Volume 2, Issue 2, June 2000

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 2000, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.

Toward A More "Progressive" Criminology?
A Rejoinder to Elliott Currie

Richard Hil


Elliott Currie’s essay, "Reflections on Crime and Criminology at the Millennium," (1999) provides an eloquent and timely antidote to the "triumphalism" that has greeted the supposed fall in crime levels in a number of western countries. Such truimphalism has been most shrill in the United States where federal politicians, city mayors, and media spokespersons have talked about a new climate of peace and stability in the great metropolitan centers. Yet, as Currie points out, the celebrations are not so much premature as self-delusionary in that the decline in crime levels is in fact measured against baselines that were already astronomically high. Invariably, crime in the US has merely returned to levels that were unacceptably high in the mid-1980s.

According to Currie, the drop in crime cannot be attributed simply to the new order in law enforcement: more imprisonment, tougher policing and so forth. Evidence of brutal and differential policing practices (particularly in relation to Afro-Americans and Hispanics in the inner city), not to mention the manipulation of official police statistics, are indications of some of the negative consequences of policies such as "zero tolerance." Currie states that the new triumphalism has gradually displaced the idea that socio-economic conditions need to be addressed if social order is to be maintained: "The flip-side (of triumphalism) being that we’ve also proven that you don’t, after all, need to address such problems as poverty and social exclusion or other supposed "root causes" of violent crime" (1999: 3).

Currie maintains that the supposed drop in crime is in fact a "spin" or "state of denial" which fails to take account of the hundreds of thousands of people confined in prisons--statistically speaking, they are non-people. He further argues that lower crime must be set against the extraordinary rate of economic growth in the US which has led to significantly better levels of employment and standards of living for large sections of the population. This of course is not to deny the huge divisions in wealth and income that characterizes US society, nor the secondary negative impact of an improved economy on many "third world" countries - leading in many instances to major social problems, including crime. Thus, the new triumphalism is somewhat shallow, benefiting those who have a stake in supporting "tougher" approaches to law and order rather than addressing the many problems associated with differential policing and overcrowded prisons.

Currie proceeds to identify the ways in which criminologists can play a more effective role in bringing about positive change in the socio-legal domain. He observes that: "The first is to push , and push relentlessly, to ensure that this nation makes those preventative social investments that can reduce violent crime in enduring and humane ways, rather than simply suppressing it, hiding it, or denying it". (Currie 199:6) The second push is to "end the systems abuse in our institutions" so that they can be devoted to "rebuilding" people’s lives in constructive and humane environments (Currie 1999: 6). Currie also calls (among other things) for criminologists to encourage the development of more family support programs, improved programs for prison inmates and targeted anti-poverty initiatives. According to Currie, criminologists should also state their objections to three strikes and other mandatory sentencing practices as well as to simplistic solutions to crime as advocated by the likes of James Q. Wilson. Currie concludes with a flourish: "If there’s one task that we as professional criminologists should set for ourselves in the new millennium, it’s to fight to ensure that stupid and brutal policies that we know don’t work are--at the very least--challenged at every forum that’s available to us" (1999:9).

Taking Stock

Currie’s essay demonstrates a number of things about the current state of criminology in western countries. First, it suggests the important role that could be played by criminologists in the public domain, especially by putting forward informed views on crime related issues. More than this, Currie’s essay demonstrates the vital role of debunking policies and practices that can quickly percolate into the justice systems of sympathetic countries (mandatory sentencing, for instance). Second, and related to this, Currie alerts us to the positive aspects associated with "deconstructionism"; that is, the careful analytical dismantling of conventional wisdom and received ideas. Third, it guides us towards what criminologists should be most concerned about: institutional practices, implementation of useful social programs and so forth. Fourth, it alerts us to the key role that criminologists might play in bringing about positive social change resulting in less crime and a more equitable social order. Finally, Currie’s essay encourages us to think harder about the consequences of parochial (social and economic) practices in western states given that what goes on in some of the more "advanced" states has often profound repercussions for "developing" countries.

While there is much to recommend in Currie’s essay, it is perhaps worth stepping back from a potential criminological triumphalism and taking stock of the discipline as we approach the new millennium. I want to organize my critical response to Currie’s comments around the three "voracious Gods" which, according to Stan Cohen (1998), should constitute the essential framework for a more "progressive" discipline --"progressive" in the sense that it opposes repressive and brutalizing approaches to law and order and sees crime control as a constituent element in the wider scheme of things. The "Gods" in question are the continuation of intellectual endeavor, the pursuit of social justice and the provision of short-term humanitarian help.

The Continuation of Intellectual Endeavor

Cohen argues that criminologists should be engaged in an active process of theorizing that questions, debunks and takes issue with accepted ideas and political conventions in respect of crime control and law enforcement. This would seem an appropriate and worthwhile activity if it were not for some of the following drawbacks in contemporary criminology:

(a) It is an eclectic, "rendezvous" discipline characterized a multiplicity of perspectives and often conflicting paradignmatic positions (Rock and Holdaway 1997). Such eclecticism may be seen as both a strength and a weakness. At the very least, it serves more to divide rather than unite a discipline that ranges over a vast array of epistemological domains. The ascendancy in many quarters of biological theories of crime and other individualistic orientations, alongside calls for a revised "radical" and newly asserted post-structural criminology, suggests that it is not possible, as Currie seems to imply from his uncritical references to "criminology", to homogenize the discipline. (Muncie 1998) It is important to acknowledge the obstacles set by a highly pluralistic discipline. The fact is that despite its continued focus on eradicating crime, criminology lacks any coherent or unified center. Its administrative advocates - those most concerned with calculating and reducing the official "crime rate" - might assert that criminology is essentially the "scientific" study of crime and its "causes". Others - especially those who advocate a more "radical" approach - might continue to view "crime" and "criminality" as highly contested descriptors of social phenomena that are grounded in specific social, economic and political conditions. Yet others - those who attempt to straddle the apparent divide between theory and practice - might dwell on the relationship between matters such as intellectual endeavor and political commitment.

(b) Viewed from its various standpoints, criminology remains wedded to some very traditional concerns; namely, a focus on the crimes of the urban poor and "solutions" to a narrowly conceived "crime problem". The discipline has retreated into accepted positions about the meaning of crime - indeed, it is interesting to note that Currie makes no mention of white collar, corporate or state crime. However, there are some criminologists who think that the very essence of the discipline should be to keep such matters on the critical agenda (see essays in Walton and Taylor 1989; Bessant, Hil, and Watts, forthcoming). Moreover, it is arguable that given the discursive power of US domestic and foreign policy and the rise of a near-consensus on the "third way" that there is a pressing need to regenerate discussions about how we come to think about crime and its management. Recent references to the threat posed by a supposed "underclass" and the fact that criminology has in many ways (through its research agendas and policy prescriptions) buttressed this category should alert us to the need for a more critically reflexive discipline.

(c) Reflexivity is used selectively and at different times by criminologists. Some are quite happy with the discipline’s general adherence to a correctionalist agenda, while others are outrightly hostile to any such position. In any event, partial critical reflexivity has generally not provided clarity or a great leap forward in understanding how crime, lawbreaking and crime control relates to other spheres in the liberal state. Is it not revealing of the discipline that as we approach the new millennium that some of its exponents are (yet again) calling for more attention to the fundamental definitional questions associated with concepts like crime and criminality and for a more wide ranging theoretical approach to such matters? (see Muncie 1998). This is a startling rallying call given the seemingly endless questioning of such concepts and "mainstream" positions by the sociologists of deviance in the 1970s, the New Criminologists in the same decade and, more recently, by post-structuralists. Currie's apparent failure to acknowledge the somewhat transfixed and confused state of criminology (especially around its supposed "core" interests) reveals a certain acceptance of an oblique "crime problem" constituted chiefly around his violent crime.

(d) The enduring criminological focus on the crimes of the urban working class reflects both a partial representation of the "crime problem" and the actuarial assumption that "high crime" is a "social fact" linked to the lower orders (Garland 1996). The latter point is demonstrated by the ease with which some left-leaning criminologists assume a certain level of crime among the working class without really questioning the veracity of official statistics, or examining the processes of "policing" in the liberal state (see for example: Downes 1997; Reiner 1997; Pitts and Hope 1997). Currie’s own preoccupation with violent crime as virtually synonymous with the crime problem is itself reflective of the often narrow way in which criminologists think about such matters. Indeed, what "violence" means is itself a matter for debate especially when we consider the indirect violence to families and neighborhoods brought about through deleterious government policies.

(e) Finally, in a context governed increasingly by economic liberal philosophy and new managerialist practices, university-based criminologists find themselves having to meet various demands that work against their role of critical engagement. Careers based on the accumulation of large grants - often for undertaking "safe" evaluative studies - and the requirement to engage "practical" crime prevention issues has often resulted in the blunting of the "critical edge". Empiricist talk of performance indicators, quality assurance, cost effectiveness and evaluative outcomes has placed severe strain on open and lively intellectual debate within the discipline. Such developments reflect on the production of knowledge and what counts as accepted or acceptable research (Silbey 1996). In late 1999 the fact is that criminological debate differs considerably from the critical exchanges that took place in the 1970s during which Marxist/critical/new/radical criminology was pitted against "skeptical" and "establishment criminology" positions. While such debate is part of the ebb and flow of any discipline the 1990s have, for a variety of reasons, generated a much more low-key and considerably less "confrontational" debate about crime and its management. By ignoring the many constraints acting upon and shaping the discipline Currie is in danger of seeing criminology as some sort of homogenous, free-floating operation which could have some influence upon public debate if only it tried harder. It is perhaps worth remembering that despite its long existence (and in occasionally doing the things proposed by Currie) the discipline has not presided over a general downturn in crime (however that term is conceived), nor has it provided general "solutions" to a narrowly defined "crime problem."

The Pursuit of Social Justice

Progressive criminologists, including Currie, are almost uniform in their insistence that "crime" is contingent upon wider "external" forces. Braithwaite’s (1990) emphasis on "republicanism", Hogg and Brown’s appeal to "constitutive democracy" (1998), Young’s brand of "left realism" (1998) , Henry’s (1994) formulation of "constitutive criminology" and Naffine’s (1997) articulation of a feminist criminology are all, in their individual ways, compelling accounts of the links between sociopolitical and cultural forces and crime creation. Each is accompanied by a (invariably vague) political agenda that sees the "solutions" as achievable mainly through institutional change (the dismantling of patriarchal capitalism, more associative citizenship, less socio-economic inequality, more democratic and accountable policing and so forth). Nowadays, few criminologists see the pursuit of social justice (access, equity and participation) through the lens of revolutionary Marxism. Indeed, the Marxists of the New Criminology variety (although now denying they were Marxists at all!) are now either pursuing social democratic objectives (via left realism), commenting on the impact of free market policies on crime (Taylor 1998) or have simply drifted away from the discipline. The spirit of the New Criminology, however, remains in its residual form with the likes of Muncie (1998) calling for more critical attention to the role of the state in crime management and Carlen (1998) supporting a de-reified structural understanding of crime.

The tension between "intellectual skepticism and political commitment" (Cohen 1998) - particularly in respect of the pursuit of social justice - is evident throughout criminology. It is arguable, however, that the work of progressive criminologists, especially the likes of Cohen, Currie, Braithwaite and Hogg and Brown, are useful in providing changeling ways of understanding how crime might be overcome by the pursuit of certain political objectives. The problem, however, is that although we might, say, support aspects of republican theory, or ideas of associative democracy and non-patriarchal relations, no-one appears to be clear about how such changes are to be achieved. Braithwaite (1998) proposes an approach vaguely grounded in the actions of progressive social movements, while others call for institutional changes and a general redistribution of societal benefits and burdens.

But we are bound to ask what precisely does a political commitment to social justice mean from the perspective of the academic criminologist? Theorizing about crime and celebrating the values of social justice is one thing, but bringing about such change is quite another. Indeed, it is apparent that even though criminologists have in various ways called for the advancement of social justice if crime (mainly "street crime") is to be curtailed, their demands read more like ideological chants rather than operational manifestoes.

Perhaps progressive criminologists should begin to tell each other (and the rest of us) how to go about "structural" or "institutional" change, or risk a retreat into simple social democratic reformism (associated with some elements in the new realist camp), or being continually sidelined when it comes to political decision-making. More conservative criminologists have (for obvious reasons) always had the wood on their progressive counterparts in this respect because as advocates of "crime prevention" their studies appear to have more governmental "relevance".

The praxis of criminology from a progressive perspective becomes even more pressing when we consider the impact of globalization on populations around the world . The most pessimistic accounts tell us that things are getting considerably worse in "the west": more unemployment, growing divisions between the rich and poor, less welfare, more law and order etc. (see Chomsky 1996; Martin and Schumann 1997). Less apocalyptic, but equally depressing pundits, point to more tensions in the inner-city and a general sense of nihilistic pessimism among the young (Downes 1997; Eckersley 1996; Furlong 1997). Either way, criminology finds itself confronted with changing times where the pursuit of social justice appears to run counter to the more destructive tendencies of late capitalism. Perhaps if progressive criminologist are to become more than ideological complainants or Dickensian chroniclers they need to consider ways of translating their works from "intellectual skepticism" into a tangible form of political action. Although opposed to Braithwaite’s unfounded faith in the "natural" emergence of progressive social movements, it would be interesting to learn how criminologists could work more closely with other professionals and social groups to achieve the possibility of institutional change. There is much to be said for a criminology that sees the possibility of addressing the more negative aspects of governance (more criminalization of the urban poor, more intensive policing etc.) through the medium of social movements.

The Provision of Short Term Humanitarian Help

The drive towards left realism occurred largely in the wake of criticism directed at the idealism and essentialism associated with various brands of Marxist theory during the 1970s. The romanticization of the offender as a working class hero - striking a blow against international capitalism - was pitted against the facts that: (a) there were real victims of crime and (b) that the main victims of street crime were the poor and the vulnerable. The ideological myopia displayed by the New Criminologists in this respect has been the subject of considerable critical comment. In the vacuum created by such insensitive theorizing the conservative criminologies were easily able to take hold of the moral high ground. Supported by the rise of a transatlantic, radical-conservative hegemony, conservative criminology gave expression to recycled individualistic theories of crime causation. Victim-based discourses also dovetailed neatly with the populist law and order approach to matters of crime and crime control.

The 1990s have witnessed a bifurcated approach to crime control that speaks in terms of getting "tough" on crime and its causes. Such calls by both the US President and the British Prime Minister would not (at a surface level) necessarily conflict with the some of the demands of the various criminological Gods. The fact that governments are tougher on the former than the latter, however, suggests that the divide between politicians and progressive criminologists is probably as wide as ever. Yet, when it comes to humanitarian help progressive criminologists are eager to address the harm and damage done by crime - even though, like Currie, they often ignore the effects of corporate crime and state crime on vast sections of the population. Currie’s own set of suggestions, although useful in terms of helping families in difficulty, is not free of problems. Indeed, the growing climate of interventionism, and the history accompanying such practices, would at least require some words of caution before going down this road. Family centers, preventative programs for "at risk" youth etc. may in fact have many unintended and occasionally damaging outcomes. They may legitimate state intervention for no other reason that to control crime. Again, some critical deliberation is required here in terms of why (and how) we are mounting interventionist programs in the first place.

Indeed, "humanitarian need" can mean a number of different things. Cohen’s own call for a "short term" approach that helps victims, derives from his earlier support for "moral pragmatism" in which he considers that any approach - conservative, liberal or radical - that produces some good or justice is worth holding on to (Cohen 1985). Following the short term, of course, it is not quite clear when or how the fundamental, long term changes are to occur, or how they are to be strategically achieved. The voracious Gods thus turn out to be broad statements of principle used to guide criminologists and others in their attempts to address issues of crime and crime control. The problem lies, however, in the general orientation of these principles. To which crime problem are they directed? What conception of crime are we talking about? How do we address the very real harm caused by corporations or corrupt politicians? What type of crime do liberal democracies really try to prevent? In other words, while I would support the thrust of Currie’s call for various initiatives to stop the harm and damage caused by crime, some basic questions need to be addressed.

The issues of humanitarian help and the pursuit of social justice are connected closely to the question of political commitment - a question requiring more attention than that given by Currie. This is not simply about "whose side are we on" - although this is important given the often cozy alliances between criminologists and the state - but rather how to project the progressive criminological agenda onto the terrain of government. This of course is a huge question to which there are no easy answers. Tensions in this regard are often evident between theory and practice, abstraction and concreteness, relevance and irrelevance, skepticism and commitment, the academy and government. Perhaps some time could be spent in strategizing approaches that do not necessarily dilute the ultimate intent of progressive criminology: that is, to bring about social and political equality as a basis for crime management. There may, for instance, be some hope in supporting certain social movements (as noted by Braithwaite), developing closer alliances with particular neighborhoods and communities and even rescuing the concept of "empowerment" from the clutches of the political right. There is even room to take on the administrative criminologists at their own game by, for instance, reformulating interpretations of official statistics and exposing some of their underlying assumptions.

Governance and Criminology

In attempting to provide a more incisive view of "crime" and the "crime problem" in the context of late modernity there is much to be gained by focusing on processes of governance. Currie’s own analysis makes no explicit mention of why such an analytical approach might prove useful. Specifically, a focus on governance enables us to do three important things: first, to examine crime and crime control as operational and discursive articulations central to the regulation of certain populations; second, to view criminology itself as part and parcel of processes of power/knowledge directed toward the management of problematic behaviors; and third, it enables us to take a step backward and gaze at crime control through the lens of history.

In examining criminology we might, for instance, usefully compare and contrast the bodies of knowledge used to explain the actions of the "dangerous classes" of the nineteenth century with current articulations that link crime to the unemployed, the "underclass" and the urban poor. We might find that many of the concerns of contemporary criminology (theoretical differences notwithstanding) reflect previous approaches to the study of crime: specifying the "problem", measuring its nature and extent among the urban working class and offering appropriate "solutions." This sort of "technicist" approach (Hudson 1996) does not necessarily apply equally to the world of white crime or state crime--indeed, criminologists seem largely disinterested in the latter. This partial representation of "crime" becomes even more apparent in the debates over "crime prevention" which are rarely directed to the boardrooms of company directors, the practices of corrupt politicians or to the insider trading of city slickers. As in Currie’s analysis, it is perhaps easier to think of "victims" as those who experience the ravages of interpersonal violence than to ponder the way corporate misdemeanors affect large sections of the population.

The point here is that the current bodies of knowledge produced by criminology through its representation of the "crime problem", and through its screening out of the crimes of the rich and powerful, have contributed (albeit often unintentionally) to the maintenance of age-old "solutions" to the "crime problem." By viewing (both administrative and academic) criminology as itself imminent in the process of governance we are able to stand back and take a more critical look at the state of the discipline.

This response to Currie’s essay should not end on an overly pessimistic note since there is much to admire in areas of the discipline. Post-structural analysis, feminism and the contributions of critical social theory and "cultural" and "postcolonial" theory have ushered in new and interesting ways of thinking about crime and crime control. The real challenge, however, remains how criminologists can contribute effectively to the fundamental changes required for a more progressive sense of social order.


Currie’s essay provides an important counter to the law and order triumphalism coursing through the US and other countries. Its power lies in debunking the claims made by politicians and others in respect of a fictive regime of social order and stability. According to Currie, criminology has a central role to play in alerting us to outrageous claims, institutional abuses and the over reliance of prisons as a form of social control. Indeed, for Currie, prisons have become symbolic of a culture devoted to emasculating its poor, vulnerable and unwanted. There is much to agree about in Currie’s essay, even though it avoids a number of key questions relating to the role that could be played by a progressive criminology in bringing about a more equitable society. It is this regard, in my view, that the real challenge for criminology resides and in relation to which the further contributions of Currie and others are eagerly awaited.

Elliott Currie responds:


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Richard Hil

Contact information: School of Justice Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia; e-mail: r.hil@qut.edu.au

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