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Communities and Identities
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Book reviews

Communities and Identities

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Basia Spalek: Communities, Identities and Crime. The Policy PressBristol2008. 241 pp.

Identity politics has had a huge impact on the social sciences, particularly in the debate surrounding the fractious and individualist nature of late modernity and the subsequent fate of social identity. This is the theme that runs throughout this new book, and it is highlighted in the first chapter, a clearly written overview of the work of Bauman, Giddens, Beck and Lasch, who are major theorists of social identity. Spalek discusses the relationship between collectivisation - commonly associated with modernity up until the ‘golden age’ of the post-war social democratic settlement - and individualisation, the fragmentation of social units that occurred during the neoliberal turn after the 1980s.

Chapter two offers a descriptively sound and clearly written discussion of public sector methods designed to promote equality and diversity in the UK, with a focus on the criminal justice sector. A discussion and analysis of identity continues in chapter three, in which Spalek promotes the epistemological position of perspectival realism, which centres on deconstructing and reconstructing social identities and the power and knowledge constructs that relate to them, with a particular focus on marginal narratives. Chapter four concentrates on unpacking the term community, and considers the difficulties facing policy and practice, the scope for engagement with individuals and the challenges this will bring, particularly for those who are marginalised. Chapter five, six, seven, eight and nine elaborate on some of the key ideas above in relation to particular identity-groups - specifically those of gender, ‘race’, faith, sexuality, age and disability – and their experiences of crime and criminal justice.

The book offers an informative discussion of identities in late modernity grounded in useful qualitative empirical studies and firmly embedded in Spalek’s chosen theoretical perspective, and it is especially strong on ‘race’ and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. She makes a good job of promoting inclusion and equality and discussing community engagement and discrimination in the criminal justice system. In focusing on marginal narratives Spalek adopts the standard criticism of scientism in criminology. However, the suggestion that academic criminology is still stuck with the Lombrosian and governmental projects is rather out-dated, as radical forms of criminological research based on qualitative methods have exerted a powerful influence in social research since the early Chicago School studies from the 1920s onwards, many of which also had significant policy impact in Britain and the USA. Although the author makes a good point that the so-called scientific approach has recently been re-imposed by the ESRC and the Home Office, qualitative research is still funded and discussed in the Home Office literature, and thus this standard critique of scientism aims at something of a straw target.

While the book is a well-structured and clearly written piece that approaches offender and victim identity constructions and the criminal justice system in revealing detail, a deep engagement with the narratives themselves and a really critical analysis of broader sociopolitical structures and processes seem to be missing from the discussion. The ‘critical lens’ that the author promises to place upon notions of identity, community and criminal justice turns out to be more of a wide-angle lens than a magnifier – all breadth but lacking critical depth. For instance, there is no mention of the varied and unpredictable nature and the continuous reconstruction of what Marrazzi (2010) calls a ‘prosumer’ self that might not see itself as marginal or grounded in gender, ‘race’, faith, sexuality, age and disability as it is captured by capitalist processes of accumulation and consumption. The question that market logic increasingly grounds the ever-changing nature of late modern identity is not addressed. Some forms of collectivism may be born out of a shared experience of identification in terms of Spalek’s chosen categories, yet the market is always willing to profit from and influence this process of constant re-identification. This is where the book seems to fall short.

The promise of further discussion addressing more ‘radical approaches’, ‘broader social structures’ and criticism of the ‘liberal response to discrimination’ (p. 39) fails to materialise. There is little discussion of economic power relations, and the root causes of crime are not unpacked theoretically, nor elaborated on empirically beyond the standard arguments. The rejection of class in favour of identity politics and its associated categories, with their undialectical relations, conforms to liberal government agendas as much as those Spalek criticises for adopting a scientific approach. The argument marginalises class at a time when it has recently revealed itself to be the fundamental category in an unequal social reality and is also returning in cutting-edge political theory and philosophy.

The overall problem is that political-economy seems to be missing from the discussion. Rarely mentioned are the processes and structures of neoliberalisation, capitalist power relations and the culture-ideology of consumerism, which have perpetuated the atomisation of collectives and the destruction of the collectivist spirit. Instead, a standard liberal-postmodernist argument is adopted, which assumes that identity politics and theoretical concepts such as reflexive modernity (Giddens) and cosmopolitanism (Beck) accurately reflect everyday life in late modernity. It gives a clear overview of this liberal-constitutional sociology and the relationship between the individual and the collective, but it lacks any credible discussion of critical approaches to these liberal arguments.

Ultimately, the book leaves the reader wanting more of a critical analysis of identity politics. There is little, if any, mention of the functions and power of individual-collective hybrids. Are they united and do they share communal obligations in any real sense? There is no mention of consumer culture, leisure identities or the processes of subjective capture and transformation by consumerism, which means that the process of homogenisation in consumer culture and the existence of class divisions and interpersonal competition in cultural sub-groups are also missing. And for a book that has ‘crime’ in its main title there is little mention of crime or criminality beyond victimology and perpetrator/victim identity construction. For example, what are the socio-economic links to crime in the areas discussed? Moreover, there is virtually no discussion of the harmful experiences of crime, the aetiology of crime – i.e. whether it’s acquisitive, expressive and so on – and no reference to the large body of ethnographic work that provides thick description and analysis of crime in communities from victim and perpetrator perspectives. The lack of a final bibliography can also be frustrating for the reader.

Despite these structural lacunae, Spalek puts forward a convincing case for identity politics, marginal narratives and their important subjective feelings and voices. She convinces the reader that they are indeed important categories in the analysis of community participation and discrimination in the criminal justice system, although further embedding in structural contexts would have strengthened the argument. Overall, Communities, Identities and Crime is a useful text for students and researchers interested in communities, constructions of offender and victim identities and the social dynamics of the criminal justice system in the UK.

Marazzi, C. (2010) The Violence of Financial Capitalism, L.A. Semiotext(e).

Alexandra HallDepartment of Social Sciences, Northumbria UniversityNewcastle-upon-Tyne.

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