The Postmodern Turn in Criminology

Much of contemporary criminology remains bound to concepts and perspectives developed and framed in relation to conditions of modernity (even the emergence of modernity) and the structures, institutions, and processes of modernism. Among these concepts are rationality (rational choice and rational calculation), progress, and enlightenment—deterrence and correctivity.

The modernist criminologies remain dependent on instituted authorities and their organizations—police, courts, correctional facilities, legislatures—for definitions and understandings of crime, criminality, and responses to crime. Processes associated with liberal democratic governance are viewed as proper (and privileged) means for adjudicating social norms and responses to violations of norms. Agencies of the police, courts, and corrections are viewed as the legitimate institutions for the pursuit of—the realization of—“criminal justice.”

Yet these conventional theories (from strain to social control to social ecology) and perspectives (statism, rehabilitation) overlook not only longstanding evidence of the failure or incapacity of liberal democratic institutions to deliver or secure justice (of any sort) but, even more, are incapable of addressing the important socio-economic changes that produce social harms and shape the identification of and response to crime. They remain silent on global harms associated with state crime and corporate malfeasance within a context of capitalist globalization and state-corporate linkages.

Even critical theories—which do address the limitations and failings of liberal democratic institutions of criminal justice—have been somewhat slow to analyze and explain shifts in political economy that shape social harms and responses to harm, as well as the character of state institutions and economic processes more broadly. They are derived from theories focused on mass industrial economies and sovereign nation states and have not adequately theorized significant socio-political shifts such as deindustrialization and the rise of informational economies, multinational corporatization, globalization and the decentralization of regulatory practices in surveillance apparatuses. They have also undertheorized associated changes in legal and criminal justice procedures which impose new challenges on the working class and oppressed communities (such as the decline in due process and new practices of criminalization) as well as on would be social reformers.

In response to real lacunae in conventional or mainstream criminology and the perceived gaps in critical theories, some criminologists (Bruce Arrigo, Stuart Henry, Dragan Milovanovic ) have engaged with what might be called postmodern perspectives as developed most robustly in political science and sociology. For these criminologists there has been a pressing need to develop better, more complex, incisive, and reaching, conceptual tools than those that have constrained conventional and critical theories alike. Postmodern criminology has also pursued methodological innovations in discourse analysis, ethnography, cultural studies, and performativity studies.

In analytical terms, postmodern criminology involves a rethinking of social interactions and relations in three areas of social life. First, are broad shifts in political economy, involving realms of production, distribution, and consumption at levels from the local to the global. These include globalization, finacialization of capital, and free trade agreements. Second, are associated shifts in cultural production—and, crucially, in the production of identities. These include subcultures and consumption practices. Third, are changes both in the practices of criminal justice and our understandings of criminal justice, its practices, procedures, and policies. Each of these three broad factors acts back on the others in complex and chaotic feedback loops.

Rather than social relations, as determined structures, postmodern theorists focus on informational networks and immaterial labor within a general intellect (knowledge production), thus emphasizing the social construction of meaning. Communicative feedback loops, including criminal justice systems, are vast processes interlinking particular subject positions signifying crime and justice (often independent of the acts of the constituted subjects themselves).

Political economy in the postmodern period is said to be marked by a dramatic decentralization or dispersal of power through society. More and more sites of power—institutions and organizations—make claims on authority. This still includes the usual institutions of criminal justice like the legislature, police, courts, and corrections. But more and more it comes to include so-called service agencies—social workers, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), guidance counselors, medical professionals, psychology departments in universities and hospitals, and mass media.

Postmodern theorists direct their focus on what they term technologies of the self—procedures and practices like psychology or social media, but also objects like cell phones or laptops—by which people make themselves as subjects of power (regulation, surveillance, and self control).

One of the technologies of the self that takes on growing significance is the expansive field of self-help programming. This becomes a dominant industry involving self-help books and videos, talk show programming, yoga, retreats, meditation, diet plans, training and education, and counselors or gurus who advocate the self help. These trainers or gurus are actually moral entrepreneurs who have something to sell for a profit. What they sell is the controlled, managed individual whose attitudes and behaviors are suitable to economic and political power.

As Heidi Rimke and others note, this self-help industry and its regimes of “self improvement” dovetail nicely with, and contribute to, in vast feedback loops tied to industrial profits, neoliberal social policy and cultural emphasis on personal blame and “responsibility” for the self (by individuals) rather than social care or connectedness.

In neoliberal models the disposed and deprived are excoriated to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” in a world in which society and social justice do not exist (according to none less than Margaret Thatcher) and everyone is said to be responsible wholly for his or her own well being (and becomes a personal failure if they do not manage to do so). Yet postmodern theorists argue that such neoliberal approaches to social order and justice are themselves expressions of power, expressing new shifts in political economy to policies and practices representing and favoring capital markets. These neoliberal perspectives, and institutional practices based on them are expressions not of justice (even criminal justice) but of power.

These transformations in political economy and in culture or ideology impel criminology to question modernist assumptions of criminal justice and develop new concepts and analyses suited to the social and cultural, material and ideational shifts of the present period. This is a call for a new, critical criminology (one that moves beyond the modernist political economy of Marxist inspired critical criminology as well as the liberal focus of conventional criminology).


Further Reading

Arrigo, Bruce A. and Dragan Milovanovic (eds.). 2010. Postmodernist and Post-Structuralist Theories of Crime. London: Ashgate.

Henry, Stuart. 1991. “Introduction: The Post-Modern Perspective in Criminology.” In New Directions in Critical Criminology, Brian D. MacLean and Dragan Milovanovic, eds. Vancouver: Collective Press.

Henry, Stuart and Dragan Milovanovic. 1996. Constitutive Criminology: Beyond Postmodernism. London: Sage.

Rimke, Heidi Marie. 2000. “Governing Citizens through Self-Help Literature.” Cultural Studies 14(1): 61–78.