Critical Criminology

V. The Substantive Concerns of Critical Criminology

Critical criminologists have attended to conventional forms of criminal activity—such as street crime and drug trafficking—but when they have done so, they have been especially concerned with demonstrating how these conventional forms of criminality are best understood in relation to the attributes of a capitalist political economy. Accordingly, the approach of critical criminologists to such forms of crime differs from that of mainstream criminology, which is more likely to focus on individual attributes, rational calculations and routine activities, situational factors, and the more immediate environment.

The study of domestic violence and rape, with a range of studies exploring the cultural forces that both promote such violence and that have led to its past marginalization by the criminal justice system, has been a major preoccupation of feminist and left-realist criminologists. The role of “masculinities” in such crimes, as well as in various forms of street crime, has been explored as well. In recognition of the expanded involvement of females in conventional forms of crime—as one outcome of various liberating forces within society—some critical criminologists have addressed such matters as female gang members and their involvement in gang violence, with special emphasis on disparities of power.

Some critical criminologists have focused on newer forms of crime, such as hate crimes, which have a controversial status within the larger society. The challenge here is to demonstrate why such crimes have demonstrably harmful consequences that warrant recognition of their special character and why they should not be viewed as protected by the traditional liberal commitment to freedom of speech. Ethnic, racial, and sexual minority groups have been among the favored targets of such crime, and immigrant communities remain especially vulnerable.

Critical criminologists have been especially receptive to the claim that the most significant forms of crime are those committed by the powerful, not the powerless. Accordingly, some critical criminologists have taken up Sutherland’s call to attend to white-collar crime, with special emphasis on the crimes of large, powerful corporations. Within capitalist societies, corporations operate in an environment of unequal distribution of market power and relentless pressure to increase profit or growth, and they violate laws when the potential benefits of doing so are regarded as outweighing the potential costs. State regulation of corporate activity is significantly inhibited by the disproportionate influence of corporations in making and administering laws and by the states’ need to foster capital accumulation. Friedrich Engels—the collaborator of Marx—put forth the claim in the 19th century that the ownership class was guilty of murder because it is fully aware that workers in factories and mines will die violent, premature deaths due to unsafe conditions. Some critical criminologists today focus on the persistence of “safety crimes” in the workplace and the ongoing relative neglect of such crimes by most criminologists. Others have addressed environmental crimes carried out in the interest of maximizing profit, and it seems likely that concern over such crimes will intensify in the future. The production and distribution of a wide range of harmful products, from defective transportation vehicles to unsafe pharmaceuticals to genetically modified foods, are ongoing matters of interest in this realm.

Critical criminologists are responsible for introducing the concept of state–corporate crime into the literature, that is, demonstrable (often large-scale) harms that occur as a consequence of cooperative activity between state agencies and corporations. The complicity of various major corporations, such as I. G. Farben with the Nazi state, in relation to the Holocaust, is a classic case of state– corporate crime, but there are many other such cases in the world today.

The term crimes of globalization has been applied to the many forms of harm that occur in developing countries as a consequence of the policies and practices of such international financial institutions as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. From 1999 on, major protests in Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C.; and other places directed at these institutional financial institutions demonstrate that outrage at some of their activities is quite widely diffused.

In 1988, Chambliss, whose work had a significant influence on multiple generations of critical criminologists, was serving as president of the American Society of Criminology. Radical and critical criminologists have not been elected typically to leadership positions in professional criminological associations, although there have been a few other cases of such leadership. In his presidential address, Chambliss focused on state-organized crime. Just as Sutherland almost 50 years earlier had urged his fellow criminologists to attend to the hitherto-neglected topic of white-collar crime, Chambliss in a similar vein was encouraging more criminological attention to the crimes of states, which had been almost totally ignored by criminologists. In the intervening years a growing number of critical criminologists have addressed a wide range of state-organized forms of crime, including crimes of the nuclear state, crimes of war, and the crime of genocide. A resurgent form of militarism in societies such as the United States has also been a focus of the attention of some critical criminologists.

Some critical criminologists have focused on the many different ways that the principal agents of social control— including the police, the courts, and the prisons—reflect the values and interests of the privileged and powerful strata of society and all too often realized repressive and counterproductive outcomes. Critical criminologists are concerned with identifying forms of social control that are cooperative and constructive. For some critical criminologists, the death penalty—almost uniquely retained by the United States among developed nations—is a worthy focus of attention, insofar as it brings into especially sharp relief the inherent injustices perpetrated by the existing system.

Finally, at least some critical criminologists have directed some attention to matters principally of interest to academics and researchers in relation to their professional activities. Accordingly, they have addressed some of the ethical issues that arise in relation to criminological research, with special attention to the corrupting influence of corporate and governmental funding of such research. Other critical criminologists have addressed challenges that arise in a pedagogical context: on the one hand, exposing students who are often largely either relatively conservative or apolitical in their outlook to a progressive perspective, without alienating or inspiring active hostility from such students, and on the other hand, providing programs such as criminal justice, conforming with expectations that students be prepared for careers as agents of the criminal justice system while at the same time addressing the repressive and inequitable character of such a system.