Criminology and Postmodernism
© John Lea 1993 
This article was published as 'Criminology and Postmodernity' in Paul Walton and Jock Young eds. (1998) The New Criminology Revisited. London: Macmillan


Over the last decade or more 'postmodernist' thought has had a growing influence in our intellectual culture. Developing first in architecture, cultural and media studies, literary criticism and philosophy, it has achieved a growing influence in the social sciences, sociology in particular (Bauman 1991a, Crook et al. 1992). It seems no accident that postmodern themes, stressing a generalised disenchantment with what are seen as tired and worn out ideas of scientific and human progress, coherence and truth, should achieve considerable popularity at a time of political and social uncertainty. The end of the 'post war' epoch, symbolised by the collapse of 'socialism' in the East and the welfare state in the West, provides fertile terrain for both the adulterated Hegelianism of Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history' (1989), and the wider diffusion of Jean-Francois Lyotard's expression of the 'postmodern condition' as a disenchantment with the grand narratives of the Enlightenment itself.

What has all this got to do with a humdrum backwater of the social sciences like criminology? A great deal. On the one hand the seeming impotence of society in the face of the problem of rising crime serves as a powerful metaphor for the fragmentation, uncertainty and self-satisfied indifference which, for some critics, is the prominent characteristic of 'postmodernity' (Bauman 1991b). Criminology, and penology were a central pillar of the post war 'grand narratives' of social engineering and welfare reformism, (Taylor 1982) the blueprints for the good society which are now so discredited. The crisis of modernity is a part of the crisis of criminology. For others a 'New Times' of individual freedom, diversity and difference (Hall and Jaques 1989) has provided an arena in which new voices can be heard, previously ignored identities demand space and respect, and hitherto ignored problems - many of them of relevance to crime control - be given the priority they deserve.

Inevitably therefore, debate on the relevance of postmodern themes has emerged on the radical periphery of criminology (Cf. Smart 1995, Cohen (this volume), Young 1991, Hunt 1990, Schwartz and Friedrichs 1994. Morrison 1994, Henry and Milovanovic 1994 ). In this paper I attempt to contribute to this debate through a discussion of particular postmodern themes which may appear, initially, to have relevance to the problems of criminology. I conclude with a warning against a 'loss of nerve' as regards some of the older themes in radical criminology and an over readiness to embrace ephemeral and superficial accounts of the nature of postmodernity.

It is necessary to begin with some definitions, both of criminology and postmodernism. I have always seen criminology as a 'field' rather than a particular academic discipline. That is to say what defines criminology is the problems that it studies, rather than the elaboration of a particular dominant set of responses to those problems. That is why psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, geographers, and perhaps even philosophers can all call themselves criminologists, and why identities such as 'radical' or 'feminist' can plausibly claim to work within criminology. It is also the reason why criminology is such a fragmented practice and why any postmodernist attempt to 'deconstruct' its dominant discourses finds the job already half completed. The best definition of criminology seems therefore to be that body of knowledges and theories which concern themselves, one way or another, with three questions: how and why certain categories of social activity come to be defined as crime, why such activity occurs in different types of situations - however classified - and how various forces in society attempt to manage and control such actions and their consequences by both formal institutional mechanisms of criminal justice and informal mechanisms of social control. It is in terms of these three questions or problematics that I shall consider the relevance of postmodern perspectives.

Postmodernism is a bit like criminology in that it too is best described as an area, a loose collection of themes, rather than as in itself a coherent philosophy. To attempt a description of postmodernism in the latter sense would be to fall precisely into the trap of attempting to articulate it as a grand narrative, or global world view, when one of its main thrusts is precisely the denial of the possibility of such standpoints. The themes that seem to me to be important and which I shall discuss in this paper are fourfold.

Firstly, an important theme in postmodern and allied philosophy is that of deconstruction. Beginning with the claim that there is no necessary or logical connection between the use of language and what it purports to describe, the idea of philosophical truth outside language has then to be abandoned. Such claims have to be deconstructed and, following Jaques Derrida, it has to be recognised that every identity or definition is necessarily repressive. The act of defining is an act of excluding. Deconstruction, then, in literature ïs a matter of taking a repressed or subjugated theme.... pursuing its various textual ramifications and showing how these subvert the very order that strives to hold them in check." (Norris 1991 p. 39).

Secondly, the rejection of coherence and unity in the world both in the philosophical sense that there is no 'grand narrative' of truth or essence behind the appearance of chaos and contingency, and in the sociological sense that society is not, or is no longer to be encountered as, a coherent system, regulated in terms of some central steering mechanism such as capital accumulation, patriarchy, or environmental adaptation by reference to the functioning - or disruption - of which social events can be reductively explained.

A third important theme concerns the nature of freedom. Postmodernism attempts a re appropriation of Nietzsche in which freedom and self identity are seen as emancipation from the normative constraints of the life world and social bonds, as a process of endless experimentation and expression of 'difference' . This Nietzschean philosophy finds its sociological parallel in an alleged incidental relationship between the process of personal identity formation and social values. The individual increasingly stands outside values and orients to them in terms of a 'tactical appropriation' (Crook et al. 1992), or as a resource for the experimental creation of lifestyles which, having no generalised coherence, consist in an endless process of bricolage. This fragmentation and 'loss of the social' reveals a fluidity, mobility and contingency in human relations.

It follows, and this is the final, sociological theme in postmodernism, that profound social changes are taking place. Modern industrial societies are undergoing a process of fragmentation both at the level of social structure - class, work, urban life, politics etc., and at the level of culture. While it is possible to see this change - and the current crisis of both socialist and liberal politics that it has, allegedly, brought about as a reflection either of the logic of late capitalism (Jameson 1984, Harvey 1989) or of a functionalist process of institutional and cultural differentiation (Crook et al. ibid.), the basic theme is the 'loss of the social' in the old sense that societies consisted of stable structures, classes and institutions, into which individuals were integrated and from which they took their outlook and social roles even if the outcome of a particular such location was a rugged individualism and an ideology of laissez-faire. Class is being replaced by identity, and stable social and political institutions by a fluid, pluralistic and contingent informalism.

In the next part of this paper I attempt to explore the implications of these ideas for the three components of criminology defined above. In doing so I also attempt to use criminological themes to illustrate some of the problems with postmodern ideas.


The nature of crime

Currently in both critical criminology and the sociology of law the theme of deconstruction has become popular. Law obviously presents itself as a 'grand narrative' par excellence. Such an integrated discourse with its definitions and constructions of legal subjects and their rights and responsibilities appears ripe for the knife of deconstruction. It is, furthermore, harder in the study of law and jurisprudence than in criminology to ignore the relevance of fundamental philosophical issues. It is understandable therefore that a more elaborate critical appropriation of postmodernism has developed in this area than so far in criminology (see for example Santos 1987, Douzinas and Warrington 1991, Fitzpatrick, 1992), a debate to which the leading philosopher of deconstruction himself, Jaques Derrida, has made a direct contribution (Derrida 1992).

Criminology, as distinct from the sociology of law, is more concerned with the processes whereby particular types of acts become criminalised rather than the genesis of the categories with which they can then be described, though the two are closely related. In coming to understand what is involved in the constitution of actions as crimes, an obvious relevance is established for the first of our postmodern themes: the strategy of deconstruction. If the definition of an activity as crime is a process of repression then the aim of deconstruction can be seen as revealing that which is hidden and suppressed by criminological discourse. Such a strategy understandably appeals to radical critics of 'mainstream' criminology. In particular some feminists have advocated a deconstructive approach as a strategy of revealing that which is hidden and repressed in an essentially 'male' discourse on criminality (Smart 1995, Young 1991). As far as Carol Smart is concerned,

"The thing that criminology cannot do is deconstruct 'crime'. It cannot locate rape or child sexual abuse in the domain of sexuality, nor theft in the domain of economic activity, nor drug use in the domain of health. To do so would be to abandon criminology to sociology, but more important it would involve abandoning the idea of a unified problem which requires a unified solution - at least at the theoretical level." (op.cit. ).

Thus, taking the example of rape, deconstruction exposes how the definition of an activity as rape involves the repression of its other characteristics - as a form of sexuality - and reveals how its explanation as a form of crime or deviance confirms this repression. Such a 'deconstructive' orientation has in fact existed for some time in radical criminology. Precisely because criminology is a relatively loose collection of discourses, it comes as no surprise to find that this is the case. The work of labelling theorists and social constructionists like Becker (1963) Spector and Kitsuse (1977) and Pfohl (1977,1985), in deconstructing seemingly real social phenomena as no more than labelling or constructing activities, are in no way different from the postmodernists. Indeed Pfohl himself makes explicit reference to Derrida. In some respects therefore postmodernism is a re-discovery of some of the traditions within radical criminology itself rather than the importation of new ideas from without (Cohen, this volume). Though, as we shall see, there are some differences.

Another tradition, well established within radical criminology and penology, is that of penal abolitionism among whose leading exponents are writers like Louk Hulsman (1986) and Nils Christie (1977). Hulsman, for example, argued that the notion of crime at first appears to refer to clear and fixed forms of behaviour but on closer interrogation slides away into a plethora of different activities and meanings which have nothing in common other than the fact that the criminal justice system treats them as crimes.

(The) "categories of 'crime' are given by the criminal justice system rather than by victims or society in general. This makes it necessary to abandon the notion of 'crime' as a tool in the conceptual framework of criminology. Crime has no ontological reality. Crime is not the object but the product of criminal policy. Criminalisation is one of the many ways of constructing social reality" (Hulsman 1986 pp 34-5)

The idea of 'crime' as an essentially coercive imposition by the state on an incommensurable diversity of problematic situations fits well with the spirit of deconstruction. Along with the pretensions of 'crime' to act as a yardstick for the commensuration of harmful acts must go any totalizing grand narrative of justice or rationality, and of the criminal justice system as capable of enforcing any other than purely local norms, of disguising under a rhetoric of universal justice and citizenship, that which is tenuous, negotiated and constantly reconstituted. Crime can no longer be given meaning as the violation of identifiable 'natural rights', nor can it be the object of some theoretical explanation. The issue is rather the avoidance of the suppression of particularities and differences and, given the diversity of such, there can be no definite rational content to a criminal law but rather a process of constant accommodation of differences and the resolution of conflicts. If the latter could be more efficiently performed without law and criminal justice, as abolitionists argue it could, then there is no reason for not allowing it to be so. Meanwhile the subject matter of criminology itself vanishes into the shifting plurality of 'problematic situations' involving diversified and non-commensurable principles and amenable to no generalised solution. Hulsman's abolitionism firmly straddles the main themes of the postmodern perspective.

Behind the appropriation of deconstruction in contemporary radical criminology lies, of course, a politics. In the abolitionist case it is an anarchist libertarian one, that individuals should be able to sort out their own problems free of the shackles and discourses of the state and criminal law. In the case of feminist postmodernism the task is to liberate what Smart terms the 'multiplicity of resistances', those voices, in particular of women, which have been forced into silence by the theories and discourses of mainstream criminology. Both abolitionism and feminist postmodernism would reject much of the mainstream approaches to criminal justice and criminality as oppressive. They are quite right to do so. However, whether the particular approach to deconstruction that they adopt actually achieves their intended aim is another matter.


The critique of deconstruction

The immediately obvious problem with deconstruction is that of infinite regress. To abandon reference to rape in favour of sexuality, leaves us with a narrative of 'sexuality' which could be further deconstructed to reveal all sorts of other discourses of power. Why should sexuality refer to anything more 'real' than rape? What about other directions in which rape could be deconstructed? The fact that we never arrive - and from a postmodern standpoint must not arrive - at any sort of rock bottom concepts which we can say 'really' describe an external reality means that methods like deconstruction lead to infinite regress[1]. Deconstruction is like spending time with a dictionary looking up words which are defined in terms of other words which can in turn be looked up and so on, or in Russell Berman's apt phrase, "Deconstruction is the restaurant where one can only order the menu" (Berman 1990).

I have previously (Lea 1987) pointed to a similar problem with Hulsman's abolitionism. Hulsman deconstructs crime to reveal the plurality of 'problematic situations' on the assumption that there is an uncontested language in terms of which such phenomena can be located behind the discourse of criminality. However, the process refuses to stop. If the concept of crime is defined by the criminal justice system and its 'power/knowledge' then certainly the concept of 'problematic' and what count as 'problematic situations' come in a very similar way to be defined by the shifting processes of power and communication within society, and neither the criminologist nor any other observer stands outside those processes. Hulsman's abolitionism fails to demonstrate the superiority of its own language and terminology: if crime has no 'ontological reality' then neither do problematic situations. Abolitionists may set deconstruction to work on the 'ontological reality' of crime only to see it devouring 'problematic situations' as well.

While in literary criticism the relativism of an infinite regression of signs may conceivably be a fruitful device, in sociology and social criticism it leads to incoherence. In practice solutions have to be found which compromise the original project of deconstruction by calling the proceedings to a halt in some arbitrary way, One variant is to simply declare some particular set of 'facts', to be 'real' or 'foundational' totally against the spirit of deconstruction itself . Such a process, in traditional social constructionism was identified and criticised, by Woolgar and Pawluch (1985) in their critique of writers such as Pfohl (ibid.), as engaging in 'ontological gerrymandering'. That is,

"making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimising the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends" (op cit. p. 216)

In order to give an explanation, for example, of increases in public concern about child battering as a product of the labelling of certain types of behaviour by child psychiatrists (Pfohl 1977), the assumption has to be made that the labelled behaviour has been around for ages and hasn't changed. What has changed is the labelling activities. This is the only way to make labelling explanations work. In order to deconstruct current discourses of child abuse as a labelling process by professionals one has to make the assumption of a 'Thing in Itself' of unchanged and unlabelled 'real' behaviour, that is, a low level of actual child abuse or a diversity of behaviours towards children which have hardly changed. As Woolgar and Pawluch point out, deconstructionist sociology has been grappling with this problem for some time. On one level Becker's famous statement that "deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender" (Becker 1963 p.9) was ambiguous. The radical edge to labelling theory certainly lay in its attitude to the explanation of crime and deviance as to be found not in a study of the motivations of the criminal actor but as resulting from the implicitly arbitrary nature of the labelling process. But as to whether there was a reality outside the dynamics of labelling, in the sense that one could identify the misapplication of labels, was often not clear. Radical deconstructionists like Pfohl respond to Woolgar and Pawluch by agreeing that deconstructionist methods must also be applied to the background assumptions with the result that what we witness in deconstructionist sociology is not a process of the discovery of what is really going on in the world but

"the effect of a transformative displacement of one set of social structuring practices by some others. From within this collusion or collusion of structuring practices arises a 'true' story - the 'real facts' of the matter, the self evidency of 'things' and the like. There are no truths aside from this elusive (intellectual) formation" (Pfohl 1985 p. 230).

This shift of position by Pfohl illustrates, as Schwartz and Friedrichs (1994) note, the difference between postmodernism and the older tradition of social constructionism. While the latter attempted to attribute motives to the constructors - as with the professional bureaucratic interests of child psychiatrists identified by Pfohl in his 1977 article, postmodernism sees all knowlege as indeterminate and relative as Pfohls 1985 response indicates. In such a situation any stopping point to the 'narrative' is an arbitrary one.

The second variant involves transferring foundationalism from a set of 'facts' to a social subject or collection of subjects. Thus for Carol Smart the truth claims of criminology have been, or are to be, deconstructed from the standpoint of new social subjects constituting a 'multiplicity of resistances' to truth as power. It consists largely of "lesbians and gays, black women and men, Asian women and men, feminists and so on" (op cit. p 36). There is no disputing that much of what passes as traditional criminology is incredibly sexist and racist. However there is a problem in the method of deconstruction deployed here. Suppose we agree that the concept of 'crime' is a male discourse insofar as it marginalises phenomena which are the core of gender relations in modern society. What status does the latter statement have? One solution is to say that it is 'true' that violence is a central ingredient of gender relations - good old fashioned foundationalism in which the truth of the statement is independent of the status of the speaker. But we now know that such truth is contaminated with (male) power. What Smart appears to be arguing is that the validity of the argument is to be found in the fact that it is being articulated by the groups she mentions. The point is surely that these social groups come pre-designated, as progressive forces. Smart constructs her list of resisters from the standpoint of her own 'grand narrative' concerning what is progressive in the world. If we were to extend her 'multiplicity of resistances' to embrace book burning religious bigots, members of extreme right wing nationalist and terrorist groups etc. - all 'resisting' what they regard as oppression, we might not find it so easy to talk about the relativisation of truth as power. That "lesbians and gays... feminists and so on" are progressive social subjects whose counter discourses to those of 'crime' are to be listened to (even if some of them are calling for more, rather than less, activity by the criminal justice system), in fact harks back to the older notion of the radical subject as the carrier of universal concerns, of a rival, more coherent account of reality.

The third variant is to maintain the deconstructionist denial of truth claims and meanwhile resort to a simple pragmatism of 'what works'. It is exemplified in Stan Cohen's (Cohen: this volume) claim that: "Deconstructionism itself does not necessarily undermine the utility of any discourse, still less the importance of any values or the desirability of any practice." He goes on to argue that

"This does not mean that any language game is as 'good' as another. It does mean that the choice (between a radical criminology deconstructing concepts of criminality and criminal law, and a 'realist' endorsement of crime control) depends on what works, not what is true." (ibid.).

So we can simultaneously understand that, one the one hand all discourses are power effects to be deconstructed and, on the other, that in order to practically identify social problems and take steps to deal with them we have to use certain concepts and categories to define the problems and work out effective solutions. The only criteria for the latter is 'what works'. But if this is the only arbitrator of what discourses we adopt, then what began as a radical critique of dominant discourses of power, ends up prostrating itself before them. What 'works' in any situation is precisely a product of the dominant relationships of power! It is the complete relativism as regards questions of power that lies behind the conservatism and quiescence of deconstruction. If all discourses and definitions are power effects involving repression then power is ubiquitous. It is everywhere and therefore nowhere. All social groups are to be seen as part of the contingent plurality of differences, and any discourse of oppression or victimisation becomes just another language game with, at most, a local validity. The victim claiming she has been 'raped' is one speaker, the offender claiming that this was normal consensual sex is another. What 'works' might be to tell the victim to go home and not bother.

We are reduced to helpless spectators who can only stand and watch while victims, offenders, police officers and judges spin a yarn, bargain and compromise and produce their 'story'. Any notion that justice is being dispensed, or, more importantly, being denied, is simply part of the narrative. At the end of the day deconstruction changes nothing. It leaves us no wiser as to why certain activities, as opposed to others, are constituted as 'crime' in specific types of society and no basis for the critique of such constitutive processes. It tells us simply that power effects are always involved and that categories can be deconstructed into other categories.

Against this the older Marxist and critical theory tradition of critique is, in my opinion, immeasurably superior. The issue of the ontological reality of crime is replaced by its contradictory and historical reality. Dialectical theory is acutely aware of the repressive nature of definitions and concepts[2] but this repression is understood to lie not in the nature of the defining process as such but in the particular form of society in which it takes place. Against the assertion that crime is 'really' sexuality or economics or whatever, the aim is rather to show why certain forms of sexuality, violence or economic activity came historically to be constructed as crime, and what specific constellations of power and conflict were involved. These latter then become the basis for critique and change. The focus of critique is not from some external hypothetical standpoint of 'right' but is an immanent process based on the consequences of thinking through and acting out the contradictions of the present power relations and their discourses. Why is sexual violence by strangers a crime and by husbands not? Why is violence by workers a crime and by employers not? How are ruling and subordinate groups and classes in society actually deploying criminal law and criminalisation? These contradictions then become the basis for change and development, both reformist and, at times, revolutionary. The end product of such activity might well be the abolition of the concept of crime altogether as a way of dealing with conflicts. But if such occurs we shall be able to understand precisely the revolutionary social changes that have led to it. We shall not have deconstructed it in our heads only to reconcile ourselves again to it in reality. In the worlds of the Marxist legal theorist Evgeny Pasukanis,

"The concepts of crime and punishment are... necessary determinants of the legal form from which people will be able to liberate themselves only after the legal superstructure itself has begun to whither away. And when we begin to overcome and to do without these concepts in reality, rather than merely in declarations, that will be the surest sign that the narrow horizon of bourgeois law is finally opening up before us." (Pasukanis 1978 p 188)


The causes of crime

Assuming, then, that it is meaningful to talk about crime, we can pass to the second main problem area of criminology, the causes of crime. Here postmodern critiques may claim a relevance both as regards the possibility of explanations for social phenomena as such and at the level of the particular types of explanations that criminology has produced within its domain. The second theme in postmodernism that I identified above concerned the rejection of coherence and unity and the idea of 'grand narrative' of truth or essence and that society is not, or is no longer, a coherent system, regulated in terms of some central mechanism which might serve as the starting point for the explanation of particular social phenomena such as crime. This obviously has a relevance at both levels of explanation.

According to Carol Smart (ibid.) criminology is guilty of positivism. This she defines as the doctrine that "we can establish a verifiable knowledge or truth about events, in particular that we can establish a causal explanation, which in turn will provide us with objective methods for intervening in the events defined as problematic." (p. 34) This 'positivism' is then seen as an aspect of a modernism which involves both the adoption of "modes of totalizing or grand theorising which impose a uniformity of perspective and ignore the immense diversity of subjectivities of women and men" and the ässumption that once we have the theory which will explain all forms of social behaviour we will also know what to do."

Certainly positivist criminology - though hardly all varieties of criminology in the sense I have defined it - was a central aspect of the belief in a managed society and planned social reform which dominated the welfare state era (Taylor 1982) and it is true that this criminology is in crisis as part of the general crisis of social policy and the welfare state. It is true that postmodernists such as Lyotard (1984) associate the failure of social planning with grand narratives of global explanation and change which may have inspired it, and see a danger of totalitarianism lurking in such attempts at large scale social engineering. It is less clear, however, that in advocating a modest restriction of the scientific enterprise to the domain of 'local truths' Lyotard is arguing anything fundamentally different from a previous generation of critical rationalists determined to salvage the modern scientific enterprise through the rejection of unfalsifiable holism. Thus Karl Popper argued that we cannot study or control the whole of society for the simple reason that "with every new control of social relations we create a host of new social relations to be controlled...The attempt leads to an infinite regress; the position is similar with an attempt to study the whole of society - which would have to include this study" (Popper 1957 pp 79-80). Holistic experiments always go wrong because we cannot lean from our mistakes under such circumstances "Since so much is done at a time it is impossible to say which particular measure is responsible for any of the results" (op.cit. pp 88-9). As with social change so with scientific theory itself. For Popper science progresses through critique by falsification - but it does progress. We can never prove theories correct as we cannot observe all instances of their relevant domains but incorrect theories can falsified as all we need is one counter example. Hence rational theories have to be formulated in such a way that they can specify those conditions under which they would be falsified. This. for Popper consigned to the flames Plato Hegel, Marx Freud and other attempts at what post modernists would term 'grand narratives' and totalising theories. Popper first elaborated these ideas in 1936. Almost half a century later Lyotard elucidates a notion of science almost identical to Popper: "Science does not expand by means of the positivism of efficiency. The opposite is true: working on a proof means searching for and 'inventing' counter examples" (Lyotard 1984 p.54). He likewise shares Popper's fear about holism - grand narratives - leading to the Gulag: "The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one...." (op.cit. pp. 81-2). The rejection of 'grand narratives' thus appears as a thoroughly 'modern' theme. With a few minor adjustments the postmodern critique of metanarratives[3] can be assimilated by a sophisticated scientific positivism.

At the level of particular explanations of crime the implications of postmodern thought are perhaps clearer. Most sociological criminology deploys some notion of the social collectivity, whether of the normative life world or the social structure, from which the criminal offender is marginalised and in terms of which criminality is to be explained. The dynamics of this marginalisation varies between theories. The stress may be on detachment and under socialisation, on the breakdown of or contradiction between legitimate ends and the means for attaining them within the normative structure of the life world, or on the effects of power and domination in denying access to non criminal methods of grievance redress. This type of analysis is of course the object of criticism both from within and outside criminology. Feminists have argued that the notion of sexual violence as a result of breakdown or marginalisation ignores its alleged central role in the control of patriarchal social relations. Crimes committed by powerful individuals and corporations seem less amenable to notions of marginality than the crimes of some sections of the poor and weak.

However it is the contrast between the very terms of this debate and some important postmodern themes which is my concern here. As I have noted an important feature of the postmodernist appropriation of Nietzschean philosophy is a view of the individual as standing outside the normative life world and orienting towards the latter as a resource for the experimental creation of lifestyles in the manner of bricolage. If freedom and the formation of personal identity are to be understood as a process of free self creation by means of endless experimentation and to involve the maximisation of independence from social bonds, then the condition of marginality becomes the general condition for freedom. Violence and 'crime' become a choice like all others - simply another experiment in 'difference'. The paradox of postmodern society becomes one in which 'crime' may be increasing but we cannot know the 'causes' of this as they are simply the general conditions of freedom itself. Very little in the way of criminological theory could survive such a fundamental reorientation. Even rational choice theory, while assimilating the decision to commit crime to a general form of calculation, usually includes as a factor in the calculation of costs and benefits of committing crime some variable such as 'willingness to commit an illegal act' (Becker, 1968) implying a cost of defying social norms and distinct from the likelihood of detection, severity of penalty and other costs. It would be necessary to remove this factor altogether in some theory of 'contingent choice' which of course would not be a distinct theory of crime at all. Any distinct criminology would disappear into a general sociology of postmodernity as the emergence of the conditions for freedom and difference through the weakening of social bonds. We might retain a notion of crime as that which impeded the development of 'difference' and plurality, but this would involve a metanarrative of justice and tolerance which postmodernism seeks to deny.


Difference and Recognition

There are, however, some problems with a general postmodern approach to freedom as play and experimentation. We have only to set Hegel against Nietzsche to understand freedom not as endless experimentation but as an interactive process of mutual recognition. The ability of individuals to understand their actions as free is linked to the ability to recognise those actions from the standpoint of others. Rather than dispensing with the constraints of social life, freedom requires its very existence in order to be understood as such. In this context social life is precisely the system of general norms and values which postmodernists wish to reject as 'grand narratives' (Honneth 1992). Thus to the extent that the normative bonds of the life world are weakening, we are led to see a growing crisis of recognition rather than a diversification of opportunities for free self creation of difference.

From this standpoint criminology is not quite so redundant. It has to be explained why particular individuals or groups find it necessary to search for and innovate new alternative structures of recognition, frequently taking a destructive form, both to themselves and their victims. (Grose and Groves 1988). Older notions such as marginality and relative deprivation still have purchase as a starting point for explaining why certain groups have been denied to sources of recognition. The element of truth in the postmodern perspective lies rather in the understanding that these conditions are becoming increasingly widespread in modern capitalist societies with the decline in access to work both as a source of recognition in itself and as a means to the achievement of mass media produced consumption oriented identities. The outcome is indeed a pluralisation of attempts to devise alternative forms of status but the result is less the proliferation of difference than of destructive and partial forms of recognition, as with the criminal gang, or the desperate search for recognition which results in the annihilation of its potential source, as with many forms of interpersonal violence. Of course, where harmless or emancipatory activities are 'criminalised' in the interests of powerful groups such an analysis does not apply. Criminology cannot escape judgements of this type. This is why a strictly positivist criminology is necessarily reactionary. Only a radical critical criminology linked to emancipatory concerns can be consistent in its application of theory.

It remains the case of course that many forms of corporate, white collar, organised crime and other 'crimes of the powerful' are less explicable in terms of marginalisation from sources of recognition. But here again the search for an explanation leads less obviously in the direction of any one dimensional process of fragmentation. As Harvey (1989) points out, the reorganisation of the international financial system since the 1970's "has been a dual movement, on the one hand towards the formation of the financial conglomerates and brokers of extraordinary global power, and, on the other hand a rapid proliferation and decentralisation of financial activities and flows through the creation of entirely new financial instruments and markets" (pp 160-1). This contradictory unity of centralisation and decentralisation undoubtedly brings more opportunities for white collar and organised crime, while the increasing fusion of illegal and legal finance, of organised and corporate crime, is associated with the emergence of global financial blocks (Santino 1988). The impulse to criminality in this area lies, moreover, at the core of the capitalist form of economic organisation rather than in any new decentralising tendency. As Box (1983) put it: "This defining characteristic -it is a goal seeking entity - makes a corporation inherently criminogenic for it necessarily operates in an uncertain and unpredictable environment such that its purely legitimate opportunities for goal attainment are sometimes limited and constrained" (p 35). Finally, the forms of status and recognition sought by most corporate and organised criminals are entirely conventional and bourgeois and least likely to be the result of some new postmodern proliferation of identities. A postmodern approach, while it may grasp certain features of the decentralised nature of 'postfordist' capitalism which provide increased opportunities for crime, has little to say as to the impulse to corporate and organised crime.


The control of crime

The final problematic of criminology is the control of crime. Here a critical acceptance of some of the themes of postmodern sociology may seem useful. The postmodern stress on the fragmentation of older centralising structures of modernity seems to accord with the increasing stress during the last decade on the role of informal preventative processes of crime control. Of course, as every criminologist knows, that the informal processes of the family, community school and work are the most important front line mechanisms of crime control. But in modern society these are always to be evaluated and regulated from the standpoint of the grand narratives of justice. During the post war period both the welfare state and the criminal justice system intervened in these informal mechanisms through a variety of social rights to welfare and education, parental and children's rights etc. Criminal justice and welfare institutions, police and social work, with their discourses of treatment, care and surveillance seemed to many commentators in the 1970's and 80's to be penetrating into these areas and 'blurring the boundaries' between formal institutional structures and informal community based forms of social control to the detriment of the latter (Cohen 1985). The hypothesis of an incorporation of informal mechanisms as adjuncts to a repressive criminal justice system was a theme attractive to the left.

It is clear that a postmodern perspective, with its stress on fragmentation and difference as the salient characteristic of modern society leads in a contrary direction. If postmodernisation has any meaning then it lies in the hypothesis that decentralised informal mechanisms come to dominate and partially replace formal centralised institutions and their accompanying discourses or grand narratives and at the same time that formal criminal justice institutions operate in increasingly informal ways. The most obvious example of such processes is the growth of private decentralised crime prevention not only at the micro level in the control of entry to particular streets, 'public' places, housing or shopping complexes but also in the in the macro design of cities, the zoning of neighbourhoods the segregation of rich and poor populations etc. Such a system has, it can be argued, begun to emerge partly as a result of the privatisation of public space or the growth of 'mass private property' (Shearing and Stenning 1987) epitomised by the shopping mall surveyed by private security agencies, video cameras etc. In a postmodern world such decentralised privatised forms of crime control are decreasingly ancillary to and increasingly a replacement for the system of formal controls. The important 'postmodern' characteristics of such a system of informal controls are, firstly, that it pre-empts and avoids discourses of rights and due process through the generalised segregation of populations, decentralised and non-focused coercion. Control lies decreasingly in the threat of the detection of and punishment for, the violation of generally agreed norms and increasingly in the general controls on entry to certain areas applied to population categories. As Mike Davis (1990), in his remarkable study of Los Angeles observes, the decline of an apartheid sanctioned by explicit, reactionary politically centralised laws in South Africa is met by the increase in a form of apartheid - between the ghetto and the white suburb - organised through the decentralised and impartial mechanisms of private property and the regulation of space in the cities of the free world. Secondly the decline of free public space involves the decline of the notions of the public sphere and the free citizen. The postmodern celebration of 'difference' replaces that of inclusion in the grand narratives of citizenship, though, as we have seen, such a notion fails to grasp the power implications where the blacks in the ghetto and the whites in the protected central city and the segregated and secured suburbs are all, equally, manifestations of difference. Finally, and crucially for a postmodern perspective, the accountability and control of such systems is decreasingly related to generalised discourses of democracy or generalised legal rights and increasingly to decentralised groups of 'consumers' and 'customers'. The proliferation of crime prevention serves as a metaphor for postmodern crime control.

The other side of the coin, meanwhile is that the formal agencies of social control - the police, courts etc., act in increasingly informal ways. While remaining in theory governed by formal rules and procedures corresponding to grand narratives of justice and rights the informal aspects of the work of such agencies comes to predominate. Again, criminology has always been aware of the role of informal norms governing the work of criminal justice institutions, and indeed, that such bodies would not be able to function at all without such informal procedures. But as with the role of non criminal justice institutions in the control of crime, such informal procedures were seen as subordinated in the last analysis to generalised discourses of both justice and rights and of technical efficiency. One of the aims of radical criminologies such as Left Realism was to bring such informal processes, together with norms of technical efficiency, under the overall surveillance of democratic discourses of public needs (Lea and Young 1992, Kinsey et al. 1986, Taylor 1982).

Some varieties of postmodernism attempt an annihilation not only of the grand narratives of rights, justice and needs but also of the coherent identity of social institutions themselves. Thus for Crook et al. "The very notion of 'the state' as a separate and autonomous institutional entity intimately linked with the notion of 'politics' and 'public sphere' and clearly separated from the domains of economy, societal community and culture, is increasingly problematic." (op. cit. p.104). In their view an important characteristic of the process of postmodernisation is that the state has become so diverse and differentiated - under the impact of post war planning and welfare policies, that it has now begun a process of 'de-differentiation' or fragmentation in which particular state institutions effectively break away and combine with non state institutions with which they are more adjacent in terms of practical functioning than with other state institutions. Applied to the area of crime control such a hypothesis would imply that policing is to be seen as part of a localised subsystem of informal institutions - communities and groups defined in terms of their identities and other fragmented formal institutions - social services, magistrates courts, probation etc. all equally disconnected in practice from centralised direction, rather than the, however imperfect and mediated, penetration into such local systems of centralised directives formulated at the level of the 'state'. Informal cautioning, plea bargaining, rather than mediations which enable the system to practically cope, become all there is. Anything else is empty rhetoric, the invocation of myths and rituals of justice or centralised technical rationality.

This thesis of fragmentation has also a cultural aspect in that narratives of justice and rights are themselves fragmenting. As Norberto Bobbio (1977) has noted, one of the effects of the welfare state with its emphasis on substantive social, rather than formal legal rights, has been that the demand for rights and justice by new social movements has decreasingly involved demands for inclusion in a generalised category of citizenship and increasingly has been a matter of protection of and respect for, difference[4].


The radicalism of modernity.

The idea of a process of postmodernisation as the replacement of coercive generalised notions of 'citizenship' with the recognition of the plurality of difference, combined with a fragmentation of the centralised state such that criminal justice institutions become increasingly responsive to such localised identities and discourses may seem to many to be a decided improvement, an element of the progressive side of New Times. It may seem for example that demands on the police to develop new sensitivities to the needs of ethnic and gender identities, interpersonal and sexual relations etc. is best understandable in terms of the onset of plurality and difference. However some caution is in order.

Firstly the question of power. I have already alluded to the relativistic implications of the idea of society as a plurality of difference. The panorama of decentralised crime prevention coupled with informalism on the part of criminal justice agencies while perhaps enabling well organised and resourced groups to secure more attention to their needs, in reality amounts to leaving the ghetto and the underclass to its own devices. Furthermore, to the extent that the social changes stressed by many postmodernists are one side of the coin of a dual process of decentralisation and globalisation (Harvey ibid.,) then the question of power is posed even more acutely. The other side of the coin of difference is the growing power of transnational capital to intervene decisively and globally to secure the conditions for its reproduction. A discourse of rights which ignores this question is a mystification (Fudge and Glasbeek 1992). The interests of capital in meeting some needs and keeping others firmly under control should be clear. Mike Davis (ibid.) aptly calls his Los Angeles, where decentralised crime prevention combines with a highly militarised style of policing to keep the ghettos under control, the 'dark side of postmodernity'. The differentiation of criminal justice institutions may well involve an increasing decentralised and fragmented informalism and 'community policing' alongside a highly effective militarised instant response to make the city safe for transnational capital. Even at the level of decentralisation and plurality, the differential power and conflicting needs of various 'identities' can lead to privatised vigilantism as the middle classes, equipped with electric fences and private police forces keep the underclass under control not only in third world but also in first world cities.

Postmodernism, by failing to develop a theory of power other than a diffuse and constitutive power which can note but never theorise opposition, actually comes close to autopoietic systems theory of the style of Luhman or Parsons (Calhoun 1989, Barcellona 1987) in which institutions function without any reference to grand narratives but simply as tension reduction and management mechanisms[5]. By purporting to abandon grand narratives without in any sense resolving the modernistic contradiction between abstract narratives of right or justice and substantive oppression and inequality, postmodernist thought is in danger of simply reconciling itself to the power of capital.

In such a context modernist themes take on the character of a radical rebellion. For example, Tamar Pitch (1995), has noted the growth in the use of the victim-offender perspective by new social movements, the women's movement in particular. An important reason for this is the attempt to recoup a notion of responsibility in which the recognition of oneself as actor is dependent on the admission of responsibility for harm on the part of the offender - a form of self validation which, as Pitch points out, is less available in more structural notions of oppression. While such demands for self recognition as victims may take the form of a demand for the recognition of difference, it is also surely the case that the recognition by the offender of harm inflicted involves the development of a narrative of harm and injustice which transcends the differences between the two parties to the conflict. In short the use, even from a difference perspective of the victim-offender relationship involves the emergence of 'grand narratives'. Or to put it another way, the relationship between grand narratives and localised discourses is a practical and not an ontological one. Postmodernists may abolish grand narratives or metanarratives ontologically only to see them re-emerge in the practical discourses of social movements constituting themselves as actors. This view sees the postmodern 'abolition' of grand narratives as thus largely spurious. There is an undeniable crisis of confidence in accepted narratives of justice and truth not because they are ephemera but because of the historical obstacles to their realisation. We are back with what Habermas aptly calls the 'unfinished project of modernity'. The bourgeois universal, or grand narrative of justice and right was always a myth in the sense that it was the form taken by the particular interests of the bourgeoisie. Postmodernism simply celebrates its opposite, the cacophony of difference. Marxism located the need for the carrier of a substantive universality which transcended this opposition between the particular and the general rather than abolishing the latter in favour of the former. This carrier was of course the working class. Postmodernists may be correct that older forms of class structure have withered with the changed organisation of work. However there is no reason to suggest that the fundamental relationship of capital and labour has changed, rather than it has assumed new global forms. The rediscovery of the need for grand narratives of justice even by a diversity of new social movements raises the question of their practical achievement and hence the nature of their carrier, that class which is capable of overcoming the opposition between the plurality of demands for justice on the one hand and the interests of global capital on the other.

(No bibliography I'm afraid!




This problem of the 'infinite regress' of deconstruction has been identified in a different context by Kate Soper. Discussing the impact of deconstructionism in art and aesthetics she observes: "But if we ask in whose interests we are deconstructing this notion of aesthetic value and cultural freedom, we shall almost certainly be referred by the critic to all those marginalized or minority identities (women, blacks, sexual and ethnic groupings, and so forth) who have been colonized or suppressed in the name of the purity of art.... The problem, however, is that such justifications paradoxically invoke the cultural and judgemental freedom they deny. For unless we arbitrarily call a halt to the logic of discourse theory, why should we not deny the freedom of these liberated 'identities'? Why not view them in turn as the unconscious agents of someone else's cultural policing, as themselves constructed subjects blind to the propagandist purposes they are servin g in the discourse which claims their liberation?" (Soper 1991)


. Cf. Hegels discussion of the murderer on his way to the scaffold: "This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality" (Hegel 1965 pp 116-7)


The terms 'grand narrative' and 'metanarrative' have been used interchangeably in this paper


.For a sophisticated defence of a justice based on the theory of difference see Young 1990. Cf also MacIntyre 1988


. This theme has some elements in common with the idea of 'governmentality' extracted from the later writings of Michel Foucault (Cf. Burchell et al. 1991) For a discussion of developments in penology in similar terms Cf. Feeley and Simon 1992, 1994