Resisting Criminalisation – Supporting ‘Sites of Resistance’

By Becky Clarke, Kathryn Chadwick and Patrick Williams 

There is a growing commitment within a group of critical criminologists at Manchester Metropolitan University to exposing, analysing and campaigning around social injustice and inequality. Through our teaching, research and wider work with communities we are seeking to examine and expose the marginalisation and criminalisation of particular groups, reflected in the continued ‘othering’ of individuals in society generally, and criminal justice specifically.

Much (mainstream) criminological output attests to research that is fixated with and perpetuates the criminological ‘other’, that is ‘the threatening outcast, the fear-some stranger, the excluded and the embittered. Criminology as read within the contemporary academy has evolved an administrative function, which informs governmental regulatory and control strategies.  The production (and construction) of criminological knowledge is therefore governed and informed by the imperatives and interests of the state.  In this regard, much criminological research is ‘atheoretical fact gathering, narrowly focused, short-termist, uncritical and designed to be policy friendly’. Such approaches to the discipline are implicit in the pathologising of particular groups within society.

Yet over a number of decades now, critical criminology and critical research methods have worked against this tide, seeking to expose processes of punishment, crime control and criminalisation which are disproportionately deployed against marginalised and powerless members of society. The challenge for critical theory and methods is to promote engagement in research that contributes to an alternative discourse, questioning the connection between relations of power and processes of legitimacy.  In doing this, there is a shared commitment to exposing the significance of ‘personal troubles’ as ‘public issues’; voicing the ‘view from below’; challenging the basis of ‘legitimate’ or ‘expert’ knowledge; questioning the dominant knowledge base that underpins policy and practice; informing legislative and policy reform, and professional practice.

Based upon our collective research activity, it is our view that constructs of ‘crime’ and the process of criminalisation should be subject to academic and political challenge.  Yet we know that definitions of ‘crime’ and the state’s response to the ‘crime’ problem continue to have a disproportionate impact within particular communities.

For example, our research challenging the ‘race’ and ‘gang’ nexus provides an important rebuttal to the simplistic assumption that the racial composition of the ‘gang’ reflects the racial composition of the communities within which the ‘gang’ exists. Furthermore, we found that the ‘gang’ label and resulting criminalisation of the individual (and increasingly their relatives and associates) does not derive from the committal of an offence. Instead, it is an arbitrarily applied term which conceals the acute, personal, social, emotional and structural problems endured within Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Yet the ‘gang’ label curiously persists, attributed to the same communities where once the folk devil of the ‘mugger’, the ‘pimp’ and the ‘yardie drug dealer’ resided. Criminal justice strategies conceptualised around a racialised construct of the ‘gang’ will never be effective in arresting levels of serious violence, but can only serve to perpetuate and legitimise the racist over-policing of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic young people and communities in England and Wales.

Similarly, our research into the experiences of criminalised women, which spans nearly 30 years, repeatedly demonstrates the persistence in governmental policies that ignore and marginalise the specific needs and experiences of women, which have led to a focus on the criminalisation of vulnerable women, rather than addressing their welfare and social justice needs. Empirical evidence demonstrates the worsening situation, whether related to employment support within the work programme, the consequences of the roll out of universal credit or the ratcheting up of the ‘troubled families’ policy. For those women for whom poverty and marginalisation is part of their lived reality, the pressure is increasing and opportunity reducing.

As demonstrated in our work in 1989, we must continue to be alert to the synergies between welfare and criminal justice policies, and the impact of this on women ‘at risk’ of criminalisation. Whether it is the criminal justice policy that translates women’s experiences of victimisation into ‘criminogenic needs’, or the ‘troubled families’ policy which translates the ‘pathways to poverty’ into reimagined ‘risks’, we see the same strategy. It is one of pathology, which requires women (and it is mainly women at the head of those families being targeted) to receive this ‘support’ or face sanctions – of imprisonment or eviction from their home.

These strategies can also be seen with reference to the structural relations, of ‘race’, class, age and sexuality. Our concern is that research informed responses to challenge these issues are too often met with silence, the suppression of dissenting voices and the continuity of destructive policies and practices which further marginalise particular groups. It is therefore our responsibility and duty to respond by building alliances which offer an alternative discourse to support change.

‘We fight the same battles over and over again. They are never won for eternity, but in the process of struggling together, in community, we learn how to glimpse new possibilities that otherwise would never have become apparent to us, and in the process we expand and enlarge our very notion of freedom’

(Angela Davis, 2009 Difficult Dialogues’)

The ‘Sites of Resistance’ day will launch the Resisting ‘Crime’ and Criminalisation (RCC) group that Kathryn Chadwick, Becky Clarke and Patrick Williams are establishing. The event on Wednesday 25th March 2015 at Manchester Metropolitan University will bring together VCS organisations, activists, students and academics to consider ways in which we can collaborate to realise collective aims.  The challenge for the day is to build a critical voice to support and empower local and national communities, organisations and campaigns which strive to alleviate the harmful effects of discriminations and inequalities in the process of criminalisation.

For more info about the event contact Becky Clarke

Previous post

Purple Wall Problem

Next post

A Review of "Getting By" and the 'Culture of Poverty' theory