Colonialism and criminology – A research update

I am currently on research leave trying to drive forward a number of projects.  But as others will no doubt have experienced, the process can at time be two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sidewards.

My first objective was to complete my work on the development of the idea of how criminals ‘reformed’.  My thesis argues that in the early 19th century a significant change took place on how ‘reformation’ was understood.  The origins of this change I argue lay in new ways of thinking made possible by intellectually developments in the human sciences. In particular I am interested in three developments – the increased importance of Purgatory in theological thought, the emergence of the ideology of ‘race science’ and the concept of the plasticity of the brain/mind introduced by the pseudo-science of phrenology.

A second objective was to write a revisionist account of the development of English criminology. David Garland’s account, which is generally accepted as definitive, places criminology’s emergence at the end of the 19th century.  Like much historical analysis what you find is often dependent on where you look.  My research has focused on an earlier period and I have become increasingly aware that the change from a discourse of ‘penology’ to one of ‘criminology’ occured in the early, rather than late, 19th century.  I see penology as a discourse that sees the answer to ‘crime’ being found in the law. Effective police and appropriate punishments will reduce ‘crime’. The assumption of this discourse is that potential criminals are rational calculating individuals. The discourse of ‘criminology’ represents a radical refocusing away from the law towards the ‘offender’.  The criminal becomes the focus, ‘crime’ is a behaviour that is no longer rational, but something that reflects the individual defects of the ‘offender’.  Criminology, by focusing on the ‘offender’, both represents them as the ‘other’ and reframes the role of criminal justice to their treatment.

Both objectives required me to get my head around the relationship between colonisation and criminology as it was becoming increasingly clear that this was may be the route to understanding the relationship between ‘crime’, ‘race’ and criminology. In particular criminology as a discourse requires the criminal ‘other’. As a concept the criminal ‘other’ could not have been drawn out of thin air. Why, at a particular historical point, was this thinking possible?  My thesis is that the imperial project, which included slavery, genocide and invasion, was only sustainable by the ‘othering’ of the colonial subject. Racism and the invention of ‘race’ legitimised the colonial project. In short it required the ‘racial other’. The rejection of the universality of humankind created the possibility of creating the ‘criminal other’ possible.

I had previously got two-thirds of the way through writing a paper exploring the possibility of decolonising criminology when the submission deadline passed and the paper got put to one side. Returning to this paper seemed to be a way to force myself to clearly work out the relationship between colonialism and the birth of criminology and, hopefully, the role that ‘race’/racism played in this birth. I could then use this to achieve the two objectives of my research leave.

My work on this paper had to date been theoretical and based primarily on historical/post-colonial literature and research.  I was aware that a limited amount of research had been published within criminology seeking to decolonise the discipline so I put aside a few hundred words to briefly review this.  A quick search showed that that recent years had generated far more publications than I could have imagined.  In particular whole new schools of criminology – ‘Southern Criminology’ and ‘Asian Criminology’ – had recently emerged. [To give a flavour of the extent of this literature Palgrave recently published a 1068 page handbook of criminology and the global South.]

Suddenly I find myself lost in weeks of reading and my writing progress blocked! But if I want to write something that concludes criminology cannot be decolonised it is only fair that I read the work of scholars seeking to do just that! To be honest this reading of what is ultimately criminological literature is a bit soul destroying and I can’t wait to get back on track.  But I suspect further diversions are inevitable. Ultimately my curiosity and fear of missing something vital will keep me trying to advance, simultaneously, on all fronts.







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