Critical Criminology

II. Origins of Critical Criminology

Contemporary critical criminology has its roots in a range of theoretical perspectives that have advanced a critique of both the existing conditions in society and the conventional or established theories that claim to explain society, social phenomena, and social behavior. Marxist theory has been one source of inspiration for some influential strains of critical criminology, although it has been a common error to characterize all critical criminologists as Marxists or neo-Marxists. Karl Marx and his close collaborator Friedrich Engels did not develop a systematic criminological theory, but it is possible to extrapolate a generalized Marxist perspective on crime and criminal law from their work. The ownership class is guilty of the worst crime: the brutal exploitation of the working class. Revolution is a form of counterviolence, then, and is both necessary and morally justified. The state and the law itself ultimately serve the interests of the ownership class. Human beings are not by nature egocentric, greedy, and predatory, but they can become so under certain social conditions. Conventional crime is, in essence, a product of extreme poverty and economic disenfranchisement and of “false needs” and the dehumanizing and demoralizing effects of the capitalist system. However, conventional crime is neither an admirable nor an effective means of revolutionary action, and all too often it pits the poor against the poor. Marx also regarded crime as “productive”—perhaps ironically— insofar as it provides employment and business opportunities for many. In an authentically communist society the state and the law will wither away, with the formal law being replaced by a form of communal justice. Human beings will live in a state of harmony and cooperation, without crime.

For most of the history of criminology, rather few criminologists specifically adopted a Marxist framework. The Dutch criminologist Willem Bonger was an exception to this proposition. Although he rejected dogmatic Marxism, Bonger—especially in Criminality and Economic Conditions (1916)—sought to show how a political economy organized around “private property” promoted crime. Some later neo-Marxist or radical criminologists were critical of Bonger for adopting a positivist and empiricist approach to the study of crime and for his attention to the “correction” of lawbreakers, but within the context of his time Bonger was certainly a pioneering figure in recognizing the value of a Marxist framework for the understanding of crime. Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer, in Punishment and Social Structure (1939), also drew on a Marxist approach in advancing the thesis that punishment in contemporary society could be viewed as a form of control of the laboring class in a capitalist society. Although Rusche and Kirchheimer were not trained as criminologists, some radical criminologists in a later era drew inspiration from their work. Indeed, some other scholars over the years who were not criminologists have had a significant impact on radical and critical criminologists. For example, the French social historian Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish (1979), set forth an influential interpretation of the ideological purposes of penal practices that has been quite widely cited by critical criminologists.

Although many sociologists and criminologists continue to recognize the power of some basic dimensions of Marxist theoretical analysis to make sense of the world, it is also indisputably true that any invocation of “Marxist” carries with it a lot of baggage in the form of association with the immense crimes committed—primarily during the 20th century—in the name of a claimed Marxist or communist society. Accordingly, it is difficult for some criminologists to be receptive to the potent explanatory dimensions of Marxist theory and concepts independent of the perverse applications of Marxist analysis in some historical circumstances.

In the American tradition, there have always been people who have recognized that the law and the criminal justice system it produces reflect disproportionately the interests of the privileged. American versions of critical criminology have drawn on a tradition of populism, anarchist thought, the civil rights movement, contemporary feminism, and other progressive endeavors that have challenged the dominance of white men of means, big business, and the status quo in general. At least some early American criminologists reflected such influences. Edwin H. Sutherland was arguably the single most important American criminologist of the 20th century. Although not a radical in a conventional sense, Sutherland was influenced by the American populism of his native Midwest and was outraged by stock market manipulators who helped bring about the famous 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed. In 1939, Sutherland introduced the notion of white-collar crime into the field of criminology. Criminologists up to that time had focused on conventional crime and, disproportionately, the crimes of the poor. Sutherland recognized that the middle and upper classes of society are also significantly involved in criminal endeavors, and he especially examined crimes carried out on behalf of rich and powerful corporations.

Most of the criminology and criminological theory produced into the 1960s addressed the causes of crime and criminality within a framework that did not challenge the legitimacy of the law and the social order. This began to change in the 1960s. Labeling theory, which emerged out of symbolic interactionism, shifted attention away from criminal behavior to the processes whereby some members of society come to be labeled as deviants and criminals and to the consequences of being socially stigmatized. Many critical criminologists were influenced by this approach, although they ultimately criticized it for its focus upon the “microlevel” of social behavior and its relative neglect of the broader societal and political context within which the labeling process occurs.

The 1960s as an era is associated with the intensification of various forms of conflict within society, so it is not surprising that the core theme of conflict received more attention during this era. Thorsten Sellin, a socialist in his youth, produced one early version of a criminological approach that focused on the centrality of conflict in the 1930s, and George Vold subsequently produced a pioneering criminological theory textbook in the 1950s that highlighted the significance of group conflict for the understanding of crime and its control. In the 1960s, Austin Turk, Richard Quinney, and William J. Chambliss (with Robert T. Seidman) introduced influential versions of conflict theories into the field of criminology. Conflict theory focuses on the unequal distribution of power within society as a fundamental starting point for the understanding of crime and its control, with some groups better positioned than others to advance their interests through law. Conflict criminology provided a basic point of departure for radical criminology and, subsequently, critical criminology. Turk has been a proponent of a “nonpartisan” version of conflict theory, which takes the position that the central role of power and authority in defining crime and guiding criminal justice processes can be assessed empirically without identifying with a particular political agenda. Quinney, following the publication of his seminal conflict theory text, The Social Reality of Crime (1970), moved through a number of stages of theory development, from radical to critical to beyond. Chambliss also subsequently became more directly identified with radical and critical criminology.

The era of the 1960s (extending from the late 1960s to the early 1970s) was a period of much social turmoil, including, for example, the emergence of black power, feminist and gay rights movements, and consumer and environmentalist movements; the growing opposition to the Vietnam war; the surfacing of a highly visible counterculture and illicit drug use; and the embracing of radical ideology by a conspicuous segment of college and graduate students. By the late 1960s, a full-fledged radical sociology had emerged that challenged premises, methods, principal concerns, and corporate or governmental affiliations of mainstream sociology. C. Wright Mills (who died prematurely in 1964) was one seminal source of inspiration, and parallel radical approaches were developed in many other cognate disciplines, including history, economics, and political science. All these developments both influenced and were reflected within the field of criminology. Criminologists who became disenchanted with the limitations of a dominant liberal response to the problem of crime, with its emphasis on incremental social reforms and rehabilitation programs, were searching for an alternative approach to understanding crime and criminal justice. Some prominent faculty at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Criminology were key figures in the promotion of a radical criminology, which contributed to the school being shut down in 1974. Herman and Julia Schwendinger, affiliated with this school, published an influential article calling for an expansion of the scope of criminological concern beyond the parameters of state-defined crime and increased attention to other identifiable forms of social harm. However, self-identified radical criminologists continued to encounter many forms of resistance and some barriers to professional advancement. Research funding was less available to support the projects of radical criminologists than it was for mainstream criminological research that was perceived as useful in addressing conventional forms of crime.

A distinctive radical criminology—and a Union of Radical Criminologists—emerged in the early 1970s. Journals such as Crime and Social Justice and Contemporary Crises were important venues for radical criminology scholarship during this time. The Center for Research on Criminal Justice’s The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove (1970) exemplified the radical criminological ideal, insofar as it was an essentially Marxist analysis of the police, collectively written, and oriented toward praxis, with a section on organizing for action. Quinney was surely the best known, most frequently cited, most prolific, and most controversial radical criminologist of this period. In several books published in the 1970s—Critique of Legal Order (1974), Criminology (1979), and Class, State and Crime (1980)—Quinney applied a neo-Marxist interpretation of capitalist society to an understanding of crime and criminal justice. In Critique of Social Order, for example, Quinney argued that law in a capitalist society functions to legitimate the system and to facilitate oppression and exploitation. He asked whether we really need law and whether we might be better off without it. In 1982, Quinney coedited (with Piers Beirne) a noteworthy anthology, Marxism and Law.

By the end of the 1970s, Quinney had become somewhat disenchanted with the conventional concerns of academic scholars and of criminologists specifically. In the years that followed, he pursued a range of projects, often wholly removed from criminological concerns, including explorations in phenomenology; existentialism; critical philosophy; liberation theology; Buddhism; and autobiographical, reflexive work. However, he also made seminal contributions to the establishment (with Harold Pepinsky) of a major strain of critical criminology called peacemaking criminology, and several generations of radical and critical criminologists have drawn inspiration from his work.

Other criminologists during this period also made influential contributions to the establishment of a radical criminology: In the United States they included William J. Chambliss, Tony Platt, Paul Takagi, Elliott Currie, and Raymond J. Michalowski, among others. In many other countries versions of radical criminology surfaced as well. Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young’s The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance (1973), which emerged out of meetings of the National Deviancy Conference in the United Kingdom, was a widely read attempt to expose the limitations of existing theories of crime and to construct a new framework based on a recognition of the capacity of the capitalist state to define criminality in ways compatible with the state’s own ends. The authors of this book called for a form of criminological theory and analysis that operated independently and not as a handmaiden to repressive state policies.

By the end of the 1970s, much of the initial radical political and cultural energy of the earlier part of that decade had disintegrated. A book entitled Radical Criminology: The Coming Crises (1980), edited by James Inciardi, was a controversial collection of critical (and appreciative) interpretations of radical criminology. If the radical criminology that emerged during the 1970s was never a fully unified enterprise, it became even more fragmented during the course of the 1980s. Going forward from that period, the term critical criminology increasingly displaced radical criminology, and the emergence of distinctive strains of critical criminology became increasingly evident. Scholars who adhere to these various strains of critical criminology are united in that they draw some basic inspiration from the conflict and neo-Marxist perspectives developed in the 1970s, in their rejection of mainstream positivistic approaches as a means of revealing fundamental truths about crime and criminal justice, and in their commitment to seeking connections between theoretical and empirical work and progressive policy initiatives and action. Although some critical criminologists continue to work within one or the other of the earlier conflict and neo-Marxist perspectives, many others have become more closely identified with critical perspectives that have emerged (or been applied to criminological phenomena) more recently.

The recent era has been regarded as both politically and culturally more conservative than the era of the 1960s, but critical criminology has been a fairly vigorous presence within criminology, despite—or perhaps because of—this less receptive societal environment. The Division on Critical Criminology, which publishes the journal Critical Criminology, has been an especially large division within the American Society of Criminology since its establishment in 1988. Every year, the Division on Critical Criminology attracts recruits among new criminology graduate students who recognize that their ideological orientation and research interests are at odds with those of mainstream criminology.

In the sections that follow, the principal strains of critical criminology are identified and described, along with a number of more recent emerging strains.