Saturday, November 18, 2017

What is Criminology? Who is a Criminologist?

Today marks the end of the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Even before this week, though, I've been thinking a lot about criminology, its meaning, and who/what it includes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, academic labels mean a lot to me. At JSP, it was drilled into us that we need to demonstrate our disciplinary identity: interdisciplinary scholars often have to "prove" they "are" a sociologist, political scientist, historian, etc. and sometimes get left in the margins when they fail to make this case, falling through the interstices of competing fields. Criminology is an interdisciplinary discipline---some programs more than others---but this issue of identity still matters.

Living in Canada has also made me question my understanding of criminology. For many reasons, the Canadian academe is much more internationally aware than the American academe: as members of the British Commonwealth, Canadians have more contact with British, Australian, and New Zealander thought and developments. As in many countries, Canadians are also more likely to read American journals *and* their own countries journals, whereas in the US, one might read a British journal regularly, but not much else beyond American journals. Consequently, there are different perspectives than one finds in American academic work alone and, as a further consequence, the same terms and fields have different meanings and theories. Notably, the definition---or at least understanding and content---of criminology is different in Canada: there is a much bigger emphasis on critical perspectives (critical criminology is huge in Canada), so there is a lot of feminist, colonial/post-colonial, critical race, Indigenous, and other perspectives not found in mainstream American criminology. With a stronger influence from the Continent and Great Britain, there is also a more (or different) theoretical orientation. Americans, I have learned, have a particular understanding of theory and methods that is different from the Continental approach, although I've not yet been able to articulate this difference. (For now, think how Foucault is different from, say, Rothman in their approaches to prison history. Both are great (and limited) in their own way, but the two men might have a very interesting discussion about what they mean by theory and how they use evidence or why they care about the prison as a social artifact.) From an American perspective, one might say the Canadian/British/Continental approach is less rigorous, but that would be unfair and American-centric; from a Canadian or British perspective, American ideas might be considered narrow, simplistic, and even naive.

Finally, as I start to accumulate experiences and a stronger understanding of myself, I've realized I'm rather curmudgeonly when it comes to the specificity of academic language, whether we are discussing the over-application of "resistance," the multiple definitions and uses of the "carceral state," or my annoyance at people who call Eastern State Penitentiary a supermax. So it might not be surprising that I've started to get frustrated with the term "criminology." It is probably inaccurate and unfair to say that criminology is a more heterogeneous field than, say, sociology, but it at least strikes me that way. Consequently, it seems problematic to have one catchall term for this diverse field. While some people welcome or rebuff the label for themselves, it would be useful to come up with more specific terms for diverse subfields within criminology---particularly so that those who get labeled criminologists can at least clarify what type of criminology they do. Indeed, we have already seen a distinction created with the branching off of Critical Criminology, which has its own section in the ASC.

Many of us (readers of this blog, or at least those at whom this blog is aimed) do not identify as criminologists even if we attend the ASC or work in criminology departments. (I for one self-identify as a law and society scholar, but I also use/do history and sociology; because I study punishment, though, I am often seen as a criminologist, as are many others in our little subfield.) Whether we like it or not, much of our research is advertised by publishers as criminology titles. Our two main subfield journals are Punishment & Society and Theoretical Criminology. So it is difficult to escape the label---and it is not clear how strategic it is to fight the label.

Part of our unease with this labeling (to the extent it exists for others) may stem from the official definition of criminology as "the scientific study of crime and criminals" (according to Google). We do not study crime and criminals; we study society's response to, or treatment of, these socially constructed categories; said differently, many of us study the relationship between punishment and society. Thus, we have adopted Punishment and Society as a label to identify us as a group.

But Punishment & Society is also a problematic label, as it gives an unclear status to some scholars who very clearly fit inside our tent: for example, policing scholars, scholars of urban spaces, scholars looking at things that are not officially punishment but sure seem like punishment, scholars studying courts, scholars studying changes in criminal laws, etc. We could make the somewhat awkward explanation that these are all still "punishment scholars" because they are studying the processes that lead to or result from punishment. But punishment might not be their ultimate concern, so it is unfair of those of us who are more clearly concerned with "punishment proper" to centralize our interests in a collective label. (Punishment & Social Control might be more accurate, but others have raised problems with the "social control" portion of this label, so even if it makes it a bigger tent, it raises other demons.)

In this post, I would like to offer a preliminary attempt to impose some greater precision on what we mean by criminology to avoid conflating quite different normative and epistemic projects. Specifically, I propose that we begin using the terms techno-criminology, socio-criminology, and (adopting the existing term) critical criminology. (I'm avoiding other existing terms like "mainstream criminology" or, for reasons discussed above, "Punishment and Society.") Below, I lay out what I see as the essential differences between these subfields of criminology. I want to emphasize that these are something of ideal types and that there will be exceptions. It is also the case that scholars sometimes straddle these subfields or seamlessly move back and forth between them. Thus, while one person might be only a socio-criminologist, another might be a socio-criminologist at times and spend varying amounts of time as a techno- or critical criminologist. Finally, although I see myself in the socio-criminologist category, and obviously favor that approach, I do not mean to suggest any of the subfields are better or worse than the others---instead, each one pursues a different project with different assumptions, expectations, goals, etc. Socio-criminologists might analyze techno-criminologists, and critical criminologists might offer critiques of both other fields, and techno-criminologists might dismiss the two other fields as misguided or irrelevant. (Might!) But each has its own project and it is important to evaluate these subfields/projects on their own terms---if we wish to evaluate them at all (we might not---live and let live). For now, I simply want to impose conceptual clarity. Along the way, I hope not to mischaracterize any of these subfields---obviously, I know less about techno- and critical criminology, so I will be prone to misstatements for which I preemptively apologize.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

New Book of Interest!

Vanessa Barker's Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State (Routledge, 2018)
In late summer 2015, Sweden embarked on one of the largest self-described humanitarian efforts in its history, opening its borders to 163,000 asylum seekers fleeing the war in Syria. Six months later this massive effort was over. On January 4, 2016, Sweden closed its border with Denmark. This closure makes a startling reversal of Sweden’s open borders to refugees and contravenes free movement in the Schengen Area, a founding principle of the European Union. What happened? This book sets out to explain this reversal.

In her new and compelling book, Vanessa Barker explores the Swedish case study to challenge several key paradigms for understanding penal order in the twenty-first century and makes an important contribution to our understanding of punishment and welfare states. She questions the dominance of neoliberalism and political economy as the main explanation for the penalization of others, migrants and foreign nationals, and develops an alternative theoretical framework based on the internal logic of the welfare state and democratic theory about citizenship, incorporation, and difference, paying particular attention to questions of belonging, worthiness, and ethnic and gender hierarchies. Her book develops the concept of penal nationalism as an important form of penal power in the twenty-first century, providing a bridge between border control and punishment studies.