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Critical criminology and the social sciences
Critical criminology and the social sciences

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2.1 What does it mean to be critical?

Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically … People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge-players, or pianists.

(Mander, 1947, p. 6)

As the above quotation suggests, critical thinking is a learned skill. According to René Van Swaaningen, the ‘adjective “critical” has gradually become the demarcating line for scholars who oppose the utilitarian ethos that subordinates criminology to law and order interests’ (Van Swaaningen, 1999, pp. 24–5).

This shows birds sitting on 4 power lines. One bird is on the left and all the other birds are grouped to the right.
Figure 3

But what does this mean? It means that being critical includes being curious, sceptical, and prepared to challenge the underlying assumptions and accepted rationales of the criminal justice system and their taken-for-granted nature. It means being prepared to ask such questions as:

  • How might we think about crime differently?
  • Do the law, police, the courts and prisons have to operate the way they do?
  • Could ‘justice’ be conceived in other ways?

Being critical is partly about considering and representing the side of the economically and socially marginalised (Becker, 1963). It is a position that seeks to promote social inclusion, equality and human rights. Critical criminology often finds its explanations for criminal activity in the unequal distribution of power and wealth in society and the resultant class, ethnic and gender discrimination. The official discourses about crime, like other areas of social life, are viewed by critical criminologists as constructed through contexts of racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism.

Being critical is about much more than suggesting cosmetic or surface-level changes to existing crime-control regimes. To be a ‘critical criminologist’ is to seek out and highlight injustice, and to question the processes and practices on which laws are constructed, enforced and implemented. It is not merely tinkering with the existing system of justice and offering administrative changes to practice. It includes serious questioning of the ideological and political foundations on which crime is defined, enforced, processed and responded to.