Critical criminology is an umbrella term for a variety of criminological theories and perspectives that challenge core assumptions of mainstream (or conventional) criminology in some substantial way and provide alternative approaches to understanding crime and its control. Mainstream criminology is sometimes referred to by critical criminologists as establishment, administrative, managerial, correctional, or positivistic criminology.
II. Origins of Critical Criminology
III. Principal Strains of Critical Criminology
IV. Emerging Strains of Critical Criminology
V. The Substantive Concerns of Critical Criminology
Critical criminology is an umbrella term for a variety of criminological theories and perspectives that challenge core assumptions of mainstream (or conventional) criminology in some substantial way and provide alternative approaches to understanding crime and its control. Mainstream criminology is sometimes referred to by critical criminologists as establishment, administrative, managerial, correctional, or positivistic criminology. Its focus is regarded as excessively narrow and predominantly directed toward individual offenders, street crime, and social engineering on behalf of the state. The critical criminological perspectives reject the claims of scientific objectivity made on behalf of mainstream criminology as well as the privileged status of the scientific method. Although some critical criminologists apply an empirical approach with the use of quantitative analysis, much critical criminology adopts an interpretive and qualitative approach to the understanding of social reality in the realm of crime and its control. The unequal distribution of power or of material resources within contemporary societies provides a unifying point of departure for all strains of critical criminology.
Critical criminologists tend to advocate some level of direct engagement with the range of social injustices so vividly exposed by their analysis and the application of theory to action, or praxis. All the different strains of critical criminology hold forth the possibility of effecting fundamental reforms or transformations within society that promote greater equality and a higher quality of life for the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised, not just the privileged members of society, and a more humane, authentic society for all. The dominant forms of social control—from policing practices to penal policies—are a common target of criticism as central to perpetuating injustices, as profoundly biased, and as counterproductive in terms of achieving positive changes in individuals as well as social conditions.
Crime and its control are major preoccupations of people everywhere. Public perceptions of crime and its control are in many respects distorted by media representations and the agendas of the governing elites. The immense significance of critical criminology, then, lies in its capacity to expose the conventional myths about crime and its control and to provide an alternative basis for understanding these tremendously consequential dimensions of our social existence.
The historical origins of critical criminology, its principal contemporary strains, and some of its major substantive concerns are identified in the paragraphs that follow. In addition, some speculation is offered regarding the future prospects of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critical criminology has in one sense tended to reflect the dominant focus of mainstream criminology on crime and its control within a particular nation; however, going forward in the 21st century, there is an increasing recognition that many of the most significant forms of crimes occur in the international sphere, cross borders, and can only be properly understood—and controlled—within the context of the forces of globalization. Accordingly, a growing number of critical criminologists have addressed such matters as collapsed states within a global economy, harms emanating out of the policies of such international financial institutions as the World Bank, the crimes of multinational corporations, trafficking of human beings across borders and sex tourism in a globalized world, the treatment of new waves of immigrants and refugees, international terrorism, the spread of militarism, preemptive wars as a form of state crime, transnational policing, international war crime tribunals, and transitional justice.
Although at least some of these topics have been occasionally addressed by mainstream criminologists, critical criminologists highlight the central role of imbalances of power in all of these realms. Altogether, critical criminologists going forward are increasingly likely to take into account the expanded globalized context, regardless of their specialized interest or focus.
On the one hand, critical criminologists fully recognize the immense power of corporate interests—and other privileged interests and constituencies—to shape public consciousness in a manner that is supportive of a capitalist political economy and the broad popular culture that is one of its key products. The Italian neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci famously advanced the notion of hegemony to capture this capacity of privileged interests to influence public consciousness in fundamental ways. On the other hand, many critical criminologists are also, on some level, both somewhat puzzled and disappointed that the critical perspective on the political economy has failed to gain more traction with a wider public constituency by now. What is the future destiny of critical criminology? The most pessimistic projection would be that conventional and mainstream perspectives will succeed in rendering critical criminology increasingly marginalized. In a more moderate projection, critical criminology will continue to be a conspicuous and measurably influential alternative to dominant forms of criminological theory and analysis, although it will also continue to be overshadowed by mainstream criminology. In the most optimistic projection, the influence and impact of critical criminology will increase exponentially in the years ahead, perhaps at some point even coming to overshadow mainstream forms of analysis. For some version of this last scenario to be realized, perhaps a “perfect storm” of both objective and subjective conditions (to follow Marx’s own celebrated thesis) must take place: On the objective side, one would have the intensification of some fundamental forms of social inequality and injustices, and accordingly of human suffering. On the subjective side, one would have a more enlightened and autonomous “critical mass” of the citizenry that comes to recognize both the failures and the injustices of existing arrangements and policies within the political economy, and the inherent persuasiveness of critical perspectives, including that of critical criminology. In a world where inequalities of power and wealth have intensified recently in certain significant respects, it seems more likely than not that critical criminology will continue to play a prominent role in making sense of crime and its control and the promotion of alternative policies for addressing the enduring problem of crime.
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