Critical Criminology

III. Principal Strains of Critical Criminology

A. Peacemaking Criminology

The contemporary form of peacemaking criminology is principally the product of two well-known, prolific, and highly original critical criminologists: Richard Quinney and Harold Pepinsky. They have collaborated to put together the premier reader on the subject, Criminology as Peacemaking (1991). The basic themes of a peacemaking criminology have been concisely identified as follows: connectedness, caring, and mindfulness. Personal suffering and suffering in the world are taken to be inseparable. We should avoid personalizing evil and constructing false schemes that pigeonhole human beings as honorable citizens or reprehensible criminals. Instead, we should focus on our common humanity and choose affirmative ways of reaching out to and interacting with others. Responses to the problem of crime must begin with attending to ourselves as human beings; we need to suffer with the criminal rather than making the criminal suffer for us. Altogether, peacemaking criminology calls for a fundamental transformation in our way of thinking about crime and criminal justice.

Peacemaking criminology is by any measure a heretical challenge to the dominant assumptions of mainstream criminological perspectives. It can be criticized as a form of utopianism, but at a minimum it serves as a provocative antidote to the explicit or implicit cynicism or pessimism of other criminological perspectives. Peacemaking criminology has some affinity with an anarchic or abolitionist criminology, but this latter perspective is more directly associated with the controversial proposition that we would be better off without a formal state (and its laws) and would be better off without prisons and a formal justice system. Peacemaking criminology can also be linked with the expanding restorative justice movement, which calls for a shift away from a retributive justice system that focuses on identifying and punishing perpetrators of crimes and toward a system that focuses on repairing harm through a cooperative endeavor involving the accused, the victim, and the community. The restorative justice approach has been embraced by some portion of the mainstream (and even conservative) community, and at least some critical criminologists believe it has been co-opted by the criminal justice system. Others, however, believe that it continues to have progressive potential. The work of peacemaking criminologists has been directed toward sensitizing people to counterproductive, inherently unjust responses to conventional forms of crime.

B. Postmodernist Criminology

Although a postmodernist criminology has been identified as one strain of critical criminology, postmodern thought itself is by no means necessarily linked with a progressive agenda; on the contrary, much postmodernist thought is viewed as either consciously apolitical or inherently conservative and reactionary.

Any attempt to characterize a postmodernist criminology— or postmodern thought itself—encounters difficulties. It can be best described as a loose collection of themes and tendencies. Postmodernists reject totalizing concepts (e.g., the state), they reject positivism, and they reject the potential of collective action to transform society. Postmodernism contends that modernity is no longer liberating but has become rather a force of subjugation, oppression, and repression. For postmodernism, language plays the central role in the human experience of reality. The postmodernist “deconstruction” of texts exposes the instability and relativity of meaning in the world. Within critical criminology specifically, Stuart Henry and Dragan Milovanovic have produced a pioneering effort—which they call constitutive criminology—to integrate elements of postmodernist thought with the critical criminological project. They are especially concerned with highlighting the role of ideology, discursive practices, symbols, and sense data in the production of meaning in the realm of crime. We must, they contend, understand how those who engage in crime, who seek to control it, and who study it “co-produce” its meaning.

C. Feminist Criminology

This perspective has especially focused on exposing the overall patterns of patriarchialism and male dominance in all realms pertaining to crime and the legal system. Whatever their differences, feminists such as Meda Chesney- Lind, Carol Smart, and Kathleen Daly have been quite united in identifying and opposing social arrangements that contribute to the oppression of women. Direct forms of male violence (e.g., rape and spouse abuse) targeting women inevitably have been a major preoccupation of feminist criminology. In addition to those forms of crime that specifically and directly target females, feminist criminologists have also sought to demonstrate the broader vulnerability of females to a range of crimes not in this category, such as the multinational corporate exploitation of labor in sweatshops in developing countries. At least some feminist criminologists have also focused on the nature of female involvement in criminal behavior and the social and cultural forces that have led to a higher level of female involvement in such activity in the most recent era. Some forms of illegal (and deviant) activity have always involved females to a significant degree, with prostitution and sex work as primary examples. Feminist criminologists who have explored female involvement in sex work have not been unified in their characterization of such female offenders—are they exploited victims or liberated women?—and indeed, no single feminist criminological perspective is uniformly adopted. The focus of criminological research historically has been overwhelmingly directed toward male offenders.

The feminist movement, since the 1970s, has had a significant impact on a wide range of cultural attitudes and social policies, and feminist criminologists have played some role in promoting policies, such as the reform of rape laws to diminish the further victimization of rape victims and the recognition of sexual harassment as a significant offense. They have also played a noteworthy role in the evaluation of the actual effects of such policy initiatives.

D. Left Realism

This perspective emerged largely in Great Britain and Canada in the period after 1985 as a response to the perceived analytical and practical deficiencies of radical criminology, especially in its neo-Marxist form. Jock Young in England and Walter DeKeseredy in Canada have been among the primary promoters of this perspective. Left realists realized that right-wingers were able to largely preempt the crime issue, because the fear of street crime is pervasive and intense and typically has more immediacy than fear of elite crime. Radicals who either ignore street crime or, even worse, are seen as romanticizing street criminals lose all credibility in the eyes of their largest potential constituency. Furthermore, traditional radical criminology does not attend to the fact that the principal victims of street crime are disadvantaged members of society and that conventional crime persists in noncapitalist societies. Left realists also reject one-dimensional interpretations of state crackdowns on street crime that characterize it exclusively as repression. However, left realists vehemently deny that their work leads in the same direction as right realists, and they differ from right realists in many ways: They prioritize social justice over order; reject biogenetic, individualistic explanations of criminality and emphasize structural factors; are not positivistic, insofar as they are concerned with social meaning of crime as well as criminal behavior and the links between lawmaking and lawbreaking; and they are acutely aware of the limitations of coercive intervention and are more likely to stress informal control. Left realist criminology insists on attending to the community as well as the state, the victim as well as the offender. It argues that some traditional criminological research methods can be used to generate research that can serve progressive objectives. Some left realists have focused on the crimes of powerful corporations. Here, however, the tendency has been to call for more regulation and tougher sanctions against lawbreakers who cause immense, demonstrable harm but who have been able to shield themselves from criminalization due to their wealth and influence. Altogether, left realists may be said to advocate policies and practices toward both conventional and corporate crime that are realistic as well as progressive.

The preceding sections identified four principal strains of critical criminology that are quite universally recognized as such. In the following sections, several other strains that are increasingly also acknowledged to be significant strains of critical criminology are identified.