Prospects for a (post)colonial or (de)colonised criminology

I spoke early today at the Decolonising the Criminal Question workshop organised by scholars from the University of Warwick. My paper ‘Untying the Criminal Question’s three Gordian Knots: Prospect for a (post)colonial or (de)colonised criminology’ (which will hopefully be published next year in an edited book of papers from this workshop) had been reviewed by the editors and circulated to participants. Rather than just ‘reading’ the paper I used my 15 minutes to respond to some of the editors feedback. Below is my script of my contribution


Bore da, good morning

Can I start by thanking the editors of the collection for their feedback to my draft? Like most people I struggle with feedback, but it is always useful, so I thought rather than just presenting a precise of my paper I would use this short slot to respond to three of the points they raised. 

Firstly, the need to develop the introduction to set out much more clearly my central argument. This will also provide a brief summary of the chapter for those who have not read it. Secondly, the need to be clear whether my argument is directed primarily against just “mainstream” criminology, and if it isn’t, to be more specific about its applicability to the discipline’s more critical subfields. Thirdly, to expand on my proposal that to decolonise criminology requires abolition.

A decolonised criminology?

My key argument is that it is not possible to decolonise criminology and efforts to do so are at best futile and at worse harmful. In particular my chapter seeks to identify the discipline’s triple Gordian Knot, three characteristics of the discipline that I argue cannot be untangled and can only be resolved by being cutting. These are its focus on the criminal ‘Other’; its relationship with the state; and its legitimisation of the concept of ‘crime’.

The racist criminal ‘Other’    

A key characteristic of criminology is its focus on the criminal, an innovation summed up by van Hamel observation that previously ‘lawyers bade men study Justice, but Lombroso bids Justice study men.’[1]Eighteenth century writings on crime located its origins in ‘deficiencies of the laws’ rather than any ‘general depravity of the human character’.[2] Criminals were people who committed crime, who could be effectively deterred by rebalancing its cost/benefit ratio. However, in the nineteenth century this changed, and by its end Garofalo was able to declare that criminology had discovered ‘an enemy mysterious, unrecognized by history … the CRIMINAL.’[3] How was this discovery possible? 

‘In Europe,’ Clare Anderson has pointed out, ‘ideas about criminal typology were inextricably linked to readings of race and social evolution.’[4] This association used the criminal’s alleged similarities with non-Europeans (i.e., colonial subjects,) to legitimise their exclusion and denial of citizenship rights. Racism therefore challenged the concept of the universal human being; difference, the superiority of some types and the inferiority of others, was naturalised. This racism was given a scientific legitimacy through the discipline of ‘race science’ which used techniques including the  categorisation of the skulls of different ‘races’ as we see here.

Fig. 1: Blumenbach (1794) Treatise on “De generis humani varietate nativa” unnumbered page

For the nineteenth century founders of criminology these racist ideas of difference and in particular the racialised ‘Other’ meant that new forms of  ‘knowledge and theory become possible’.[5] In respect of the criminal question, the criminal as the ‘other’ could be born. This search was to lead to the discovery by Lombroso, and other early criminologists, of the ‘born criminal’ an incurable primitive being, beyond reform, sub-human and entirely unlike the ‘normal’ person.[6] What better way to express this discovery than by establishing, ‘scientifically’, differences in the skulls of the criminal ‘Other’. This picture of some of Lombroso’s skulls shows how he mirrored ‘race science’ drawing on its Othering to establish a new truth.

This foundational link between the racialised ‘Other’ and the criminal ‘Other’, a link which enabled criminology’s invention of the criminal is the first of the Gordian Knots that need cutting. With its intellectual origins in the racism of colonialism it continues to result in the criminal question’s answer being racist, because as Franz Fanon observed ‘… the native is always presumed guilty’.[7]

Criminology and the colonial/capitalist state

The connection between criminology and the state is so intimate that it is often unrecognised by criminologists. As Mark Neocleous has observed criminology as a discipline has ‘ambled along without any real concept of the state, let alone a theory of it.’[8] The oppressive and violent nature of the state, so obvious with even a cursory glance at criminology’s subject matter, tends to escape criminological discourse unnoticed. Most criminology has an, implicit rather than explicit, understanding of the state as a natural and necessary collection of institutions working for the general social good. Parts may be performing poorly or in problematic ways, but these issues are correctable through a reform agenda.  Radical, critical and ‘Marxist’ criminology do, on occasions engage with the problematic nature of the state from a class perspective, however, there is little or no recognition of how the modern state – in the metropole, settler colonies and the postcolonial ‘independent’ states – has been shaped by the challenges of colonial governance.[9] All these states have an interlinked history and have developed to impose and maintain unjust social orders. I will deal in the next sub-section with the concept of crime, but at this stage it should be highlighted that what is ‘crime’ – criminology’s subject matter – is determined by the state. Indeed, what is prosecuted and sanction as crime is also determined by state institutions – the courts, the police, prosecutors, probation services and prisons. But it is not only that criminology’s subject matter is determined by the state that is problematic. It is also that as a discipline criminology, throughout its history, has consistently sought to serve the state. It has consistently sought to assist the state by identifying criminals and developing proposals for reforming the institutions of penal law. From its birth criminology has been ‘a selective science’ that endorsed a focus on the criminalisation of a narrow selection of harms, an emphasis that legitimised the targeting of the most vulnerable and powerless whilst simultaneously largely ignoring the far greater harms caused by the powerful.[10]Criminology’s adaption to the Nazi party’s rise in twentieth-century Germany demonstrates its ability to accommodate the needs of the state.  

“Crime”

In a critique of criminology Paddy Hillyard and Steve Tombs identified nine principal criticisms of the discipline. These included that crime had no ontological reality, that it consists of many petty events, excludes much serious harm, legitimises the expansion of crime control and maintains power relations.[11] Criminology, they argue, ‘perpetuates the myth of “crime”’.  Whilst sympathetic to their critique I would argue for going beyond the “no ontological reality/social construct” critique of crime to argue that the concept is best understood as both a legal construct and an exercise in state power. Crime is created by the state both through legislation (technically making something a crime) and through action (the infliction of blame and pain). Nowhere is this clearer than in the operation of colonialism where law, both civil and criminal, was deployed both to establish the colonies and subsequently in their governance. Specific laws as well as the concept of the rule of law were deployed to violently demolish the pre-existing social relations, moral economies and social order of colonised territories and replace them with an order based on liberal political economy, a capitalist social structure and regulation by western criminal and penal law.[12]

In the colonial project, racism and law, operated in partnership. For example, the 1661 Barbados Slave Code establishing clear legal distinctions between ‘negro’ slaves and white ‘servants’.[13]  Four centuries later the deployment of laws explicitly based on ‘race’ continued to operate. The United States, established as a slave colony by Britain, still maintained segregation and Apartheid South Africa maintain a racist legal code establish when it was a British colony. As the Indian nationalist Tilak observed, it was clear that the ‘goddess of British Justice, though blind, is able to distinguish unmistakably black from white’.[14]

What we understand as crime is in itself a European concept. I was struck when reading Oyérónké Oyėwùmi’ brilliant The Invention of Women  that not only are gender and sex not the natural categories they are often presumed in Western feminist discourse but the same could be argued with respect to the concepts of ‘crime’ and the criminal ‘other’. Indeed, Oyėwùmi points out that the ‘omnipresence of biologically deterministic explanations in the social sciences can be demonstrated within the category of the criminal or criminal type’.[15] Just as “gender” took a particular Western biological deterministic perspective to see, so too did “crime” (and indeed “race”).  Like the state and its criminal justice institutions, is “crime”  for the colonised, a colonial imposition? 

But surely not all criminologies?

If I could briefly turn to two specific points raised by the editors in their feedback.  Firstly:

The criminological discipline has arguably expanded and developed within it a few critical subfields – some of which sit at the margins of the discipline, and which seek to comprehensively critique it, like state crime or zemiology, but which in practice at least, are still part of the wider spectrum of criminological thinking and teaching around violence, harm, justice, punishment etc. where do you position yourself in relation to these more critical criminologies? How do these complicate your critique of mainstream criminology and your call to abolish it?

Criminology has certainly developed many subfields – rarely a day goes by without me discovering a new one, yesterday it was Family Criminology! – and I cannot respond to them all.  But what they all have in common is a desire to be inside the criminological tent, why else would they brand themselves as a ‘criminology’? Of course, sometimes is it not the scholars themselves who chose to be in these camps, but rather criminology whose imperial aspirations seek to claim their works for its ever-expanding empire. We therefore see, for example, the inclusion of W E B DuBois, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Peter Kropotkin, Karl Marx, and Carol Smart among the Fifty Key Thinkers in Criminology.[16]

That Zemiology is specifically mentioned in the feedback is interesting. Whilst its founders recognised that some within criminology were embracing an ‘expanding group of social harms’, they themselves ‘wished to move beyond criminology in order to be able to challenge the discursive power of crime, criminal justice and criminology.’[17]  Zemiology was never intended to be ‘inside the criminological tent’ it was an attempt to escape criminology. In an account of criminology’s response to zemiology, Paddy Hillyard has identified five broad approaches: Colonialists (who sought to bring zemiology under direct criminological rule); Imperialists (who wished to expand criminology to encompass zemiology); Nationalists (who vigorously defend their discipline); Reluctant Nationalists (who largely agree with zemiology’s critique of criminology, but nevertheless remain committed to it); and  Misguided nationalists (scholars working on non-criminal harms who were attempting to ‘shoe-horn’ these ‘into a criminological framework.’[18]  Despite zemiologists wanting to ‘abandon criminology’, because ‘it can never escape the dictatorial definitions of crime and criminality set by the State’ criminology has clearly been reluctant to grant it is independence.[19]

Why Abolition?

Secondly, why abolish criminology? The editors wrote:

In the conclusion you introduce the idea of abolition which we’d invite you to develop more. What does decolonising via abolishing mean exactly? Is criminology – in its more critical, modern version – necessarily incompatible with abolitionist praxis?

My starting point is not abolition but decolonisation. What does decolonisation mean in respect of the criminal question? Decolonisation ultimately requires the undoing of colonisation, it requires action involving  real change and the dismantling of the world created by colonialism.[20] It is about returning what was stolen, sovereignty, land and power.[21] It is not a process that involves adding something – books to a reading list – but is as Franz Fanon made clear,.‘always a violent phenomenon’.[22] It has been defined by Joel Modiri as:

an insatiable reparatory demand, an insurrectionary utterance, that always exceeds the temporality and scene of its enunciation. It entails nothing less than an endless fracturing of the world colonialism created.[23]

For most of the world, the criminal (in)justice systems operating today were imposed by colonialism. They have not got infected by a bit of colonialism, an infection that can be cured by a dose of decolonisation, they are fundamentally colonial. Decolonisation must necessarily involve their abolition. Even when we look at the metropole, we find colonial roots within criminal (in)justice institutions. England’s first central government funded police – the Thames River police – have their origin in British slavers determination to maximise their profits, generated from the labour of enslaved Africans.[24]  As I have argued elsewhere the institutions and practices of penal law in the metropole have been shaped by the British state’s experience and strategies in its colonies.[25]  

What all the various criminologies have in common is a need to reconcile whatever their brand – Green, Postcolonial, Feminist et al – with ‘criminology’. When the inevitable tensions emerge between the two component elements – often irreconcilable both in theory and practice – one must emerge dominant and the other must be compromised. If we are serious about decolonisation, we cannot do this within criminology. By adopting the state’s language and power to define its foundational concepts, criminology is a paradigm ill equipped to generate useful explanations of ‘the legal enslavement of Africans, the legal genocide of indigenous peoples, the legal looting of India, the racist colonial legal codes, and the wide range of other legalised (and legally enforced) injustices and harms that [continue to] characterised colonial governance’.[26]Criminology with its racist origins, its reliance on the concepts of ‘crime’ and the ‘criminal’ and its intimate relationship with the state and its institutions of penal law is at best a sterile position from which to engage in emancipatory projects in general and decolonisation in particular. At worse, by promoting the possibility of a decolonised criminology, we are complicit in legitimising the disciple, penal law and the expansion of crime control. Both criminology and penal law are part ‘of the world colonialism created’ and as such they need ‘fracturing’.[27] To paraphrase Franz Fanon’s famous conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth:

So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to criminology by creating a decolonised version of the discipline, or indeed anything else that draws its inspiration from her. Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature.[28]


[1] Cited in Radzinowicz, L. and Hood, R.  A History of The English Criminal Law: Volume 5 The Emergence of Penal Policy, London: Stevens and Sons. p. 17

[2] Colquhoun, P. (1796) A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (3rd Edition) London: C Dilly p. 440

[3] Garofalo, R. (1914) Criminology Boston, Little, Brown and Company p. xxvii, (emphasis in original)

[4] Anderson, C. (2004) Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia, New York: Berg  p.181

[5] Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things. London: Routledge p xxiv

[6] Lombroso, C. (2006) Criminal Man Durham: Duke University Press

[7] Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books p. 41.

[8] Neocleous, M. (2021) A Critical Theory of Police Power: The Fabrication of Social Order London: Verso p. 47.

[9] (Chatterjee, P. (2012) The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press p. 55.

[10] Forero, A. (2017) ‘Old and New Discourse: The Role of Positivist Criminology in the Criminalisation of Anarchism’ Justice, Power and Resistance 1 (2) p. 196

[11] Hillyard, P. and Tombs, S. (2004) ‘Beyond Criminology’ in Hillyard, P and others (eds.), Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm SeriouslyLondon: Pluto Press.

[12] Loomba, A. (2005) Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Abingdon: Routledge p. 9

[13] Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan 2016). p. 69-70)

[14] Cited in Kolsky, E. (2010) Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and The rule of Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p. 4.

[15] Oyėwùmi, O. (1997) The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p. 4.

[16] Haywood, K., Maruna, S. and Mooney, J. (2010) Fifty Key Thinkers in Criminology London: Routledge

[17] Hillyard, P. (2013) ‘Zemiology Revisited Fifteen Years On’ in Gilmore, J., Moore, J.M. and Scott, D. Critique and Dissent Ottawa: Red Quill Books. p. 220

[18] Hillyard, P. (2013) ‘Zemiology Revisited Fifteen Years On’ in Gilmore, J., Moore, J.M. and Scott, D. Critique and Dissent Ottawa: Red Quill Books. pp. 224-231, p.230.

[19] Hillyard, P. (2013) ‘Zemiology Revisited Fifteen Years On’ in Gilmore, J., Moore, J.M. and Scott, D. Critique and Dissent Ottawa: Red Quill Books. p. 227

[20] Adebisi, F. (2019) ‘Why I Say ‘Decolonisation is Impossible’ African Skies Online at: https://folukeafrica.com/why-i-say-decolonisation-is-impossible/

[21] Tuck, E and Yang, K. W. (2012) “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1.

[22] Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books p.27.

[23] Joel Modiri cited by Adebisi, F. (2019) ‘Why I Say ‘Decolonisation is Impossible’ African Skies Online at:  https://folukeafrica.com/why-i-say-decolonisation-is-impossible/

[24] Moore, J.M. (2021) ‘Protecting the property of slavers: London’s first state funded police force’ Abolition Futures Online at: https://abolitionistfutures.com/latest-news/protecting-the-property-of-slavers-londons-first-state-funded-police-force

[25] Moore, J.M. (2014) ‘Is the Empire coming home? Liberalism, exclusion and the punitiveness of the British State’ pp. 31-48 in Papers from the British Criminology Conference Vol. 14

[26] Moore, J.M (2020) ‘“Law”, “order”, “justice”, “crime”: disrupting key concepts in criminology through the study of colonial history’, The Law Teacher, 54 (4),  492, emphasis in original).

[27] Joel Modiri cited by Adebisi, F. (2019) ‘Why I Say ‘Decolonisation is Impossible’ African Skies Online at:  https://folukeafrica.com/why-i-say-decolonisation-is-impossible/

[28] Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books p. 254

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