What’s the point in Criminology?

As a so called ‘Criminologist’ this may seem like a little bit of a strange question to ask, what’s the point in Criminology? However, this question stems from, what has become, a cash cow subject area, with little identity and often disrespected by others. So let me address these points.

When I started studying crime and deviance sixteen years ago, it was merely a topic within other disciplines, found often in Sociology, History, Law and/or Psychology. We have been progressively witnessing a huge transformation whereby Criminology is now offered as a single honours degree, there are independent Criminology departments within Universities and there are a growing number of students queuing up to enrol in this ‘discipline’. But what I want to argue is Criminology is not a discipline, it is a university cash cow; the one subject area that there is huge demand for and Vice Chancellors rely on this demand to maintain and increase their annual profits. As we are living in a time of increasing student fees and universities ‘competing’ for customers (students), Criminology has become a popular attraction in the circus of academia. To meet the demands of the customers I have been witnessing the recruitment of staff from a vast array of backgrounds, some of whom who have never even studied or taught Criminology before, which has led me to question the identity and purpose of the subject area.

One explanation for this that I propose is that Criminology doesn’t have an identity because it isn’t an actual discipline. You only need to explore the HESA subject listing to see Criminology isn’t  listed as a subject in it’s own right.The foundational components of a Criminology degree are formed  from a hugely diverse field of knowledge so it lacks  it’s own soul, so to speak. To teach and study crime, deviance, punishment and justice we must do so within the frameworks of history, politics, psychology, law, sociology, social policy and so on… The topic relies on the traditional disciplines to underpin the core concepts, theoretical frameworks and research methods. You only need look at the diversity of papers presented at national and international  Criminology conferences, you could be attending an international relations event or a criminal psychology convention, in essence Criminology has no identity. Over the years I have seen more and more disciplines be squeezed under the umbrella of criminology, and particularly the merging with international politics. Whilst David Garland and Jonathan Simon have argued for some time now that crime (and fear of it) is increasingly being used as a vehicle for broader social control, I argue that there is a mirroring effect in academia – everything is being coined under the term Criminology due to the populist nature of an oh so profitable topic.  Past and present colleagues employed as Criminology lecturers/readers/professors have often been very assertive to tell me they are not Criminologists, they are Psychologists, Sociologists, political scholars and so on, which makes me wonder, so what is a Criminologist?

A consequence of working in this celebrity subject area is the distancing of colleagues from other disciplines. I come from a Sociology background and have experienced resentment amongst Sociologists, who over the years have become overshadowed by the demand for Criminology. As the intake of Sociology students has declined I have witnessed colleagues being asked (I say asked but actually they’ve been pushed) to teach Criminology to make up the staff student ratios on Criminology courses. Across various institutions I have seen first hand Criminology staff be isolated from schools and faculties, whether out of resentment, jealousy or disrespect. But worse than this, what I have found to be the most difficult aspect of being a ‘Criminologist’ is the egotistical, competitive and in many cases down right nasty nature of many fellow Criminologists. I have never worked in a subject where there is such little cohesion among colleagues and a huge array of dislike between professionals apparently all working in the similar field of crime and justice. Over the years I have questioned these relationships and have come to the conclusion that the fragmentation of the subject itself has resulted in the disengagement among those working in it. Whilst there is the student demand to study Criminology, there is the staff demand to be the greatest in Criminology, however in a subject that has no soul, no identity and serves only the purpose to increase University profits, there is little room for consolidation.

So, what’s the point in Criminology? Firstly, I want to stress that there is phenomenal work done by people labelled as Criminologists, from improving services to victims of crime and offenders, highlighting the harms by States and corporations, fighting miscarriages of justice and working towards improving our criminal justice system, to name a few. I don’t doubt that peers in the field are passionate about their areas of expertise and would emphasise that the scholarly work undertaken is vital for reducing harm and improving practice. What I do question though is whether we should all be parcelled together with a Criminology bow or whether our work would be more effective, more respected and better applied to the disciplines from which they stem. To return to a question I posed earlier, it seem to me that there is no-one who is essentially a Criminologist, we are all but scholars from our own disciplines hedged together and, as a result, have become drawn apart.

 

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