A Hidden Discourse


Although criminology as a discipline emerged in Europe, both its comparative history and contemporary development has, until recently, remained largely uncharted. Recently, the blanks on the map are beginning to be filled in with Paul Rock's History of Criminology and by the remarkable exegesis of the origins of European criminology in Piers Beirne Inventing Criminology. But neither book has the encyclopaedic intent of René van Swaaningen's text. For this book surveys and contrasts the different and uneven development of criminology across Europe both in terms of the orthodoxy of positivism and neo-classicism and more recently in administrative criminology and its critical counterbalance. But more centrally it distils from countless conferences, common study sessions, interviews and debates, the contours and purpose of European critical criminology both in its flourishing in the 1960s to its present crisis phase of the 1990s. Here is a hidden discourse, largely unknown to the textbooks of Anglo-American criminology. It is my task in this preface to briefly underscore the importance of European critical criminology for the vitality of the discipline.

The two currents which have largely shaped contemporary criminology are, firstly, analytical individualism, whose impact has been paramount throughout the century, and secondly, since the Second World War, the criminological thinking which has emerged in the United States. By analytical individualism I mean that criminology which focuses on the characteristics of the individual rather than in the properties of society as a whole. The two major staples of criminological thinking: neo-classicism and positivism, belong firmly in this camp. The first viewing crime as the moral lapses of the freely willed individual, the second, as a pathological determinism of individuals caused by genetic, family or social defects. Both of these prevalent and popular notions are given short shrift in many of the leading academic texts yet they recur, without fail, in every generation. They are often presented as contending theories yet they co-exist in practice side by side: indeed much of crime control practice involves the demarcation dispute as to which side of the line the offender belongs. Their recurrence is because a vast amount of criminological thinking is concerned with the practicalities of control: the needs of the prison governor to classify prisoners in terms of risk rate, of the Minister of the Interior to make pronouncements on the crime rate, or the judge to allocate the degree of culpability in the flux of mitigating circumstances. Such individualism is concerned with the administration of crime, it tends to involve minimalist theory, to be technicist and to require 'hard' facts to feed the demands of agencies and government. Above all it is rarely critical of the core constitution of society: its focus is on lapses or defects in the individual. It is a cosmetic criminology which views crime as a blemish which suitable treatment can remove from a body which is, itself, otherwise healthy and in little need of reconstruction. Such a criminology distances from the core institutions and proffers technical, piecemeal solutions. It, thus, reverses causality: crime causes problems for society rather than society causes the problem of crime. Critical criminology challenges all these assumptions. From the point of view of the establishment the offender lacks core values and is so inadequately embedded in the institutions of _____ society that the criminal justice system is necessary to hold him or her in check.

But from the perspective of critical criminology within the problem of crime and its control lies a double irony. Firstly, criminal behaviour is seen to involve the acting out of the core values of society, individualism and possessiveness, and to be spurred on by the key institutions, work and education, which impede success in society through the arbitrary denial of opportunities because of class and race. Secondly, the criminal justice system, by labelling and reinforcing stereotypes, makes criminals of people. The secondary harm of criminalisation is often more of a problem than the primary harm of crime itself.

As van Swaaningen demonstrates, a central attribute of critical criminology is its utopianism. From this perspective there is a utopian ideal outside of the system which allows a critical purchase on existing practices and values. From the point of view of administrative criminology the ideal already exists in the steady job and the leafy suburbs, it is the behaviour of the offender which disturbs this ideal. Lastly, whereas criminological orthodoxy is aware of the inadequacies of the statistics, it sees such flaws as technical problems which can be scientifically overcome. For critical criminology, on the other hand, the statistics are not, nor could ever be, 'hard' data - they are a fabrication of power, a construction of stereotype and preconception. Thus criminalisation is by its very nature a political process: the idea of a value free and politically neutral criminology is an illusion which, as Thomas Mathieson and Nils Christie argue, is functional to the existing system. Indeed, other critical criminologists of the abolitionist school would go further and suggest, with Louk Hulsman, that crime itself has 'no ontological reality'. It is a group of behaviours arbitrarily selected by those in power within the criminal justice system: hardly a secure basis for claiming a so-called science called criminology. The debate about such matters is endless but what is important is to note that without the critical tradition, criminology quite naturally remains at a one-dimensional level. It is the language about crime which emerges from the agencies of crime control and the academic research funded by central and local government to evaluate its performance. It is scarcely likely to evolve by itself self-critical debates which would question not only the core institutions of society but the very subject itself. For this reason alone van Swaaningen's book is to be welcomes, but let us turn to his second focus: European Criminology.

Criminology in the latter part of the Twentieth Century is dominated by the literature emanating from the United States. In no other country is there such a prolific academy, in no other advanced industrial country (with perhaps the salutary exception of Russia) is there a crime control industry of such enormous proportion. Yet it is almost entirely self-referring, European Work, where mentioned, tends to be that of the dead European precursors of present-day American theorists. The cast iron test of this is if one contrasts this with Canada; here, despite bordering on the United States, the literature referred to is much more wide in its orbit (see Young, 1992). It includes US sources to be sure, but it also takes cognizance of what is happening in Australasia and in Britain, as it does of the Francophone debates of France and Belgium.

One reason for this insularity of US criminology and its dominance over the world literature is, without doubt, the extraordinary creativity of American criminologists in the post-war period. It is difficult to imagine a literature without Howard s Becker, James Q Wilson and David Matza. Yet such creativity is a creature of exceptional circumstances: the crime rate of the United States is considerably greater than that of any of the stable Western democracies. Let me give you an example: a young American male (of whatever race) is fifty-two times more likely to be murdered than his English counterpart, twenty-two times that of a Swede and twenty-eight times that of a young Frenchman (Currie, 1996).

Let us note that disparities of such an order are remarkable. Critics, for example, frequently point to the sizeable gender differences in the incidence of offending and note, quite rightly, that such disparities must, of necessity, be of great significance to the criminologist. US-European differences in rates of violence are of a similar or, indeed, greater order, and must surely be held at centre stage when we consider any cross-cultural generalisations. Similarly, the rate of imprisonment in the United States is of a qualitatively greater level than in other Western democracies. It is over five and a half times that of the figure for England and Wales, which has one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe, whilst the proportion of Americans either in prison or on probation or parole is ten times that of English people. Indeed, an extraordinary 1 in 37 of the US adult population was under some form of correctional supervision in 1994.

Such exceptional crime and imprisonment rates, whilst ensuring the ample funding of American criminology, should make us ware of simply transplanting US theory or corrective practices. It is as if biologists were to focus most of their research effort in the desert regions of the world, yet seek to generalise their findings about plant and animal behaviour to the temperate zones. It is obvious that to generalise, say, about the effect of deterrent sanctions from a country where criminal justice system interventions are a commonplace of life (indeed 1 in 4 of young black Americans are under supervision) to one where sanctions are a comparative rarity is fraught with difficulty. Similarly, it is obvious that the fear of crime debate must be distinctly different in a country where homicide is a major cause of death amongst young men, whilst arguments about gun control, neighbourhood watch, "hotspots" etc. must be viewed in a very particular context rather than easily generalisable from the United States to elsewhere. Indeed, Elliott Currie, of the University of California at Berkeley, has repeatedly warned (1996) of the frequent fallacy of importing willy nilly American solutions to the crime problem into Europe. A clear paradox here is that, particularly in terms of the use of penal sanctions, this involves taking lessons from a country which has clearly failed in the 'war' against crime. Sending politicians to the United States to learn about crime control has something of the flavour of sending emissaries to Saudi Arabia to learn about the realisation of women's rights. Yet this is precisely what does happen and it is an index of American cultural hegemony that such incongruous policy transplants are frequently discussed and implemented. But this is not to suggest there is nothing to learn from the United States. As Currie indicates, analysis can show what happens when certain variables are taken to their limits: when free market policies dominate social relations and where control is attempted through the coercion of the criminal justice system rather than the pursuit of social justice. In this way it can give us a warning about paths which will engender crime and which it would be better to avoid rather than venture down. But more than this, it can provide a wealth of experiment and improvisation in crime control which, if carefully transferred into another cultural context, may well have much to contribute. What is important here is that we learn to transpose rather than transplant; that we must take cognisance of the specific social, political and cultural context of which generalisations about crime are evaluated and the qualitative differences between societies. Jayne Mooney (1996) has shown, for example, how the British Home Office crime prevention strategies seem to be based on an understanding of the patterns of violence which are characteristic of the United States rather than Britain (ie a stress on stronger danger in public places against men rather than a violence which is as likely in private than public and more equally likely against women and men). And, elsewhere, we have indicated how the notion of Neighbourhood Watch, when transplanted from Detroit to London, ignored differences in the level of crime, the nature of community support, the degree of multi-culturalism, the system of control of the police and the general political climate (see Kinsey et al, 1986). Thus just because we use the same phrase 'neighbourhood watch' in Detroit and London does not mean we are talking about the 'same' institution and studies which blithely correlate the effectiveness of 'neighbourhood watch' around the world do so at their peril. The problem of specificity, of taking careful cognisance of the specific cultural setting of an institution, is, therefore, of great importance.

My intent in indicating the heterogeneity of the us and Europe is not to suggest the homogeneity of the latter. Indeed, the similarities between Western European nations are perhaps only evident in terms of their contrast with America. Of course, wide difference in crime and the institutions which control it occur across Europe. Paradoxically, the importance of a European Criminology is not in the unity, but in the diversity of social, political and cultural situations which occur. For nowhere in the First World does such a diversity occur in such a small geographical area. A multiplicity of nations with differing political systems, legal cultures and social structures exist next to each other.

Some have long histories, stretching back for centuries, others have arisen out of intense conflict and fragmentation: nowhere is the student's sense of diversity amongst advanced industrial societies so sustained and tested. There is no comparable situation in the United States. Sometimes it is suggested that the wide variety of immigrants in the United States has given rise to an exceedingly diverse society. But such immigration occurs anyway in Europe and such diversity consists of immigrants other than the actual extant, distinct and contiguous countries of Europe: which are the separate constituents before the melting pot.

It is in making comparisons within Europe that questions of specificity very forcibly become evident to the researcher. Thus John Pitts notes that at the beginning of his project on juvenile justice

"The first stage was a search for equivalence in which we attempted to find practices and system-components which did the same job in a different, but hopefully better, way than their home-grown counterparts. The implicit objective of the search for equivalence is piracy, wherein researchers comb the continent returning with new and exotic foreign solutions to old and intractable British problems. What we discovered, however, was that many of the practices we observed, while ostensibly similar, had no home-grown equivalents because the systems we encountered, while ostensibly similar, were designed to do different things and they did so in a different way." (1994, p.48)

Thus the French juge des enfants and the British magistrate in a juvenile court are similar in name only, seen in context they have totally different roles. And what is anti-racist good practice in one country is seen as racism and exclusion in another (see also Cooper et al, 1995). Thus in two countries only twenty-one miles apart the same terms are redolent with different and even opposing meanings. Furthermore, the process of comparative research Pitts' argues makes us inevitably, if we are scrupulous in our investigation, to excavate the bedrock cultural assumptions behind the institutions of a given country and finally, to reflexively turn back to our own culture.

"[the] answer to the question 'what can we learn in Europe' is that by a willingness to immerse ourselves in the ideas, beliefs and assumptions which drive another national system we can gain a view not only of their final vocabulary but, crucially, of our own as well." (Ibid, p.48)

And it is here that van Swaaningen's book takes on special significance. For he shows quite clearly the reflexive nature of European comparisons: that we learn a great deal about our own culture from the investigation of the context of others. As he freely acknowledges, the European Common Study Programme on Criminal Justice and Critical Criminology with which so many f us have worked since its inception in 1988 has opened the eyes of many f our students and been an education to all of us. Based at Barcelona, Bari, Bologna, Gent, Middlesex, Rotterdam and Saarbruchen, this ERASMUS programme has repeatedly demonstrated the need to understand cultural specificity whilst presenting the unsettling fact that only a few miles away in another First World country things are done differently. It has taught us also, as van Swaaningen shows, that the development of criminological theory is closely linked to the politics and culture of a particular country and that any simple linear progression as beloved by the Anglo-Saxon textbooks is erroneous.

This text, therefore, presents us with a discussion of European critical criminology both strands of which represent discourses often hidden from orthodox debates about crime but which offer to illuminate our understanding both of crime and the institutions we construct to attempt its control.

Jock Young

September, 1996


Preface to: Re-Assessing Critical Criminology:

Visions from Europe

René van Swaaningen, London: Sage



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New York: State University of New York

Cooper, A; Hetherington, R;

Baistow, K; Pitts, J and

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Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood