Introduction: The need for new directions in criminological theory

Steve Hall, Simon Winlow

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscriptpeer-review


Whatever happened to new ideas? Criminology is an unusual academic discipline. Ethics, justice, self-governance, external control and the nature of social order have been subject to serious intellectual consideration in the West since Hesiod, but this vast historical continuum of thought failed to coalesce into a distinct academic discipline until midway through the twentieth century. We have seen self-styled ‘criminologists’ appearing on the scene since the early nineteenth century, but they had always learnt their trade in other disciplines - statistics, psychiatry, medicine, law, philosophy and so on - and studied crime as something of a sideline. Thus the exact ‘origin’ of criminology as an academic discipline is diffi cult to pin down, and this is partly a refl ection of the contested nature of its history in the West. Here in Britain, early criminological thought tended to be state-centred, positivistic and interested in the actual causes of crime only insofar as they fi tted neatly into existing or developing governmental projects. Classical liberal legalists insisted on crime as an act of free will and choice, medics insisted on delving into the individual’s genetic and neurological systems, and social-liberal welfarists focused on economic disruption, poverty and faulty forms of moral and social reproduction. All shared a common concern with internal and external forms of governance, and thus during this period it would have perhaps been more fi tting to call the discipline ‘controlology’ rather than ‘criminology’ (Ditton, 1979). In this mode of thinking aetiology is a mere convenience, something to be explained away in a manner that affi rms the political and governmental projects of the day or their approved sub-dominant opposition. This tradition still dominates criminology today, where the classical-liberal mainstream maintains its dominant discourse of free will and faulty socialisation in long-running tension with social liberalism’s discourse of poverty and social inequality. Any alternative explanation must fi ght hard for survival in the interstices of this rather unspectacular and tedious clash of the weary Titans, with, it must be said, little support from a predominantly left-liberal criminological discipline that shuns aetiology and applies most of its effort to the analysis of the control system and the protection of the individual’s rights within it. Indeed, such was the dominance of ‘controlology’ that some infl uential theories - such as symbolic interactionism, labelling theory and Foucauldian theory - were imported whole to posit criminality and deviance as the products of social reaction and the constitutive and reproductive power of the control system. Look no further; everything criminological springs from the process of control itself. Without diminishing the importance of a thorough and ongoing critique of the control system and its human rights issues, we must address the problem that this intellectual neglect not only diminishes criminology’s political and cultural importance but also leaves the aetiological fi eld wide open to crude, populist forms of biological determinism and classicalliberal individualism. Since the Second World War, the criminological aircraft has tried to fl y on one wing, and therefore it simply cannot get off the runway.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Criminological Theory
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781136306273
ISBN (Print)9781843929147
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes


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