Born: February 13, 1949;
Died: November 6, 2015
Loading article content
Jason Ditton, who has died aged 66, was a pioneer of criminology in Scotland. Born in Ipswich, he studied sociology at Durham University (B.A.Hons., Ph.D.) and in 1977 went on to Glasgow University first as lecturer, then as senior lecturer from 1991.
He founded the first Criminology Research Unit in 1988 at Glasgow University and in 1994 created the first Scottish Centre for Criminology in Park Circus, Glasgow. In the same year he moved to Sheffield University as reader, became professor of criminology in 1997 and remained at Sheffield until he retired in 2006.
His decision to leave Glasgow University and to establish the Scottish Centre for Criminology at Park Circus was motivated by the university's focus on promoting an international reputation and its lack of recognition for his research on Scottish issues.
Whilst at Sheffield he was able to continue as director of the Scottish Centre for Criminology and maintain his commitment to working on local Scottish issues. He conducted his empirical research in Scotland, about Scotland and for Scotland. Throughout these years, Glasgow remained his home.
His Ph.D thesis formed the basis of his first book, Part-Time Crime: An Ethnography of Fiddling and Pilferage (1977), a seminal study of what is now known as the informal economy (earlier known as the black or hidden economy). When he arrived at Glasgow he fully intended to continue his internationally focussed research in this area but soon swivelled his research eye to focus on Scottish social problems.
His remarkable productivity over the years included innovative and influential research on crime in the Scottish media; rehabilitation in HMP Low Moss; heroin addiction in Glasgow; monitoring Scottish drug use agencies; probation in Scotland; evaluating Scottish syringe exchanges; safety in Castlemilk; cocaine use in Scotland; lighting and crime prevention in Airdrie; illicit drug use in HMP Barlinnie; crime and fear of crime in Castlemilk; Easterhouse safety audit; reducing housebreaking in Govan; developing a model crime survey for Scotland; drug use by ethnic minorities in Scotland; ecstasy use in Scotland; CCTV and crime in Glasgow; fear of crime in Scotland; Scottish ecstasy users on holiday abroad; forecasting drug user numbers in Scotland; the rise of heroin addiction in Glasgow. In all of this work, he astutely combined his main academic interests in the sociology of deviance, criminology, ethnography and social science research methods more generally.
As a thinker, he was free, creative and intellectually brave. He was, undoubtedly, one of the brightest, energetic and imaginative criminologists of his time. In his many significant contributions to policy and practice debate he was one of the few voices in Scotland to argue for a thoroughly moral, rational and knowledge-based approach to understanding crime and justice.
Nowhere was this more evident than in his pioneering research on the rapid escalation of heroin use in some of Glasgow's bleak public housing estates which were swept by an unparalleled and unexpected tide of black market heroin in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Characteristically he had the vision to identify what would become an immense and enduring social problem if the policy recommendations flowing from his research report to the then Scottish Office were not urgently addressed. I can look back and see the young Jason Ditton arguing convincingly for the publication of that report back in 1981. We were in the office next to his in Southpark Avenue with the 'massed ranks of the cautious' (his turn of phrase for the Scottish Office and local government officials present) asking for 'more time to consider the implications'. In the end the report was published but tragically the policy recommendations lay dormant.
His early research on heroin nonetheless played a crucial role in maintaining legitimacy and funding for the social sciences at a time when Margaret Thatcher's government was intent on closing down the then Social Science Research Council (SSRC). His statistically modelled graph of the rapid escalation of heroin use in Glasgow formed the frontispiece to Lord Rothschild's Report, An Enquiry into the Social Science Research Council, published in May 1982.
The significance of Professor Ditton's research was singled out in the Rothschild Report as the key example of precisely why social science is important to society. After parliamentary scrutiny and wide debate on the report, the continuing independence of the SSRC was assured, albeit renamed as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Professor Ditton himself went on to conduct several important large-scale, ESRC-funded research studies as well as many Scottish Office and Scottish commercially funded research projects.
On the wider cultural scene, he was an active member of the executive council of the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending (1989-99), founder and first editor of the Scottish Journal of Criminal Justice Studies (1989-2009), member of the Visiting Committee, Polmont Young Offenders' Institution (1993-97) and member of the Visiting Committee, Her Majesty's Prison Barlinnie (1997-2015).
In all of these positions, and with his own distinctive quiet professionalism and personal integrity, he brought countless insights for programmes of reform and change in responses to law-breaking and other social harms.
There are generations of students and junior colleagues who testify to his superb qualities as a teacher and mentor, and who remember his warmth, wit, generosity and humour. For someone who was so accomplished and productive in his research and in advancing the cause of social science, he was surprisingly modest and never the least bit pompous or self-important. To those of us fortunate enough to know him well, he was not only blessed with a genuinely original mind, but was also a loyal, generous, charming, attentive and kind friend with a wonderfully wry sense of humour who liked to laugh. Scotland will miss him greatly.
He is survived by his first wife, from whom he was divorced in 1978; and his second wife, Furzana, whom he married in 2015.