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George Floyd: The Shameful Psychosocial Dynamics of ‘Race’, Violence and Hatred

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Dr David Jones writes about the dynamics of shame, hatred and fear that have been repeatedly noted, yet still continue.

The current global attention being brought to the problems of ‘race’ and criminal justice by the callous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompts me to write as a white academic who has struggled to write about ‘race’.  I actually struggled to write that first sentence;  I really wanted to precede ‘callous’ with something like ‘inexplicable’, or ‘shocking’. Yet I could not quite do that, as the killing was horrific but in many ways not shocking or inexplicable. It has happened far too many times before for us to seek that comfort.  And the inability of many of us to really think about this shameful topic is perhaps the most difficult and hideous thing we have to think about now. 

In 2008, I published a book that set out to use ‘psychosocial perspectives’ to ‘understanding criminal behaviour’. It had no section discussing the role that ‘race’ played in the criminal justice system, indeed  barely any mention of the topic. I think that I believed that to refer to ‘race’ was somehow dangerous. It was perhaps a shameful topic and one I was not qualified to write about because I am white. The recently published 2ndedition of the book has a chapter devoted to ‘race’.  What changed over the ten year period that ‘allowed’ or ‘prompted’ me to write a chapter on ‘‘race’ and crime’’?  The honest answer, I think, is that I spent substantial parts of that period teaching  psychosocial perspectives on criminal behaviour to students at the University of East London, the vast majority of whom were ‘black’ or other minority. I would sometimes be the only white person in the room and it was this perspective, alongside their kind curiosity, that helped me to think about what it is to be white and how ‘race’ is, at the very least, every bit as much my responsibility to think and write about as theirs.  The facts of the over-representation of black people amongst criminal justice statistics about victims, perpetrators,  stop and search, miscarriages of justice, incarceration, and police brutality are overwhelming, despite the supposedly colour-blind nature of much social science enquiry. Post-colonial claims like Biko Agozoni’s  (2003) accusation that social science, and criminology in particular, are through their obfuscations,  simply tools of colonialism,  look difficult to entirely refute.

I am drawn back to my feeling a lack of surprise at the killing of George Floyd. I began the book chapter on ‘’Race’ and crime’ with the killing in 2016 of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota, a town only about 150 miles north of Minneapolis. Castile was driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her 4 year old daughter, when they were pulled over as his brake light was supposedly not working. The casual racism of the traffic stop was to be overshadowed by the subsequent events that were captured on film  - on the dashcam of the police car as well as the mobile phone footage taken by Reynolds herself.  Officer Yanez requests to see Castile’s licence and insurance. Castile hands over his licence and calmly and politely informs the officer that he has a gun in his glove compartment (as he is licenced to do). Within seconds Officer Yanez, somehow in a fog of anxiety, fear and hatred fires seven bullets and kills Castile. If the killing is not dreadful enough, the  reaction of Diamond Reynold surely adds to the dismay. Her icy calm demeanour as she tried to contain the anxiety of the police and her daughter – despite her horror at having her boyfriend shot dead besides her  - is testimony to her fear  that she and her daughter are still in grave danger. She is then handcuffed as if she were a perpetrator in such a way that she cannot comfort her daughter who is confused and terrified. Officer Yanez was tried for manslaughter and his verdict of not guilty sparked widespread protest (Jones 2020).

I put this scene near the beginning of the chapter as it seemed to distil something that demands to be understood. It was difficult to view the footage of this killing without feeling a profound sense of upset and anger. At the same time, it also highlighted the importance of trying to think about the dynamics of fear, panic and hatred that have seemed to grip Officer Yanez. It was impossible to imagine that race had not inflamed the encounter, or to avoid the thought that Castile was shot in a fog of anxiety and confusion because he was black. Just as it is impossible to imagine that George Floyd might have been killed the way that he was had he been white.  

I will not attempt to summarise the book chapter here, beyond saying that to understand the dynamics of race, it is necessary to think through the fog created by the shameful  history of European colonisation and slavery and the power of the Americanisation of those dynamics. One striking finding for me was the sheer quality and prescience of the work of the American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the first black person to be awarded a doctorate at Harvard. His work includes his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro: A social study. He examined the problems suffered by a largely black neighbourhood of Philadelphia notorious for crime and its poverty. His meticulous study emphasised that you could not understand the contemporary dynamics of poverty, crime, educational failure, familial dysfunction and civic organisation without understanding the historical impacts of slavery, and the psychosocial dynamics created by those in the US. In later work, he wrote about the ’disastrous effects’’ that cultures of slavery had on those doing the dominating. Overall, he presents a brilliant psychosocial analysis and we can wonder why his work is not more celebrated (Morris 2015). Again, of course the problem is really that we don’t have to wonder too much. 

It is fitting to finish with the words of Du Bois as he, in a moving  reflexive piece,  describes his own feelings of torment provoked by living in a society dominated by white people’s precarious feelings of superiority, that lead them to view the very being of a black person as ‘a problem’.  Du Bois describes how he was able to use his feelings of anger and of contempt at this situation to drive his distinguished career.  For those without the advantages that he had, however: 

their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, ‘Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?’ The "shades of the prison-house" closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above (Du Bois 1903 p1-2;  Chapter 1, Of our spiritual Strivings.)

The fact that this was written over 100 years ago might be reason to celebrate the work of W. E. Du Bois, but also to lament the fact that the same dynamics of shame, hatred and fear have been allowed to continue and that we should have any need for a slogan like ‘Black lives matter’. Far too often to be black, and particularly young, male and black, and growing up in London, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or Paris can mean living amidst the debris of the legacy of colonisation and slavery as well as being subject to the anxieties and projections of the culture that surrounds us all. 


Agozoni, B. (2003) Counter-Culture Criminology: A critique of Imperialist Reason.  London: Pluto Press. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899) The Philadelphia Negro:  A Social Study.The University of Pennsylvania Press: Pennsylvania 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903)  The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches.AC McClurg: Chicago

Jones, D.W. (2020) Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence..Abingdon: Routledge

Morris, A (2015) The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology.University of California: Oaklands


Read about David Jones here:http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88
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Psychosocial Studies and Criminology: A new book

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Dr David Jones, from the School of Psychology and Counselling, explains how the cross-disciplinary field of psychosocial studies makes a special contribution to criminology, going beyond either psychological or sociological accounts of criminal behaviour. The second edition of his book, Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence (2019), is published by Routledge.

I wrote the first edition of Understanding Criminal Behaviour  as there seemed to be such a significant gap between the literature that was being produced within the discipline of criminology and the psychological theories that could be applied to criminal behaviour. The effort to build a version of criminology that was shaped within the field of ‘psychosocial studies’ is a response to the problem created by that chasm. I have felt that the project to understand criminal behaviour and its causes has been too long damaged by the failure to fully integrate the emotional, psychological, social and cultural influences on people’s behaviour.  The publication of the 2ndedition is perhaps some testament to the interest in the area. The new edition has wholly new chapters on what I call ‘public violence/ that includes acts of extremist terror and on ‘race’ and crime

The need for such an approach emerges in part from the shape of the criminology discipline as it came to be dominated by sociological thinking, emphasising the socially structured inequalities as the chief causes of crime. Rejection of psychological theorisation was part of this political standpoint. Meanwhile, much academic psychology did little to construct dialogue. Psychology’s focus on the individual appeared to consist of a circular exercise of blaming the criminal for their own criminal propensities. Few psychologists engaged with criminological theory, and the discipline of psychology was dominated by methodological concern to mimic the success of the natural sciences and study people using experimental methods. Questions about the messy lives of those who end up on the wrong side of the law, and how they got there, do not lend themselves well to the methods of experiment and the laboratory.   

Psychosocial Studies began to emerge as a distinct disciplinary area in the late 1980s (albeit with a longer intellectual history) growing from dissatisfaction with mainstream sociology that was viewed as unable to sufficiently engage with the world of subjectivity and agency and also with the discipline of psychology to engage with the significance of the social and cultural domains. It can now best be described as a cross-disciplinaryfield of enquiry that recognises the immanent connections between social and cultural conditions and the ‘internal’ world of the individual. 

There are two outstanding reasons to take forward a psychosocialcriminology. The first is straightforward; there is clearly something lacking in any study of human behaviour that excludes the subjective world of experience. The widely acknowledged impasse in which criminology has found itself is suggestive of that problem (eg, Young 1999). The second is more pressing and contemporary; the functioning of human societies, particularly as they developed within a western context, have become, over the last several centuries, more dependent on the engagement of individuals in the worlds of emotion in order to function.

In order to understand how‘society’ is functioning it is necessary to understand the inevitable interactions between social structures and the subjective and agentive worlds of individuals. Following profound changes in the relationship of the individual to the social world, we have moved towards social conditions in which an understanding of the often reciprocal relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ has become more prominent. 

These shifts can be described in a number of ways but,  have been described most helpfully by Norbert Elias, mainly through his considerable text The Civilising Process (1939/1994) as he traced the evolution of human western societies since the middle ages. He argues that western civilisation has to be understood as emerging from the development of the modern state as it demanded ever more of its citizens to control the expression of emotion and behaviour. A prominent manifestation of this process was the means through which western nation-statesgradually monopolised the right of violence by restricting its legal use to their own military and police forces,  thus usurping that right from its citizens. 

In partthis was organised through the development and extension of the criminal justice system and the associated systems of policing and control. Far more substantially, according to Elias, this was accomplished through various means that have encouraged the individual to internalise social inhibitions and to take control of their own behaviour.  An important mechanism for this control is the development of the capacity to reflect on ourselves and thus regulate our own behaviour.  This capacity for control has most obviously been brought about through the use of familial relationships to transmit ever more intensive practices that demand that behaviour bereflected upon and thus controlled (Wouters 1999).  

An underlying argument of this book is that shame has been used as a crucialmechanism through which behaviour is regulated; an ever more important social force that directs and inhibits human social behaviour that can also be highly provocative of violence. In particular shame, amalgamated with issues of identity, underlies a great deal of gendered violence. Of course, shame as a hidden and intimate emotion presents major challenges for conventional methods of enquiry. 

At the same time, an extremely important dimension of the social changes wrought over the past several centuries, that have facilitated these moves, has been the influence of what Jurgen Habermas (1962/1989) termed the ‘public sphere’. He identified this as an abstract space that opened up between various influential groups from around the dawn of the 18thcentury beginning in Europe. Whilst changes in government and the economy were vital, it was the development of forms of public media (originally in the form of the printing press) that was to eventually allow for messages to be transmitted across the globe about how people should behave and be. The public sphere was to have profound implications for how individuals were to relate to another and for the development of individuals’ identities. 

Whilst this occurred initially across western countries, it has impacted on individuals across the world, as the influence of the public sphere has spread across the globe (Malouff 1996). As a number of commentators have argued, following in the work of Foucault (1967), the development of psychiatry and associated mental health services has been a key force in western societies’ demands for particular forms of subjectivity and control. Thus as the requirement that individuals develop the capacity to reflect upon and direct their own lives and behaviour has increased, so too have the various mental health services grown to support these developments  (Rose 1989). 

There are therefore three outstanding issues that have emerged from these historical processes, that are significant for this book: 

Western societies have put increasing emphasis on childhood as a key period in life when children have to internalise the mores, expectations and, values of the culture. This increase is signalled by the length and intensity of formal education and in the emphasis placed on families to provide a foundational and nurturing experience. As we will see a propensity towards criminality and particularly violence is often associated with what are understood to be unsatisfactory early experiences in families. 

The past 200 hundred years have witnessed an explosion of interest in, and the significance of, the ‘mental health’ of the population. Most obvious symptoms of this shift have been the emergence and growth of the various psychological and psychiatric professions. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system has become interlinked, albeit uneasily, with concerns of mental health. We can see this relationship develop over the past couple of centuries as courts at different times have recognised forms of mental disorder that might be associated with types of offending and people fitting those categories began to be treated differently. Contemporary surveys of prison populations suggest that large proportions of inmates can be identified with suffering from a significant form of mental disorder.   

The influence of the public sphere on individual identity has become a more pressing feature of everyday experience. The influence of the public sphere means that we are no longer negotiating our identities solely through our relationships with those individuals and communities who live around us, but with the more global forces of the public sphere. 

As a discipline,criminology has not been engaging in a sustained way with these key issues. The aversion to psychological theorisation has stymied the capacity of the discipline to engage with such highly significant issues. A psychosocial approach is therefore required and this book is offered as a contribution to that end. 

Dr David Jones is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Counselling. He is currently working on a new module called ‘Exploring Mental Health and Counselling’ (D241) that is due to run from October 2020 . You can read more about his research and teaching here 




Elias, N (1994/1939) The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigation.  Trans Edmund Jephcott. Blackwell: Oxford.

Foucault, M. (1967)  Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.Translated by Richard Howard. Tavistock Publications: London

Habermas, J. [1962] 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An

Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. translated by Thomas Burger with the

assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Jones, D W. (2020) Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence.Routledge: Abingdon

Maalouf, A. (1996)  In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.  Trans. Barbara Bray New York: Arcade Publishing.

Rose, N. (1989)  Governing the soul: the shaping of the private self.  Routledge: London.

Wouters, C. (1999) ‘Changing patterns of social controls and self-controls.’ Brit. Journal  of Criminology 39 (3) 416-432

Young, J. (1999) The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late Moderntiy.  Sage: London.

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