Criminology is, as John Lea (1998) points out, not so much a discipline as a field, its distinctiveness is not its knowledge base but the form of its focus: theories of crime, criminal law and the relation between the two – in this it is a sub-category of the sociology of deviance. It can, and never should be, conceived of as a separate discipline, its categories and processes are social constructs, they have no separate ontological reality.
It cannot, therefore, exist separately from social theory as its concerns are inevitably with the nature of social order and disorder. Not only have all of the major social theorists concerned themselves with order, disorder and regulation, but there has been across the century clear links between the great theorists of modernity and the criminological canon.
Witness Durkheim, Merton and the anomie theorists; Marx, Engels, Bonger and Marxist criminology; the influence of Simmel and Wirth on the Chicago School and the conflict theorisation of G B Vold; of Schutz and Mead on Becker and labelling theories. Despite this obvious intimacy of intellectual concern, there has been a constant tendency for criminology, particularly in its more practical and administrative manifestations, to cut itself off from grand theory. Such a situation was paramount in Britain in the post-war period and the turn, or should we say reconnection of criminology to sociology was a major first step out of empiricism.
The second phase which Downes traces was the foundation of the NDC in 1968 and the ten years that followed it, this took on the new American sociology of deviance and considerably radicalised it. It is this phase which gave rise to the ‘new’ or ‘critical’ criminology. This presented itself as a series of ‘ironies’ which served to turn establishment criminology on its head. * SELF-FULFILMENT| That illusions and stereotypes of crime can be real in their consequences and self-fulfilling in reality.| * SERIOUSNESS|
That crime occurred throughout the social structure and that the crimes of the powerful were more serious in their consequences than the crimes of the poor.| * ONTOLOGY| That crime has no ontological reality and that the ‘same’ behaviour can be constructed totally differently.
Thus, for example, a serial killer could be either a psychopathic monster or a hero if dropping bombs daily in the Afghan War.| * DECENTRING| That the criminal justice system is not the front line defence against crime but a minor part of the system of social control, itself crucially dependent on informal norms of civil society.| * SELECTIVITY| That criminal law, although phrased in a language of formal equality, is targeted in a way that is selective and substantially unequal.|
* COUNTER-PRODUCTIVITY| That the prison and the criminal justice system produces criminals rather than defusing criminality.| * SOCIALISATION| That the core values of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, individualism and hedonism are close to the motivations for crime, so that the well socialised person is more likely to offend than the undersocialised.| * CONTRADICTION| That the ideals which legitimate and hold the system together are the very ones which society thwarts and the frustrations generated seem to break the system apart.| * FUNCTION| That ‘the criminal’, ‘the outsider’ , ‘the other’, far from destroying the fabric of society, produce stereotypes which hold the fabric together.| (MalcomRead)
It is argued that this process of ‘narcissistic contemplation’ has resulted in a confused range of responses to the study of crime and crime control. Since the mid-1970s, critical criminology has been characterised by a range of dramatic and often paradigmatic changes that have taken it from the bounds of social reaction theory and Marxism to its contemporary expression as a project focused on deconstruction and governmentality.
Generally, critical criminology has been left battered and bruised by the ebbs and flows of politics, history and theory over the past few decades, and it remains ontologically confronted by the perennial challenge of ‘relevance.’ Rather than engaging in yet another round of fruitless ‘reactive reflexivity,’ a way forward for critical criminology might be to reconsider its role in relation to the discipline as a whole and to ally itself even more closely with progressive social movements. The alternative is to remain tied to endless introspection or to become absorbed too readily into the realist and correctional agendas of government.
(Sonoma)Perhaps more than any other discipline in the social sciences, criminology has engaged in deep and prolonged critical reflection of itself. This process points to the deep uncertainty of critical criminologists as they search for a meaningful self-identity and a coherent theoretical perspective on crime and crime control. Such angst has taken critical criminology along a tortuous path of self-examination resulting in an endless array of revisions, renewals, mea culpas, altered perspectives, paradigmatic shifts and adjured theoretical positions.
More generally, the discipline has fractured artificially into a multidisciplinary melange of competing perspectives and administrative and theoretical concerns. Binary divisions have been created between ‘applied’ and ‘theoretical’ criminology, and criminologists (especially those regarded as ‘critical’) are often seen as marginal to the modernist imperative of practical relevance. To add to the confusion, the discipline is divided and sub-divided into a variety of camps, factions and schools of thought, each wedded to fluctuating theoretical perspectives.
Described as a “rendezvous” discipline (Rock and Holdaway 1997), criminology has been endlessly criss crossed by a vast range of often ambiguous, confusing and contradictory theories aimed at explaining the individual, group, structural and now post-structural antecedents of crime. Some have even questioned whether criminology actually constitutes a discipline, or whether the study of crime in itself is enough to justify a declaration of independence from, say, sociology (see for instance, Hirst  or Cohen ). Even among those who describe themselves as ‘critical criminologists’ there exists considerable variation in theoretical outlook and prescriptions on how the study of crime and crime control should proceed (Swaaningen 1997).
Feminist criminologists rightly balk at the failure of some critical criminologists (and criminology generally) to embrace a gendered perspective (Naffine 1997), while others have bemoaned the lack of attention to ‘power’ and the ‘state’ (Cunneen and White 1996) and the excessive amount of attention given to official definitions of ‘crime’ (Muncie 1998). Stan Cohen &emdash; one of the most erudite, levelheaded and perceptive commentators to emerge from the social reaction school of the early 1970s &emdash; summed up his reflections on critical criminology (circa 1973) as follows:
1. Faulty analysis: “It was wrong to gloss over the significance of street crime. Instead of demystifying the crime problem as the product of media myth, moral panics, faulty categorization or false consciousness, crime must be acknowledged as a problem for the powerless” (Cohen 1998: 105). 2. Reductionism: “It was wrong to portray the origins and functions of the criminal justice system in repressive terms or as mere reflection of class interest” (Cohen 1998: 106) 3. Against causal analysis: “… it was wrong to abandon the traditional causal questions of positivism.
This did not mean reviving psychological determinism, but it did mean restating the causal connection in which crime emerges in modern capitalist societies… that is, poverty, deprivation, racism, social disorganisation, unemployment, loss of community and the power of gender” (Cohen 1998: 106). 4. Isolationism: “… it was wrong to try to abandon the discourse of the old criminology and to try and construct an alternative with its own problematic. Radical criminology must make itself politically relevant by operating on the same terrain that conservatives and technocrats have appropriated” (Cohen 1998: 106).
Cohen’s appraisal of the limitations of earlier versions of critical criminology is shared by the new wave of reconstructive criminologists who have attempted, in a variety of ways, to return to the terrain of “relevance” occupied by earlier criminologists (see Sutton 1996). This, of course, has not been without its problems. Indeed, the tensions that have beset criminology over the last three decades are still abundantly evident as the discipline enters the new millennium. Despite the emergence of feminist criminology, the genealogical work of Foucault and post structural theory, critical criminology remains dogged by a concern to appear relevant to the problem of crime.
This concern is acted out repeatedly in debates over crime prevention and the role that theory should play in relation to practice. (Sonoma) if critical criminology is to fully engage Cohen’s voracious gods in a way that deals concretely and thoughtfully with crime and its consequences, then it may have to contemplate its position both in the academy and in relation to progressive social movements. The seemingly endless process of self-reflection has not served critical criminology well. The acknowledgments of past errors and theoretical reinventions have resulted in stagnation.
It has taken critical criminology many years to reach a position that acknowledges the wide gap between the theory building and the actual consequences and governmental realities of crime and crime control. For some postmodernist criminologists this point has yet to be reaches. Although not a self termed critical criminologist, John Braithwaite has acknowledged (via Republican criminology) that the discipline might be guided most effectively by recognition of the enduring processes of exclusion in late modernity and by a closer alliance with progressive social movements.
Critical criminologists need to rethink their roles and the way in which social action and advocacy strategies might be absorbed more readily into the critical side of the discipline. Failure to do this may simply mean that critical criminologists will continue to conduct their debates with each other or with others while the world and life in general go on, and on. (Sonoma)