Labels and stigma in Criminology – who are we to decide?

I’m a firm believer that labelling and stigmatising can be destructive, demoralising and even de-humanising, particular when thinking about crime and justice. That said I think we need to consider the application of labels by criminologists.

There’s been a numbe of conversations about academics using labels in research at the last few conferences I’ve attended and on Twitter people are asking us to rethink how we do this. This is largely in reference to those traditionally labelled offenders, ex-offenders, prisoners and so on. Instead we are being asked to rephrase these labels to “people in prison”, “people with convictions” as though this reduces the stigma. However, from what I can tell, little consideration has been given to those who the labels apply to, and what they want.

Let me explain this with another example, using the convict criminology network. I’ve always been confused by the convict criminology network in the way that they label themselves on the basis of their previous offences. There’s me educating students on criminology courses about the dangers of identifying people on the basis of past behaviour whilst a group.of academics choose to use such a label. There’s some great positive changes in motion to remove past conviction declarations on university and job applications, so why would people in this network choose to purposely identify their academic position in relation to their convictions? Now I know many academics who have spent convictions who choose not to label themselves as convict criminologists, for precisely the reason above – their past behaviour is not what defines them today. But others choose to, they own that label, and that is their right. So what we have is, a respected group of academics who choose to label themselves based on their convictions, despite this being contratory to what we know about criminal labels and stigma.

So let me now return to where I started. When I’ve spent time with men residing in prison they label themselves as prisoners. They say that that’s what they are, just like those studying at university are students, or those at school are pupils or those in hospital are patients. Now I know some of you reading this will think those aren’t applicable comparisons because they don’t have the negative connotations associated with the labels. However, the men I have spoken to (I am not in any any way trying to generalise here) are accepting of the term and choose to call themselves prisoners.

I’m not saying that one label is better than the other or if there’s even an answer to this. What I am suggesting is that instead of ivory tower academics deciding on the best use of terminology we ought to find out from those we are referring to. It may be the case that those in prison are ok with the term prisoner whilst inside, but ex-prisoner is problematic when they try to reintegrate in communities. Some may be ok with the term ex-offender if they see that as a positive when they desist from crime and they use their past as an identity to explain their present lives. Again, I don’t assume any of this is correct but we shouldn’t make assumptions that all people see these as negative labels.

My thoughts are that whilst criminologists are happy to criticise the legal labels and social stigmas attached to crime and victimisation, we should be more cautious about deciding on the application of our own labels. When we disseminate our research we should at the very least consult with our participants on how they want to be identified. If academia is to go someway to help remove stigma, then ask those people what labels stigmatise them most.


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