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Censure and motivation: re-balancing criminological theory

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Colin Sumner’s obituary for the sociology of deviance captured the criminological zeitgeist of the early twentieth century by drawing attention to a marked transformation on the theoretical side of the discipline. In a wide-ranging work, Sumner pointed to the emergence of a new way of doing criminology, a dramatic change of emphasis that put an entirely different spin on conceptual explanations for criminality. Where the Chicago tradition offered a Durkheimian perspective that located criminality within the transgression of shared social norms, a new generation were less convinced by the idea of monolithic social ideals. In the context of nineteen-sixties counter-culturalism, Sumner identified an increasingly forceful pluralist critique which placed much greater emphasis on the censorious nature of centralised power, hysterical social reactions to perceived deviance and the potential illegitimacy of normative prohibitions.

Sumner pointed to a new approach that competed with and increasingly overshadowed more established criminological concepts and ideas. In one corner, we had the old hand: the idea that crime should be treated as an objective fact and the purpose of criminology was to shed light on the relationship between criminality and social circumstances. With the development of social disorganisation theory, Sutherland’s differential association and Mertonian strain, criminology developed a suite of theories that made connections between poverty, deprivation, cultural ideals and the infliction of physical, emotional and financial harms in the pursuit of instrumental or expressive interests. In other words, early twentieth century criminology was primarily interested in criminal motivation, in the practical and ideological forces that drive people into the harmful behaviours that generally constitute criminality.

In the minds of a new generation, however, this ‘sociology of deviance’ seemed to offer an overly partial appreciation of criminality, lacking the relativistic concepts coming out of post-modern social theory. Its allegiance to the idea of collective conscience arguably left criminology unable to offer a critical perspective on the power to define crime, the impact of criminal justice censure and the possibility that the system conforms more to the interests of a powerful elite than collective morality. In fairly short order, criminology began to move away from explaining why people commit crime – convinced that this was partial, excessively deterministic and played into the hands of conservative moralisers – increasingly turning its attention toward critiquing the ‘special interests’ of lawmakers and what they saw as the use of power to ensure continued dominance. With the development of symbolic interactionism, labelling theory, moral panics and radical criminology, Sumner suggested, this new disposition seemed to be moving to the fore of the academic discipline. It seemed to point the way to a bright future in which criminology would no longer be constrained by statist definitions of criminality and their excessively close relationship with seats of power. 

I want to look again at what happened next, particularly in terms of the impact of this emergent conceptual discourse and its subsequent influence on the development of criminological theory into the twenty-first century. With this purpose in mind, the remainder of our discussion will be divided into two parts. The first will concern itself with the intellectual contribution of the young buck, the idea that criminology should concentrate its efforts on a thoroughgoing critique of state power. In the second half we will consider the possibility that this emergent disposition has turned our attention away from crucial aspects of crime and deviance, perhaps rendering criminology a slightly top-heavy, imbalanced enterprise.

The criminology of censure

In the decades after 1960, a new paradigm took hold of criminological theory, with its roots in a combination of American phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, libertarian Marxism and, eventually, Foucauldian postmodernism. It asserted that the key factor driving the upward march of Western crime rates was not increased criminality but the prevalence of a censorious elite discourse that deliberately soured public perceptions of freethinking subcultures. Where criminology had long concentrated its efforts on the putative factors separating criminals from non-criminals, what became labelling theory argued that minor lifestyle differences – individual self-expression, youthful hijinks and so on – become the first movements of sustained criminality when authoritarian representation forces generate the ethical scope for an excessive crackdown. The ensuing social reaction then forces affected individuals to build their lives around ongoing censures and centralised records of past misdeeds that colour their social relationships, structure friendship groups and erode legitimate opportunities ensuring their continued allegiance to ‘deviant’ lifestyles. In effect, the problem of crime was not one of criminality, but of society’s attempts to maintain the status quo by censuring anything outside narrow conservative morality.

While subsequent decades saw these ideas take many different forms – symbolic interactionism, labelling theory, moral panics, radical, critical and cultural criminologies to name but a few – they essentially boil down to three key assertions:  (1) that criminology needs to explain why some people are labelled ‘criminal’ rather than providing ammunition for the authoritarian instincts of governing elites by playing up to the idea of a criminal subset distinguishable from the rest of the population; (2) authoritarian states and conservative media outlets engineer ‘moral panics’ to justify excessive intrusion into the lives of the poor and excluded; (3) the criminal justice system is an artefact of elite power used to maintain the status quo and keep the lower orders in their place (Hall, 2012). In many cases, the development and proliferation of such ideas has its roots in a populist appeal to libertarian ideals, which assert that social regulation conforms us to the worldview of a power elite whilst criminalising those who refuse to fall in line. 

If we take the example of cultural criminology, for instance, much of the associated research output almost seamlessly lines up with this vaguely Foucauldian perspective. In Jeff Ferrell’s (1999) terms, cultural criminology draws on pop-cultural constructions of crime and control to explore the interplay between power, representation and the ‘deviance’ of subordinate groups. It works on the assumption that there is nothing intrinsically criminal about most censured interactions and that, in order for a ‘crime’ to exist, what is needed, first and foremost, is a powerful group with a political interest in censuring a previously neutral form of social interaction. With these concepts in mind, cultural criminologists routinely follow a theoretical narrative straight out of the 1960's, which moves with all haste from the observation of initial, often low-level, deviance through moralistic reactions dictated by conservative elites, to the assertion that this reaction perpetuates and deepens initial deviance by closing off legitimate opportunities and forcing affected individuals to internalise their newfound ‘folk devil’ status. In the case of graffiti writing, for instance, Ferrell et al (2008) recently suggested that attempts to gentrify urban environments lead to crackdowns on street artists which proceed from their portrayal as uncultured vandals threatening the social and economic life of the city to an increasingly forceful criminal justice response.

While it is often necessary to ignore the ‘radical’ libertarian themes that filter into, if not openly structure, a great deal of the theoretical work in the censure tradition – with a deft flick of the pen it is very easy and thus quite common for censure theorists to move from analyses of inequitable representation to breathless proclamations of overtly political ‘deviance’ redolent of the Maquis – a moderate appreciation of the interplay between power, representation, criminality and justice has undoubtedly produced much of value. In the course of the last few decades these ideas have made a number of telling and highly insightful contributions to criminological theory and our disciplinary understanding of criminal justice systems. We might point, for example, to a fairly thoroughgoing understanding of what happens when young people find themselves wound up with the criminal justice system, the impact of youth detention on recidivism and the potential advantages of diversion over prosecution, punishment and incarceration.

With even a cursory glance over the criminological research literature it is immediately clear that our current approach to youth offending fails to reduce re-offending in a substantial majority of subjects. Depending on crime, type of sentence, length of incarceration and a host of other factors reoffending rates in the 18-and-under offender age-category range, on average, from 68 to 75 percent within one year of conviction or release. In other words, once young people find themselves wound up with the criminal justice system to the extent of attracting anything from a minor community disposal up to full-blown custody, it is distinctly unlikely that they will desist from offending in the near future. While there are undoubtedly many different practical reasons for youthful recidivism – lack of support, missed schooling and unstable home lives to name but a few – we might suggest that censure-based theories provide a very clear explanations for why this might be the case. If pushing young offenders through the justice system fails to attenuate the likelihood of reoffending it is surely at least partially due to the ongoing effects of the associated ‘label’, its impact on life chances and friendship groups, and the ways in which criminal records, combined with local knowledge, close off legitimate opportunities. In this light, we already go some way to diverting young people from the full attention of the criminal justice system that seem to have led to a substantial fall in the population of young offender institutes. Most importantly, however, this adoption of the idea that a punitive approach is not always the best option arguably provides a concrete illustration of censure’s enduring contribution to criminology.

With this in mind it seems fairly reasonable to suggest that the criminology of censure has made a number of important and no doubt long-lasting contributions to the social scientific understanding of criminality and criminal justice. If we ignore radical criminology’s extremist libertarian assertion that criminals are proto-political folk heroes engaged in creative resistance to stultifying normality, we can say that it has lead to a much clearer picture of representation of deviant groups, criminal justice censure and the ‘problem of crime’. In some quarters, however, there is an increasingly forceful assertion that a crucial aspect of the discipline may have got lost amid our collective haste to engage with these exciting possibilities.

Rehabilitating motivation

In the last few years the assertion that our discipline has concentrated on problems of censure and social reaction at the expense of a more holistic picture of crime and deviance has become increasingly commonplace. With the assertion that legal prohibition, social control and conservative censure account for a substantial proportion of the apparent crime explosion, it seems as though criminology focused its efforts in this direction. In the process, the discipline has arguably become something of a lopsided, imbalanced affair that no longer offers a holistic, social-scientific picture of crime and deviance. It largely seems to be missing the side of the discipline that addresses issue of causation, that asks questions along the lines of ‘what drives the infliction of harm?’ or ‘why do some people, groups and corporations feel it necessary to wreak physical, emotional and financial injury on the lives of others?’ In the estimation of a growing number of criminologists, the discipline seems to lack a developed perspective on criminal causation beyond that offered by censure’s libertarian preoccupation with state power and conservative discourse. It comes back to the old joke still doing the rounds amongst the other social sciences, that ‘if you want to understand crime, it’s best not to ask a criminologist’ because what comes out is a critique of representation in which crime is a myth conjured into the public consciousness by authoritarian conservatives.

In this respect, our theories of censure seem perfectly functional. Politicians and news media corporations most certainly misrepresent the reality of crime on a fairly regular basis, frequently with very clear policy goals in mind. Amid the amassed output of UK crime discourse, for instance, it is not uncommon for serving cabinet ministers to baldly state that ‘seventy percent of all crime’ results directly from the trade in illegal narcotics (see Stevens, 2011). In light of the criminology of censure, such assertions arguably resemble quite a transparent attempt to ensure the ideational validity of current drug policy in a way that appeals to public fears over factual realism which then feeds into the radical liberal assertion that ‘the state’ uses such narratives to illegitimately oppress free-thinking drug users.

What this does not do, at least not to any substantial degree, is exactly what was once the main focus of the Durkheimian/Chicago tradition and the resultant ‘sociology of deviance’. While the sociology of censure is undoubtedly in rude health having cemented its position as a mainstay of the criminology journals, not to mention the rest of the discipline’s amassed research output, the same cannot be said for analysis of criminal motivation. As a result of censure’s dominance and its portrayal as ‘modern’ criminological theory on many undergraduate courses, critical discussion of relationships between social ideals, observed circumstances and criminality have been allowed to atrophy and decay to the point that it is often confined to “a dismissive aside in undergraduate texts or a sporadic volley launched from a disgruntled Mertonian or a lonely neo-Marxist” (Hall & Winlow, 2007: 83). The great problem with censure’s dominance is that it has very little to do with the social-scientific investigation of the ideological forces – beliefs, ideals, common understandings, philosophies of social life, and, above all, social morality – that arguably drive people into criminality. What’s missing from the censure-based narrative of radical agency censured by prevailing conservative morality is the vital social-psychological subject of ideology, the idea that ‘criminals’ are enmeshed within ideological structures that drive their offending. It is, in other words, missing a detailed perspective on “why individuals or corporate bodies are willing to risk the infliction of harm on others in order to further their own instrumental or expressive interests” (Hall, 2012: 1) that does not automatically appeal to the principles of radical libertarian philosophy. 

What criminology needs, alongside continued emphasis on problems of representation, is a theory of motivation. It needs a set of sociologically grounded but philosophically and psycho-socially literate appreciations of the relationship between ideology, morality and the infliction of physical, emotional or financial harm in the pursuit of self-interest. It needs to understand what Weber might have called the ‘spirit of criminality’, the significant ideational context that helps to justify or otherwise generate violent, acquisitive and exploitative interactions, not to mention its possible relationship with prevailing ethical principles. 

The need for a criminological theory of motivation, it should be said, doesn’t come out of a radical change in criminality so much as the observation that the discipline still relies quite significantly on serviceable but neglected and frequently dismissed ideas from the first half of the twentieth century. While British society has changed quite markedly since the first half of the twentieth century, particularly with reference to the neoliberal transformation since the nineteen-eighties, the ‘return to motivation’ does not suggest a radical change in criminality so much as the need to supplement censure with a more critical appreciation of criminal causation. It is not so much that the driving forces of crime have changed in the last century or so – it is likely still driven by greed, stupidity, lust, envy, jealousy, power fantasies and so on – but that criminology seems to have got out of the way of talking about this problem and instead dedicated much of its research time and effort to the promotion of an explicitly libertarian take on the world. 

It is still very early days in a development that has the potential to rebalance criminological research by supplementing our healthy and entirely sustainable distance from the tone of crime discourse with a more critical perspective on criminal causation that goes beyond social censure to ask why crime happens. In this way, criminology might actually offer detailed, considered explanations of why some young people fall into criminality instead of simply decrying their treatment whilst dismissing their offences as individualist reactions to an exclusive, censorious system. Once again, it’s not as if these explanations do not already exist but that we are lacking a comprehensive engagement with the psychosocial, cultural and ideological forces at play. 

Conclusion: rebalancing criminology

The ‘return to motivation’, as Hall et al. (2008) term the above developments, is not an exercise in replacing the old with the new so much as an attempt to rebalance the discipline. It proceeds from the assertion that the sheer prevalence of censure-based interpretations of crime and broader social reactions, their appeal to generations of students and resultant monopolisation of publication space and research funding have turned the discipline of criminology into a slightly lopsided, imbalanced affair. The dominance of censure, it is suggested, privileges one side of the criminal equation to the detriment of a balanced perspective that may prove equally research generative and just as insightful if it is afforded the space to flourish.  

While the development of censure-based criminological theory out of the symbolic interactionism of the 1960's undoubtedly proved to be an insightful and worthwhile evolution that led in exciting new directions, its assent to the status of dominant perspective and tendency to overshadow a more motivation-centred approach has led us to exploring one fork in the road at the expense of another that might prove just as fruitful. It is a concentration of resources that is no longer sustainable if criminology wishes to maintain its position as one of few expanding social sciences in the current environment of higher education. It is perhaps useful to think of the discipline of criminology as a bird that, for the last few decades, has had one of its wings quite severely clipped. Although criminology has undoubtedly prospered in that time – who, in 1970, would have seriously considered the possibility of specific degree programmes – it has done so in such a way that it forever seems to be turning in the same direction, constantly discovering new illustrations of moral panic theory, new examples of conservative oppression and yet more instances of criminal agency as political dissent.

The ultimate point of the ‘return to motivation’, at least at this early stage, is that it is an attempt to rebalance criminology, to push beyond the autonomic resort to radical libertarian interpretations of the world by exploring the relationship between prevailing ideals and criminal ideation. It is an attempt to revitalise the discipline’s avian stature, to give it the possibility of flying in more than one direction by allowing the new ‘criminology of motivation’ the space and scope to flourish. It is no longer sufficient for criminology to offer a detailed and wide-ranging ‘sociology of censure’ to return to Sumner’s lexicon. The discipline desperately needs to complement this established disposition with a clear-sighted appraisal of the ethical principles behind what Garland (2001) memorably termed ‘high-crime societies’. 


Ferrell, J (1999) ‘Cultural Criminology’. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, pp. 395-418.

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K & Young, J (2008) Cultural Criminology: An Invitation London: Sage.

Garland, D (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, S (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage.

Hall, S & Winlow, S (2007) ‘Cultural Criminology and Primitive Accumulation: A Formal Introduction for Two Strangers who should really become more intimate’. Crime, Media, Culture, 3 (1), pp. 82–90.

Hall, S, Winlow, S. &  Ancrum, C (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan.

Stevens, A (2011) ‘Are Drugs to Blame?’. Criminal Justice Matters, 83 (1), pp. 24-5.

Sumner, C (1994) The Sociology of Deviance: An Obituary. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mark Horsley is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, UK. His research interests include social and criminological theory, consumer culture, the debt industry, international finance and corporate crime. He completed his Ph.D. in June 2013 at University of Teesside. This project is now heading for publication with Ashgate as The Dark Side of Prosperity: Late Capitalism’s Debt Culture.


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