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 fall 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.



I would label as techno-criminologists those scholars interested in the causes of crime (criminogenesis). Techno-criminologists would also include those scholars who are interested in questions about how to structure/design criminal laws and punishments to prevent crime. (This is the group of scholars I typically think of when I think of criminologists; they are the bulk of what constitutes "mainstream criminology.") At its heart, techno-criminology is a policy-driven field. While some scholars may be interested in basic knowledge, this knowledge is driven by an interest in informing policy for social benefit. Key examples of popular areas would be life-course and bio-social theories, scholars who do evaluation studies of rehabilitative/treatment programs or hot-spot policing, and those who study the deterrent effect of various laws or punishments.

Scholars in this vein primarily (but not exclusively) rely on quantitative methods, particularly high-level statistical modeling to overcome the limitations of observational (rather than ethically impossible experimental) data to test hypotheses about causal relationships. Theories tend to be skewed toward those with testable hypotheses. From what I can tell, while new theories do emerge every several years or decade, the vast majority of the research is testing and refining earlier theories. There seems to be much less theory generating research in this subfield, in part because of a general distrust of the qualitative research necessary for research generation (despite a general respect for classic studies that relied exclusively on qualitative data). (Again, this is a general tendency---there are certainly exceptions.) The overall model for this type of research comes from science, except for the latter's emphasis on experimentation to make causal inference. I use the term "techno" (from technocracy) to highlight the way in which this branch of criminology relies on their expertise to inform policy and the hope that politicians and practitioners will defer to this field expert knowledge when making decisions. In general, techno-criminologists are problem-oriented, and the problems they see are the same problems shared by the average (read white, middle-class) voter in recent times (crime, immigration, terrorism, etc.) and less the problems sociologists care about (e.g., discrimination and inequality). They promise to fix the crime problem, but spend less time on the other, less popular types of problems, except indirectly. (Again, there are exceptions!)


I would label as socio-criminologists those scholars interested in society's responses to crime and criminality. This is a much bigger subfield than is typically included in "Punishment & Society." For example, it would include those scholars who study sentencing disparities (e.g., how a defendant's race or the familiarity among court actors affects sentencing rates and outcomes). Likewise, it includes scholars who study policing, including on-the-ground practices like racial profiling and discretion or police departments' adoption of specific policies like Compstat or stop and frisk. It would also include mid-century sociologists who studied "deviance" and the social construction of criminology, as well as those Marxist criminologists of the 1970s who studied the criminalization of non-crimes like vagrancy, illustrating that crime is contingent on the power structure of society and historical context. Finally, it includes what we call as punishment and society---those scholars who have demonstrated (or rely on the knowledge) that punishment trends have little to do with crime rates and lots to do with economics, politics, history, culture, race relations, gender, sexuality, and other power structures in society and who continue to be interested in all of the ways in which extra-legal factors affect punishment (from the criminalization of various acts to the (de)authorization of specific punishments to differences in the use of punishment to the experience of punishment to the experience "after" punishment).

I call this diverse collection of scholarship "socio" criminology because of its inherently sociological nature. Thus, I am stealing sentencing disparities scholars from what is usually seen as mainstream criminology (much of which is techno-criminology in my distinction) because the theories they use strike me as primarily sociological rather than distinctively criminological (for example, group threat theory or the role of courtroom workgroups). Likewise, I am taking deviance scholars who perhaps do not "count" as mainstream (even if they are well known classics)---these scholars were sociologists writing before criminology had really broken off (recognizing that criminology as a field was arguably forming in the nineteenth century and formed as a discipline in the twentieth). Punishment & Society scholars strike me as sociological (even if they also do political science or history or anthropology---I have an expansive understanding of sociology). Finally, none of these sub-sub-fields fit within the study of what causes crime, so with that boundary, they would be intellectually homeless.

Socio-criminologists use both qualitative and quantitative methods. There is, of course, variation within this diverse subfield: sentencing disparities scholars primarily tend to use quantitative (although there are some mixed methods studies) and deviance scholars primarily tend to use qualitative methods. Punishment & Society scholars tend to use qualitative or mixed methods, but there are some quantitative approaches as well (particularly in international or intra-national comparisons on incarceration rates). We also see both hypothesis testing and theory generating research, with the quantitative work leaning more toward hypothesis testing and qualitative work leaning more toward theory generation (but with some hypothesis testing). We also see a diversity of theories operating at the micro, macro, and (increasingly) meso levels, some of which lend themselves to hypothesis testing, others might be better described as theoretical frameworks or fruitful analytical lenses that reveal or enhance our understanding of reality, but are not designed to be testable. The overall model for this type of research comes from social science generally.

If techno-criminology is policy driven, socio-criminology is driven by a concern to extend basic knowledge, albiet with something of a subversive flavor. This is where people may really disagree with my distinctions, so I shall try to be clear: I am making two points---that socio-criminology is less policy driven than techno-criminology and less critical than critical criminology.

Basic Knowledge, Not Policy Driven

Much of our work is simply interested in learning how and why criminal justice works as it does. Given our results, however, there is a strong undercurrent of critique, which is policy relevant (see below). But much of our work is interested in increasing our knowledge of how society works, whether or not that knowledge leads directly to policy recommendations. For example, we have theories of penal change---the great founder of the field, David Garland, has outlined classic social theories of punishment and penal change as well as his own new theories. (Hoping he does not disagree with the following characterization!) While this work should be required reading for all policymakers and voters, it is not itself a policy recommendation: it tells us how we came to punish as we do today. This is crucial work to do, but it is a different project than techno-criminologists who actively seek to make claims that policymakers will use. (The exception to my claim that socio-criminologists tend to have fewer policy recommendations is in books. In order to appeal to a broader audience, socio-criminological scholars often make more policy recommendations and make explicitly normative statements than they do in journal articles where such additions are less accepted and theoretical/empirical contributions are preferred.)

Since I've labeled socio-criminology as the sociology of criminology, it is worth noting that some non-crime/punishment sociologists might disagree with my statement that policy recommendations play a smaller role in socio-criminology than techno-criminology. There are subfields in sociology that have clear commitments to policy recommendations, so there is nothing at odds with sociology and policy recommendations. And I don't mean to overly downplay the presence of policy recommendations in socio-criminology or to understate too much techno-criminologists' interest in basic knowledge.

Another way of thinking about this distinction is perhaps both groups use policy recommendations, but techno-criminologists hope to answer the questions state actors are asking and socio-criminologists answer questions state actors don't think to ask; thus, techno-criminologists are sometimes derided as handmaidens of the state and socio-criminologists are seen as critics of the state. Again, people might disagree with this distinction, so I should emphasize that the role of policy recommendations is just one of several distinctions I am making, so perhaps leave it behind if it is not helpful.

Implicitly Critical, Not Explicitly Critical (aka Show, Not Tell v. Show and Tell)

Socio-criminology is implicitly but not explicitly critical. By implicitly critical, I mean that they are interested in tough questions and their findings frequently reveal what might be considered embarrassing results for state officials. For example, sentencing disparities studies reveal the myriad ways in which sentences are not in fact equal across similarly situated defendants but depend mightily on extra-legal factors. Historical analyses of penal change illustrate the many times in our past that the powerful (white, wealthy, etc.) have used criminal justice structures (laws, punishments, policing) to control, exploit, harm, or neglect vulnerable populations, particularly racial minorities and poor populations. Their conclusions, if stated without evidence, might sound like conspiracy theories to an average voter. This is to say socio-criminologists frequently produce studies that might be used to criticize official structures and practices, and the scholars themselves may have undertaken the studies with this goal in mind, often starting with questions like why are black people overrepresented in the criminal justice system. What is particularly radical and distinctive about socio-criminology is its willingness to consider: maybe the answer isn't that black people commit more crime, maybe our policies are not only designed to prevent crime, maybe punishment has other functions than crime prevention, maybe front-line workers do not directly implement the law as it is supposed to be implemented. For some portion of the population, these are quite radical thoughts, even if they do not seem to be so to those of us who study this stuff. Socio-criminologists thus have a certain willingness to use critical thinking skills rather than simply accepting the received (and frequently inaccurate) wisdom. (Some techno-criminologists may adopt some of these positions, but by continuing to use crime as a given, rather than as a social construct, they are inherently less critical: studies of desistance that examine why ex-offenders use pot when on parole, without exploring why someone not on parole uses pot, continue to essentialize and reify criminals as a separate category of people---particularly when marijuana is legal in some jurisdictions and not in others and who gets punished for its use varies by social status and the location of their "crime." Indeed, much of techno-criminology relies on easy categorizations of what counts as crime and what counts as criminal for the theories and analyses to make sense. In this way, it fails to be critical in any sense.)

Although there is frequently a subversive flavor to socio-criminology, however, socio-criminologists are not explicitly critical, typically. (This is a point that really requires clarity so bear with me.) There are two types of explicitly critical: one is to make policy recommendations that call for dramatically changing the way we do things because they are harmful, unjust, and produce greater inequality (as opposed to policy recommendations that say, "do this to lower crime rates") or to simply condemn extant policies as harmful, unjust, and producing greater inequality.

Socio-criminologists who do make policy recommendations often do so with a proviso of "if we want to do x, then we should y"---these recommendations leave it open to readers, voters, policymakers to decide whether we want to do x. Some voters do not have a problem with some findings we might otherwise find appalling. Somewhat disturbingly, our research can both reveal how to prevent inequities while also providing a recipe for masking them (see the practical use of procedural justice research as an example). Socio-criminology is a normative project certainly, and we can frequently identify the authors' politics from their research, but much of it stops short of making these stances explicit. That is, it shows problems (e.g., revealing structural racism or identifying patterns of racist thought; describing acts of torture), it doesn't tell problems (calling actors racist, condemning them for their racism; calling people who torture evil). Much of the research that shows disturbing findings does not need to say the findings are disturbing; it is simply apparent and these authors (typically) let those findings speak for themselves. If someone does not already find these findings disturbing, our gloss won't make a difference, particularly in an age when the average voter seems to mistrust academics as part of a liberal elite and "conservative criminology" has actually become a new subfield (breaking the earlier commitment of most mainstream criminology to political neutrality in their effort to be more scientist-like).

The way in which socio-criminology is implicitly, but not explicitly critical is the dividing line between socio-criminology and critical criminology, as I see it. Indeed, socio-criminologists sometimes produce studies that do not necessarily involve critique (in the sense that the findings are not devastating to state actors or would blow the minds of an average voter), even if the questions driving the studies are themselves critical. By contrast, critical criminology is, as far as I can tell, always critical (and there is certainly no shortage of practices and policies to condemn!).


I would label as critical criminologists those scholars who offer explicit critiques of criminal justice policies and practices. As I understand it, critical criminologist grew out of Marxist and other critical (e.g., Feminist, critical race, colonial/post-colonial) approaches in the 1970s onward. They are very similar to socio-criminology in the questions they ask and the types of studies they produce, although they tend to be even more qualitative than socio-criminology. As there is a large group of critical criminologists outside of the US, we also see a stronger influence from European approaches to theory and methodology (which I think has contributed to further alienate critical and techno-criminologists). My sense is critical criminologists set out to show how something is wrong/bad/unjust rather than to examine these outcomes as part of a research question (e.g., I want to demonstrate X policy is racist v. I want to see if X policy was racially motivated or I want to see if X policy as racially disparate effects or I want to prove economics motivated this policy v. I want to see what role economic motivations played a role in this policy's creation).

If techno-criminology is policy driven, and socio-criminology is concerned with basic knowledge, I think of critical criminology as driven by activism. (I would say policy concerns, but my sense is critical criminologists often do not trust the system enough to bother with policy recommendations---thus, we get discussions about avoiding reform (non-reformist reform), which are more attractive to activist and social movement participants, but a difficult sell to most politicians and voters (maybe one day!).)

To be clear, many socio-criminology findings can be used to support these claims. The difference, as I see it anyway, is critical criminologists make stronger, more explicitly normative claims about the findings. Likewise, both socio- and critical criminologists think race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and other statuses are important variables; but it seems critical criminologists are more interested in these variables and think they are more important than other types of variables (I'm not sure if that is accurate, but that's my perception for now).

If techno-criminology is modeled after science, and socio-criminology is modeled on social science, I would say critical criminology is skeptical about science. Anti-science has new connotations these days, so I won't use that term. Instead, consistent with a post-modernist/post-structuralist (or a post-post-modernist/structuralist approach), there is great skepticism here about positivism in particular.

Some examples of critical criminology that I think of are scholars who study or talk about the prison industrial complex, a good portion (but not all) of those who use the "carceral state" rhetoric (as opposed to the penal/carceral state as a defined concept), and scholars who call for penal abolition in their scholarship (as opposed to working for such movements as private individuals). Over the last few years, I've noticed much more socio-criminology has moved toward critical criminology, so the lines are certainly blurring even if my ideal types seek to clarify their differences. I suspect that of the three categories, P&S scholars may disagree with my categorization of critical criminology as separate from socio-criminology so I look forward to hearing from them!


I see these three fields as engaged in different projects. Techno-criminologists are concerned with crime as a social problem that they can harness the power of science to analyze and make policy recommendations to solve that problem. Socio-criminologists are interested in understanding where these ideas about crime (and their cognate policy recommendations) come from and how they really affect society---and, more generally, when/why policymakers listen to these and other policy recommendations. Critical criminologists use their findings to condemn the myriad injustices in criminal "justice" systems and construct arguments about how we should be doing things, although not necessarily as policy recommendations but in ways that will speak to the average person.

There are, as I mentioned above, overlaps and interactions. Each project is normative in a different way: making a policy recommendation is, itself, a normative act, although one based on data; seeking to understand crime as socially constructed and punishment as a social relationship that is conditioned by the social setting involves a certain willingness to overcome accepted, simplistic stories about crime and punishment; calling for an end to policies and practices that are clear injustices is the most facially normative (but not necessarily more normative than the other projects). There is also a way in which techno-criminology becomes data for socio-criminologists to study and critical criminologists to critique. Of course, each field has something to offer the others (whether or not the receiving fields wish to receive such offerings---in fact, the difference in projects sometimes makes cross fertilization unlikely). Finally, it might be best to think of these subfields as something of a continuum. Socio-criminologists who study sentencing disparities or policing are highly sociological, but often in a better position to make policy recommendations. Likewise, punishment and society scholars often study the same phenomena as critical criminologists, but with different goals and conclusions (letting the data speak for themselves versus using the data to condemn and call for action). Finally, it is worth noting that sometimes scholars within one subfield who are surrounded by scholars in another subfield start to resemble that subfield even while they continue to pursue questions that interest them from their original subfield: that is, a socio-criminologist surrounded by techno-criminologists will come to sound like them, even while they continue to pursue socio-criminology.


There is, of course, a problem with creating new labels, which is that it encourages greater internal homogeneity and boundary maintenance than is advisable. (It's notable how the creation of a new journal in the subfield of X is great for people in that subfield in the short term---another place to publish!---and terrible in the long term---as it can lead to greater insularity and fewer discussions with scholars from different perspectives. Likewise, have you ever noticed that in many universities with criminology departments, the local sociology department doesn't have people who study crime and punishment. Ditto for the lack of astrophysicists in Physics departments if there is an Astronomy department. I'm sure there are other examples.) However, I think these differences already exist in our large and diverse field.

I also hope this post is useful for making us think about how our different projects have similarities and overlaps but also about what our different goals are. (It was really interesting this week to see techno-criminologists in the audience comment on socio-criminology talks or critical criminologists comment on socio-criminology. In some cases, there is simply an incompatibility and a refusal to appreciate these projects on their own terms, or rather to recognize that they have different goals. In other cases, they offer useful insights that can make the research stronger.)

In closing, I hope this super long blog post can serve as a jumping off point to start a greater discussion about who we are as a subfield (or mini discipline). I am absolutely sure many people will disagree with my interpretation and I welcome comments and disagreements. Not everyone will think the way I do, so it will be useful to see if I have, for example, even misstated the normative and epistemic bearings of socio-criminology. Finally, I am really curious if other folks find this triptych useful (even if they disagree with the details or who goes where or my distinction between explicit and implicit critique) or if my effort to distinguish among criminologists is misguided (or if you simply refuse to be called a criminologist!). (If you do email me with a response to this post, rather than posting in the comments section, please let me know if I may repost your response and, if so, whether it should be displayed anonymously or with your name.)

---Signing off in Philadelphia, over-caffeinated and over-stimulated from a great ASC!


For a related post, check out this!

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