8. Sociological Theories of Crime
In this chapter, we explored the sociological turn in criminology and its development on Turtle Island, the continent that came to be known as North America. We learned that criminologists in the first half of the 20th century were particularly concerned with the causes of juvenile delinquency amongst working-class boys and how labelling theorists shifted the frame, raising the question of how this behaviour came to be defined as a problem to begin with. These theories remain influential today. They have their blind spots and limitations, but they laid the groundwork for a new way of understanding the relationship between crime and society.
While building upon a particularly Western intellectual tradition, these early approaches nevertheless share commonalities with the ways many Indigenous nations conceptualise the relationship between individuals and society. This chapter opened with a discussion of the Anishnaabe concept of dibenindizowin, which stresses the freedom a person possesses through their interrelationships with others. This speaks to strength-based approaches to dealing with criminal justice issues, where the personal agency for change is found within collaborative relationships. This perspective is not limited to Anishinaabewowin. Michael Hart, a citizen of the Fisher River Cree Nation, makes a similar point about the importance of spiritual relationships (Hart, 2015). This understanding of our capacity to act being dependent upon our relationships is a key sociological insight that is sometimes lost when crime and punishment are framed in terms of individualised blame and individualistic solutions are sought for what are social problems.
Taking Indigenous ways of knowing seriously means recognising that criminological theories are often built upon a distinctly Western view of human nature, and that these theories—while espousing to be universal—are very much rooted in particular times and places. This does not invalidate them, as all theories are similarly bound, but it does remind us of their culturally grounded assumptions. Still, Durkheim would recognise his own ideas reflected in the way Indigenous nations today are reclaiming justice practices through traditions that refocus responses to crime back towards community and culture. While there are differences, there are also important similarities, and the overlap that exists between Anishnaabe principles and those of early sociologists of crime reminds us that while culture shapes our perspective, there remains a common ground for justice, freedom, and a life well lived.