Stanley Cohen: Distinguished criminologist

 

Stanley Cohen, who died in January after coping determinedly with Parkinson’s for some years, was one of the most inspiring and original thinkers around the world in criminology and human rights.

He also manifested all the qualities of the Jewish word “mensch”, a man of the utmost honesty and integrity, which was allied to unfailing humour even – or especially – in adversity. He relished the novels of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller and David Lodge, and it gave him a sharp eye and pen for the absurdities and pretensions of much academic discourse.

Born in 1942, he grew up in a South Africa shaped by apartheid. Having studied sociology and social work at the University of Witwatersrand, he came, with his wife, Ruth, to London to work as a psychiatric social worker.  In 1963 he joined the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics to pursue doctoral research into social responses to vandalism.

His Ph.D thesis was to be the basis for his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), the study of social reactions to mods and rockers, clashes between whom were taken, for a time, as portents of social collapse. The term “moral panic”, with its connotations of melodrama and over-reaction to minor and/or extreme forms of deviance, and the coda that such responses can make things far worse, has entered the English language.

The second major phase of his work, co-authored with Laurie Taylor, began when he moved to Durham University in 1967 and to the University of Essex in 1972. Both founding members of the National Deviancy Conference in 1968, which challenged criminological orthodoxy, their study of the conditions and effects of long-term imprisonment in H Wing in Durham Prison, Psychological Survival (1972), led to consternation in the Home Office.

That, and Prison Secrets (1976), on the lack of clear-cut rights in prison regimes, led on to Cohen’s celebrated “dispersal of control” thesis. Drawing on the legacy of Orwell as much as Foucault, he analysed the ever-extending reach of the state into everyday life. Visions of Social Control (1985) is a dystopian examination of how even benign reforms in the name of “the community” can be subverted to ever more penetrating controls. Against Criminology (1988) collected articles united by his preference for criminology as a “sceptical” sociology of crime, deviance and control rather than a statistically formulated correctionalism.

The third and final phase is in many ways his most important contribution to advanced social thought. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001) combines his rich expertise in criminology with his concern for human rights, generated by growing up in South Africa and sharpened by his experience of living in Israel from 1980-94, after which he returned to London to take up a Chair in Sociology at the LSE.

While there is no truth whatsoever in the assertion that he and his family were driven out of Israel for pursuing anti-Zionist policies, he was a consistent and vocal critic of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and their cause as, indeed, was Ruth, an active member of the Israeli feminist peace movement Women in Black. Particular insights flowed from his skill in applying criminological theories, such as Sykes and Matza’s “techniques of neutralisation” to the denial of repression and atrocities by governments and state officialdom. The notion of “torture-lite” burgeoned in such rationalisations: “The equivalent of ‘you can’t call this stealing’ is ‘you can’t call this torture’.”

Cohen made seminal contributions not only to the study of crime, deviance and control but also to human rights. He was a founder member of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE, as well as the most prominent member of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Generations of students testify to the warmth and humour, as well as the range and scholarly sophistication of his teaching. He was a great exponent of the Socratic method, stimulating students to think for themselves and not simply to absorb received opinion. Fortunately, his work has already proved highly durable, and future generations can at least test their sense of reality against the standards he set. One of his idiosyncrasies was to have postcard-sized photos of people whose work he held in the highest regard, which included George Orwell, Nelson Mandela and Samuel Beckett. We can well imagine him among them.

Stanley Cohen, criminologist: born 23 February 1942; married Ruth (died 2003; two daughters); died 7 January 2013.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chief Engineer

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chief Engineer is required to...

Recruitment Genius: Web Marketing Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Renewable Energy compa...

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?