Censure, criminology and politics

Autor:Colin Summer

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This essay is presented in honour of Roberto Bergalli for his major contribution to sociology of law and criminology in Europe and Latin America. It is a much revised version of a paper given at the University of Turin, in March 2004, on the kind invitation and hospitality of Amedeo Cottino. It has been my pleasure over the years to have collaborated with Roberto and seen at first hand the inspiration he gives to others through his hard work, commitment and considerable skill as an educator.

Since its foundation, sociology has questioned the possibility of a scientific criminology based upon the normal usage of the concept of crime.1Durkheim saw crime as defined by the collective sentiment, and thus irrevocably intertwined with its passions, prejudices and predilections, long before Sellin, noting the arrests of unemployed miners and their families desperately scavenging for coal in the Depression, remarked that the ‘unqualified acceptance of the legal definitions as the basic units or elements of criminological inquiry violates a fundamental criterion of science’.2The twentieth century brought the full recognition that the criminal law is not so much God’s will or the will of the people as an instrument of all-too-human legislators with interests and prejudices, and therefore that what is defined, policed and prosecuted as crime is very much a question of economics, politics and culture.

Many since 1945 and the liberation of Auschwitz have observed that, whatever its intrinsic obnoxiousness, horror or damage, crime is defined by politicians and law enforcement agencies. It is the officials’ selection from the vast number of human behaviours that break the law. We know today that law-breaking is common to all classes, genders, regions and nationalities, that crime is common and ubiquitous, and that if we punished every technical violation we would all be in prison. We know also that the powerful can more easily elude the criminal justice system, redefine their crimes as mere peccadilloes, and indeed steer the very course of legislation. So we now assume and hope that in democracy crime and its regulation are central subjects of social policy and matters for open debate. Criminology last century eventually became less of a science and more of a politics. Today, with some irony, the twenty-first century is witnessing the wheel turning full circle as social policy is being re-turned from an open politics into an insiders’ ‘science’, the technocracy of social control. Yet again the government-funded experts of criminology absolve themselves of any moral or political responsibility for the domination, persecution, exploitation and punishment of the vulne-

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rable elements of society through the processes of the criminal justice system - as if the censure of others could ever be anything other than a moral and political judgment.

Permitting the state to define the categories of science is exactly what criminologists do when they use criminal law categories in the constitution of their research samples of offenders or when their research objectives and conclusions are restricted by their service to the state. It is precisely this problem which Sutherland and Cressey had in mind when they stated that "social science has no stable unit, as it deals with phenomena involving group evaluations".3The reactionary character, institutional details and enormously negative consequences of the state re-capture of criminology in Blair’s Britain are thoroughly documented by Hillyard et al.4in an excellent analysis of the silencing of critical criminology here through the managerialist state with its revenue targets, continuous audits, insane reviews and silent privatizations. However, my favourite observation on the subject, because it comes from a conservative psychologist and because it emanates from a raw scholarly honesty which rises above any political predilections, is the statement from the late Gordon Trasler that: "It is not immediately obvious that criminal behaviour constitutes a viable field of scientific behaviour...".5Trasler’s point of reference was that psychological studies have not been able to establish "offenders as a class" distinguishable in respect of extraversion, intelligence, emotionality, physique or even social origin, and that the distinguishing, ‘criminal’, element of crime is that the state has defined it as such. After 37 years of studying criminology, I am not convinced either. Criminology has not yet established that it has any more scientific basis than religion, politics or astrology and certainly the intellectual level of its debates is markedly inferior to those within theology and astrology. Indeed, by far the best pieces of social-psychological analysis of any supposed ‘criminal mentality’ I have seen in the last few years are banned from publication by the British Home Office because they are written by incarcerated serial killers or much-reviled murderers.

This has led some to believe that criminology is still driven by superstition and faith, and that we have not moved beyond mere religious prejudice against the manifestations of evil. Certainly, criminology as a body of scholars exhibits the cold capriciousness of the Inquisition: its lack of collegiality is exceptional, even by the miserably low standards of academia. One can readily observe the po-faced, middle-class ‘God Squads’, of varying political persuasions but mostly conservative-liberal in effect, in search of the petty delinquencies of the devil within the lives of the lower working classes, immigrants, ethnic minorities, sexual deviants, general eccentrics and dissidents of the world.6They conform all too enthusiastically with the demands and limits of the managerial state, nobly serving time for a pittance and a pension whilst giving the legitimacy of science to an essentially political operation by their paymasters, who will do what they were going to do anyway.

Criminologists need to be rebels and sinners not evangelists, because they need to be able to distinguish between the serious and the trivial in the minefield of moral diversity - and to act on it. They also need to understand what real life and real damage looks like, rather than working blindly within the anodyne confines of the state’s moral, sometimes amoral, and occasionally immoral agendas. Certainly, criminology systematically igno-

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res the most serious crimes, such as genocide, and persistently ignores the fact that the official statistics are the officials’ statistics. Certainly, mainstream criminology ignores, insults, suppresses, rejects or marginalizes critical scholars, even when pre-eminent in the UN for...

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