Critical criminology is a study of crime using a conflict perspective which considers the causes and contexts for crime, deviance and disorder; it has also been known as radical criminology and the new criminology. This perspective combines a wide range of concerns from across the more radical approaches, such as Marxism and feminism. It incorporates a wide number of ideas and political strands, generally associated with an oppositional position in relation to conventional criminology.
Raising epistemological questions about the ideological foundations of criminology has been the objective of critical criminologists. Critical studies are extremely important in this respect as they 'keep us all on our toes with regard to our own pre-suppositions' (Braithwaite 1993 in Swaaningen 1997 p15).
In the early stages of critical criminology, the concept of alienation was used. This led to seeing deviancy as an assertion of human values, and to a methodology about how this assertion was controlled. A political economy emerged too. Crime was seen as bound up with inequalities within production and ownership. This approach was rooted in radical perceptions rather than conservative or liberal ones.
It is critical of theoretical approaches and criminal justice policies; it seeks to expose the ideological nature of dominant ideas about crime. It focuses on the structural, political and ideological factors which underlie the definition of crime and criminal law, emphasising the casual significance of capitalism in the generation of and responses to 'crime' rather than relying on multifactorial descriptions (White R & Haines F, 2004).
The basic concept of this perspective is its concern with structures of power, which are institutionalised and reflect social interests that oppress certain groups of society i.e. the working class. It sees the criminal justice system as an unfair, biased one which works in favour of the higher classes. Its mission is to uncover the nature of the underlying power relations that shape how different groups are treated, trying to develop strategies that will change the current social order.
It saw criminal behaviour as having a structural origin, that behaviour is rooted in the way in which societies are organised at the institutional level. Also an interactionist ideology; that people have an element of choice in relation to their behaviour. For the interactionalist aspect it is thought that crime is committed by all classes and different social classes commit different types of crime. Although unlike interactionists they do not see deviants as passive victims of labelling; due to having choice and power.
Taylor, Walton and Young insist that criminals choose to break the law. They dismiss all theories which see human behaviour as directed by external forces. They see the individual turning to crime as 'the meaningful attempt by the actor to construct and develop own self-conception' (Haralambos et al, 1996).
William Bonger has been put forward as a pre-decessor of critical criminology (Turk, 1969; Taylor et al., 1973). He was one of the first to research the relationship between; inequality, economic conditions and crime. He was a Marxist revolution is in the Bernstien tradition. Bonger suggested more equal socio-economic conditions would prevent 'crimes of misery' (1916). These crimes of misery arise from poverty. To reduce crime he argued that gradual socialisation of means of production was the key to greater equality. If poverty and wealth were shared experiences no one could gain situation or position by theft. He also thought that if property was socially owned instead of by small groups of individuals, there would be no need for theft as it would be stealing from themselves.
While critical criminology may have been established in the aftermath of the 1960s, some of its intellectual and conceptual roots stem from times well before that era. With such social theories of Gramsci, Marx and Goffman. During the late 1960s, British criminology was at a crossroads because traditional positivism was in a crisis (Lilly et al 2000). The central problem was that 'wholesale improvement in social conditions resulted in not a drop in crime but rather the reverse' (Young 1998, p.159). Critical criminology had a significant impact on academic criminology over two decades ago but still remains important and influential today.
"The new criminology had a brief period of decline and is now experiencing a resurgence of interest and influence" (Walton & Young 1998). Critical criminologists raise a number of important questions and see crime as a process related to wider economic and political structures of power. They question the way social control operates and is used. They explain crime as a result of the alienation and powerless of the working class, controlled by capitalism.
The focus for structuralist criminology is the crimes of the powerful and the crimes of the less powerful. The ruling class was seen to create laws that served their basic interests and also to exercise a hegemonic influence over all classes in society; 'ruling class laws'. These laws were created to serve and protect the interests of the powerful; the higher classes. Gramsci states that the ruling class maintain power by securing the consensus of the ruled. This was achieved by the maintenance of a hegemonic culture in which the ruling class power is legitimised and the ruled in effect consent to be ruled by accepting (Corall H 1998).
A major work in this tradition was Hall et al 'Policing the Crisis' in 1978. The basic argument that came out of this study was that the police consciously targeted "muggers" due to a general economic and political crisis in British society. Making a scapegoat of this visible and petty type of crime, the police were acting in the interests of the ruling class by creating a moral panic to distract attention away from the economic crisis.
Critical criminologists saw the real function of the police as maintaining law and order. It is one of the few perspectives to focus substantially on racism and crime. High rate of incarceration and contact involving certain social groups are due mainly to discrimination and wrongful use of discretion (Cook & Hudson 1993). Excessive and coercive policing is seen to stem from the structural role the police in a class-divided society, giving rise to under and over-policing.
Critical criminologists argue that working class crime is insignificant when compared to the crimes of the powerful which mostly go unpunished; e.g. such crimes as tax evasion, white collar crime and corporate crime. Fewer resources are used to combat these types of crime and some of these activities are not even seen as criminal (Burke R 2001).
Frank Pearce in 'Crimes of the Powerful' (1976) argues that corporations and organised crime have greater capacity for harm but are less targeted by law enforcers. Instead the law enforcers focus on the obvious and easily detectable crimes. He sees organised crime as having a hierarchy similar to that of capitalism: i.e. the workers in organised crime are most exploited and are more likely to get caught than the bosses.
Another aspect of critical criminology is environment criminology, dealing with environmental harm, risk and animal rights. Types of harmful activity are such crimes as pollution, disposal of toxic waste, and misuse of environmental resources (Pearce & Tombs 1998).
Richard Quinney sees the law as a tool used by the ruling class to maintain its hold on society. Laws exist not to protect human rights but to maintain social order favouring the ruling class. He argues that crime control is conducted by institutions and agencies that all represent the ruling class, and that subordinate classes have to be oppresses by what ever means necessary.
Chambliss work; 'Crime and Capitalism' (1975) re-iterated and developed these ideas. He sees the law as a product of ruling class power and that the criminal justice system focuses too much on the behaviour of the least powerful. The criminal justice system helps to control the proletariat and helps to maintain socio-economic inequality. All people commit crime but the state focuses too much on the poor to notice.
Taylor Walton and Young argue that 'the cause of crime is the law'. To understand the reason why people commit crime we have to first understand the way capitalist societies are structurally differentiated in terms of wealth and power. The explanation of crime is a social one trying to understand both the cultural and psychological factors that surround deviance. The task of critical criminologists was to expose the processes that made certain groups of society deemed to be worthy of social exclusion, also to develop strategies to make a more humane and equal society.
Rene Van Swaaningen believed that by examining critical criminology within a European framework, a new critical perspective in the search for alternate visions of justice would emerge. Critical criminology theories must be reassessed and re-applied in the light of current trends within criminology and criminal justice. Critical criminological theories illuminate our understanding both of crime and the institutions constructed to attempt its control.
One thing that all the different approaches have in common within critical criminology is the concern with issues of oppression and injustice. These are seen to stem from structural inequalities in resource allocation and decision making power. Thus, institutional reform is seen as part of a more profound transition towards a more equal, fairer society (White & Haines 2004).
Critical criminology has been criticized for its lack of interest in policy. Some strands of critical criminology have also been associated with an abolitionist stance arguing the formal processes of the police and prisons which criminalise some groups and exacerbate their problems should be abolished or greatly reduced and more informal means of conflict resolution should be adopted (Corall, H 1998).
Many would consider critical criminological view of social order, the law and the criminal justice system to be to simplistic and a denial of reality that most people experience (Burke R 2001). This is a problematic analysis as most criminal behaviour is not targeted against the dominant social order, while the criminal law is not just directed at keeping the less powerful in their place.
A major weakness in this criminological perspective appears to be that although it is illustrated how it is possible to arrive at a "social theory of deviance" no attempt was ever made to put this theory into practice.
Critical criminology tends to have a simple view of power. There is a notion that some people have power and others don't but, there is no serious attempt to analyse the nature of power. Social power is best understood as being concentrated in particular directions, and has different effects according to different groups, resources and capacities.
Additionally, the rejection of 'grand narratives' such as justice, right and equality, make it difficult to produce a justification for specific types of academic analyses on particular criminal justice issues (Loader 1998 in White & Haines 2004). Values themselves may be seen to be subjective, and partial, thus unsuitable as guides to action.
Critical criminology reflects the concerns of many different people in contemporary societies. This aims to allow all people to participate fully in society; no matter what their race, ethnicity, sex or class. Critical criminology views capitalism as essentially hostile to the promotion of human rights and personal empowerment, and seeks alternative social arrangements and philosophies that can result in a more inclusive society (White & Haines 2004).
'All good sociology is critical, as is all competent criminology. It is my belief that critical criminology is more relevant today than ever and that the critical attitude fits the experience of later modernity' (Jock Young).
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• Haralambos & Holborn. (1996) Sociology Themes and Perspectives Collins Educational Press.
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