Critical Criminology

IV. Emerging Strains of Critical Criminology

A. Newsmaking Criminology and Public Criminology

Karl Marx famously argued that one should not be content to explain the world; one should change it. It is an enduring complaint about many forms of academic disciplines that they are insular and self-indulgent and make no measurable impact on the “real” world. Certainly they do not contribute to the alleviation of human suffering, in its various manifestations. Critical criminologists may be especially sensitive to this type of critique and the need for some form of praxis whereby “real-world” differences are effected. Newsmaking criminology, as originally promoted by Gregg Barak, calls for direct engagement by critical criminologists with a broad public constituency through actively seeking out opportunities to put across a critical criminological perspective on issues of crime and criminal justice in mass media outlets. Increasingly, of course, it is recognized that efforts to reach a broader audience—especially a younger audience—must involve the Internet. In a somewhat parallel vein, Elliott Currie, among others, has recently promoted a public criminology with a critical dimension. Too much of criminology— including some of critical criminology—is regarded as narrowly focused or adopting terminology and forms of analysis that are comprehensible to only a small number of other (like-minded) criminologists instead of addressing pressing substantive issues such as harmful present criminal justice policies in forms—and forums—capable of reaching a broader public. Such initiatives raise the question of whether newsmaking or public criminologists can realistically expect to inform and engage a public massively resistant to such engagement and largely distracted by a formidable culture of entertainment.

B. Cultural Criminology

The recognition of the profoundly stylistic and symbolic dimension of certain forms of lawbreaking and deviant behavior has been a primary focus of cultural criminology. This critical criminological approach, pioneered by Jeff Ferrell, among others, has sought to provide rich or “thick” descriptions of people who live at the margins of the conventional social order, including, among others, drug users, graffiti writers, motorcyclists, and skydivers, drawing on an ethnographic approach that often involves direct participant observation as well as on autobiographical and journalistic accounts. The “crimes of style” that cultural criminology addresses are best understood in relation to the contested political environment within which they occur and as representations of cultural values that challenge, on various levels, the dominant cultural value system of contemporary society. Some critics have complained that cultural criminologists overempathize with the social deviants and “outlaws” about whom they write and that they fail to adequately appreciate the perspective and legitimate concerns of the members of society charged with addressing their activities. However, cultural criminology provides us with a colorful and multilayered appreciation of a range of marginalized members of society.

C. Convict Criminology

Prison convicts have been a significant focus of criminological concern from the outset. However, a recently established convict criminology puts forth the notion— quite parallel to claims made by gender- and race-focused criminological perspectives—that the authentic experience of prison convicts often fails to fully emerge from the studies of conventional or managerial criminology. Furthermore, people who have served time in prison also offer a unique perspective on correctional reforms. A number of former convicts have become professors of criminology and criminal justice and have published books and articles on the prison experience. At least some of them have become a key part of the development of convict criminology. Their insider knowledge of the world of prisons makes them uniquely qualified to conduct ethnographic studies of prison life. They might also be said to have an extra measure of credibility in claims that existing policies of incarcerating huge numbers of nonviolent offenders, including many low-level drug offenders, and then subjecting them to demeaning and counterproductive conditions, do not work and should be abandoned. Convict criminology accordingly adopts core themes of critical criminology in calling for understanding crime and its control from the bottom up and in exposing the profound limitations of public policies imposed on a profoundly disadvantaged segment of the population.

D. Critical Race Criminology

If gender has been one significant variable in relation to crime and criminal justice, race has certainly been another. Accordingly, some critical criminologists have focused on both the historical role of racism in producing discriminatory treatment toward people of color in all aspects of crime and criminal justice as well as the role that enduring (if less manifestly obvious) forms of racism continue to play in promoting images of criminals and policies and practices in processing criminal offenders. It is well-known that racial minorities—and African American men in particular—are greatly overrepresented in the correctional system, and some of the work of critical race criminologists is directed toward demonstrating how this overrepresentation not only reflects embedded racist elements of our criminal law and criminal justice system but also contributes toward supporting a lucrative prison industry.

Beyond the strains of critical criminology discussed earlier, there are some additional emerging strains or proposed strains, although it remains to be seen whether they will be widely embraced and further expanded. Queer criminology explores the manifestations of homophobia in the realm of crime and criminal justice. Green criminology exposes and analyzes social practices and policies that are environmentally harmful. Countercultural criminology calls for addressing the “colonial” issues largely neglected in mainstream criminology and critical criminology. Certainly there is some critical criminological work coming out of developing countries today addressing the crime and crime control issues afflicting these countries and, more typically now, by drawing on indigenous intellectual traditions, as opposed to simply applying Western (Occidental) theories and frameworks. Biocritical criminology is a call for critical criminologists to acknowledge that genes play some role in at least certain forms of criminal behavior, and a cooperative endeavor between criminologists with a biosocial orientation and critical criminologists might disentangle the relative contributions of the political economy, the societal environment, and biogenetic factors in the emergence of criminal behavior. Species-related critical criminology calls for recognition that animals (or species other than human) are victims of a broad range of crimes by social institutions and specific human beings.

E. Summary

It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that critical criminology is an exceptionally diverse enterprise. It is also characterized by some measurable internal criticism, for example, from those who remain committed to the original utopian project of radical criminology and a fundamental transformation of society and from those who have adopted a more limited, practical approach of exposing limitations of mainstream criminological approaches to crime and criminal justice and promoting piecemeal reforms. Such pluralism is perhaps inevitable in critical criminology, and ideally the diverse strands of this enterprise complement and reinforce each other.