Summary and Keywords
There is no single critical criminology. Rather, there are critical criminologies with different histories, methods, theories, and political perspectives. However, critical criminology is often defined as a perspective that views the major sources of crime as the unequal class, race/ethnic, and gender relations that control our society. Critical criminologists oppose prisons and other draconian means of social control. Their main goal is major radical and cultural change, but they recognize that these transitions will not occur in the current neoliberal era. Hence, most critical criminologists propose short-term anticrime policies and practices and fundamental social, economic, and political transformations, such as a change from a capitalist economy to one based on more socialist principles.
Until the mid-1980s, critical criminology was mainly informed by strands of Marxist thought and was labeled radical criminology. There are now at least 15 types of critical criminology and new ones will likely emerge. All critical criminologists do not think alike, follow a party line, or speak with the same voice. What binds them together is what Elliott Currie (2008) refers to as “a willingness to apply a critical line not only to the work of their more conventional counterparts in the discipline but their own as well” (p. vii). This article reviews critical criminologies that have different origins, use multiple methods, and reflect diverse political beliefs.
Critical Criminology Defined
Arguably, the term critical criminology was coined by Taylor, Walton, and Young (1973b). Although the term has been in use for more than 40 years, many criminologists are not exactly sure what it means. This applies not only to scholars who are not critical criminologists but to people who are firmly embedded in the tradition. To make matters more complicated, there are various definitions of critical criminology and there is no widely accepted precise formulation (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018b). Yet, as Friedrichs (2009) observes, “the unequal distribution of power and material resources within contemporary societies provides a point of departure for all strains of critical criminology” (p. 210).
Critical criminology is an international project that constitutes a polyglot of concepts, theories, and interpretations of crime, deviance, and social control (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014). The various types of critical criminology can be summed up as perspectives that view crime as:
rooted in economic, social and political inequalities, along with social class divisions, racism and hate, and other forms of segmented social organization, reinforced and rationalized by culturally derived relativistic definitions of conforming, deviant, and criminal actions, which separate, segregate, and otherwise cause governments at all levels everywhere to differentially and discriminately enforce laws and punish offenders.
(Donnermeyer, 2012, p. 289)
In other words, critical criminology is a perspective that views the major sources of crime and social control as the unequal class, race/ethnic, and gender relations that control our society (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018b; Young, 1988). There are five key questions that, when taken together, indicate the general direction that critical criminologists take. Certainly, some scholars outside the tradition ask some of these questions, and even more certainly, the list omits some tremendously important questions for critical criminologists. The five questions are:
1. Who has the real power in society?
2. Do those who wield power and authority get away with murder—both literally and figuratively?
3. What do social class, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality have to do with crime and deviance?
4. Why are so many of the crimes in which the powerful specialize exempt from the purview of criminal law?
5. Are people well informed or misled about the nature of crime? (Lynch & Groves, 1989, p. viii)
Many critical criminologists are also interested in the same questions as other criminologists: Why do some people rape, commit robbery, commit violence against women they are intimate with, steal cars, and consume and distribute illegal drugs? Moreover, some critical criminologists borrow concepts from mainstream theories, such as relative deprivation and subculture (Cohen, 1955; Merton, 1938). However, the most important difference between orthodox and critical criminologists is that the latter do not look at flaws in the makeup of the individual actor, but rather at the flaws in the makeup of a society that produces and sustains such people. Another key difference is that critical criminologists broaden the definition of crime to include such socially injurious behaviors as racism, poverty, unemployment, sexism, imperialism, inadequate social services (such as housing, day care, education, and medical care), corporate wrongdoings, and state terrorism (such as the torturing of inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; DeKeseredy, 2018b; Elias, 1986; Reiman & Leighton, 2016; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1975).
Critical criminology is much more than a theoretical or political enterprise. It also involves research on myriad crimes. Critical criminologists use a variety of data collection methods, including survey technology, ethnography, biography, narrative, and deconstruction (DeKeseredy, 2015a; Lynch, Michalowski, & Groves, 2000). Regardless of the methods used, most of the topics examined by critical criminologists are typically ignored by mainstream criminology. Even when they are investigated by orthodox researchers, the data generated almost always disregard the ways in which macrolevel determinants shape crime and societal reactions. Consider violence against women. Many of the recent authors in the field are based in psychology, psychiatry, nursing, and medicine (DeKeseredy, 2016; DeKeseredy & Rennison, 2019; Jordan, 2009). These disciplines tend to focus more on individuals and lose sight of the ways in which broader social, cultural, political, and economic forces contribute to rape, image-based sexual abuse, stalking, beatings, and other forms of woman abuse (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018d).
Another major difference between critical and orthodox criminologists is that critical scholars do not shy away from publicly revealing their politics. They rarely hide their disquiet with what Mills (1959) refers to as abstracted empiricism (e.g., research divorced from theory) or with scientific inquiry that is divorced from a concern with gender, race, the political economy, and social forces. Conservative criminologists such as Wright and DeLisis (2016) try to disguise their politics by portraying themselves as completely objective and scientific. Whereas criminologists of every political stripe commonly denounce scholarship from other camps and advance their own perspective, most critical criminologists openly deny that science can be completely objective and value-free (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018b). What Wright and DeLisi (2016) and many other mainstream criminologists fail to recognize is that they are also engaged in a process of ideological activism that attempts to advance their own political agenda (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2007). They are concerned that academics are making political statements by their choice of topic and methodology but fail to understand that this also applies to themselves. Critical criminologists assert that it is as much a political act to leave race, gender, class and economic influences out of one’s study as it is to include them (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2017).
Contemporary critical criminology originated in the United States and the United Kingdom (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018b; Michalowski, 2012; Mooney, 2012), but the field is now characterized by international collaboration and intellectual cross-fertilization. What Schwendinger, Schwendinger, and Lynch (2008) refer to as “compatible perspectives” are also found in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden (Ugwudike, 2015). Cultural criminology is a chief example of intellectual and political cross-fertilization because those who work in this tradition are based on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom (e.g., Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). Prior to Jock Young’s “gravitation towards cultural criminology” (Hayward, 2010, p. 265) and the present author’s move from Canada to the United States, left realism was another major example of an international intellectual endeavor. Scholars based in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom developed a vibrant international partnership that culminated in many books and journal articles (e.g., DeKeseredy & Currie, 2019; DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2018). Studies on left realism are now mainly based in the United States, but Roger Matthews (2009, 2014, 2016), one of its original proponents, is trying to “reignite” left realism in the United Kingdom (Ugwudike, 2015).
All critical criminologists share unyielding opposition to draconian means of social control, such as imprisonment and the death penalty. Rather, they regard major structural and cultural changes within society as essential to reducing crime and facilitating social justice. However, especially in the current neoliberal era, critical scholars know that major economic, political, and social transformations will not soon occur in patriarchal capitalist societies, particularly in the United States. Hence, they propose a range of short-term progressive initiatives that chip away at the inequitable status quo. Their short-term efforts constitute an international movement, and scholars based at institutions of higher learning around the world have teamed up to craft strategies for challenging the rise of right-wing populism (see DeKeseredy & Currie, 2019).
Critical criminologists are not the only ones who call for progressive short-term strategies to reduce crime. Some initiatives informed by so-called strain theorists (e.g., Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Merton, 1938) are also designed to maximize educational and employment opportunities. Left realism, for example, is well known in the field for advancing strategies such as a higher minimum wage and state-sponsored, affordable, and quality healthcare (Currie, 2018; DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2018).
In sum, metaphorically speaking, critical criminologists throw bricks through establishment or mainstream criminological windows (Young, 1998). “Resolutely sociological in orientation” (Carrington & Hogg, 2008, p. 5), critical criminology is no longer at the margins and the vast amount of publications in the field provide strong support for this claim. There is a large global audience hungry for alternative criminological ways of knowing (see DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2012, 2018b). As noted by Walton and Young (1998):
Radical criminology … has since (1973) proliferated, developed, and flourished. The various currents that form its past, whether Marxist, radical feminist or anarchist, continue in fierce dispute but have in common the notion that crime and the present day processes of criminalization are rooted in the core structures of society, whether its class nature, its patriarchal form or its inherent authoritarianism. (p. vii)
Beyond Critique: Critical Criminological Research
Prior to the mid-1980s, critical criminologists devoted most of their time and energy to focusing on elite crime and deviance (Madfis & Cohen, 2016) and exposing the weaknesses of orthodox criminological theories (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2018a). There was also an absence of critical criminological work involving original data gathering and theory testing. There were, however, some salient exceptions, such as William Chambliss’s (1964, 1973a) trail-blazing study of the original vagrancy laws. He found that one of the key reasons for designing these statutes was the bubonic plague, or Black Death, that occurred at the middle of the 14th century. A cholera epidemic reduced Europe’s population by as much as 50%. Consequently, England experienced a major shortage of cheap labor. Additionally, to increase their standard of living, laborers left land estates to seek higher wages in new industrial towns and the chances of being caught were minimal at best. This created major problems for landowners because they could not offer competitive salaries. Hence, the Crown sided with landowners and created vagrancy laws that made it a criminal offence to refuse work or to leave a job without permission.
What is not widely known about this study is that it marked the start of the development of critical rural criminology (Coventry & Palmer, 2008; Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014). Chambliss did not continue down the rural critical criminological path. Perhaps if he had, a rural critical criminology would have developed much earlier. Nevertheless, he helped motivate a growing number of rural critical criminologists to follow in his footsteps (DeKeseredy, 2015b).
Two more important critical criminological studies conducted by Chambliss (1973b) warrant brief attention. For two years, he observed two groups of high school students in the United States: the Saints (middle-class) and Roughnecks (working-class). Chambliss made two key observations. First, the rate of delinquency in both groups was roughly equal. Second, whereas not one Saint was arrested for the various delinquent and criminal activities (truancy, dangerous driving, vandalism, petty theft) in which they engaged, the Roughnecks were constantly in trouble with the police and community.
Today, most criminological discussions on ethnographic work focus mainly on studies of socially and economically excluded youth in conflict with the law. Alice Goffman’s (2014) Philadelphia study is a prime example. Yet, if you asked people today if they are aware of a critical ethnographic study of crimes of the powerful, such as corporations illegally dumping toxic waste, it is likely that fewer than a handful of young or early scholars would mention Chambliss’s (1978, 1988) On the Take: From Petty Crooks to Presidents. Perhaps the best description of this book and the data presented in it is found on the back cover of the second edition:
From bagman to businessman, from pusher to politician, this is the story of the billion-dollar rip off built on such criminal activities as gambling, drugs, usury, and graft. … Chambliss shows how local crime networks are connected to national business and political interests in a shocking expose of crime, business, and politics in America.
This ethnography done in Seattle was among the first undertaken by critical criminologists to effectively challenge the erroneous claim that the critical criminological “literature is characterized by too many ideas and not enough systematic research and that most empirical studies are illustrative of, but do not actually test the theory” (Kubrin, Stuckey, & Krohn, 2009, p. 239; emphasis in original). What is more, critical criminological research has flourished since Chambliss conducted his groundbreaking studies. For example, the second edition of DeKeseredy and Dragiewicz’s (2018c) Routledge Handbook of Critical Criminology includes 22 chapters that review critical criminological empirical literature on numerous social problems, ranging from animal exploitation to human trafficking.
Contemporary critical criminology is not devoid of theory testing, and, contrary to what many mainstream criminologists assert, there are groups of critical criminologists who use quantitative methods. For example, DeKeseredy and his colleagues conducted a representative sample survey of crime victimization at a large residential college in a South Atlantic region of the United States. They tested hypotheses derived from DeKeseredy’s (1988) male peer support theory (see DeKeseredy, Hall-Sanchez, & Nolan, 2018; DeKeseredy, Hall-Sanchez, Nolan, & Schwartz, 2017; DeKeseredy, Schwartz, Nolan, Mastron, & Hall-Sanchez, 2019), which focuses on attachments to male peers and the resources they provide that perpetuate and legitimate various types of violence against women. Data accumulated over the past 32 years show that male peer support is one of the most powerful determinants of whether a male engages in physical, sexual, psychological, or digital assaults on current or former intimate female partners (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2013, 2016; Powell & Henry, 2017).
In sum, there is much empirical diversity found in critical criminological literature, which reflects the view that research methods are tools that can be used in a variety of ways to achieve a variety of goals. Consider something as simple as a shovel. It can be used to build a shelter for the homeless or a private prison that houses and punishes socially and economically excluded consumers of illegal drugs. Critical criminologists prefer using a shovel to build a shelter and use research methods to reveal how broader social forces contribute to crime and draconian means of social control.
Marxist ways of knowing dominated critical criminological thought until the mid-1980s, when criminologists developed some exciting new critical directions. In response to the emergence of these perspectives, Martin Schwartz (1991) declared that critical criminology is “infused with more energy and exciting alternatives than at any point in the past 20 years” and that “there are so many more avenues and ideas to develop” (p. 123). Critical criminologists continue to echo his words today. That more new ways of thinking critically about crime have been developed since Schwartz made his observation offers some support for the hypothesis that “the impact of critical criminology will increase exponentially in the years ahead, perhaps at some point even coming to overshadow mainstream forms of analysis” (Friedrichs, 2009, p. 217).
The goal here is not to cover the history and principles of all the variants of critical criminological thought. Rather, the most up-to-date or “cutting edge” material was selected. The absence of some research and the order in which various perspectives are addressed does not reflect a hierarchy of importance. Given the proliferation of scholarly handbooks and encyclopedias, it is likely that new works will cover the equally important critical criminological terrain not explored here.
The Return of Marx and Engels
The early Marxist critical criminological works were important for their contributions to a sociological understanding of crime and the administration of justice. Taylor, Walton, and Young’s (1973a) The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance was especially important in the development of Marxist criminology. Marxist criminological offerings faded away shortly after the mid-1980s, but the “general perspective on crime” derived from them is still relevant (Lea, 2010). Further, DeKeseredy and Dragiewicz (2014b) predicted that Marx and Engels will make a big comeback in light of major global economic crises, the rapidly increasing gap between the “haves” and “have nots,” and staggering levels of youth unemployment. Critical criminologists are, to various extents, compelled to return to the writings of Marx and Engels (Heilbroner, 1980). For example, Valeria Vegh Weis (2017) revisits the insights of Marx and Engels and challenges the dated but often stated claim made by orthodox Marxists (e.g., Hirst, 1975): that Marxist theory cannot be applied to the study of crime and law. Vegh Weis demonstrates that nothing can be further from the truth. She also contests the frequently cited declarations that Marx and Engels had very little to say about crime and that the sociology of law was little more than a secondary interest to them (Matthews, 2012; Milovanovic, 1994). Vegh Weis’s work reveals that Marx and Engels definitely did not consider these topics irrelevant.
Vegh Weis (2017) points out that critical criminologists put the concept of unfairness at the forefront of their analyses of the relationship between crime and social control, but criminal selectivity is given short shrift. She identifies three forms of criminal selectivity: “original criminal selectivity (late 15th to 18th century), disciplining criminal selectivity (late 18th to 20th century), and bulimic criminal selectivity (late 20th century to present)” (p. 1). Vegh Weis analyzes the contextual settings of these three types and demonstrates how they are expressed in two mechanisms, which she refers to as undercriminalization and overcriminalization. The targets of each variant of criminal selectivity and those in charge of selectivity are also examined, and she discusses the “the discourses that have legitimized the application of punishment in each mode of criminal selectivity (theories of punishment), as well as the latent explanations underpinning those theories” (p. 3).
Vegh Weis’s analysis of criminal selectivity is informed by the original writings of Marx and Engels, contemporary Marxist perspectives, and contemporary theories that draw from interdisciplinary studies. She argues that “a critical analysis cannot circumscribe the criminal field only to the punitive actors (the offender, the victim, law enforcement, judges, etc.) and separate it from the socioeconomic context” (Vegh Weis, 2017, p. 4). One of her most notable contributions is a historical account of the plight of peasants living in European rural areas. For example, in her analysis of original criminal selectivity, Vegh Weis notes that primitive accumulation of capital in Western Europe resulted in “expropriates and usurpations without fair compensation, destruction of homesteads and attacks against the physical integrity of the peasants, which were all perpetrated without legal grounding within the existing regulations” (p. 38).
Despite the plethora of readily available criminological research, little was known about rural crimes of the powerful and societal reactions to them within the broader academic criminological community. Vegh Weis was instrumental in bringing this to light, adding to the relatively new field of rural criminology, which sorely needs more historical research and theoretical offerings. Additionally, in her examination of bulimic criminal selectivity, she provides a sound critique of the underclass, the excluded, and the marginalized, and she makes a strong case for replacing them with the concept of modern pauperism. Informed by Marx’s (1867) concept of pauperism, Vegh Weis’s modern pauperism
avoids linking the existence of these impoverished subsets to temporary factors or to unfortunate circumstances (with the additional risk of associating their conditions to strictly voluntary decisions). It also helps preserve a material reading of the structural origins of these sectors under the capitalist production system, enabling a more enlightening reading of the systemic over-criminalization mechanisms deployed against paupers throughout capitalist history. (p. 256)
Vegh Weiss provides ample empirical support for the claim that “Marxism remains as relevant as ever for analyzing crime, criminal justice and the role of the state” (Russell, 2002, p. 113).
Though strongly influenced by the writings of Marx and Engels, left realist theory helped liberate numerous progressive criminologists from the “ideological constraints of Marxism” (Hayward, 2010, p. 264). For example, prior to the advent of left realism in the mid-1980s, most, if not all, Marxist criminologists (1) either ignored predatory street crime (e.g., mugging and armed robbery) and only examined crimes of the powerful, (2) deemed working-class crime a function of a moral panic created by the media and state to divert the public’s attention away from crimes of the powerful (e.g., white-collar and corporate crime) and the real problems of poverty, unemployment, and the like,1 or (3) romanticized working-class offenders who prey upon members of their own social class (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1996). Additionally, in the early and mid-1980s, many Marxist criminologists “shouted down” liberal mainstream criminologists (Doyle & Moore, 2011). Drawing from the work of Albert Cohen (1955), Schwartz (1991, p. 119) observes, “some of us were ‘negativistic.’” In fact, in several critical criminological circles it was heretical to speak positively about the writings of the strain theorists Cohen (1955), Coward and Ohlin (1960), and Merton (1938). The criminological theoretical world was then characterized in mainstream criminology texts as divided into two broad, dated, and oppositional categories: consensus and conflict perspectives (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2018).
Left realists took working-class crime and violence against women very seriously. This is still the case today and contemporary realists still agree with this statement made nearly 40 years by Lea and Young (1984):
Left realism notes that the working class is a victim of crime from all directions. It notes that the more vulnerable a person is economically and socially the more likely it is that both working-class and white-collar crime will occur against them; that one sort of crime tends to compound another, as does one social problem another. Furthermore, it notes that crime is a potent symbol of the antisocial nature of capitalism and is the most immediate way in which people experience other problems, such as unemployment, or competitive individualism. (pp. 23–24)
Left realists also pointed out that the correct image of street crime is that it is primarily intraclass and intraracial in nature. In other words, working-class people commit crimes against working-class people, African Americans commit crimes against African Americans, and whites commit crimes against whites. What is more, left realist theory in its original form helped put “an end to the criminological cold war and the facile oppositions of the 1970s and early 1980s” (Rock, 1992, p. xi). For instance, left realists sensitized critical criminologists to the fact that consensus or middle-range theories (e.g., strain perspectives) that were attacked for ignoring class and gender have useful constructs when combined with critical insight. Lea and Young (1984), for example, borrowed ideas from Merton (1938) and Cohen (1955), and were intrigued by the effects of relative deprivation and the formation of subcultures that fostered crime. Lea and Young argued that it is not absolute deprivation but relative deprivation that causes political discontent and leads to crime. They also maintained that people lacking legitimate means of solving the problem of relative deprivation may come into contact with other frustrated, disenfranchised people and from subcultures, which, in turn, encourage and legitimate criminal behaviors. Due in large part to this theory, a growing number of critical criminologists “are now more eclectic and open, no longer self-enclosed, no longer refusing ‘bourgeois’ criminology and its works as irredeemably corrupted” (Rock, 1992, p. xi).
Left realism has taken several new theoretical directions since its birth. For example, to build on Lea and Young’s (1984) early theory, DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2010) maintain that criminogenic subcultural development in North America and elsewhere is heavily shaped by the devastating consequences of right-wing Friedman or Chicago School economic policies and marginalized men’s attempts to live up to the principles of what Connell (1995) calls hegemonic masculinity (e.g., show toughness and aggression, avoid all things feminine, etc.). Violence against women, an issue absent from Lea and Young’s (1984) work, is also addressed in DeKeseredy and Schwartz’s left realist offering.
There is also contemporary left realist theoretical work on terrorism (Gibbs, 2010), antifeminist fathers’ rights groups activism (Dragiewicz, 2010), crime and social control in rural places (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2008, 2014), and on the troubles of middle-class youth (Currie, 2004). Additionally there are “points of agreement” between left realism and cultural criminology (Matthews, 2014). Jock Young (2013) was very optimistic about the creation of what Matthews (2014) called a cultural realism. However, it has yet to come to fruition.
Cultural criminology is heavily influenced by the writings of U.S. labeling theorists (Becker, 1973; Lemert, 1951), British youth and subcultural theorists (Hall & Jefferson, 1976; Willis, 1977), moral panic theory (Cohen, 1980; Young, 1971), and the “new criminologists” of the early 1970s, such as Taylor, Walton, and Young (1973). Social constructionism, postmodernism, and media/content analysis also inform cultural criminology (Ferrell et al., 2015; Muzzatti, 2012). Ferrell (2003), one of the founders of this school of thought, notes that cultural criminology “critically investigates the ways in which the dynamics of media control and criminal justice come together in everyday life” (p. 71). Cultural criminology, he asserts, “emphasized the role of image, style, and symbolic meaning among criminals and their subcultures, in the mass media’s representation of crime and criminal justice, and in public conflicts over crime” (p. 71).
Most cultural criminologists are based in the United Kingdom and the United States, blending “the best of the criminological past with new insights from a host of disciplines” (Muzzatti & Smith, 2018, p. 107). They offer detailed descriptions of people who live at the edge of conventional society, such as drug users, skydivers, graffiti artists, and “train-hopping hobos” (Ferrell, 2018; Ferrell et al., 2015). Some critics contend that cultural criminology “overemphasizes” subcultures and the significance of other “outlaw” groups and thus lacks a solid appreciation of the legitimate concerns of those responsible for responding to and preventing their activities, such as the police, teachers, counselors, and social workers (Friedrichs, 2009). Feminist theorists are particularly critical of cultural criminologists paying scant attention to the importance of gendered understandings of crime, deviance, law, and social control.2 Despite these and other criticisms (see DeKeseredy, 2011, 2015a), cultural criminology continues to attract new proponents and those working in the field continue to generate scores of articles, book chapters, and books that reveal “the energy of everyday life in the transgressive breaking of rules or in repressive nature of conformity and boredom” (Hayward & Young, 2010, p. 108).
Much of critical criminology—not only cultural criminology—is “gender-blind” (Gelsthorpe & Morris, 1988). This criticism can also be leveled at the overwhelming majority of mainstream criminologists, including theorists and researchers who are considered pioneers in the field. For example, in his widely read and cited book Causes of Delinquency, eminent social control theorist Travis Hirschi (1969) states that “in the analysis that follows the ‘non-negro’ becomes ‘white’ and the girls disappear” (pp. 35–36). Many who followed in Hirschi’s footsteps also used all-male samples (DeKeseredy, 2011).
It should be noted in passing that more than 30 years later, a re-analysis of the Richmond Youth Project data used in Hirschi’s study reveals that perceived racial discrimination is a powerful predictor of delinquency.3 According to researchers who revisited this data set, “Hirschi missed an historic opportunity to focus the attention of a generation of criminologists on how the unique experiences of African Americans may shape their criminality” (Unnever, Cullen, Mathers, McClure, & Allison, 2009, p. 378).
The landscape is, indeed, changing. As Renzetti (2013) observes, there is no doubt that the picture has changed “and for the better” (p. 2). Feminism and the study of gender and sexuality are now major features of the critical criminological project. Defining feminism is subject to much debate, but one thing all feminist scholars agree on is that “feminism is not merely about adding women onto the agenda” (Currie & MacLean, 1993, p. 6). Daly and Chesney-Lind’s (1988) definition is one of the most widely used and cited conceptualizations in the criminological literature: “a set of theories about women’s oppression and a set of strategies for change” (p. 502). Nevertheless, it is incorrect to paint all feminists with the same brush because there are at least 12 distinct variants of feminist thought (Renzetti, 2018). Yet, all feminists prioritize gender, which should not be confused with sex, even though both terms are often used interchangeably (DeKeseredy, 2015b). The two concepts are related but are not the same. Gender is commonly defined as “the socially defined expectations, characteristics, attributes, roles, responsibilities, activities and practices that constitute masculinity, femininity, gender identity, and gender expressions” (Flavin & Artz, 2013, p. 11). Sex, on the other hand, refers to the biologically based categories of “female” and “male” that are stable across history and cultures (Dragiewicz, 2009).
Most feminists also agree that the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and many other countries are patriarchal societies (Renzetti, 2013). The definition of patriarchy is passionately debated within feminist academic circles, but it is still widely used because, as noted by Hunnicutt (2009), it keeps the focus “directed toward social contexts rather than toward individual men who are motivated to dominate” (p. 554). Following Renzetti (2013), patriarchy “is a gender structure in which men dominate women, and what is considered masculine is more highly valued than what is considered feminine” (p. 8). All the same, feminists recognize that not all men benefit equally in patriarchal societies and that some women have more privilege than others (Renzetti, 2018; DeKeseredy, DeKeseredy, & DeKeseredy, in press). Many contemporary feminists emphasize intersectionality, which involves addressing “the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression, and other discriminatory systems create background inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities and the like” (Crenshaw, 2000, p. 8). Intersectionality is front and center in the North American feminist criminological literature on the lives of inner-city African American girls and women (see Jones, 2009, and Potter, 2015).
Intersectionality is also an integral part of Irwin and Umemoto’s (2016) theoretical perspective on violent Hawaiian Pacific Island girls. One particularly striking feature of their work is their theory of colonial patriarchy. Irwin and Umemoto demonstrate that research on girls’ violence needs to examine how patriarchy intersects with many other sources of oppression, such as the collective trauma caused by American expansion into Hawaii and other regions of the Pacific. Youths interviewed for Irwin and Umemoto’s study make explicit that gender-related factors alone cannot account for why Pacific Islander youth engage in violent conduct. They have a deep-rooted understanding of what happened to their families in the past and their violence is very much influenced by “attempts to survive the damaging legacies of the past as they strive for basic dignity, respect, and independence as adolescents in exciting but uncertain times” (p. 23).
Feminist criminologists have conducted extensive theoretical work on many important problems, including female gangs, violence against women, women and girls’ pathways to crime, drugs, and moral panics about female youth violence (DeKeseredy, 2015a; Renzetti, Miller, & Gover, 2013). Moreover, feminist theorists and researchers have had a major impact on justice and social policy, especially in the area of violence against women (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2019; Powell, Henry, & Flynn, 2018). Nonetheless, since feminist theoretical work challenges “male-centered” ways of explaining deviance, crime, and social control, it is constantly challenged and often ridiculed by conservative students, practitioners, and academics (e.g., Wright & DeLisi, 2016).
Most leading experts in the field would agree with Ellis’s (2016) claim that “it was not until very late in the twentieth century that masculinity and its relationship with offending began to be considered or subjected to any requisite level of scrutiny” (p. 17). Before Messerschmidt’s (1993) innovative Masculinities and Crime; Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory, criminologists simply acknowledged that men committed most of the crimes and did not treat gender as a variable (Beynon, 2002; Ellis, 2016; Hearn & Morgan, 1990). Instead, early criminological attention toward masculinity took the form of a romanticized identification with young male offenders. Rather than critically examining the relationship between masculinities and crime, much of this work represented male perpetrators of crime as engaged in heroic rebellion against oppressive state systems (DeKeseredy & Dragiewicz, 2013). Some progressive schools of criminological thought are accused of continuing this practice, including cultural criminology (DeKeseredy, 2017).
An international cadre of contemporary masculinities theorists (e.g., Messerschmidt & Tomsen, 2018) sensitize us to the fact that there are consistent sex differences in crimes committed around the world that are heavily influenced by dominant gender norms. Certainly, men and women may commit some of the same nonviolent crimes for different reasons. For instance, in the United States, men typically steal as a means of “doing masculinity” (Messerschmidt, 2018) and they tend to “pinch” goods such as tools and items that are not necessary for their survival (DeKeseredy, 2017). In sharp contrast, women in the United States steal items that are lower in monetary value but are useful to them as mothers or homemakers, or in terms of feminine appearance (e.g., clothing, groceries, and makeup). They also write bad checks to get these goods. Likewise, most women who defraud their government do so because they and their children cannot afford to live on minimal welfare payments or wages accumulated from “pink ghetto” work, such as being a server in a fast-food restaurant (DeKeseredy, 2015b; Morash & Yingling, 2012).
Masculinities theorists emphasize the gendered nature of men’s use of violence and other crime acts, but they do not use terms such as sex roles and gender roles and have taken to using the word masculinities rather than masculinity. Using the term in the plural makes it plain that there is not just one masculinity. There are, in fact, many masculinities. Becoming masculine is something that must constantly be negotiated and continuously accomplished throughout the lifespan. Furthermore, it may need to be accomplished differently in different settings within the same time period or social context (Messerschmidt, 2018). There is no simple standard of being a man that guides all behavior, including aggression and violence. Although society functions in many ways to promote these two behaviors, there remain in any situation other means of expressing masculinity (Connell, 2000). However, for many men crime or deviance is the only perceived available technique of expressing and validating their masculinity. For instance, many boys living in socially and economically marginal communities cannot accomplish masculinity at school through academic achievement, participation in organized sports, or involvement in other extracurricular activities (Messerschmidt, 1993). Cohen (1955) argues that this problem results in some boys experiencing status frustration, dropping out of school, and creating a subculture with other boys who share their frustration. This subculture grants members status based on accomplishing gender through violent and other illegitimate means (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2010).
In addition to influencing criminologists to devote more careful attention to the gendered nature of male crime, masculinities theorists draw attention to how intersectionality shapes men’s involvement in crime and deviance (Lilly et al., 2019). However, as Connell (2000) notes, “masculinities are not the whole story” about crime (p. 2). Certainly, there are many other determinants of crime. Mullins (2006) reminds us that to simply argue that crime “is a way for men to ‘do gender’ or construct a masculine identity is of no theoretical import for understanding the etiological connections between masculinity and crime, and often obscures more than it illuminates” (p. 19). Yet crime and deviance cannot be fully understood and explained without an in-depth understanding of masculinities (DeKeseredy, 2015a; Messerschmidt & Tomsen, 2018).
Humans continue to subject Earth to continual and multitudinous environmental harms, but as Brisman and South (2013) note: “For too long, criminology stood on the sideline, leaving the study of environmental crime, harm, law, and regulations to researchers in other fields” (p. 2). However, critical criminologists around the world are producing a wealth of what Brisman and South (2013) refer to as “green criminological scholarship” (p. 2). The definition of green criminology is subject to debate. According to Brisman and South, it is “the term that criminologists most frequently employ to describe the exploration and examination of cause of and response to ‘ecological,’ ‘environmental,’ or ‘green’ crimes, harms, and hazards” (p. 2).
Not all green criminologists are critical criminologists. Those who are, “challenge the baseline definitions of ‘environmental harm’” (White, 2013) and are “critical of the dominant institutions of contemporary capitalism that prop up the environmental status quo” (White, 2018, p. 120). Critical green criminologists are not only engaged in rigorous empirical and theoretical work but also engage in transformative politics. In other words, they are actively involved in efforts to create a green environment (White, Haines, & Asquith, 2017).
Like cultural criminology, critical green scholarship involves doing collaborative work with an international body of academics. One recent example of such intellectual cross-fertilization is Brisman and South’s (2014, 2018) “Anglo-American” creation of a green cultural criminology (DeKeseredy, 2013; Muzzatti, 2012), which merges critical green criminology’s concerns with cultural criminology’s focus on “culture” and compels cultural criminologists to adopt green scholars’ views of the “consumption landscape” and the proliferation of environmental harms. The concerns of green criminologists also merge with some rural critical criminologists’ interests, such as agricultural crime (Donnermeyer, 2016).
A Note on Some Late Critical Criminologies
Critical criminology is “always in need of new direction” (Hayward, 2012, p. 142). Brisman, Carrabine, and South (2017) refer to recent perspectives as late critical criminologies. Three major examples are: (1) Queer criminology, (2) indigenous criminology, and (3) rural critical criminology. Buist and Lenning (2016) define Queer criminology as:
a theoretical and practical approach that seeks to highlight and draw attention to the stigmatization, the criminalization, and in many ways the rejection of the Queer community, which is to say that LGBTQ (lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) population, as both victims and offenders, by academe and the criminal justice system. (p. 1)
The bulk of criminology is not only heteronormative. It also ignores indigenous peoples’ experiences (e.g., Aboriginals in Australia and the Mauri in New Zealand; Cunneen & Tauri, 2017a). Cunneen and Tauri (2017b), along with a relatively small group of critical criminologists, have created an indigenous criminology that:
sets out to provide the basis of a new explanatory model for understanding Indigenous peoples’ contact with the criminal justice system; one that is firmly based in the historical and contemporary conditions of colonialism and settler colonialism. In attempting to do so, we seek to build on the work in other disciplines that has argued for the importance of Indigenous methodologies and the prioritization of Indigenous voices in understanding contemporary problems, such as deaths in custody, high imprisonment rates, police brutality and bias, and the high levels of violence in indigenous communities. (p. 1)
Rural critical criminologists are deeply concerned about addressing the realities of indigenous peoples’ lives because indigenous peoples generally live in rural areas (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014). What makes rural critical criminology distinct from mainstream rural criminology is that the former focuses on how various types of inequality (e.g., capitalism, patriarchy, and racism) shape rural crime and social control, whereas the latter is primarily informed by social disorganization theory. Rooted in the writings of University of Chicago scholars Park and Burgess (1928) and Shaw and McKay (1942), social disorganization theory asserts that neighborhood ecological characteristics (e.g., neighborhood structural density) influence crime and delinquency via their impact on formal and informal processes of social control (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1996). It emphasizes variations in the social structure of places, starting with the fundamental assumption that places with high levels of cohesion and solidarity have lower rates of crime and those with less order and more disorganization display more crime (Sampson, 2012). This theory is an attempt to show that locality, especially neighborhoods within urban places, affects crime beyond the demographic composition of its residents.
Rural critical criminologists strongly agree with Lee’s (2008) thoughts on social disorganization theory. He argues that:
existing ecologically based theories, such as the social disorganization model, rely on a very narrow conception of the appropriate unit of analysis—neighborhoods—for the theoretical process specified in the model. This analysis is extremely problematic for the rural context given that conventional urban-type neighborhoods are few and far between and that in many place the nearest neighbors actually live miles apart. (p. 468)
Following Taylor, Walton, and Young (1973), rural critical criminologists also look at the “wider origins” of rural crime (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2008), such as economic crises and the patriarchal structure of communities. In fact, until the recent explosion of critical green criminological scholarship, feminist and left realist offerings dominated critical rural criminological theoretical work (DeKeseredy, 2015b; Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014). Since critical rural scholarship is rapidly growing, we are likely to see some new theoretical trajectories in the near future.
A key objective of this article was to introduce some of the most important trends in critical criminology. All of the theories reviewed here have shown themselves to be notable alternatives to traditional criminological perspectives and more critical offerings are likely to emerge in the near future. Although the schools of thought reviewed here were presented in a particular order, they are equally important and each has strengths and limitations. There is no such thing as a perfect theory of crime or social control.
The review provided here, to be sure, is not exhaustive, and given the rapid growth of literature in the field, entire books on progressive theories are warranted. Further, we are now at a point where critical criminology is no longer a marginal subfield of criminology.4
New ways of thinking critically about crime are always necessary, but some older offerings should not be forgotten. As stated by Young (2013), Jefferson (2013), and Hall et al. (2013), seminal books such as The New Criminology and Policing the Crisis are still timely. (In fact, Routledge has published a 40th anniversary edition of the former and Palgrave Macmillan released a 35th anniversary edition of the latter.) No critical criminologist’s library is complete without these outstanding contributions.
Critical criminology is now characterized by much international and intellectual cross-fertilization and critical scholarly projects are “to a much greater extent than is usually recognized, the products of collective effort” (Currie, 2008, p. vii). In addition, whatever paths critical criminologists take in the years to come, they will always owe much to predecessors such as William Chambliss, Stan Cohen, Stuart Hall, Barbara Hudson, Geoffrey Pearson, Mike Presdee, Nicky Rafter, Julia Schwendinger, Ian Taylor, and Jock Young.
The following sections include parts of previously published work: “Beyond Critique: Critical Criminological Research,” DeKeseredy (2015b); “The Return of Marx and Engels,” DeKeseredy (2018b); “Left Realism,” DeKeseredy (2011) and DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2018); “Cultural Criminology,” DeKeseredy (2015a); “Feminist Theories,” DeKeseredy (2011, 2015a, 2015b); “Masculinities Theories,” DeKeseredy (2015a, 2017); and “Green Criminology,” DeKeseredy and Dragiewicz (2014a, 2014b) and DeKeseredy (2015a).
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(1.) The concept of the moral panic was developed by Cohen (1980) to describe a situation wherein a condition, episode, person, or group of persons comes to be defined as a threat to the values of society.
(2.) Ferrell, Hayward, and Young (2015, p. 23) response to this criticism is “[W]e would hope, and would argue, that from the first, cultural criminology has engaged in the politics of gender, and that this engagement has only grown as cultural criminology has matured.” Though they cite some literature to support this claim, many feminist scholars strongly maintain that cultural criminology has “shallow connections” with feminist perspectives and only “superficially” engages with key issues related to gender and sexuality (Naegler & Salman, 2016).
(3.) Conducted in 1965, the Richmond Youth Project is a self-report survey of 4,075 Richmond, California high-school students.