Researching crimes of the powerful
In ‘Unmasking the crimes of the powerful’ (2003), critical criminologists, Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte examine the practical difficulties associated with researching crimes of the powerful. In particular, they illustrate how the activities of researching critically and speaking with a dissenting voice can be accompanied by significant challenges. Indeed, the relative lack of significant amounts of research on corporate or state crime, argue Tombs and Whyte, is no coincidence.
Tombs and Whyte outline a number of barriers that have made it difficult to research the powerful.
1. Funders of research often set research agendas, which may consequently limit or prescribe the directions of research activity. This has a number of subsidiary consequences, such as the drive for evaluative or policy-led research. It may also mean that research only gets commissioned to answer questions of short-term practical utility, resulting in less research that is concerned with ‘academic’ questions about broader theoretical or social processes. Furthermore, as universities become more concerned with increasing their research funding revenues, academic pursuits may be channelled solely into avenues that seek to satisfy the interests of particular research funders. This may call into question the extent to which academic freedom is able to flourish.
2. In relation to the specific issue of researching corporate crime, it is difficult to secure funding for this research area in particular. Private corporations are not generally interested in funding research that may produce results critical of their practice.
3. Even if funding is somehow secured or a researcher is in a position to fund the research him or herself, the difficulties of gaining access to powerful corporations or state bodies can prevent the research from taking place.
4. If research in these areas does yield evidence of harm or impropriety on the part of the state, a corporation, or individual representatives of either, it can be difficult for critical researchers to disseminate their research to the public. They may face opposition from the bodies they have researched, who have little difficulty raising the resources – be they financial or in the shape of alternative ‘expert evidence’ – to discredit, censor or otherwise challenge the research findings.
Tombs and Whyte argue that the paucity of research on the powerful challenges the supposedly ‘value-neutral’ position of university and state-funded research councils. Further, they point out that ‘much of the research conducted in western liberal democracies … is highly partisan in the first place’ (p. 230). Tombs and Whyte illuminate the fact that ‘a lack of objectivity is a feature of all forms of research, despite the fact that this is rarely acknowledged by those who conduct official research … The historical development of the social sciences has been inseparable from partisanship, never value-neutral …’ (p. 229–30). This returns us to the critical project of questioning dominant ideologies and the embedded nature of power structures in the way we think about social problems, crime and justice, as the following audio illustrates.