Some Notes on Constitutive Criminology

While the concept of a “postmodern criminology” may be somewhat nebulous, to say the least, the ideas underpinning constitutive criminology may be the closest we have.

The basic idea here is to adopt what Henry and Milovanovic (1999) call a holistic approach, involving a ‘duality of blame’ that moves the debate away from thinking about the ‘causes of crime’ and the ‘obsession with a crime and punishment cycle’, towards a ‘different criminology’ theorised around what Muncie (2000) terms social harm. To understand crime we have to ‘move beyond’ notions centred around ‘legalistic definitions’. We have to include a range of ideas (poverty, pollution, corporate corruption and the like) in any definition of harm and, more importantly, crime (which, as Henry and Milovanovic put it, involves ‘the exercise of the power to deny others their own humanity’)

In this respect, a constitutive criminology ‘redefines crime as the harm resulting from investing energy in relations of power that involves pain, conflict and injury’. In other words, some people (criminals) invest a great deal of their time and effort in activities (crime) that harm others physically, psychologically, economically, and so forth. In this respect, Henry and Milovanovic characterise such people as:

Excessive investors in the power to harm others – and the way to diminish their excessive investment in such activities is to empower their victims. Thus, rather than seeing punishment in traditional terms (imprisonment, for example, that does little or nothing for the victim), we should see it in terms of:

Redistributive justice, something that De Haan (1990) suggests involves redefining ‘punishment’, away from hurting the offender (which perpetuates the ‘cycle of harm’), to redressing the offence by ‘compensating the victim’. This form of peacemaking criminology focuses on reconnecting offenders and their victims in ways that actively seek to redress the balance of harm.

Constitutive criminology moves the focus on to an assessment of ‘harm’ caused to the victims of crime and, by extension, the social relationship between offender and victim. It draws on a range of sociological ideas, both theoretical (holistic approaches to understanding deviance, for example) and practical (such as the concept of ‘redress’), to argue for a less punitive approach to deviance and a more consensual approach to understanding the complex relationship between crime, deviance, social control and punishment. There are, however, a couple of points we need to consider here.

  • Harm: As Henry and Milovanovic (1999) define it, ‘harm’ results ‘from any attempt to reduce or suppress another’s position or potential standing through the use of power’. The danger here, however, is that it broadens the definition of crime and deviance in ways that redefine these concepts out of existence (which may, of course, be the intention). Such a definition could, for example, apply equally to a teacher in the classroom or an employer in the workplace.
  • Crime: Extending the notion of crime to include, for example, ‘linguistic hate crimes’ (such as racism and sexism) may not cause too much of a problem; however it does raise questions of where such a definition should begin and end; it may, for example, have the unintended consequence of criminalising large areas of social behaviour that are currently not criminalised.
  • Redress: Without a radical rethink/overhaul of the way we see and deal with crime and deviance as a society, ‘redistributive justice’ may simply be incorporated into conventional forms of crime control. In this respect we might characterise this type of criminology as idealistic, in the sense that, rather than providing an alternative to conventional forms of ‘crime and punishment’, ideas about redistributive justice simply provide another link in the chain of social control.
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