10. Critical Criminology

10.1 The Rise of Critical Criminology

Kevin Walby and Kelly Gorkoff

Given our contention that defining critical criminology is a difficult task, we claim that critical criminology scholarship represents a break from the orthodoxy or custom of the discipline of criminology (Tierney, 2006; Martel et al., 2006; Ratner, 1984, 2006). Critical criminology initially evolved alongside criminological theories loosely called “new deviancy” that proposed new theories of crime such as labeling theory (see 8.6 Labelling Theory), social  reaction theory, transactionalism, and interactionism, and was a significant part of a general move in the social sciences away from the dominant of criminology (Tierney, 2006; Garland & Sparks, 2000; Hargreaves et al., 1976). In general, this dominant paradigm focused on identifying and studying causes of crime that could then be corrected, and the assumed purpose of criminological knowledge was to control crime. Lynch (2000) takes this further and suggests that traditional positivist criminology has had the effect of legitimising control of the lower classes and normalising punishment. This dominant knowledge was rarely questioned and became standardised in criminology/criminal justice language, practice, and research (Lynch, 2000). Critical criminology questioned this often taken-for-granted, normalised idea of crime and justice as well as its connection to crime control and punishment and encouraged research that questioned this a and focused on thinking more broadly about crime in society (Martel et al., 2006). Ratner (2006) refers to this as “the push to construct an alternative to the ruling paradigm of a state-saturated field” (p. 648). By this, Ratner means we should question what crime means in society and the government’s power to punish “criminals.”

Most critical criminology adopts a critical social science position that is anti-positivist. A critical social science examines/critiques normative boundaries of criminological knowledge and its use.  Critical social science research focuses on the big picture or instead of individual determinants of people’s behaviour (trauma, upbringing, psychological traits). This focus allows scholars to deconstruct taken-for-granted or dominant knowledge. It also allows one to engage in social change by questioning established ways of thinking or knowing. Sayer (2009) discusses denaturalising dominant knowledge as a way to propose that another world is possible and to re-think and re-constitute accepted ideas about how to administer justice (Kraska & Newman, 2011). For us, critical criminology is an attempt to investigate relations and domination as they occur in social systems and social structures while providing alternatives to existing power relations and dominant social institutions. Critical criminology involves research and investigation, and it calls for activism and attempts to change things.

In what follows in this chapter, we examine the key thinkers critical criminology draws on, beginning with Marx, as well as a few emergent elements of critical criminology.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Kevin Walby and Kelly Gorkoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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