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Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

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1.2 Power and inequality in the study of social harm

In the last activity you considered critically the idea that ‘crime’ becomes taken for granted. This may, in turn, may mean that people cooperate in accepting what is and is not defined as a crime, conforming to particular norms and in the process reinforcing expectations about how we can and should behave. For critical criminologists, the focus is often less on measuring crime and its causes, and more on how occurrences and activities acquire the status of ‘crime’. By implication this means that the reasons that some activities or events are not classed as crime are also the focus of attention of some criminologists. Related to this are questions about who and what become the focus of criminal investigation and activity, and what people and which do not.

These issues are also important in social harm approaches. However, they move beyond criminology in arguing that social harm itself should be the focus of attention rather than simply asking why some activities and events are classified as crimes and others are not. Zemiology raises wider questions beyond the definition of criminality, such as how harm can be measured, why some harmful actions may be seen positively and how a focus on social harm can be used to promote social justice. This in turn raises questions about who may be seen as responsible for causing harm, and also about situations where there may not appear to be obvious ‘perpetrators’ but the way in which social life is organised still results in social harm. These issues also raise questions about power and about the role of states and other institutions, including local, national and global corporations, in producing and responding to harms.

For zemiologists, one area of investigation is the power of certain actors to influence how harm is regarded and what responses are taken. Inequalities of power can prevent the recognition of what is harmful, or can restrict attempts to mitigate or tackle the harm caused. This can cause other inequalities, for example by restricting the life chances of people who have been harmed by the operation of the criminal justice system itself. (This will be discussed in Section 4.)

Central to the social harm approach, then, is the idea that to focus on ‘crime’ is problematic, and potentially misguided. Instead, it is argued that focusing on ‘harm’ would allow us to better understand and respond social problems, and potentially to prevent harms from occurring.

As you continue with this course you will be learning about zemiology, the social harm approach, through two particular lenses:

  • the role of ‘the global’ in locally occurring harms, including consideration of the role of corporations and states (often referred to as ‘crimes of the powerful’)
  • the role of inequalities and power.

To do this you will look at examples occurring in different places and considered global in nature. Some of the examples will concern harms impacting across borders, while other kinds of harms may be seen as producing gains for some parts of society, particularly in states or regions of the world less likely to be impacted by those harms.

You’ll begin with Hurricane Katrina and use a social harm approach as a way of seeing how we might understand and respond to social problems triggered by ‘natural’ phenomena such as impacts from meteorological and seismic events.