I plead guilty to most of these charges and more. Worse still I’m not even that radical, just grumpy. As an ex Home Office civil servant I’m extremely aware of how difficult it is to influence policy (are you listening REF assessors?); and with my radical hat on generally not sought to - other than wishing some notice had been taken of my early assessment of CCTV.
I got started in criminology after reading Jock Young’s ‘Working Class Criminology’ when on an Open University course. I subsequently took my MA in Criminology at Middlesex where I was taught by Jock, John Lea and Roger Matthews. Whilst my own output since has been esoteric (so what?) I see it as underpinned by some realism even whilst entertaining ontological doubts.
A rather more echt realism can be found in Roger Matthews latest book. I asked him to write a few words about it.
REALIST CRIMINOLOGY - PALGRAVE MACMILLAN (July 2014)
The purpose of this book is to provide a response to the paradox that as the criminological enterprise has expanded exponentially in recent years its policy relevance has decreased. In fact, some commentators have argued that a great deal of criminology is in policy terms irrelevant and have called for a more ‘public criminology’. The explanation for the decreasing policy relevance presented in the book is that an increasing body of criminological endeavour is centred around two camps. On one side there has been a growth of administrative criminology funded by governmental bodies. This type of criminology characteristically involves a low level of theory, is essentially managerialist responding to pressing issues, favours highly quantitative methods and tends to produce equivocal conclusions. It also does little to generate a cumulative body of knowledge. On the other hand, academic criminology has become dominated by varieties of liberal criminology – radical, humanist and pessimist. Liberal criminology tends to be minimal or anti-statist, and often anti-punishment. Even in its more radical forms it tends not to talk about social structures, political economy or social class and makes sweeping generalisations about the nature and direction of social control. For example, some leading liberals have reduced the complexity of the changing forms of crime control to a surge of punitiveness, although it is not clear why such punitiveness should arise or how exactly it is to be identified or overcome. In its more pessimistic forms it claims that nothing works, or that interventions only make things worse. Alternatively they fail to present viable alternatives and instead advocate ‘the unfinished’.
The combination of administrative criminology, on one side, and liberal academic criminology on the other, is to produce a criminological enterprise that is either short sighted and pragmatic, or alternatively largely disengaged from the major issues of crime control. Academic criminologists increasingly engage in particular topics which are studied in isolation from the major social, economic and economic changes that are taking place in our increasingly globalised world. As a substitute for examining their topics within these wider contexts they all too often draw on accounts produced by those radical liberals who make some attempt to capture the wider picture. However, as in the case of punitiveness these accounts are predictably inadequate.
Let us take the two main components of the criminological enterprise – crime and punishment. Undoubtedly the most significant development in living memory is the crime drop. The decrease in nearly all forms of crime internationally over the last two decades is unprecedented and was not predicted. An undergraduate student writing an essay in the 1980s predicting a substantial and sustained drop in crime would have either been failed or referred for counselling. Although crime began to fall in both the USA and the UK from the early 1990s it was not until 2000 that the first book on the crime drop appeared in America. Academic criminologists, it would seem like the media (who they are very quick to criticise) were either not interested in this development or did not know how to respond to this good news. Since 2000 there has been a slow trickle of commentaries on this major development but much of it is inconclusive and equivocal.
Initially, a number of factors were suggested to account for the crime drop – policing policies, mass incarceration and changing patterns of drug use. These were discounted fairly quickly since they did not account very well for international decreases in crime or the continuous decrease in crime across the board over time. Subsequently, a variety of factors were suggested including the introduction of legal abortions, increased security, changing drinking habits and the decrease of lead in the atmosphere. Needless to say all of these explanations suffer the same limitations as the earlier explanations to varying degrees. Characteristically Andrew Karmen in is book New York Murder Mystery (2000) argues that the decline in homicide has been a ‘fortuitous confluence’ of factors, while Franklin Zimring (2007) suggests that there was no single cause - or even an evident cause - but claims that the decline is an example of multiple causation with none of the many contributing factors playing a dominant role.
Moving beyond these liberal and generally inconclusive accounts, it would seem that we need to examine the role of wider structural and social processes such as the shift to PostFordism, the growth of a service economy and accompanying changes in the nature of masculinity and social relations. In addition, as the leading conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson has suggested there are important cultural changes that also underpin this development.
In relation to punishment what we might call the ‘liberal turn’ in academia has faired no better. If we take imprisonment as an example we have seen hundreds of books and articles over the last two or three decades telling us that prisons do not work. The various deficiencies are repeatedly identified and in this way the liberals aim to claim the moral high ground. However, it is difficult if not impossible to find anyone these days that claim that prisons do work and even governmental authorities admit that ‘prisons can be an expensive way of making bad people worse’. The liberal solution takes one of two forms – reductionism or abolitionism. That is, first to reduce the number of people in prison. However, as there is no agreement about what is the correct number of people in prison, the reductionists inevitably claim that there are always too many. This reduces the issue of prisons and punishment to a ’numbers game’ and notions of social justice are sidelined. The other option is abolitionism in which advocates want to see mass decarceration and in some cases the greater use of community based sentences. However, abolitionists often claim that engaging in prison reform and improving prison conditions only serves to re-legitimise prisons, while more pessimistic liberals argue that developing community based ‘alternatives’ only reinforces the centrality of imprisonment while encouraging net widening. Rarely, do these liberals address the realist question of who should go to prison, for what purpose and for how long.
The failure of criminology as Jock Young pointed out some time ago lies in its inability to develop an approach that coherent, sophisticated and useful. The failure to produce ‘joined up’ criminology tends to result in what Elliott Currie refers to as “So What?’’ criminology. That is, a criminology which is theoretically thin, methodologically weak and has little or no policy relevance. The ultimate aim of this book is to address these deficiencies and to re-establish realist criminology, while contributing to the development of a more critical and progressive approach to crime and punishment - an approach aimed at reducing suffering, abuse, exploitation and victimisation, while improving the operation of the criminal justice system and thereby contributing to the goal of achieving greater social justice.
Note: Palgrave Macmillan are offering a 20% discount on this book when ordered directly from them. Just quote PM14TWENTY