Alex Campbell: A Cross-Cultural, Critical Thinker

If asked to envision the type of person who gets a degree in criminology, one might think of police officers, FBI agents, or detectivespeople who could bust up a drug ring, catch an escaped convict, or hunt down a serial killer. Alex Campbell, the kind-spirited chair of UNE’s sociology department, with her gentle demeanor and mild manners, is not who would first come to mind. 

But Campbell, in fact, holds an M.Phil, and a Ph.D. in criminology from Cambridge University. Her leanings are not toward criminal justice, however. The type of criminology she is most interested in is cultural criminology—the study of the cultural underpinnings of crime.

Having had a life-long interest in “death and dying,” Campbell at one time thought she would become a pathologist, but decided instead to delve deeper into another, less morbid but equally serious, interest: issues of equality and power in society. She majored in cultural studies as an undergraduate in her native England, a course of study that she describes as a “multi-disciplinary sub-branch of sociology.” Encouraged by a professor to continue her studies in the field of criminology, Campbell used her cultural studies background as a lens through which she viewed aspects of criminology, such as the medicalization of deviance.

Now, years later, and the mother of two young children, Campbell focuses her research on the medicalization of mothering. During an interview in her office on the Biddeford Campus on a crisp September morning, she described her work in this area. She looks at how fetal origins research (the study of how in utero environments produce long-term effects on physical and mental health) as well as neuroscientists’ research into the neurological benefits of attachment parenting have produced a culture that lays blame on mothers for making personal decisions about their pregnancies, birthing, and parenting that contradict what the medical field reports as best practice. Related to that, Campbell also studies how the legal system has become an instrument to put into practice medical advice that women, in an ideal world, should be allowed to adhere to or ignore based on their personal beliefs. She cites the persistence of the illegality of mid-wife attended births in several states as an example.

Campbell went on to describe another project that she is working on: a manuscript on cultural representations of suffering. “Whose suffering counts and whose doesn't?” she asked as a way of describing her study in a nutshell.  “Which cultural groups do we see suffering and feel empathy for, and which ones do we not regard as suffering because we don’t see them as people like us?” Campbell pointed out the discrepancy between how society views white collar crime and “street crime,” noting that white collar criminals, often middle to upper class whites, receive lenient penalties as society does not want them to suffer in an the extreme, and yet, it is all too easy for the justice system to take a young, black man from a poor neighborhood, throw him in jail for a street crime, and throw away the key.

Campbell, a vegan and a tri-athlete, enjoys a close relationship with her students. Her interdisciplinary background serves her well as she works with a significant number of students with double majors. “It’s great when students can pull other areas of interest into their research,” she said, citing a study of environmental protesters by a sociology student who was double majoring in environmental studies. Campbell’s students also have the benefit of a professor who can bring a lot of real-life examples to the table in cross-cultural studies. Having lived in England through her mid-twenties, and now with 12 years of life in America under her belt, Campbell has no trouble demonstrating to students that even in cultures that are as similar as England’s and America’s, which even share a language, significant differences exist both linguistically and in cultural norms.

So, although she isn't a gun-toting, car-chasing, door-smashing crime stopper, Campbell’s cultural criminology and cross-cultural studies are no less exciting to those who are interested in thinking critically about society. Her theories, after all, are absolutely arresting.