Saturday, 10 March 2012

Control Freaks and Criminologists

Control Freaks and Criminologists

The focus of this blog entry are non-Indigenous criminologists who build their careers on the backs of Indigenous peoples yet demonstrate little commitment to First Nation issues or engagement with the communities they write about with such authority.

One of the most influential criminologists in the world today is Biko Agozino, a Nigerian academic currently teaching at Virginia Tech in the US. I regard Biko as one of the key criminologists of the 21st century for a number of reasons, in particular the fact that he dares to speak truth to power, namely the discipline of criminology and the part it plays in the continued subjugation of First Nations peoples and other marginalised communities.  Biko's importance to the development of Indigenous perspectives on social harm/crime, and critique of Eurocentric criminology is beautifully captured when he asks and answers the question:

"What is criminology? A control freak discipline!"(Agozino, 2010).

Control-freak indeed: has any academic discipline (apart from psychology) failed so dismally to achieve what it tells everyone are its key objectives namely to 'understand and reduce crime'? When the celebrated Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University was set up in the 1950s, the British Home Office gave it the task of 'identifying crime and solving the crime problem', meaning that it had to identify the causes and discover a cure.  If that is what we were meant to be doing then by every measure the academy has been a dismal failure.  The same can be said of the disciplines main host, supporter and funder, government (yes, if government is the host, then the discipline of criminology is a parasite).

Throughout the 20th century and so far in the 21st, we have offered ever more sophisticated theories of criminality and cures such as boot camps, tough on crime policies including New York's much praised (but greatly exaggerated) broken windows approach, longer prison sentences, ever more sophisticated prison regimes (for example, New Zealand's Integrated Offender Management process) community policing, militaristic policing strategies, conferencing and restorative justice, crime prevention through environmental design (for example, CCTV) and my favourite academic discovery of the moment, crime science. Anyone out there feeling any safer due to all these successful solutions?  Seen any significant reductions in offending rates? Of course if they are confronted with difficult questions like 'why do your scientifically-derived interventions not = meaningful, long-term reductions in crime', criminologists, clinicians, practitioners and policy wonks will invariably produce a small, localised evaluation of their pet project and say 'here, we reduced crime for this group over 12 months.....' or something similar.  Dig deeper and invariably you will find that those who designed the solutions manufactured (and often carried out) said research, or paid someone to do it for them while maintaining control over research production (a particular skill of the policy sector). One thing that can be said with accuracy about criminology is that it is extremely skillful in the art of self-promotion and self-preservation through making itself relevant.  And how does it make itself relevant?  Well, too often by kissing the backside of the state via gazing uncritically at its activities while gazing from afar at the life-world of First Nation peoples (Tauri, 2011: by 'from afar' I refer to the tendency of some criminologists to analyse statistics whilst sitting at their desks, then write with authority about the Indigenous context while getting no closer to engaging with us than staring out the window).

Of course I need to qualify the previous statement by stating that when I talk about the failures of criminology, I am referring to particular schools within the discipline often referred to as administrative criminology or positivist criminology. In short, these criminologies are characterised by a) a focus on issues, definitions (of crime), policies, etc deemed by the state to be important and worthy of empirical enquiry; b) take as their theoretical and epistemological (a word so loved by post-modernists that simply means 'world view') framework from dead white guys or live ones, that are sprinkled liberally over social and cultural contexts for which the said framework lacks explanatory power; c) 'job for the state', meaning take the Crown's coin and do the Crown's bidding; d) knowing little about the communities they research and write about, highlighted by the fact they prefer to use non-engaging methods (statistical analysis, written questionnaires, etc); and e) ignore or are uninterested in key issues for  marginalised communities like the impact of colonial dispossession, genocide, institutional racism and bias and the historical lack of meaningful infrastructural investment (see Cohen, 1988 and Young, 2011 for excellent discussions of these forms of criminology).

In neo-colonial jurisdictions there exists an even more virulent form of the criminology described above, to which I give the title Authoritarian Criminology. This form shares many of the identifying markers of administrative criminology highlighted previously, but is distinguished by:
  • confining its criminological gaze to issues relating to state-defined ‘problem populations’, more often than not people of colour and working class youth, and issues without significant engagement with individuals or communities from these populations; and
  • the utilisation of methodologies/methods that highlight Eurocentric knowledge construction  and ‘expertise’ devoid of meaningful engagement with First Nations, while silencing our methods of knowledge construction and dissemination through labelling them non-scientific, ideological and value-laden.  
This form of criminology can be called Authoritarian because it purposely seeks to ingratiate itself to the Policy Industry by isolating the Indigenous experience and voice and seeking to speak for us.  It perpetrates our disempowerment through its blindness to the role played by colonisation, genocide and institutional racism in ongoing Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system (or through focusing on individual antecedents of crime while sidelining structural drivers because they are 'unmeasurable').

Of particular concern to me is that there is far too much of this type of criminology happening in New Zealand and Australia at the moment.  Too often the work produced by this school is being peer reviewed and published in journals, edited books, etc, that are produced by like-minded colleagues, and without the necessary critical scrutiny of the First Nations about which these experts say so much (for those of you wanting to engage with this type of criminological material I suggest starting with Marie (2010), Weatherburn (2010), Weatherburn and a myriad of colleagues who provide exemplars of this type of work in the Australasian context).

Understandably the work produced by Authoritarian Criminologists is extremely popular with the mainstream media in Australasia, in part because it silences the Indigenous voice and offers simplistic statements on the causes of brown crime whilst avoiding nasty, complex issues like institutional racism, and the impact of neo-liberal social and economic policy on marginalised communities.  Remember, darkies behaving badly = revenue, and we can't let these people speak for themselves and offer informed commentary because they must be biased. Commentary must be left to outsiders, because after all they are objective aren't they?  The body of work is popular with policy makers for similar reasons and because its data is derived scientifically and practitioners don't ask political risky questions like 'what does the community want to do about this issue'?  For the very same reasons the work of Authoritarian Criminology is worthless to many Indigenous peoples.  Why?  Because it looks and sounds nothing like our experience of police, courts, prisons and the work of the Policy Industry.

It is imperative that First Nation commentators and practitioners take Authoritarian Criminology to task for the lazy, disempowering, culturally inappropriate research activities of its practitioners.  If you are doing this kind of research, then do us a favour and put aside your pretence at objectivity, because the fact that you choose to silence our voices while empowering yours through the use of non-engaging methods, invalidates this particular claim to authority.  Put aside your pretence at value neutrality because what you do as just as value-laden, ideological, and political as my commitment to Indigenous peoples and indigenous issues.  The difference between an Indigenous empowerment approach which I and the likes of Biko Agozino aspire to, and your approach, is we actually talk to First Nations and let them speak for themselves.  Try engaging with Indigenous communities in a meaningful way (with our permission and guidance); you might find it liberating to give voice to actual experiences and not just statistics.  

Agozino, B (2010) Editorial: What is Criminology? A Control-Freak Discipline! African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 4(1): i-xx.

Cohen, S (1988) Against Criminology. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Marie, D (2010) Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 283-300.

Tauri, J (2011) Criminology and the Disempowerment of First Nations in Settler Societies, paper presented at the Crime, Justice and Social Democracy: An International Conference, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, 25-28 September.

Weatherburn, D (2010) Guest Editorial: Indigenous Violence, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 197-198.

Weatherburn, D; Snowball, L and Hunter, B (2006) The social and economic factors underpinning Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system, Crime and Justice Bulletin 104. Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Young, J (2011) The Criminological Imagination. Cambridge: Polity.


  1. Most knowledge systems are capable of corruption and co-optation to serve an elite.

    What criminology (education) needs is an approach that has complementarity as its fundamental organising principle. It critiques all knowledge, and draws from all traditions intelligently contrapuntally (a la Said) so the search for new knowledge and new ways of being is the goal.

  2. Hey Juan,

    I just used this for one of my students here at UA doing her undergraduate research paper on the relationship between colonialism and criminology . . . hope you don't mind.



  3. Hi William... by all means!