10. Critical Criminology

10.4 Emergent Elements of Critical Criminology

Kevin Walby and Kelly Gorkoff

This next section focuses on three emergent elements in critical criminology: one we believe is core to the area of contemporary critical criminology and two that can contribute to critical criminology and are methodological in orientation. The first has to do with the expansion of discussions of police and penal abolition (and relatedly, convict criminology). The second pertains to the use of freedom of information (FOI) requests and computational methods in criminology and criminal justice studies, which are both investigative techniques that have major methodological implications for performing critical criminology research.

Police and Penal Abolition

When one thinks of abolition, they likely think about abolishing prison before abolishing police. Prison abolition, sometimes called penal abolition, focuses on the whole set of sanctions, rules and punishments involved in institutional and community corrections. However, the idea of police abolition has recently become more popular.  Since the police killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, police abolition has become a frequent and popular topic of public discussion. Police abolitionists argue that public police exist only to enforce social order. Public police do not provide real safety, though they cause much harm through violence, racism, and corruption. Here we elaborate on some of the roots of police and penal abolition while discussing contemporary developments. At its theoretical core, much abolitionist work draws on both Marxist and Foucauldian conceptions that posit criminal justice systems as part of the social structure and discourse.

Discussions about police abolition have roots in the Black radical tradition in the United States, and the Black feminist tradition. Police abolition was also a core feature of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party and movement called for more community responses rather than state responses to transgression and critiques of the violence of the state articulated through police (Jeffries, 2002). A number of Black feminist scholars, from Beth Richie (2012) to Andrea Ritchie (2017) among others building on the work of Angela Davis (2011), have been calling for police abolition for some time and in regard to particular transgressions such as violence against women and domestic violence. Thus, even for these types of transgressions, the Black feminist tradition recognises that police often cause more harm, and amplify harm, to women in these scenarios.

Before 2020 in Canada, a very important work, Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard (2017), was published. Maynard’s book called for police defunding and abolition, arguing the police are an institution that upholds white supremacy and does not address transgression in a way that decreases harm. Instead, policing increases harm, and state violence and police as an instrument of state violence need to be reduced and dismantled. This explicitly abolitionist work then became important in the spring and summer of 2020 when the police abolition movement in Canada and the United States flourished in mass mobilisation and protests against police.

In the two years since that mass mobilisation against police, a number of other important abolitionist works have emerged. In Canada, for instance, Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada, edited by Diverlus, Hudson and Ware (2020), is an abolitionist work focusing on the intersection of social control and white supremacy in our society. Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada, edited by Pasternak, Walby, and Stadnyk (2022), brings together activists and academics to explain why police abolition is necessary to move toward a free and just society. And Insurgent Love: Abolition and Domestic Homicide by Ardath Whynacht (2021) adopts an abolitionist view to assess the failures of policing to address the most serious forms of harm and transgression in our society.

These works do not all identify as criminology and are not popular within the discipline of criminology as they represent a critique of its orthodoxy. However, we would argue that an abolitionist approach fits well among Marxist and Foucauldian concepts that ground critical criminology. Similarly, we could claim that Purnell’s (2021) Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom in the United States is adjacent to criminology and criminal law. Most criminologists would not have heard of it, unless they pay attention to abolition. Yet we would argue that Purnell’s text has much to offer regarding why even people who work in the criminal justice system should take abolition seriously. This is among the works that should be incorporated into critical criminology as it adopts more of an abolitionist point of view. Purnell is someone who has experience working in the criminal justice system. It is from those experiences that they developed an abolitionist perspective.

There are some criminological works that do provide an abolitionist perspective. For instance, McDowell’s (2019) article on insurgent safety theorises alternatives to policing and argues that state-sponsored social control fails to provide real safety against harm/transgression and fails to reduce it. They argue that community-based safety is the only way to reduce harm/transgression and achieve safety. Fernandez (2019) likewise argues that critical sociology and critical criminology should adopt an abolitionist perspective. McDowell and Fernandez (2018) wrote about the practice of police abolition in the journal Critical Criminology. This is a landmark article for discussions of police abolition, which shows that this topic predated the 2020 mass mobilisations against police and that there is an affinity between discussions of police abolition and critical criminology. This article makes a compelling case for disbanding, disempowering and disarming police and argues that criminologists should orient their research agendas in this regard. Alex Vitale’s (2017) The End of Policing makes the argument that police fail to reduce harm/transgression. Vitale argues that police reform (making changes to the existing structure of policing) is a failed endeavour and reforming police actually allows them to accumulate more resources for police and less to community-based safety. It never changes the institution. This is a common argument against reform made by several critical criminologists who claim that the system works as it is supposed to work to support the relations of marginalisation and capitalist power (Lynch, 2000; Colaguori, 2005; Gordon, 2005). There is also Siegel’s (2017) work on abolitionist police history and police work as violence work. All these contributions demonstrate the affinity between a police abolitionist approach and critical criminology and are among the major contributing schools of thought in the abolitionist line of argumentation.

Prison abolition and penal abolition are more well-known in criminology compared to police abolition contributions back to the 1970s. Claire Culhane was a prominent prison abolitionist in Canada who began her work in 1974 when she became a teacher in a provincial prison for women. She became an activist and advocate for human and legal rights of prisoners and was a founding member of the Vancouver activist group Prisoners’ Rights Group and hosted a cable TV show called Instead of Prisons. In Culhane’s (1991) book No Longer Barred from Prison, she made connections between the politics of imprisonment and the socio-economic practices of the state. She argued that the reliance on imprisonment for addressing social problems speaks more to our failure as a society to provide for all its members than it does to success in maintaining public safety.

The most well-known prison abolition works are those of Thomas Mathiesen, who in the 1970s and 80s argued for prison and penal abolition. Mathiesen (1974) offers some useful concepts. For example, Mathiesen focuses on positive and negative reforms and argues it is not contradictory for abolitionists or critical scholars to advocate for negative reforms, that is reforms that diminish the power of the state and diminish the power of carceral institutions. However, it is contradictory to argue for positive reforms or reforms that do add to the power of the carceral state. Mathiesen also gives us the concept of the unfinished. Mathiesen argues there is no precise or exact formula for abolitionist inquiry or activism. Instead, there is a terrain of shifting tactics and strategies. Questions of negative reform and penal power constantly emerge. The project of abolition is ongoing and requires constant struggle and analysis.

The works of Mathiesen have inspired a generation of penal abolitionists. In Canada, the works of Justin Piché (2014) are explicitly abolitionists and have focused on penal and carceral abolition. These works focus on penal expansion, and prison and jail construction/development. Piché has noted that there are shifting targets of penal and carceral abolition that may extend toward immigration detention practices (Piché & Larsen, 2010). Nicolas Carrier has written about the blind spots of abolitionist thinking, and the need for penal abolitionists to think seriously about the kinds of limit cases or the most difficult cases for abolitionists to address. These would include mass murderers or offenders who hurt children (Carrier & Piché, 2015a, 2015b). Carrier pushes abolitionists thinking to address the toughest cases, not the lower hanging fruit such as crimes related to poverty or disorder, Piché et al. (2019) and Carrier et al. (2019) have provided a history of penal abolition scholarship in Canada (also see Walby, 2011).

There are other penal abolitionists outside of Canada who have contributed to this school of thought that criminologists should be aware of and that critical criminologists should engage with. In the United States, McLeod (2015) argued that prison abolition should be an accepted perspective within legal studies and criminal law and argued that prison abolition is necessary for justice to exist in the world. Saleh-Hannah (2017) argues that abolitionist approaches to prison must take seriously the issues of racial justice and gender that feminists and critical race scholars have pointed to (see 4 Race and Crime).  An abolitionist perspective that does not account for other forms of domination, such as racism and sexism would not be a complete abolitionist theory. Complete penal abolition needs to account also for racial domination and gender domination.

Consistent with critical criminologists’ contention that rethinking what we perceive as normal is necessary, critical scholars and activists focus on ways to undo these infrastructures and institutions not only physically but mentally. This requires us to develop new ways of speaking about and responding to harm/transgression, which is a common theme across police and prison abolitionist work. It also reminds us of the ideas of how ideology and hegemonic thinking about crime needs to be unravelled. Whalley & Hackett (2017) argued that feminist scholars need to take penal abolition more seriously because any kind of carceral feminism, or feminism that advocates for police and prison responses to things like gendered violence, is contradictory and undermines the goal of both feminism and critical/abolitionist criminology  to live in a world free of domination. Whalley and Hackett (2017) make a strong argument for the abolitionist project and against carceral feminism that Garland outlined in Culture of Control. Similar to Carrier, Davis & Rodriguez (2000) argue that prison abolition does involve challenges, such as how to respond to a transgression and how to respond to harm that occurs in the community. These are key questions that police in prison abolitionists and penal abolitionists must address.

Brown & Schept (2017) argued that there is a new abolition emerging in critical criminology and critical carceral studies in the United States. They argue that this approach brings together critical geography and critical criminology. For example, Brankamp’s (2022) article on the humanitarian border and immigration migration camps and detention centres is part of this new abolition. Whether this is a new abolition or an extension of current discussions of penal/carceral abolition is an open question. Brown and Schept (2017) do not point to the Canadian or UK work in this area when advancing these claims about new abolitionist schools of thought. The point is that there is a movement to go beyond prison abolition and focus on penal, and carceral abolition, which would include all kinds of carceral sites that need to be investigated and confronted. This is consistent with Marx and Foucault who argued that the criminal justice system is entwined with other social formations, discourses, and institutions and social transformation cannot happen in one system alone.

There are also some adjacent works that do not explicitly identify as abolitionist, but provide compelling tools and arguments in this vein. For instance, Pemberton’s (2007) work on social harm is useful for showing how prisons and police create social harm. Instead of being conceived as a response to harm, it is argued that they create social harm in numerous ways including harming entire communities and neighbourhoods that become criminalized. The concept of social harm is useful for thinking about the negative consequences of the criminal justice system and also for introducing some language  not based on the ideological language of crime and criminal law, which reproduces stereotypes (like the discourse of “the criminal” discussed above) and assumptions regarding who is engaging in harm/transgression.

Clear’s (2009) Imprisoning Communities is an incredibly important book on how imprisonment creates more harm than it avoids. Using quantitative data, Clear demonstrates that imprisonment undoes social bonds in neighbourhoods and communities where criminalization is high. Imprisonment increases divorce rates, decreases education rates, decreases employment rates, and dissolves the community. Pemberton’s (2007) notion of social harm and Clear’s (2009) notion of imprisoning communities show that prisons and jails are not only failed institutions in the sense that they fail to produce rehabilitation at an individual level, but they are damaging and harmful institutions at a social level because they have the capacity to damage entire communities and neighbourhoods where policing and criminalisation is high, often in already marginalised and racialised communities.

Hil & Robertson (2003) wrote about the future of critical criminology and the need to continue the project undertaken early on by those studying “new deviancy” to create different terminology and language that is an alternative to criminology itself. Today, it is difficult to imagine critical criminology without the terms and insights that police abolition and penal abolition work has provided. The future of critical criminology needs this abolitionist work to truly provide not only an alternative to criminology but an alternative to the criminal justice system. One major difference between abolitionist critical criminology and some forms of critical criminology which remain mostly analytical, is that it is engage and scholar activist oriented. Abolitionist critical criminology provides analyses and it provides investigations, but it also advocates for material change. It follows the path of critical social sciences with a focus on deconstructing dominant knowledge and engaging in social transformation by questioning taken-for-granted ways of thinking or knowing.

Convict Criminology

Another important approach somewhat connected to abolitionist work is convict criminology. Convict criminology is an approach to criminology that privileges the voices and standpoints of persons who have been criminalised or who have been affected by the criminal justice system (Richards & Ross, 2001). Experiential people combine their time inside prisons with their academic knowledge to provide new insights into the operation of the criminal justice system. Convict criminology began two decades ago (Jones et al., 2009) and was largely a US-based approach bringing together scholars who had experience behind bars or experience being criminalised to use their insights as a platform for analysing the criminal justice system and exploring the power relations involved in the criminal justice apparatus. Using ethnographic methods and empirical research, they highlight the destructive impact of prisons and penality from an experiential position.

Convict criminology has now branched out and become a global phenomenon (Ross et al., 2014). What is important about this expansion is that convict criminologists in different countries are uniquely positioned to shed light on and investigate the criminal justice system in each country, and to provide comparative insights. The works of convict criminology are experiential and provide insights from inside prisons and jails, which is important because scholarly criminological work that is more or less based on deductive academic concepts can not only be wrong, but also be harmful and alienating to people who have experienced the harms of the criminal justice system. Rather than providing a deductive armchair approach, convict criminology provides a more inductive and immanent understanding of criminal justice processes. The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons is the official journal publication of convict criminology. Today, it is almost impossible to think about what critical criminology would be without including convict criminologists and the kinds of inquiries they provide.

In sum, abolitionist thinking provides the alternative to criminology and the criminal justice system that critical criminology should be seeking. Convict criminology provides experiential voices that are pivotal to critical criminological studies.

New Research Tools for Critical Criminology

In addition to the vast range of empirical and ethnographic methods of research used by critical criminologists, many methods of critical criminology are anti-positivist in orientation. This means the use of the scientific method or natural science methods (see 5 Methods and Counting Crime) is viewed as problematic in the social sciences because according to Habermas (1967), the social has a symbolically pre-structured reality which cannot be considered objective. This concept is parallel to what Foucault claimed – that what we think of as normal or observable is not always what it seems and is often embedded with power relations. Therefore, critical criminology requires an orientation to research that recognises this.

Most critical criminology uses historical ethnography, qualitative methods, institutional ethnography, and critical discourse analyses, which we will not explore here. In addition, many critical researchers realise that the trustworthiness or credibility of interviews with police or corrections workers can often be low. To overcome this concern, the records of related government agencies need to be examined to identify broad patterns. This would allow research to work around the rhetoric or clouded information that criminal justice agencies make public which has been argued to be a form of camouflage used to protect their own interests and budgets (Mussel et al., 2022; Piché et al., 2017). Based on this concern, two methodological developments can aid in critical criminological research: the use of FOI requests and the use of computational methods. We argue that these methodological considerations should be considered as part of the future of critical criminology.

First, more critical criminologists are turning to FOI requests as a form of qualitative research to investigate state and criminal justice practices. FOI requests allow access to state records that would otherwise not be disclosed (Walby & Luscombe, 2017, 2019). These records could include anything from planning and budget documents to meeting minutes to emails between criminal justice officials and occurrence reports of police officers and prison guards.  As a number of works have found, FOI requests can provide illuminating investigative accounts of criminal justice. In Canada, the works of Justin Piché (Piché et al., 2017; Piché, 2011, 2012) have used FOI to compare front stage rhetoric (or what we see in the public) to the backstage practices (what really goes on) of prisons and jails. FOI has been used to investigate paid duty or special duty policing (Lippert et al., 2019) and to police militarisation and SWAT team deployment (Roziere & Walby, 2020). FOI research has been used to address police responses to social movements and police surveillance of social movements, notably in the work of Jeffrey Monaghan (Monaghan & Walby, 2012a, 2012b). This method allows for the release of information about the nature of state action and inaction and provides evidence of changes in criminal justice work and the nature of state power.

For example, Roziere and Walby (2020) gathered FOI data on the deployment of SWAT teams by Canadian police. They found that, contrary to police communications, the use of SWAT teams in major Canadian cities has escalated, and they are used in routine law enforcement activities such as traffic enforcement and in responding to mental health crises. This is critical evidence that police in Canada are becoming increasingly militarised.

As some of this research has made clear, there are benefits to using FOI in critical criminology and investigative research more generally. Luscombe and Walby (2015) have advocated for using FOI in conjunction with other investigative techniques, such as computational social science (also see Luscombe et al., 2017), another emerging research method (Luscombe et al., 2022; Luscombe et al., in press; Williams & Burnap, 2016; Al-Zaidy et al., 2012). Here we argue that critical criminology can harness the power of computational social science to add another investigative tool to its methodological toolkit. Computational social science involves using computers to model, simulate and analyse social phenomena, and to assess patterns and trends in working with big data. Big data could be anything from corporate databases or government data, which could be obtained using FOI (Luscombe & Walby, 2022). Or it could be any other kind of open-source record from government deliberations to social media data. This could include studying image data from newspapers or social media, police news releases, or legal decisions spanning decades. It could also include scraping websites, which involve writing a computer code that scans through websites to collect select data. The point is one wants to work with a gigantic dataset that could not feasibly be examined by humans using discourse or content analysis.

In computational research, what one does is write a code (using R or Python) to perform different tasks on the dataset that reveal something about trends or patterns in that data. For example, one approach is topic modelling. Topic modelling gives one a sense of the various topics emerging and their frequency in a large dataset. Others are sentiment analysis (SA) and social media sentiment analysis (SMSA) or “opinion mining”, which allows one to trace out the sentiments or emotional terminology appearing in, for example, a large social media dataset. This could reveal how certain speakers or authors are framing, or discussing a social issue such as transgression, crime or responses to these phenomena. Prichard and colleagues (2015) argue that SMSA is a powerful tool for researching public attitudes toward crime and crime control and can summarise publicly expressed thoughts, beliefs and arguments about what behaviour is criminalised, how categories of criminals are perceived and how police operate.

An example of this method is found in research focusing on attitudes toward the health of incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to prison reform (Ramjee et al.,2022). Utilising SA to assess emotions and opinions in newspapers, they found support for the urgency of criminal justice reform in the USA as it related to the health of racialized minorities who were incarcerated.

These computational techniques alone do not necessarily provide a definitive investigative outcome, but what they do is tell critical criminologists where to look in a large dataset. They can tell critical criminologists what is happening in a certain area of practice with a certain set of records, which the critical criminologist can then explore more deeply in depth using other investigative and qualitative techniques.

Computational research requires a particular skill set that involves computer coding and even some quantitative techniques. But we would argue that when it comes to critical criminology, what computational social science can add is insights about where to look for what is happening with records (Luscombe et al., 2022; Luscombe & Walby, 2022). Narrowing down exactly where certain trends or patterns are emerging in a large data set is useful for making particular arguments and conclusions about the criminal justice system. Computational social science also allows researchers to work with the increasingly prevalent forms of online and digital data. More digital data are produced every month and computational research is designed to pry open big data and see what trends and patterns are there. A more digital information flows become integrated into criminal justice work practices,  computational social science will become an increasingly important tool for critical criminologists.

FOI requests and computational social science techniques provide investigative tools that can be useful to a critical criminologist. It is not surprising that investigative journalists are increasingly using FOI requests and computational social science techniques because they are also encountering barriers to traditional investigative techniques like interviewing or keeping insider sources. We argue that critical criminology should move in the same direction. FOI requests, computational techniques, and other investigative techniques should be used to both examine state criminal justice practices and confront them.


We have argued that police and penal abolition should be central to critical criminology, and that critical criminology should embrace police and penal abolitionist works even if they do not explicitly identify as criminological. These works on police and penal abolition provide insights into criminal justice practices and alternatives to both criminology and the criminal justice system which we have argued critical criminology is all about. It is not surprising that police and penal abolitionist works have provided such a useful set of terms and insights for resisting not only the criminal justice system but criminology itself, precisely because many of these works are located outside the discipline of criminology and outside the institutional networks that exist between the criminal justice system in criminology.

We have also argued that FOI requests and computational social science can provide methodological tools for critical criminologists to use to investigate criminal justice practices and institutions. FOI requests and computational techniques are promising investigative tools. They have limits and barriers, but they provide an alternative to positivist methods and overcome some of the limits associated with qualitative research methods.



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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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