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Why context matters in criminology


In Ghana, if you want to develop effective interventions you need to look at family and community dynamics and reinforce the mechanisms that help rather than just using measures that target a particular child.

Kofi Boakye’s PhD comparing young people’s offending in Ghana with that in the US and UK found that context matters when it comes to explaining crime and developing effective methods to prevent it. Previously most of the data had been based on Western studies which have been mainly focused on white people. Kofi questioned the relevance of these studies and their findings in different settings and cultures.

The PhD marked the start of an academic career which has seen him collaborating with academics around the world to broaden the evidence base on violent crime and setting up the African Institute for Crime, Policy and Governance Research to ensure policy is evidence-based.

Early life

Kofi comes from Kumasi in the Ashanti Region, but his family moved around the country due to his father’s business. At the University of Ghana, he majored in Psychology and was drawn to forensic psychology and criminology, in particular child sexual violence and how it is reported. He graduated in 2001 and worked as a teaching and research assistant in the Psychology Department.

There was no forensic psychology or criminology department at the University of Ghana so Kofi explored other possibilities for continuing his studies. He was admitted to the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology in 2002, but deferred the programme to complete an MBA at the University of Leicester. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, this seemed the obvious path to take, but his interest in criminology persisted.

Kofi won Commonwealth funding to pursue an MPhil in Criminological Research at Cambridge after his two-year studies at Leicester University. His MPhil dissertation on child sexual abuse and rape was supervised by Professor David Farrington, a leading researcher in psychological criminology. Professor Farrington leads the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development.

Doctoral studies

Kofi developed an interest in the Cambridge Study and proposed doing a PhD comparing research evidence on young people offending in the US and UK with what was happening in Ghana. He collected data from Ghana on young people and offending and compared it with the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development and the Pittsburgh Youth Study. He describes the PhD, which he began in 2006, as the best thing that happened to him and says he could not have done it without the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

He says Cambridge provided the grounding in academic rigour that he needed and from Gates Cambridge Kofi learnt about other disciplines. He would spend time in the Gates Cambridge Common Room, talking to other scholars and says their questions about his research helped shape his thinking. Kofi won several awards during his PhD, including the Best Graduate Student Paper Competition Prize from the American Bar Foundation, and received an honourable mention in the American Society of Criminology Doctoral Student Paper Competition.

A key finding from his PhD research was that context is important in explaining youth offending. In Western studies, for instance, impulsivity and lack of empathy were seen as central and prevention programmes were designed around them. His work shows the need to understand the different dynamics going on in other societies and cultures. “For example, while individual factors are strong in the West this is not exactly the case in Ghana where family factors appear more important,” says Kofi. “The research underlines that context matters.”

In Ghana, he says, there is an emphasis on collective parenting. “Even if a young person is impulsive or lacks self-control, this factor will likely be suppressed by forms of social control beyond parental control. The stronger that social control is the less individual factors have an impact,” says Kofi. “If you want to develop effective interventions you need to look at family and community dynamics and reinforce the mechanisms that help rather than just using measures that target a particular child.”

Further studies

After his PhD, Kofi won a three-year Betty Behrens Research Fellowship from Clare Hall College which enabled him to publish papers related to his PhD and seek funding for further research on youth violence and evidence-based crime prevention. He collaborates with Dr Justice Tankebe, who is also from Ghana, on other research areas, including the death penalty and police corruption. He also works with colleagues in Ghana on suicide and self-harm.

Kofi was also asked by Manuel Eisner, director of the Violence Research Centre at the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, to help put together a large-scale comparative study involving eight countries, including Ghana. The longitudinal project starts from pregnancy. In addition, Kofi is involved in another international self-reporting study of delinquency covering more than 30 countries. Initially the study only had Cape Verde and no mainland African country. Kofi argued for the inclusion of Ghana.

When he finished his fellowship, Kofi won a senior lectureship at Anglia Ruskin University, but continued his research at the Institute as an affiliate fellow, pursuing collaborative projects. He has been a visiting fellow to several universities in the US and Africa, including Cornell University School of Law, the State University of New York and to the University of Ghana through the Carnegie Diasporan Fellowship Programme. Kofi has published extensively in high-impact peer reviewed journals such as Child Abuse & Neglect, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Law and Social Inquiry, Policing and Society; has served on Editorial Boards such as International Criminology; and has presented at several international conferences. He is a member of the American Society of Criminology, the European Society of Criminology, a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and a member of the Forensic Division of the British Psychological Society.

Evidence-based policy

In 2012 he also established the African Institute for Crime, Policy and Governance Research with Dr Tankebe which aims to produce high quality, evidence-based research on crime and governance which can be used to shape policy. Its briefings cover areas such as violent crime and are based on a detailed analysis of police reports. They clearly show that the violent crime with the biggest economic implications in Ghana is rape. “It takes a lot of courage for a woman to report rape, but we still see that reports of rape are twice as common as robbery,” says Kofi. Yet few cases come to court. The Institute aims to raise a debate on the allocation of resources in violent crime and to move beyond official statistics.

Kofi has also been keen to give back to both Gates Cambridge and to other Ghanaian students. Since his time as a PhD student, he has encouraged students to get in touch with him if they want further information and advice with the application process. This support started informally and has evolved into the Oxbridge Africa Mentorship programme, a charity which was registered in 2012 and pairs students aged 14 to 25 with someone who has studied at Oxford or Cambridge. It has reached over 1,500 students. Kofi has also worked with the University of Ghana to spread the word about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship throughout the country and has helped the University to restructure its programmes and supervision system.

Kofi says he is very grateful to Gates Cambridge for setting him on his current path and for its emphasis on giving back.  “Gates Cambridge fits what my passion has always been – leadership and giving back. These are values that I cherish. It’s a scholarship that doesn’t just emphasise your intelligence and academic competence, but which deliberately encourages you to give back.”

Cambridge Raise Science offer


Cambridge has  announced that  as  of the  2015  application  cycle  students studying Maths, Medicine, Engineering, and Science will be required to attain at least A*A*A grades in their A-levels, prompting concern over access.

A  spokesperson  for  the  University told   The   Cambridge   Student   that “the   revised   offer   gives   applicants a   clearer   indication of   the   level of    attainment   realistically   required to   compete   for   a   place, and to thrive on [our] science courses”.

The   University   pointed   out   that this does  not “raise the bar” as  92% of successful applicants already achieve  A*A*A  or   better  with  the average number of A*s achieved closer to three than to two.

Entry  requirements for Arts subjects   will   remain   at   A*AA.   A University    spokesperson    explained that: Research  has  shown  different patterns   of  attainment  between  Arts and Sciences students across the UK. Science   applications   typically   offer four A levels; Arts applicants typically offer three. Scientists are more likely to achieve multiple A* grades.”

A  second  year  Scientist  told  TCS “most people are already getting at least two A*s anyway” but raised concerns that “it could be bad for access-schools which  get fewer A*s may be reluctant to predict them, even to able students.” Alissa   Lamb,  head   of  Access   at Trinity   Hall,   said:   “I   don’t   think the  change  in entry  requirement  is necessary to distinguish the top pupils if  Cambridge  continues  to  interview the highest calibre applicants and base their  decision  on   that   they  see  at interview. Personally, all I can see this change doing is putting greater pressure on  students  for  their  A-level  exams and  potentially  putting   off students with   less   confidence  in   their   own abilities, many of whom will be from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

A  Cambridge  spokesperson   stated that   access   will   not   be   adversely affected: “the University will continue to   make  non-standard  offers   where appropriate, based on consideration of relevant contextual data including any extenuating circumstances which may have adversely affected the applicant’s academic achievement.

How Okwui Enwezor Changed the Art World


A as in AQUA,O as in orange,L as in lemon,” says the Nigerian-born museum director, curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor, talking into one of his two cell phones on the terrace of a hotel in Venice, Italy. Big-lensed Persol sunglasses with tortoiseshell frames conceal his eyes, and a black handkerchief, knotted in the front, encircles his neck. Enwezor, 50, is best known as the director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, and earlier this year, he was appointed artistic director of the next Venice Biennale. But before he had anything to do with contemporary art, Enwezor was a poet.

Famously, he is also something of a clotheshorse, favoring bespoke double-breasted suit coats and pocket squares to the art world’s unofficial minimalist uniform. Yet on this morning in June, he is without the bulk of his wardrobe. The day before, he flew from Melbourne through Sydney and onward over Dubai to Italy. His luggage, however, did not—so Enwezor is on the phone with Emirates airlines requesting tracking information and spelling his email address. (For the past several nights, he has made do in the evenings with a navy Prada suit that fit him off the rack.) The attendant on the other end of the line doesn’t understand. “No,” he says, switching from the phonetic alphabet of his own invention to the international standard: “Alpha, Oscar, Lima.”

Enwezor is accustomed to constant travel. He was in Australia for one week meeting artists and seeing work—part of the colossal research involved in conceiving, assembling and managing the 56th Venice Biennale, opening in May 2015. He’s in Venice today to attend this year’s Architecture Biennale, directed by Rem Koolhaas. (He’s also devising plans for his own show, which in years past has been led by curators such as Robert Storr, Germano Celant and Francesco Bonami.) And the following week he is to meet with potential donors in Paris to make up the gap in funding between what the eponymous foundation behind La Biennale provides, and the cost of realizing one of the largest exhibitions in the world—still La Biennale, in an age when every city seems to have one.

Then, with scarcely a moment between, he’ll visit Munich, where he’s in the third year of a five-year contract as director of the Haus der Kunst. There, Enwezor will introduce an onstage conversation between the Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the American composer Jonathan Bepler and the American artist Matthew Barney, whose River of Fundament, a monumental work that includes 25 tons of sculpture, much of it forged in Detroit, is on display. During the stop at the museum, Enwezor will also check on preparations for the June opening of Mise en Scéne, a show by the Canadian artist Stan Douglas composed of photographs and a film, all shot and staged to appear documentary.

Enwezor’s curatorial project has been global since the beginning, pushing African and diaspora artists to the foreground. And between the Douglas show, the museum’s retrospective of works by the mixed-media artist Ellen Gallagher earlier this year and a 2013 show of the photographer Lorna Simpson’s work, the Haus der Kunst will have already presented nearly as many major solo shows of black artists as the Museum of Modern Art in New York has in the past 20 years.

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