society in a very atomised way and consequently we neglect the structural determining context in which harms take place. So you know, there's a beautiful line that’s used by two American criminologists – Tift and Sullivan – who talk about societies create conditions in which people find it difficult to be good and for me, we’re neglecting these analyses. Really, it means that we arrive at more sensible conclusions about levels of crime and the way that we then prevent crime, but also in terms of the way that we think about the harms of poverty where we try to explain them through the behaviours of individuals rather than actually the structural organisation of markets and labour markets. So, you know, there’s some very persuasive analysis produced by Danny Dorling of the crime rates of murder following the policies of economic deregulation, deindustrialisation in the 1980s which demonstrates a peak in production of a whole set of events and murders. Now of course individuals are obviously responsible for those murders but also we have to take a step back and consider the social conditions in which those murders take place. Harms just aren’t naturally occurring, they don’t just randomly occur. There are reasons why some capitalist countries seem to outperform others in terms of preventing harm to their populations and we need to understand that.

Lucy: You’re saying that actually if we take time to think about this and approach it in a different way, we could potentially make a change.

Simon: Indeed. Whilst harm is a gloomy topic in itself, there are alternative models to organising society. We can follow those models; it’s just a case of political will.

Lucy: Dr Simon Pemberton, thank you very much.

Simon: Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall and the producer was Sam Walter.