Critical Criminology, as a specific theoretical approach to explaining, understanding and controlling crime is not as clearly defined as one might initially wish when it is called on one to assess its contribution to criminology. It is not, however, certainly not an ambiguous term. The only root of the problems with the precise definition of its constitution lie in the fact that it has so many overlaps (and contrasts) with differing Left, radical theories and, in essence is a term used to group together a large body of leftist criminological theory.
This is expressed in Ronald L. Akers’s assertation that it encompasses various “radical standpoints”(Akers, 1999; 176). John Tierney adopted a much more deterministic approach to his presentation of leftist criminological theory and attempted to, insofar as possible, polarise Critical ” Left idealist” criminology with “left realism”, respectively reflecting the two most dominant strands of left criminological theorisation over the past 20 years. Tierney, 1996; 283-4) At any rate, critical criminology is essentially a left-wing idealist and anti-logocentric approach to criminology, drawing its central body of thought from Marxism and attempting a severe critique of mainstream criminology, often making claims which almost entirely negate the fundamental foundations of criminology as we know it.
In this essay, I plan on examining critical criminology as well as its fundamental ideas as well As investigating to what extent it has brought dynamic change to explaining crime and suggesting effective crime control practices. Tierney explains that radical criminology essentially has become divided into two strands – critical criminology and left realism. Critical Criminologists are concerned with examining crime, criminology and their “construction” as features of a society’s infrastructure at a political and ideological level.
They are interested in how particular crimes are not inherently “wrong” or “bad” and at how some crimes, which are deemed atrocious and worthy of great disciplinary action, are focused on through mechanisms of popular discourse while other (just as serious) crimes are ignored both by the criminal justice system and by the popular discourse surrounding crime (Tierney, 1996).
Indeed the “discursive formation” of crime is a focus of critical criminology. Henry and Milovanovic are critical theorists who have synthesised into their works concepts deriving from various strands of sociological theory (including post-structuralism). They propose that crime is discourse, that is through popular conceptualisation and discussion on crime as well as through “the discursive practices” of criminologists and of the legal and judicial systems.
In other words what constitutes crime is not an objective truth but rather a social construct, an artifice of social discourse, the context of which is determined primarily by the ideological/ political state of the society in question. (Ibid. ) Of course, stemming from the fundamental beliefs of Marxism, that ideological/political standpoint is a reflection of the economic base of that society. Critical Criminologists differ from other left-wing criminologists in that they reject the dominant conceptual constitution of what is, in practice, crime.
This is essentially the point at which they separate themselves from left-realists who, while striving to change the practical controlling of crime, accept the conventional interpretation of what crime is constituted of and “take crime seriously”(Tierney, 1996; 282). It is from this difference that one of the greatest criticisms of critical criminology stems; Criminal criminologists are not concerned with causal explanations or practical solutions per se, instead they focus on the construction and application of the law (Tierney, 1996; 283).
In other words they seem to be so occupied with analysing the legal system and the social construction of crime that they ignore explanations and control of crime (Tierney, 1996; 283). One of the other major criticisms of critical criminologists (voiced most fervently by the left realists) is that they, rather than seeking to actively reduce crime (and thus improve society in the present), are more concerned with the establishment of a crime-free socialist utopia as the only (and, they claim, complete) worthwhile effort at solving the crime problem. Tierney, 1996; 285) This can hardly be interpreted as a pragmatic and dynamic way of practically tackling crime.
In my opinion this method of helping history “run its course” in order to allow for the emergence of a crime free society can be interpreted as a cop-out for not having to propose any inventive and new methods of dealing with crime practically. Critical criminologists, when they actually suggest solutions to crime, have adopted overly nai?? e and idealistic stances which again have been interpreted as cop-outs by suggesting such solutions as “declaring peace on crime rather than war” (Ibid. ). For Critical Criminologists, realism means the adoption and embodiment of popular conceptions of crime which, as far as they are concerned, are arbitrary and act as mystifying agents in our understanding of crime (Ibid. ). This translates, in practice to their discrediting of working-class crime as having any real grave effects on society.
In relation to working-class crime, they have been accused of reducing the seriousness ofd the matter and, rather than trying to explain the phenomenon or to suggest practical controls, they have proved to instead romanticise the criminal actor or merely show sympathy for the criminal fate of the criminal inherent in their structural (class) position (Tierney, 1996). They suggest that street crime (as it is portrayed and emphasised in our society) is a diversion from class struggle or as a vehicle for marketing news and controlling conceptions of crime (Akers; 1999).
They call on a new emphasis to be laid on the phenomenon of middle-class, white-collar crime which they consider as grave and as reprecursory for society as street crime but which they feel has been ignored. (Akers, 1999) In relation to the prison system, critical criminology mounts a harsh and abolitionist attack (Downes & Rock; 1998). Certainly there are many problems with the prison system and serious review is called upon.
Unfortunately critical criminologists failed to examine the actual failings and negative functions of prisons, instead attacking the system solely on theoretical grounds, based on its contradictions to their theoretical principals (Ibid. ). It must be stated, though, that this is probably as close as critical criminology has come to practically changing the approach to crime in an active and positive manner. Although Critical Criminology has introduced new direction to the sociology of crime and to criminology in general it has not been in any way helpful in suggesting effective methods to dealing with crime.
Rather than doing so, in fact, it has merely attempted to negate and discredit any other suggestions and methods in practice on theoretical principals. The Critical movement in Criminology, however, has certainly made a significant contribution to developing a more true and objective field of study. This can be exemplified in the development of “constitutive criminology” of Henry and Milovanovic which consists of a synthesis of critical criminology, “left realism”, phenomenology and the sociology of law. Akers, 1999; 176 and Downes & Rock, 1998; 364) Perhaps it could be said that Critical Criminology has dug its own hole by adhering too much to its own principal beliefs without allowing for reflexive reconstitution of those principals. It’s lack of practical suggestions can be demonstrated in Gross’s comment that “on crime more than on most matters, the left seems bereft of ideas”(Gross; 1982 in Tierney; 1996 p. 283).
Its emphasis on which crimes are paid most attention to as a result of arbitrary construction is significant to the field of criminology. Also its attention to the penal system and its abolitionist stance may be significant in a much-needed investigation into the effectiveness of the current prison system. Unfortunately, critical criminologists paid no attention to the practical failings of prison in their denunciation of it as a system.