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Power, Crime, and Society: Internal Issues Facing Contemporary Criminology


An educational resource at the heart of criminological teaching, debate, and research


Power, Crime, and Society: Internal Issues Facing Contemporary Criminology

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This is the second of a three-part series examining how criminologists can better engage what Jock Young has called ‘the criminological imagination’. The authors consider developments in the UK, USA and Canada and argue that criminology faces both external and internal challenges that constrain how crime is interpreted and how criminologists communicate their work in the public realm. In this piece, the authors consider internal challenges within criminology including careerism and citation counts, and the methodological fetishization associated with the quantitative turn in contemporary criminology. Perhaps most worrying is the lack of modesty about both knowledge and methods in leading publications.

In our first article we described Kevin Haggerty’s useful examination of external challenges that complicate relations between criminologists and justice policy (2004). We sought to offer our own updated analysis by building on the ideological and institutional influences identified by Wheeldon and Heidt (2009) who considered internal complications within our field and specifically two central issues. The first was the importance of acknowledging what is known as the postmodern critique. The second related to the ability of critical approaches to present a realistic, unified, and coherent strategy for policy implementation.

In this piece, we focus on how external challenges have influenced internal developments within our field. In place of creative and sometime contentious criminological efforts, too often success means publishing an ever-increasing number of quantitative papers which examine ever more specialized aspects of criminology. Based on assumptions that are politically convenient and methodologically trendy, top tier journals increasingly shy away from more critical accounts. While our focus is on developments in American criminology, as distinct from European criminology, it would be a mistake to ignore how these broader trends may be on the rise elsewhere. Of immediate interest are three themes: Careerism in the neo-liberal academy; the fetishization of method; and the value[s] of modesty.

Careerism in the neo-liberal academy

Kevin Haggerty (2004) argues that a central transformation within criminology is the focus on criminalistics, and law enforcement based on new technologies of detection, capture and monitoring. These approaches are related naturally to the administration and management of crime and criminals. Focused on managerial performance indicators, these organizational practices may not necessarily be related to reducing crime (Wheeldon & Heidt 2009). As Shichor suggests, the study of criminal justice has been overtaken by an orientation ‘‘...which is focused on making the crime problem tolerable, rather than diminishing it’’ (2000: 11).

This approach lends itself to what Savelsberg, King and Cleveland (2004) argue is the requirement to investigate topics in line with the prevailing political perspectives of the time. This overt politicization of the criminological project has inevitably led to criminal justice research programs that focus more on topics and theories advocated by state actors than their peers. Indeed “the relationship between a changing ideological climate and criminological knowledge [being] almost fully explained through funding and programming effects” (Savelsberg, King and Cleveland 2002: 327).

According to John Laub, the quest for knowledge has become the quest for tenure:

When I entered the field as a graduate student in the 1970s, criminology was an exciting field because people were passionate about ideas. Today “career concerns” are center-stage in the field - for example, publication counts, citation counts, the amount of external funding generated, departmental rankings and so forth are the new measures of intellectual impact and scholarship (2004: 3).

If funding considerations and publication counts are increasingly important, the question of who publishes becomes central. Colin Sumner, here on CrimeTalk, has offered an important review of the issues around academic publishing. He cautions that sequestering criminological knowledge is dangerous. When it is developed within the cloistered walls of an enclosed system it:

…has no need to explain itself to anyone outside… by suppressing the public voice in return for re-employment within the university - the technical language combined with a rigged peer-review system contains the academic publication within its enclosed environment in return for a steady and comfortable salary. In developing countries, it is called bribing off potential trouble-makers....

Publication bias on the part of publishers and academic journals has been described at length in the literature around the publishing of medical trials. There are a number of factors implicated in facilitating this bias – from journal editors’ negativity towards particular research, researchers and institutions through to the commercial interests of the journal’s publisher.

As pointed out recently in CrimeTalk by Matthew Yeager, mainstream publications like Criminology and The Criminologist have historically excluded critical criminologists. Yeager argues that more critical work is sidelined not only by those who fund criminological research or grant access to the institutions of criminal justice, but also those within the mainstream bubble. Thus critical, and we would add qualitative, historical, and philosophic criminological efforts are barred entry into mainstream journals by those within the “criminological establishment.” Too often, those who dominate these journals and associations appear to have sipped the mainstream criminological ‘kool-aid’, an existential necessity for those for whom a career is based on the business of state criminology. Yeager cites Richard Quinney (1974) and reminds the next generation that this is old news.

At a job panel at the 2012 American Society of Criminology meetings in Washington DC, these ideas were apparent among presenters who appeared to agree that if one wanted to get a job, they should simply follow this advice:

1. Work with someone famous

2. Publish in the journal Criminology

3. Don’t be weird

Weird, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Phillip Cohen at the University of Maryland has examined the dark side of careerism in a recent post. The publication of “very similar publications” has been called “salami slicing” and refers to the practice of creating several publications out of material that could have been published in a single journal. In this case, two very similar papers were published in Criminology and Social Problems and failed to refer in any way to the findings or approach described in the other paper. Both were based on the same data and methods. He argues:

Little of substance is learned from one that could not be learned from the other, they contain many nearly-identical passages, and they both claim to make the same major original contributions. This isn’t the most extreme case like this ever published, but it’s the most obvious one I’ve noticed that involves a major sociology journal. 

It seems that to achieve promotion or tenure in an increasingly competitive academic environment one must publish in top-ranking journals – at all costs. It appears the next generation is taking note and a recent study suggested that young researchers see publishing- en masse as a key stepping stone to career development (Gabbidon et al. 2011). Yet the focus on careerism in the neo-liberal academy may be undermining the basic integrity associated with building a broad base of criminological and sociological knowledge. The epistemologically limited assumptions that inform most methodological choices also undermine how we define and conceive of criminology itself.

The fetishization of method

The majority of mainstream journals describe how they publish ‘international-quality empirical studies’. There does, however, seem to be some confusion over what ‘empirical’ actually means. Between 2011 and 2012, the journal Criminology published 50 articles. Of these, only 8% adopted a qualitative research framework. This suggests that by “empirical” the editors mean quantitative analysis. In addition to the fetishization of ever more complex statistical signifiers and signs, mainstream journals also appear to publish only studies that find or suggest politically useful, exciting, or controversial relationships. While a null finding used to be as (or even more) important than a finding suggesting a weak relationship, few papers published in top tier journals include such studies. According to Brendan Dooley (2010), criminology has gone silent on the value of the process of conjecture and refutation undermining the traditional scientific focus on falsification.

In his recent book, The Criminological Imagination, Jock Young describes the rise of ‘physics envy’, whereby the social sciences adopt number-crunching methods in order for their findings to appear more scientifically valid. We would argue that such quantitative methods, although very well suited to the physical sciences where truths can be established, should not be relied upon too heavily in a discipline such as criminology. Surveys do not capture the experience or status of everyone, and only serve to promote positivism and research findings based on simplistic quantitative methods. Today’s young scholars, despite being told about the merits of presenting ‘balance’ in academic essays, are being moulded into publishing machines with an over-reliance on quantitative methods as opposed to developing explanations for the many, interconnected, issues criminology faces as a social science.

Jeff Ferrell has argued that this methodological folly is based on the ahistoric and philosophically ignorant notion that quantitative:

…methods somehow operate independently of human emotion and human action—that such methods can drain objective ‘data’ and useful knowledge from those who are their targets, can produce results that are valid and ‘replicable’ no matter the researcher, can expunge ‘error’ and ‘subjectivity’ from the research process. And like the sexual fetishist, orthodox criminologists focus so tightly on the minutiae of their methodology, and on the social minutiae that their methods are designed to investigate, that they regularly forget larger dynamics of crime, transgression, knowledge, and power (Ferrell, 2009:4).

For students, this may be creating a feedback loop. To become part of the criminological conversation one must mimic mainstream analysis, including trendy or ‘popular’ techniques. This focus results in the next generation distancing themselves from the broader research debates and decisions that may offer other more creative paths to meaning. For example, it appears those using phenomenological techniques are ostracised from the world of mainstream criminology. While they may find a home in more specific journals among other like-minded academics, their contributions may never find a home in the highly ranked journals that tenure and promotions committees often suggest that success requires.  addition to ideological arrogance, the ascendancy of quantitative research and the seeming near-wholesale rejection of qualitative approaches in mainstream criminology suggest many agree that theory ought to serve research methods, and not the other way round.

There may be other worries. The simplistic approach of defining correlates of crime (ethnicity, age, gender, class) may be used to confuse the complex issues surrounding crime and criminal behaviour. For example, while numeric investigation suggests that, in the US, African Americans commit more crime than other ethnicities, analyses like these miss a few rather large questions. For example, what role does institutionalized racism play in who gets charged, and for what? In a review of misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York City between 1989 and 2000, a major study by Harcourt and Ludwig (2007) found the pattern of arrests disproportionately targeted the African American and Hispanic populations. Another example concerns mental illness. We know the prevalence of mental illness in the prison population is exponentially higher than the rate within the general population. This has transferred into negative attitudes and stereotypes being adopted, as highlighted by research findings (Crisp et al. 2000) that indicate that people identify those with schizophrenia as being unpredictable and dangerous – characteristics more often ascribed to ‘criminals.’

Too often it appears that many within so-called mainstream criminology fall for the fallacy that the only things that count are things that can be counted. Despite testimonials of the need for qualitative data to validate and verify numeric data by criminologists like John Laub and Robert Sampson, broader approaches to how and why people engage in the activities they do have been sidelined. Instead of supporting research that would allow a more comprehensive picture to emerge, researchers are allowing political forces and the promise of funding to shape their work. Instead of making better use of available resources in order to truly address the root causes of crime and the best institutional- and community-based responses, our field is overwhelmed by attempts to construct statistical models of human behaviour. While quantitative analysis is (and will remain) valuable, findings are being perhaps over-interpreted. It does appear as though overconfidence in statistical analysis has replaced doubt (including self-doubt) as the basis of criminological knowledge.   criminology fall for the fallacy that the only things that count are things that can be counted. Despite testimonials of the need for qualitative data to validate and verify numeric data by criminologists like John Laub and Robert Sampson, broader approaches to how and why people engage in the activities they do have been sidelined. Instead of supporting research that would allow a more comprehensive picture to emerge, researchers are allowing political forces and the promise of funding to shape their work. Instead of making better use of available resources in order to truly address the root causes of crime and the best institutional- and community-based responses, our field is overwhelmed by attempts to construct statistical models of human behaviour. While quantitative analysis is (and will remain) valuable, findings are being perhaps over-interpreted. It does appear as though overconfidence in statistical analysis has replaced doubt (including self-doubt) as the basis of criminological knowledge.

The value(s) of a more modest criminology

It is hugely ironic that while criminologists of all epistemological stripes agree that criminology is in trouble, few appear to recognize their own role in its failure. The American Society of Criminologys Presidential Address has been used over the last decade as a platform to voice a variety of concerns. In recent years, these addresses have offered penetrating insights into the limitations of criminological knowledge (Laub 2004), including the failure to address the persistent problem of race (Tonry 2007), criminology’s embarrassing ignorance of history (Bursik 2008), and the complexity surrounding questions of ‘evidence’ (Clear 2009). This knowledge problem has been recognized by two of the most prominent quantitative criminologists David Weisburd and Alex Piquero (2008). They argue that despite decades of theory and research, criminologists fail to actually explain crime in any meaningful way.

We have argued above that this is, in part, a product of blind careerism and the methodological fetishization associated with the quantitative turn in contemporary criminology. Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the widespread lack of modesty in our discipline. Without recognizing the limitations inherent in all research and research traditions, debates that might otherwise serve the discipline are sidelined. An example here might be useful. Pratt and colleagues in an otherwise useful article on social learning theory include this dubious statement:

Meta-analysis is now a standard approach for reviewing studies, and thus its strengths and weaknesses do not need to be detailed here (2010: 771).

Talk about modest! This quote suggests that in addition to refusing to summarize the general limitations associated with meta-analysis, the authors do not feel compelled to provide any specific reflections on how these general limitations might complicate their analysis, or limit the inferences they draw. This passage, and the view of research it suggests, mocks the broader recognition as part of the history and philosophy of science that it is doubt that advances knowledge.

Instead of embracing the idea that all research is a series of decisions (Palys 2003), some suggest justifying their approach is not required. We suggest this failure to acknowledge that each decision has an outcome, a consequence, and thus requires a justification is problematic. Research programs must be seen as they are, based on the epistemological assumptions and related methodological choices made by each researcher. Despite the benefits of hedging one’s bet, and recognizing the folly of claiming ‘knowledge’ based on one study, some criminologists continue to connect mainstream criminology with the false sense of security provided by numeric analysis. In the messy world of human affairs, understanding the complexities of crime requires getting one’s hands dirty. While retreating into a super computer may be comforting, it may no longer be enough to truly engage the criminological imagination.

In part three, we will turn our attention to how the next generation of criminologists might re-consider criminological knowledge, methods, and modesty. We suggest one way for mainstream and critical criminologists alike to accept how re-engaging our collective criminological imagination will require variations in approaches and the mutual respect of researchers for programs of study which take the time to outline their assumptions, and clearly explicate their methods. No matter the choices made, all credible research acknowledges the limitations that exist.


Bursik, R.J. (2009). Dead Sea Scrolls and Criminological Knowledge: 2008 Presidential Address to the American Society of Criminology. Criminology 47 (1): 5-16

Clear, T.R. (2010). Policy and Evidence: The Challenge to the American Society of Criminology: 2009 Presidential Address to the American Society of Criminology. Criminology, 48(1): 1-25. 

Cohen, P (2012). One case of very similar publications, with some implications and suggestions. Family Inequality. Available at: http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/one-case/

Crisp, A.H. Gelder, M.G., Rix, S, Meltzer, H.I., Rowlands, O.J. (2000) Stigmatisation of people with mental illnesses. The British Journal of Psychiatry 177: 4-7

Dooley, B (2010). Whither Criminology? On the State of Criminology’s Paradigm (Unpublished Dissertation) St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri—St. Louis.

Ferrell, J. (2009). Kill Method: A Provocation, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology, 1 (1): 1-22.

Gabbidon, S.L, Higgins, G.E.  & Martin, F. (2011) Moving through the Faculty Ranks: An Exploratory Study on the Perceived Importance of Book Publishing and Publishing in Peer Reviewed Journals in Criminology/Criminal Justice. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 22(2): 165-180.

Harcourt, B.E. & Ludwig, J. (2007) Reefer Madness: Broken Windows Policing and Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City, 1989-2000. Criminology and Public Policy 6(1): 165-182.

Haggerty, K. D. (2004). Displaced expertise: Three constraints on the policy-relevance of criminological thought. Theoretical Criminology, 8(2): 211–231.

Laub, J. (2004).  “The life course of criminology in the United States:  The American Society of Criminology Presidential Address, 2003.” Criminology 42 (1): 1-25.

Palys, T. (2003). Research D. Toronto, ON: Thompson Canada.

Pratt, T. C., Cullen, F. T., Sellers, C. S., & Winfree, T. (2010). The Empirical Status of Social Learning Theory: A Meta-Analysis. Justice Quarterly 27 (6): 765-802.

Quinney, R. (1974)  Critique of Legal Order. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Savelsberg, J. J., Cleveland, L. L. & King, R. D. (2004). Institutional environments and scholarly work: American criminology, 1951-1993. Social Forces 82 (4), 1275-1302.

Savelsberg, J. J., King, R. D & Cleveland, L.L. (2002). “Politicized scholarship: Science on crime and the state.” Social Problems 49: 327-348.

Shichor, David (2000). Penal Policies at the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century. Criminal Justice Review, 25(1): 1-30.

Sumner, C. (2012) Academic Journals: An Open and Shut Case. CrimeTalk. Available at: http://www.crimetalk.org.uk/library/editors-blog/753-academic-journals-an-open-and-shut-case.html

Tonry, M. (2008). Crime and Human Rights--How Political Paranoia, Protestant Fundamentalism, and Constitutional Obsolescence Combined to Devastate Black America: The American Society of Criminology 2007 Presidential Address. Criminology 46(1): 1-34

Weisburd, D. & Piquero, A. (2008) How Well Do Criminologists Explain Crime?: Statistical Modelling in Published Studies. Crime and Justice 17: 453-502.

Wheeldon, J., & Heidt, J. (2007) Bridging the Gap: A Pragmatic Approach to Understanding Critical Criminologies and Policy Influence. Critical Criminology, 15 (4): 313-325.

Yeager, M (2012). Securities Fraud, Goldman Sachs, and Critical Criminology USA. CrimeTalk. Available at: http://www.crimetalk.org.uk/library/section-list/38-frontpage-articles/858-securities-fraud-goldman-sachs-and-critical-criminology-usa.html

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

Johannes Wheeldon is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Washington State University. He runs a prison debate and dialogue program, and teaches philosophy to inmates at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. " and tweets at @justicelawdev

Craig Harper is a UK-based postgraduate student of forensic psychology at the University of Lincoln. His website, LincPsychUK (http://lincpsychuk.wordpress.com/), outlines his research interests, which are based upon the principles of desistance theory, and hosts posts from his blog, and he tweets as @CraigHarper19

Go to Part One of this series....

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