Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Beyond 'So What?' Criminology

Roger Matthews, (2009) Beyond ‘so what?’ criminology: Rediscovering Realism, Theoretical Criminology, 13(3), 341-362

The Differential Association article of choice this month was Roger Matthews’ pointed critique of criminology, Beyond ‘so what?’ criminology: Rediscovering Realism. Matthews’ 2009 article was chosen following his barnstorming turn as a plenary speaker at the 9th North South Criminology Conference, held this year in University College Cork. Matthews, as conference opener, provoked a conversation which continued to echo in overheard conversations for the two days of the conference, and indeed beyond, as is ably proved by this blog entry. His critique of the discipline, and his diagnosis that there was an ailment afflicting criminology, seemed to divide the delegates. At the conference he expressed disappointment that the argument, originally expressed in this 2009 article had, as yet, received no response.

Matthews’ thesis hinges on a three-pronged critique of criminology, judging the problem with the discipline to be a lack of theoretical integrity, lack of methodological rigour and a lack of policy relevance.

The term used by Matthews, ‘So what?’ criminology, is one gleaned from Elliot Currie’s 2007 article, Against Marginality: Arguments for a Public Criminology. It refers to highly technical and quantitative criminological research, which takes as its starting-point previous studies of a similar nature, and which therefore tends to become increasingly and alarmingly niche and irrelevant. Currie argued that this infinite regression of reference points rendered such studies beyond the interest and comprehension of lay persons, rendering it opaque to many criminologists as well.

Much of Matthews’ article hinges on the idea of public criminology. Matthews cites Currie’s call for active engagement by academics with policy-makers and the public, and a chance to engage in dialogue. He also cites the speech of Michael Burawoy while President of the American Sociological Association, in which he also argued for a public sociology. Burawoy advanced the notion of a division of labour within the discipline, something that Matthews does not.

Matthews' tripartite examination appears to suggest that the application of a sound theoretical foundation and the use of appropriate and suitable methodologies to criminological research will, of itself, herald greater policy relevance. This depiction lacks some appreciation of the realities of how political structures and administrative procedures shape the policy-making process. How, and to what degree, expert-led knowledge trickles into policy-making is a full area of study in itself. First, there is the problem of cultural translation as research moves from the academic occupational space to the sites of policy-making. No matter how rigorous criminology is, theoretically and methodologically, this data is often stripped to make it fit for political purpose. That political/policy purpose is in turn shaped by the policy-making culture and institutional rules, all of which mediate how such data is received and understood and filtered into policy. Secondly, the demands of the policy-maker and the responsibilities which underpin their work can vary between policy-making contexts, their requirements are, however, always more varied than needing to be just expert-led. Thus, and increasingly, criminological knowledge is often just another voice in the cacophony of equally vested interests such as victims groups, community activists, criminal justice occupational groups such as the POA, economists, human rights groups and the public voice more generally. This is not to say criminology should not have a place at the table, but the aim is to bring into view the tension and complexity which characterises political engagement. In addition, this problematises the idea that criminology is outside these sites of power simply because we lack underpinning theory and methodological rigour.

Matthews’ call for rigour in theory and method is a noble one, its aims inevitably desirable goals, and we should welcome the debate on the current state of research. Before research is conducted, that which is being researched should be fully understood and conceptually situated. Matthews attempts to draw a line between those who do not problematise the issue of crime, and those who go too far and deny its ontological reality; in the latter category Matthew's has created something of a straw man of social constructionism, an edifice which is then deftly pulled apart by the author. His omission of feminist methodological writings is also something of an oversight, considering his focus on the notions of truth and objectivity which proliferate throughout scientific empirical criminology. Feminist researchers were in the vanguard of the critique of the reductive approach to criminology that Matthews condemns.

The article is critical of the perceived missed opportunities of liberal criminologists following the decline of conservative influence towards the end of the twentieth-century/early twenty-first. Matthews argues that for so long the liberal school defined itself so thoroughly in opposition to conservatives, who held sway throughout the 1980s and 1990s, that when this power waned, liberal criminologists were mute. Matthews argues that their more benign policies, directed towards education and healthcare, were somewhat optimistic and toothless. From his critical realist position, Matthews argues that such policies denied the powerful and negative impact of crime. He situates this as part of the legacy of liberal influence, citing the downfall of penal welfarism as a further unintended consequence of a liberal criminology that was bereft of ideas, but content to produce studies which derided the claims of individualised justice and sentencing to reduce crime, without producing alternative policy ideas.

It seems trite to say that Matthews’ article was thought-provoking. It challenges assumptions within the academy and urges its reader to rethink fundamental conceptions and understandings. By the end, however, the most important question of all feels fundamentally unanswered: where to from here? After the plenary some of us mentioned the desire to engage Matthews in an appreciative inquiry (Liebling, 2004) – what is criminology’s best practice? What work highlights the exciting promise of this discipline? What can we hope for criminology? In moving beyond 'so what criminology', we need to move beyond only viewing criminology's negative characteristics. Surely the situation is more hopeful than this plenary portrayed.

Matthews may be a proselytiser for our conversion to critical realism, but such an approach seems too imperialist to create a truly engaged and reflexive discipline. Consequently, what appeared at the outset to be a call to arms for criminology, may instead be a recruiting call for critical realism. However it behoves criminologists to regularly pose the questions highlighted by Matthews, albeit with the awareness that many will come up with different answers.

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