The Politics of Criminological Knowledge


Sean Wilson I Criminal Justice I Analysis I February 8th, 2014



The politicization of criminology and criminal justice in recent years has culminated in the exacerbation of flawed criminal justice policies and increased social control by criminal justice agencies. For example, the war on drugs, emergence of determinate sentences, over-policing in inner cities, and punitive zero-tolerance policies in schools have resulted in a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes individuals from marginalized and economically-challenged populations, while ignoring crimes committed by the rich and powerful that impact society far more than crimes committed by the poor.

Walters (2003) notes that the publishing of criminological research is a political process that often results in the marginalization of research that investigates topics of sensitivity and topics critical of neo-liberal modes of governance. The governing of criminological knowledge has been affected by a manageralist mode of governance in a society that seeks to contain and control "problem populations." Thus, market-led criminology has been shaped by processes of governance. The change from indeterminate sentences to determinate sentences reflects the mangeralist approach that has taken over the administration of justice in America.

In The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (2002), David Garland spoke on the shift from penal welfarism (which focused on rehabilitating offenders, and taking an individualized approach to addressing an offenders concerns by granting offenders access to opportunities within the criminal justice system) to penal modernism, which focuses on taking more of a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment by focusing on a retributive model of punishment. Penal modernism has resulted in the influx of marginalized subgroups in jails and prisons throughout the nation due to social and technological changes that focus on a desire for security, order, and control in society. The criminal justice system has become increasingly focused on "protecting society" from offenders from marginalized populations, although rich and powerful, white-collar criminals pose the biggest threat to society. Thus, the increased focus on protecting society from certain offenders has resulted in systematic social, economic and political exclusion by race, class, and gender. The punitive nature of incarceration, probation and parole has resulted in the creation of an ex-offender underclass that finds it extremely difficult to reenter society after incarceration.

Ex-offenders, family members of ex-offenders, and communities where ex-offenders live face hardships once ex-offenders are released from prison. Public policy and criminal justice agencies have often failed to address the increasing needs of ex-offenders, their families, and communities affected by mass-incarceration. Flawed policies and ineffective criminal justice agencies have only excluded ex-offenders from mainstream society, and thus play a major role in recidivism rates.(Clear 2009, Alexander 2010, Travis, 2005, Thompkins 2010) Therefore, punishment must be reformed, and services for formerly incarcerated persons must be developed and facilitated. In addition, formerly incarcerated persons must be linked to social capital and human skills necessary to function in society as a normal citizen.

Richard Quinney (1970), in his Social Reality of Crime theory, questioned the definition of crime and the legal process. Quinney argued that crime is human behavior that is defined and created by agents and segments of society that have the power to shape crime policies. Therefore, crime is created through legal definitions that stem from the exercise of political power. Contemporary criminal justice policies often focus solely on behavior committed by individuals that policy-makers object, and policy-makers often ignore criminal acts that they may benefit from (white-collar crime). Therefore, citizens tend to ignore the reality that crime is a social creation created by the rich and elite to protect the interests of those in power.

Academics often become too preoccupied with gaining approval from the academy, and often fail to serve the public by providing insight into criminological issues in a practical manner. According to Roger Matthews (2009), mainstream criminology has become increasingly vague on concepts and methodologies, and the social and political impact of academic criminology has diminished substantially. Matthews labels such criminology as "So What Criminology" because, according to Matthews, there is an increasing number of publications that are theoretically weak and lack any policy relevance. Critical criminology is often marginalized within the sub-genre of criminology due to the governing ethos within the study that often sees critical criminology as not relevant or empirical. However, critical criminology speaks to social issues in society as well as the failures of government to address such issues in a critical manner.

Robert Duran, in Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider's Journey (2013), covers the differences between insider and outsider access when speaking on issues that focus on special populations within criminology. Duran is an ex-gang member who conducted an ethnographic study of gangs in Ogden, Utah and Denver, Colorado. Duran's status as a former gang-member allowed him insider access, which granted Duran the ability to cover gangs in a critical manner. Ethnographers who have insider knowledge of the populations that they study often face criticism because many scholars believe they cannot be unbiased with their research. However, insiders often can conduct research in a more practical and critical manner than researchers who come from more privileged backgrounds.

In order for criminology to remain relevant and serve as a tool for policy reform, the publication of criminological knowledge must become a democratic process that places emphasis on publishing all kinds of research. Theoretical, qualitative, and critical research is just as important as quantitative research, due to its practicality, connection to human subjects, and utilization of a sociological imagination. Mainstream criminological research has become over-obsessed with abstracted empiricism and thus has often ignored the human-suffering of individuals affected by criminal justice policy. To remedy this, the increased publication of critical criminological research in mainstream criminal justice journals must become a priority for academics.



Works Cited

Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Clear, T. R. (2009). Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse(Studies in Crime and Public Policy. Oxford University Press.

Duran, R. (2013). Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider's Journey . Columbia University Press.

Garland, D. (2002). The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Matthews, R. (2009). Beyond 'so what?' criminology: Rediscovering realism. Theoretical Criminology , 13 (3), 341-362.

Quinney, R. (1970). The Social Reality of Crime . Transaction Publishers.

Thompkins, D. (2010). The Expanding Prisoner Reentry Industry. Dialectical Anthropology , 34 (4).

Travis, J. (2005). But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. Urban Institute Press.

Walters, R. (2003). Deviant Knowledge. Willan.