What is criminology?
I went to the ‘What is criminology?’ conference last week at the University of Oxford. The student helpers were wearing t-shirts which had ‘What is criminology?’ on one side and ‘I dunno!’ on the back- very insightful!
It was all fascinating although I found two things particularly interesting:
1. The call for a postcolonial criminology seems well overdue. Chris Cunneen’s paper made the most explicit case for this but Ben Bowling’s paper on transnational criminology, Katja Franko Aas on global criminology and Stephan Parmentier’s paper on dealing with the past all revolved around a similar theme: that in order to understand crime in other countries and cultures we need to avoid the westocentric, US-Anglo, Anglophile criminology which has come to dominate. We need to look at what people in colonised countries want, what their needs are, and what specific problems they face. Most importantly, we need to recognise that colonialism has long-lasting effects: that criminal justice systems have been imposed on countries which would not have had these systems without colonialism, that indigenous people have variously been shafted by colonisers and so as well as looking for immediate responses to crimes, they are also looking for reparations, truth and reconciliation. Accordingly, a postcolonial criminology could go towards thinking about and proposing answers to how to achieve this balance. As Berger and Luckmann say, ‘Institutions always have a history, of which they are the products’ (1971: 72) and it is important that we remember this.
2. The second lot of papers that got me thinking were Carlen’s anti-evangelism and McLaughlin’s Critical Criminology evangelising. I guess I fall into Carlen’s side of argument- that there is no ‘right way’ to do criminology. The thing is, for me, I don’t really care- critical, cultural, feminist, postcolonial, administrative, or whatever- it’s all criminology to me. If it’s relevant to my project of the moment then that’s all good but I wouldn’t ever subscribe to one school of thought. This may seem like a contradiction to my previous about postcolonial criminology but it’s not- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having different shades of criminology, but to put oneself in a box and define one’s work based on that shade is unproductive. If I classed myself as a cultural criminologist, does that mean I can’t use anything by a administrative criminologist because they are unequivocally opposed to each other? I am a believer in research for the purpose of intellectual curiosity and I don’t think that research should only be judged by its perceived usefulness (there was an interesting debate about this on the Today programme the other day) but I also think that the best research does generally have some usefulness about it- increasing understanding, although it may not have an immediate or tangible application to the world, is a most worthwhile exercise. I also do not believe in research that only applies to a certain political or criminological agenda- which is what the labelling of criminologies is. I wonder if the new generation of criminologists (which will undoubtedly be larger that the previous generation) will be equally obsessed with ‘types’ of criminologies.
Anyway, the conference is going to result in a book with an impressive range of contributors all addressing themes around what criminology is and what it’s for- should make for very interesting reading.