Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2002

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 2002, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.

Facing Change: New Directions for Critical Criminology
in the Early New Millennium?

 Richard Hil

Citation: "Hil, Richard, "Facing Change: New Directions for Critical Criminology in the Early New Millennium?" Western Criminology Review 3 (2). [Online]. Available: http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v03n3/hil/hil.html


The following article examines the process of self-reflection that has characterized critical criminology over recent years. 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.

Keywords: critical criminology, paradigm change

Facing Change: New Directions for Critical Criminology in the Early New Millennium?

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 [1975] or Cohen [1988]). 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).

It is possible to identify other schisms, tendencies, factions and frictions, but the point is clear: criminology (including those described as ‘critical’) covers a vast spectrum of epistemologies which are distinguished not by theoretical and practical coherence and clarity but by deep division, confusion and ontological uncertainty.

In this article I seek to tentatively explore what might be meant by ‘critical criminology’ as we face the early new millennium, and how this section of the discipline might reconfigure itself in light of contemporary global transformations and governmental practices. I question whether the process of theoretical self-reflection undertaken mainly by critical criminologists has been entirely useful, and whether alternative approaches might be considered as we move further into the new millennium. I develop the latter discussion in the context of contemporary critical criminology (assuming there is one!), and in light of specific socio-economic and political changes that are occurring across the world.

In my view, much is to be gained by rethinking the relationship of critical criminology to the rest of the discipline and to the wider processes that shape responses to law and order. It is still the case, I believe, that critical criminology is far too preoccupied with staking out a position in the academy rather than looking to those progressive social movements that actively pursue social justice and human rights. This of course is not to suggest that critical criminology has remained oblivious to these movements: to the contrary, various social movements since the 1960s have heavily influenced the directions and concerns of critical criminology. Moreover, some criminologists - most notably John Braithwaite (1989) - have attempted to forge stronger theoretical links between criminology and social movements. The reference point for critical work might no longer be so much with internal debates occurring within universities but rather through and alongside those agencies and organizations that operate in the wider world.

A rethinking of the role that academics might play in advancing social justice and human rights (especially in an environment increasingly governed by talk of globalization) is already taking place in other disciplines &emdash; most notably in social/community work. Indeed, it is interesting to observe how social workers and others are currently grappling with issues central to the concerns of critical criminology &emdash; that is, the relationship between crime and social exclusion in an era of globalization, the emergence of devolutionary state practices, changing patterns of governance and so forth. In my view, unless critical criminology attempts to develop and strengthen strategic links with those social movements linked to the pursuit of social justice and human rights, it will in all probability embark on yet another fruitless round of reflexivity, theory construction and apolitical deconstruction. Having said that, a more explicit alliance with social movements will help to build further on many of the positive achievements brought about by critical engagement in the area of penal policy.

Reflexive Fatigue

As noted, criminology has never been short of reflexive analysis. The pace of such analysis, however, has increased over the past few decades. Edwin Sutherland’s groundbreaking exposé of the limitations of traditional criminology in his seminal work, White Collar Crime (1949) pointed to the narrow and prescriptive concerns of criminology since its inception. Sutherland was among the first American criminologists to seriously question the discipline’s preoccupation with the study of working class crime and its corresponding failure to draw attention to the crimes and misdemeanors of the rich and powerful. Later work by social reaction theorists such as Howard Becker (1963) in the United States, and Stanley Cohen (1972) and others in Britain, highlighted the limitations of criminological analysis as conducted by organizations such as the Cambridge Institute of Criminology and the Home Office Research Unit. Cohen’s two major reflexive essays on positivist criminology (1974, 1988) were part of a growing tendency in the social sciences to look closely at claims made by particular disciplines and the role they played in maintaining the status quo (see Foucault 1973; Gouldner 1970). Cohen’s targets &emdash; those institutions and organizations devoted to positivistic analysis of the ‘crime problem’ &emdash; dominated the discipline up to the 1970s. They enjoyed the majority of government research funding as well as the elevated status of criminological expertise. However, as Cohen noted, the output of organizations like the Cambridge Institute of Criminology tended to be characterized by a positivistic devotion to the study of official crime, pragmatism and correctionalism. The role of the criminologist was thus very much tied to the practical imperatives of government. Studies on the causes of crime, its nature and extent and prescriptions for crime prevention and reduction were contained in studies and reports weighed down by an assortment of statistical inventories, tables, charts and graphs.

Cohen and others called for an alternative analysis of deviance in which the focus would be on social reaction and, in particular, on the role played by the media, ‘moral entrepreneurs’ and state-run agencies in the construction of a crime problem. Becker’s (1963) discussion of dope smokers, Young’s (1971) study of drug takers and Cohen’s (1972) analysis of Mods and Rockers attempted to demonstrate processes of ‘labelling’, ‘deviance amplification’, ‘moral panic’ and ‘moral entrepreneurship.'

Thus, the mode of analysis characteristic of social reaction theorists was calculated to promote the sociology of deviance beyond the narrow and parochial governmental concerns of traditional criminology. It also indicated a certain sort of radical politics: counter-cultural opposition to the military-industrial complex, the state and capitalism as well as celebration of radical social movements (civil rights, black power, second-wave feminism, gay and lesbian rights, environmental movements and so forth).

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, prominent sociologists of deviance like Howard Becker (1967) posed the question: ‘Whose side are we on’? Others such as Jock Young began to look towards Marxism for a new/radical/critical criminology. Critique, review and introspective stocktakings became the order of the day. Yet, why engage in such repeated reflexive appraisals of criminology? What purpose lay behind such an exercise? In an upbeat conclusion to an essay (penned originally in 1984 &emdash; a decade after his initial essay &emdash; Stan Cohen offered the following reflection:

What is the point of all this historical and institutional reflection embodied in reports of this sort? The dangers of obsessive self-reflection are even more apparent now than they were ten years ago. A great deal of thinking in the social sciences &emdash; mirroring the whole intellectual culture’s narcissistic contemplation of itself &emdash; has been devoted to an examination of its own origins, crises and reasons for existence.

Much of this thinking is patently unproductive. And readers might well wonder why, in a course about crime--a subject so obviously grounded in the real world -- so much effort has been expended in mapping out the histories and present contexts in which knowledge is produced, rather than in getting on with the real business. The answer is paradoxical; some measure of self consciousness about how knowledge is produced and diffused is needed to assess what proportion of this knowledge speaks only to itself (Cohen 1988: 243).

It is evident that a considerable amount of the self-conscious analysis undertaken by criminologists and sociologists of deviance over the past few years has spoken largely to itself &emdash; so much so, in fact, that even current advocates note their lamentable failure to provide any significant response to the crime problem. Thus, as Braithwaite (1998: 49) has remarked: "Criminologists are pessimists and cynics. There are good reasons for this. Our science has largely failed to deliver criminal justice policies that will prevent crime."

This failure is made all the worse when we consider that there has (apparently) been a veritable explosion of crime in the inner city over the past few decades (Young 1998, 1999) &emdash; this despite the existence of a vast range of academic departments and research centers/institutes dedicated to the study of this phenomenon, as well as an army of officials and institutions devoted to its eradication.

While critical criminologists have been largely involved in reflexive and theoretical projects over recent years, the old guard of traditional criminology, backed by government grants and new research agendas (including a romance with bio genetics), have reasserted themselves in the public domain. Indeed, despite the introverted projects stemming from the publication of The New Criminology in 1973 (Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973), the traditional advocates of positivistic research had never really gone away. Thus, while the radical criminologists and skeptical sociologists turned on administrative criminology, and then on themselves, the same processes of cataloging, recording, classification and prescription were continuing in the same government-funded research bureaus, centers and institutes. By 1998, when various former and current critical criminologists came together to reflect on life since The New Criminology, the mea culpas were in full flow, as were proposals for yet another round of deep theoretical reflection. Home Office and other government research bodies must surely have indulged a wry ‘I told you so’ when reading through the apologies for past wrongs contained in some of these reflective accounts.

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. Such debates, however, raise important epistemological questions.

Firstly, what does relevance mean in a climate governed by the imperatives of economic rationalism and new managerialism? Such a question is especially pertinent for a discipline (like criminology) tied increasingly to certain governmental (correctional) agendas. Second, what conception of justice is being articulated in such debates, and how does this influence the role played by critical criminologists? I will attempt to address these two questions by commenting briefly on the merits or otherwise in the process of self-reflection that has been characteristic of critical criminology.


Whatever its strengths and (considerable) limitations, The New Criminology (Taylor, Walton and Young 1973) marked a significant intervention in the post- World War II period. The publication of the book signaled both the high and low point of critical criminology: it was breathtakingly utopian and idealistic, and at the same time, extremely rigorous in terms of its critique of earlier criminologies. However, The New Criminology also served to render an entire school of thought (critical criminology) marginal to what appeared to be the dominant concerns and realities of crime. Feminists and victim organizations were undoubtedly correct in pointing to the failures of critical criminology, as were those who wanted some simple recognition that crime does exist despite differential understandings of its nature and scale.

Following publication of The New Criminology there emerged two distinct bodies of critical reaction. First, those from within the left-leaning side of the discipline who attacked the book for all the failings identified above (see Rock and Downes 1977). Second, in the wake of New Right politics, a reinvigorated breed of administrative criminologists scoffed at what seemed the crass idealism of radical criminology. From the early 1980s onwards, administrative criminologists focused increasingly on the plight of victims, situational and environmental crime prevention and community-based programs.

In a very short period, critical criminology found itself left high and dry on a plateau of seeming irrelevance to the question of law and order. While Marxist-inspired theoreticians clung to a sinking epistemological ship, others both in and around the vessel were busy trying to plug the leaks or looking for new and more effective means of transport. Ontological insecurity, existential crisis and profound self-doubt soon entered the ranks of critical criminologists. Deep contemplation, rethinking and private and public reflexivity became the order of the day.

This state of crisis resolved itself (for some critical criminologists) by a wholesale change of direction. This was evidenced most glaringly in the work of one of the leading new criminologists: Jock Young. To some extent, the case of Jock Young reflects on the problems caused by what might be termed ‘reactive reflexivity’: that is, a mode of critical self-reflection that results in positions that are aimed both at neutralizing criticisms (from both within and beyond the ranks of critical criminology) and developing more refined or entirely new positions. As one of the early British social reaction theorists, Young (along with many others) played a key role in developing a sociological alternative to the long established positivism of British criminology. He was also instrumental in founding the National Deviance Conference - an umbrella organization for those who broadly adhered to a skeptical position. Young’s The Drugtakers (1971) was one of the first books in Britain to take an explicitly sociological look at a specific area of deviance. Yet as time wore on, it became increasingly clear that Young was drifting towards a more explicitly Marxist analysis of crime and deviance. Along with Ian Taylor and Paul Walton, he wrote The New Criminology (1973) and co-edited a companion volume, Critical Criminology (Taylor, Walton and Young 1975). Around the same time, Young also co-edited a series of papers presented to the National Deviance Conference, the tone of which was avowedly Marxist (1979) &emdash; even though Young later claimed that neither The New Criminology or his other works during the 1970s were Marxist (1998). Following the implosion of the positions taken in The New Criminology, Young sought to re-evaluate his approach to the study of crime and deviance.

What emerged was a brand of ‘left realism’ dominated by the imperative of "taking crime seriously" and dedicated to the study of crime and policing in the inner city (Young and Matthews 1992). Young and his colleagues (at the then Enfield Polytechnic) embarked on an empirical survey of crime in an inner London borough and concluded that relative deprivation, differential policing and a host of other factors were responsible for the construction of the crime problem (Young et al. 1986). Ironically, however, Young’s realist-empirical project shared much in common with previous positivist studies: an often uncritical acceptance of categories such as ‘crime’, a preoccupation with ‘working class' crime to the exclusion of other sections of society, and an over-emphasis on the question of policing (White and Haines 1999). Young’s (The Exclusive Society [1999]) more recent work &emdash; a largely theoretical exploration of crime and exclusion &emdash; has adopted a more post-structural orientation through his analysis of ‘difference,' the ‘Other,’ ‘ontological insecurity’ and ‘social exclusion.’ Once again we find that the relative deprivation thesis plays an important role in Young’s explanatory framework, although this time it is wedded to the ‘strain’ thesis formulated in the late 1930s by American sociologist, Robert K. Merton.

I find Young’s work instructive for two reasons: first, it says much about the struggle of current and former critical criminologists to reach an agreeable analytical position. This, of course, does not suggest the necessity to remain analytically stagnant; but when the theoretical and political shifts are paradigmatic, or supportive of positions previously thought untenable, then one begins to ponder the question of consistency. Second, Young’s call to take crime "seriously" is more than a rebuff to the idealism and romanticism contained in The New Criminology: it is an attempt to claim a place on the terrain of relevance. The problem here is: what sort of relevance is being talked about, and at what price the return to such familiar modernist territory? For instance, while Young sought to take crime seriously, he also took the conventional category of ‘crime’ itself all too seriously, slipping back into the positivist error of taking this highly contested official concept for granted. Further, The Exclusive Society (Young 1999) takes as given the official assertion that crime rates have increased rapidly over the past quarter of century, and that this is linked in complex ways to the exclusionary realities of relative deprivation. If I have read Young’s position correctly, such assertions constitute a quantum leap from the positions he adopted over a quarter of a century earlier. In my view, such enormous shifts and changes cannot simply be attributed to intellectual maturation or to a vision of the wise criminologist. Instead, I see Young’s thinking as deeply reflective of problems that have beset critical criminology over the past few decades. These problems can be listed under the following headings:

The Problem of Relevance

This refers to the intellectual uncertainty over the meaning of relevance. What does it mean to be relevant from a critical perspective? Relevant in relation to what/whom? Does merely standing on the same terrain as other criminologists make critical criminology suddenly relevant? Cohen’s (1998) view is that critical criminologists need to talk about the same sorts of issues as their distant cousins, presumably by getting into the thick of debates about theory, policy and practice. Yet the problem here is one of osmosis: critical criminologists have always been fearful of losing their critical edge if absorbed into the agendas of reform and correction. This problem has been clearly evidenced in debates on crime prevention where critical and neo-critical criminologists have struggled over what it means to be relevant. For instance, some, like Adam Sutton (1995), see crime prevention as the raison d’ être of a practical criminology, while others such as Cohen (1995) and Chan (1995) question whether crime reduction should necessarily be seen as an index of success for the discipline. I have argued elsewhere that the price of relevance may be an internalisation of certain narrow correctional agendas and normative acceptance of the category of 'crime.'

A distinctive feature of critical criminology has been its critique of narrowly constituted traditional criminologies as well as an attempt to relate crime to issues of social justice and human rights. In contrast to traditionalists, critical criminologists have sought to locate the discourses of crime control in a wider governmental context and to see crime prevention and reduction as dependent to some degree on socio-political and structural conditions. While it seems logical that critical criminologists should at least actively engage questions of crime, criminality and crime control, it seems less certain how such criminologists should position themselves on the terrain of relevance.

Conceptual confusion

The normative acceptance of categories of crime, the crime problem and crime rates by many former and current critical criminologists reveals the problems that arise when "taking crime seriously" risks meaning to suspend some critical judgment. Once on the trail of relevance, critical criminologists find themselves easily absorbed into certain ways of thinking about crime that resemble the positivism they claim to oppose. They might also find, as I have, that merely raising doubts over normative categories such as crime and the crime problem can result in being labeled as a New Criminologist (Homel 2000) and/or Marxist (Haines and Sutton 2000). This sort of reaction to the most basic of critical exercises reveals the deep distrust which many of the more conservative criminologists have toward anyone who questions the use of basic conceptual tools. And yet, as John Muncie (1998: 232) has pointed out, the questioning of crime and other categories should be to the forefront of any criminological analysis:

In the current political climate its [critical criminology’s] strength lies providing an essential antidote to conservative and social democratic [realist] discourses. In particular an ability continually to problematise the nation of crime [as a process, not an act] allows critical criminology to move beyond the limited foci of the radical realists and their apparent rerun to the terrain of traditional criminology. By questioning what actually constitutes ‘crime’, critical criminology is able to reveal how and why the concept is regularly drawn upon within the discourses of law and order. Situating ‘crime’ within debates about law and order thus enables analysis of the state and state power to be once more to centre stage, and allows visions of radical alternatives to criminal justice to come to the fore. And this would seem vital if we are not to be left with the levels of analyses that stop at public perceptions, subjective experience and ideological discourse.

Muncie further insists that critical criminological analysis needs to locate crime in contexts shaped by "structural relations of patriarchal capitalism": "These relations may not determine our behaviour in a direct and unproblematic way, but they do set the parameters and boundaries in which social relations are experienced. And it is exactly these boundaries that continually need to be questioned and challenged" (Muncie 1998: 232).

Return to reformism

Former radical/critical criminologists, like Jock Young, now find themselves advocating ‘realist’ positions which interface readily with the concerns of traditional criminology. ‘Social exclusion’ and other conceptual variants of ‘relative deprivation,' along with undemocratic styles of policing, are seen as the primary issues to be addressed by a social democratic government. This reformative agenda, however, is based on a range of questionable assumptions about crime and its origins. High crime is thus seen as a social fact of inner urban life, as is the differential policing of excluded populations. Yet in the quest to demonstrate a causal connection between relative deprivation, undemocratic policing and crime, realists have forgotten to examine the conceptual foundations upon which their analyses are based.


The fact that Jock Young has reinvented himself theoretically is perhaps not startling in itself &emdash; few social scientists would hold doggedly onto consistency for its own sake. The transformation of Young from (let us say) a neo-Marxist to a social democrat over the space of a less than ten years reveals a quantum shift from idealism to realism. This shift reveals the way in which critical criminologists have struggled over where exactly to locate themselves in debates on crime. As noted, this uncertainty is particularly evident in a range of essays designed to reflect on the drawbacks and achievements of The New Criminology (see Walton and Young 1998). Thus, while Muncie (1998) calls for basic conceptual analysis, others note the importance of governmentality in the analysis of crime (Hogg 1998), the promise offered by ‘reintegrative shaming’ (Braithwaite 1998), the lure of ‘utopian realism’ (Loeder 1998), the success of feminist anti-essentialsim (Carrington 1998) and critical opposition to ‘brand name’ master narratives (Carlen 1998). (It is, of course, difficult to say how many of the criminologists cited above would describe themselves as ‘critical’. I suspect it would be difficult to fashion a united perspective from the positions adopted by these criminologists given the evident diversity in theoretical perspectives.)

Only one essayist, Stan Cohen (1998), has attempted to offer a unified analytical framework for criminological inquiry. It should be remembered that Cohen has tended towards a pragmatic position in most of his writings, whether in relation to social work (1975) or criminology (1985). In Visions of Social Control (1985), Cohen calls for the adoption of a morally pragmatic position which seeks to build on those state-driven interventions and initiatives that produce limited good and justice, while at the same time pursuing longer term campaigns for social justice. In his more recent work (1998), Cohen adopts a similar pragmatic position through what he has termed the voracious gods of criminology. These gods are the broad parameters to which, according to Cohen, criminology should adhere:

…first, an overriding obligation to pursue honest intellectual enquiry (however sceptical, irrelevant and unrealistic); second, a political commitment to social justice, and third (and potentially conflicting with both), the pressing and immediate demands for short-term humanitarian help. We have to appease these three voracious gods (Cohen 1998:122).

Cohen rightly notes that integration of these demands is improbable on a day-to-day level and perhaps unnecessary, given that criminologists tend to devote themselves variously to research, policy and practice. Ultimately, however, the demands remain the benchmarks by which a progressive critical criminology is judged, and this means taking into account the extent to which all the gods have (or have not) been placated. Thus, critical criminology cannot devote itself wholly to theorizing without paying attention to the actual consequences of crime. Equally, it cannot engage in theorizing or policy formulation without fully articulating its commitment to social justice. Traditionally, critical criminologists have tended to concentrate more on theory building and deconstruction and less on the active pursuit of social justice. By the latter, I do not wish to imply that critical criminologists have remained oblivious to the need for an active political engagement; indeed, efforts have been made to link theory to a program of political action and advocacy. Rather, I argue that although critical criminologists have achieved much in terms of theoretical discussion and policy deliberation, they have been somewhat less persuasive and successful in actively pursuing the goals of social justice and human rights that are so closely connected to issues of crime management. As Swaannigen (1997) points out in his review of European critical criminology, a commitment to human rights as a constituent element of social justice can usefully confront the instrumentality associated with actuarial approaches to law and order. It can also be linked to those wider intellectual currents and social movements that see the crime problem as part and parcel of the changing nature of relations between the state, market and the culture of corporatism. Swaannigen (1997: 249) further suggests that proceeding along a critical path that simply questions notions of contemporary punishment, actuarialism, the role of the private sector, prisons and the entire corrections industry without reference to the normative impulse of social justice is probably unhelpful. This calls into question the values upon which critical criminology is based. Cohen’s view of the voracious gods is based on the need for criminologists to articulate the values and politics to which they adhere. He rightly insists that this should be linked explicitly to an acknowledgment of the intimate and unavoidable connection between crime, crime control and social justice. Thus, Cohen recognizes, above all, that discussions of crime cannot be disconnected from the wider questions which are ever present in the social body: structural inequality, poverty, racism, sexism and so forth. This inevitably dovetails with those meta-questions of justice and rights that are closely connected to criminological narratives on crime and crime control. Again, this does not imply that critical criminologists should drift away from the everyday staple concerns of the discipline. As Swaaningen (1997) argues, it is by seeking to undermine the hegemony of actuarial approaches to law and order, and by working closely with legal scholars to highlight the more irrational sides of criminal justice, that critical criminologists can be at their most effective. By the same token, a critical criminology that is not linked to a discourse of social justice and human rights risks a retreat into some familiar technical solutions aimed at fixing a narrowly conceived crime problem.

Cohen asks much of criminologists, and there are limits to what any single person, department or institute can achieve. My difficulty with his framework is that it tends to lack a clear prescription of how, say, a critical criminology might in practice consider itself in relation to the question of justice, and how this might be achieved in the current context of ‘turbo capitalism’ (Martin and Schumann 1997). This raises questions of epistemological direction and how, precisely, critical criminologists might embark upon a political program of social change. It is to this issue that I will briefly turn.


Critical criminology has long since drawn knowledge and inspiration from social movements (Young 1999). From the 1960s onwards the struggles of women’s movements, black power and civil rights activists, gay and lesbian, environmental and other movements have been reflected in criminological concerns over domestic violence, racist policing, gay bashing and so forth. The contribution of critical criminology to the development of these movements has been largely to highlight the problems faced by certain groups and to integrate related issues and concerns into new theoretical formulations and insights on crime control. Some critical criminologists have taken on more active involvement by participating directly in local organizations and/or contributing directly to policy debates (see Hogg and Brown 1998). Others, such as Adam Crawford (1999), have undertaken empirical analyses of local governance in order to demonstrate the connection between community based attempts at crime control (via partnerships and crime prevention strategies) and the wider processes of devolved government, social exclusion and polarization. Unfortunately, there has been little effort in such accounts to address the interface between social movements and localized attempts to bring about social change. For some criminologists like John Braithwaite (1998: 51), the alliance between criminology and social movements is central to the future of a progressive discipline dedicated to the pursuit of social justice. The prevailing question here is how, precisely, should this alliance be forged? What does an alliance mean, given the widespread, varied and often amorphous nature of social movements? The answers to such questions turn on what we mean by social movements and the extent to which critical criminology can embrace the swirl of trends, ideas, perspectives and operational practices that constitute such phenomena. For now, I propose a broad view of social movements which distinguishes them from simple conceptions of interest groups, pressure groups or formally constituted political parties, and which instead refers to a broad and inclusive range of discourses and practices unified in opposition to certain institutional arrangements.

Contemplation of the roles that critical criminologists might play in relation to such movements is important in terms of future engagement in scholarly enquiry, policy formulation and social activism. At core is the place occupied by criminologists in the academy, and how an active (rather than simply theoretical or textual) alliance with social movements might alter the nature of day-to-day academic work. Despite a largely theoretical articulation of the need to embrace the ideas of progressive social movements, critical criminologists have tended to become preoccupied with staking out a position in the discipline itself, with debates occurring mainly on the stage of scholarly discourse. This is not to deny the importance of the contributions made by critical criminologists, nor to suggest that they should stray from concerns central to the discipline. Moreover, it would be clearly wrong to see academic contributions as somehow disconnected from issues and concerns in the wider world; such contributions reflect a wide range of emancipation movements in western states over the past few decades (Young 1999). It is also evident that scholarly debate and argument have made significant contributions to advancing the interests of various oppressed and disadvantaged groups, and that a close interconnection has existed between sections of critical criminology and social movements.

Times, however, have changed. Given the altered nature of the world order via globalization (Hil 2000), and new cultures of management in universities themselves (Israel 1999), a whole new set of challenges have emerged for those criminologists wishing to build close links with social movements. Criminologists, like other academics, find themselves confronted with a greater range of occupational demands (increased teaching loads, more performance reviews, evaluations and assessments of various sorts) and career expectations (successful grant applications and consultancies). The net effect has been to increase the pressure on academics to become more intensely self-interested and to meet the demands of an increasingly market-driven sector (Marginson and Consedine 2000). Inevitably, such developments have altered the ways in which academics approach their work, irrespective of their personal desires and political allegiances. Given this, it would seem fruitless to call for critical criminologists to contribute more actively to building alliances with progressive social movements. Certainly, there are practical limits, although if critical criminology is to remain faithful to its critical orientation then it must, where possible, seek to ensure that its commitment to social change is articulated not simply through the products of the academy but also in and through active and publicly identifiable engagement with progressive movements. The alternative is that critical criminology continues to speak only to itself and for itself, and that it remains disconnected or distanced from those agencies and organizations working for social change.

It is not enough that we simply undertake elegant critiques, or propose new ways of thinking about crime control. These views and perspectives need to be articulated and disseminated in and through the social movements of which they should be an integral part. Indeed, participants in various social movements often look to universities to provide them with research findings and theoretical insights, and to propose ways in which these can be put into practice. The opportunities for such work are endless. For instance, the growing oppositional movements to the values of economic globalization, as well as those movements which continue to oppose racism, sexism and the use of repressive penal measures and state abuses of human rights are all areas of potentially fruitful alliance.

The discipline most involved in connecting with these and other movements has been social/community work. Indeed, after attending a recent conference in Montreal on how social work might respond to the challenges of globalization, my view is that criminologists could learn a great deal by listening to the debates occurring in such forums. Social workers and others have sought to address a range of strategic and operational questions relating to how their profession can conduct practice with those groups most affected by globalization. This has involved new ways of thinking and strategizing about local, regional, national and international issues (Ife 2000). It has further involved rethinking the role of academics in relation to emergent social movements and how the former might engage in social and poetical action that is effective in creating a more civil society (Cox 2000). If critical criminologists believe that crime is intimately bound up with social injustices, then the question arises as to how fundamental changes are to be achieved. Again, this is not to deny the important contributions made by critical criminologists, but it does invite consideration of how, say, policies of wealth and income redistribution, the eradication of poverty and greater consultancy and participation at the local level might be achieved.

Faced with the prospect of growing socio-economic divisions and signs of more intensive forms of repressive governance in neo-liberal states, critical criminologists may finally be compelled to address how, precisely, fundamental social change is to be brought about. In a sense, we are back to those "big questions" associated with capitalist structural inequality and the state, and to those enormous political agendas grappled with by earlier critical criminologists. While not wishing to advocate the proposals contained in The New Criminology, my view is that current developments in neo-liberal states mean that it is not enough for critical criminologists to disconnect themselves from those operational agendas required to deliver fundamental social change. In other words, we cannot have it all ways. For instance, we cannot keep arguing that crime is connected to social injustices in the capitalist state and then simply retreat into discussions of crime control per se.

Obviously, I do not wish to underestimate the difficulties in bringing about any sort of change, especially at an institutional level. It is also very important to remain cognizant of the dangers of idealism and romanticism when calling for social change. However, as Jim Ife (2000) has observed, if fundamental institutional change is to be achieved, it will require the active involvement of many sections of society (including academics) in a commitment to advancing social movements. Sustained and widespread programs of social action and advocacy are integral to such a process. In a recent volume of the Australian journal, Just Policy, a variety of social work/community work academics and social advocates/activists discussed ways in which change could be achieved through "bottom-up", localized initiatives and broad-based oppositional movements. Such changes are seen as part of an overarching program aimed at achieving fundamental changes in current institutional arrangements (see for example, see Mowbray 2000, Hewett and Wiseman 2000). Whatever the drawbacks of this approach (and there are many), it has nonetheless moved significantly away from the ‘paralysis of analysis’ that often accompanies theorizing in critical criminology. It may also, finally, enable critical criminologists to seriously contemplate the longer term processes of social change advocated by Cohen and others.

A reorientation in the direction of social action and advocacy would have profound implications at the levels of theory, policy and practice. While there is insufficient space here to explore these implications, the point is that if critical criminology is to avoid some of the theoretical errors and political inertia of the past, then a fundamental rethinking of its political direction is required. This does not mean creating another domain of criminological inquiry outside the usual concerns of the discipline, but rather, acknowledging that the most effective means of bringing about change (including changes to cultures of crime control) might be through greater active engagement with social movements through research, scholarship, teaching, social activism and advocacy.


My central argument has been that 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 a kind of epistemological stagnation in which critical criminologists are asking once again &emdash; as they did at a recent conference in Sydney - whither this body of thought? The answers to this question depend in part on what critical criminologists want to achieve and where they see their audiences. In my view, it would be less than productive for critical criminology to engage in further pursuit of theoretical purity, or to seek a sense of relevance and practical application that accords with the expectations of their more conservative colleagues.

Sadly, it has taken critical criminology many years to reach a position that acknowledges the gulf between the theory building and the actual consequences and governmental realities of crime and crime control. For some postmodernist criminologists, the struggle goes on. Criminologists have never been much good at addressing the specific ways by which social change can be achieved &emdash; the processes of deconstruction, implosive critique, endless reflexivity, descriptive critical commentary and elegant theory construction have not always allowed for that. Although not a self-consciously critical criminologist, John Braithwaite has at least acknowledged (via Republican criminology) that the discipline might be guided most effectively by recognition of the enduring (indeed deepening) processes of exclusion in late modernity and by a closer alliance with progressive social movements. I have suggested that perhaps 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.

Top of Page


Becker, H. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York: Free Press.

Becker, H. 1967. "Whose Side Are We On?" Social Problems, Vol.14, No.3.

Braithwaite, J. 1989. Crime, Shame and Reintegration, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

____________ . 1998."Reducing the Crime Problem: A Not So Dismal Criminology." In Walton, P. and Young, J. The New Criminology Revisited, London: Macmillan.

Carlen, P. 1998. "Criminology Ltd: The Search for a Paradigm." In Walton, P. and Young, J. The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Carrington, K. 1998. "Postmodernism and Feminist Criminologies: Fragmenting the Criminological Subject." In Walton, P. and Young, J. The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Chan, J. 1996. "Crime Prevention and the Lure of Relevance." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 27(1): 25-9.

Cohen, S. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panic. London: Paladin.

_____________ .1974. "Criminology and the Sociology of Deviance." In Rock, P. and Macintosh, M. (Eds.), Deviance and Social Control. London: Routledge.

_____________.1985. Visions of social Control. Cambridge: Polity Press.

_____________.1996. "Postscript: If Nothing Works, What is our Work?" Zealand Journal of Criminology 27(1):104-7.

_____________.1998. "Intellectual Scepticism and Political Commitment: The Case of Radical Criminology." In Walton, P. and Young, J. The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Cox, E. 2000. "Creating a More Civil a More society: Community Level Indicators of Social Capital." Just Policy 19/20.

Crawford, A. 1999. The Local Governance of Crime: Appeals to Community and Partnerships. London: Clarendon.

Cunneen, C. and White, R. 1996. Juvenile Justice: An Australian Perspective. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Gouldner, A. 1970. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books.

Hil, R. 2000. "A Gloomy Vista? Juvenile Crime and Social Order- An Australian Perspective." Crime, Law and Social Change 33.

Henry, S. And Milovanovic, D. 1996. Constitutive Criminology: Beyond Post Modernism. London: Sage.

Hogg, R. 1998. "Crime, Criminology and Government." In Walton, P. and Young, J. (Eds.) The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Hogg, R. and Brown, D. 1998. Rethinking Law and Order. Armadale: Pluto Press.

Homel, R. 2000. "Blazing the Developmental Path." Youth Studies Australia 19(1): 44-52.

Ife, J. 1997. Rethinking Social Work. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

______________ .2000. "Localised Needs and Globalised Economy." Canadian Social Work (Special issue) 2 (1).

Israel, M. 2000. "The Commercialisation of University-Based Criminological Research in Australia." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 33(1):1-20.

Haines, F. and Sutton, A. 2000. "Criminology as Religion: Profane Thoughts about Sacred Values." British Journal of Criminology 40(1):146-162.

Loader, I. 1998. "Criminology and the Public Sphere: Arguments for Utopian Realism." In Walton, P. and Young, J. (eds.) The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Marginson, S. and Consedine, M. 2000. The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, H. and Schumann, H. 1997. The Global Trap: Globalisation and the Assault on Democracy and Prosperity. Pluto Press: Armadale.

Muncie, J. 1998. "Reassessing Competing Paradigms in Contemporary Criminological Theory." In Walton, P. and Young, J. (eds.) The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

Naffine, N. 1997. Feminist Criminology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rock, P. and Downes, D., eds. 1977. Devaient Interprétations, London: Hutchinson.

Rock, P. and Holdaway, S., eds. 1997. Thinking About Criminology. London: UCL Press.

Sutherland, E. 1949. White Collar Crime. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983, c1949.

Swaaningen, R. 1997. Critical Criminology: Visions from Europe. London: Sage.

Sutton, A. 1996. "Crime Prevention: Promise or Threat." Australian and new Zealand Journal of Criminology 27(1).

Taylor, I Walton, P. and Young, J. 1973 The New Criminology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Taylor, I. 1981. Law and Order: Arguments for Socialism. London: Macmalian.

Young, A. .1996. Imagining Crime. London: Sage.

Young, J. 1971. The Drugtakers. London: Paladin.

____________, ed. 1979. Capitalism and the Rule of Law. London: Hutrchinson.

____________ .1998. "Writing on the Cusp of Change: A New Criminology for an Age of Late Modernity." In Walton, P. and Young, J. (eds.) The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

____________et al. 1986. The Islington Crime Survey: Crime, Victimization, and Policing in Inner-City London. Aldershot: Gower.

Young, J. 1999. The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late Modernity. London: Sage.

Young, J. and Mathews, R. (eds.). 1992. Issues in Realist Criminology. London: Sage Publications.

Walton, P. and Young, J. 1998. The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan.

White, R. and Haines, F. 1999. Crime and Criminology: An Introduction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Top of Page

Richard Hil

Richard Hil is one of the faculty of law at the School of Justice Studies, Queensland University of Technology. Contact: School of Justice Studies, Queensland University of Technology. E-mail: hil@pop.qut.edu.au.

Top of Page

Return to Western Criminology Review Archive

Go to Western Society of Criminology Home Page