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

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2.4 Hurricane Katrina and the social harm approach

In the social harm approach, attention is drawn to a number of problems with a legalistic approach for how we understand and respond to events such as Hurricane Katrina (Matthews and Kauzlarich, 2007). For example, it is argued that, historically, it has proven very difficult to prosecute organizations, like states, for criminal offences as criminal law typically focuses on individual actors, while the harmful actions of collective entities, such as states or corporations, are rarely viewed as crimes or sanctioned as such. It can also be argued that the focus on individual, legalistic approaches leaves little space for considering the broader social and political contexts in which harms occur.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, a legalistic approach does not take account of the structural inequality which can be seen to have played a key role in causing disadvantaged social groups to experience harm. As suggested by evidence previously cited, inequalities in resources were crucial in determining who could avoid the most serious consequences of the hurricane and who could not. A legalistic approach may also not take account of harms resulting from the inadequacy of responses by the state even where it was acting within the law. Inequalities in power were arguably important in determining which groups were able to get assistance from the state and which were not. This might also mean that even where there are legal mechanisms for pursuing support or compensation, inequality might make access to such legal mechanisms difficult or impossible for some people.

A focus on social harm is argued by zemiologists to be more useful as it draws attention to the problematic assumptions underlying legalistic approaches and criminology as a whole. A social harm approach also encourages the consideration of a broad range of acts which result in harm, and the structures which facilitate them, whether or not they breach any formal law. Taking this approach could not only enable the recognition of harms (including those not formally classified as ‘crimes’), but also potentially identify or recommend new policies and practices to tackle the underlying structural violence.

Described image
Figure 5 A protester against the demolition of public housing in New Orleans, 13 December 2007 in Washington D.C.

Activity 4 Reflecting on a legalistic versus social harm approach

Having considered both the legalistic and social harm approaches to studying disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, reflect on the questions shown below, making notes in the box provided. You may find it helpful to review Figure 5 (shown above this activity) of a demonstration in New Orleans in 2007, and the following two quotations from the news media:

Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina said Tuesday that racism contributed to the slow disaster response, at times likening themselves in emotional congressional testimony to victims of genocide and the Holocaust.

(NBC, 2005)

Ten months after the [sic] Katrina, at least 80 percent of public housing in New Orleans remains closed. Six of ten of the largest public housing developments in the city are shuttered, with the other four in various states of repair. Fewer than 1,000 of the 5,100 families who lived in the older housing developments before the storm have returned, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

(Sasser, 2006)
  • What kinds of harms would seem to be evidenced from this image and the extracts?
  • How might these be interpreted as ‘structural violence’?
  • What might be the advantages of examining some of these harms as potential ‘state crimes’?
  • Do you think that there are any limitations of the social harm approach?
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As previously, there is no right or wrong answer. However, it could be argued that both approaches have advantages as well as disadvantages. All three pieces of evidence shown above (the photo and the two quotations) suggest significant concerns about inequality and justice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that would suggest that there was some awareness about the problems faced by victims, particularly black victims. For example, there was concern about the length of time it took before some poorer victims were able to return to New Orleans, and there were even accusations of genocide as a result of claims that many former residents were unable to move back due to rebuilding and gentrification (also referred to as ‘the war on the poor’ in the protestor poster). It could be argued that a legalistic approach, for example in terms of alleged state crimes, had the potential to bring those responsible for the suffering of poor communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to justice and to provide compensation. On the other hand, the social harm approach could be seen as useful for highlighting an alternative approach to justice which draws attention to wider inequalities (within but also beyond the city of New Orleans) and the harms that were suffered as a result of these inequalities. This approach also raises questions about the legitimacy of political and social systems which fail to address what Galtung has termed ‘structural violence’, for example, in failing to effectively combat racism or to either protect or replace the housing of the more disadvantaged neighbourhoods of New Orleans.