Public Criminology

Notes on Public Criminology
Mike Larsen and Wade Deisman

Introduction: On Public Sociology

In 2005, Michael Buroway gave the presidential address to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. His speech was entitled ‘For Public Sociology’, and his remarks inspired a reinvigorated debate about the role of sociology – and, by extension, sociologists – in public debates. Burowoy, quoting C. Wright Mills’ seminal work on the sociological imagination, called on sociologists to “[take] knowledge back to those from whom it came, [make] public issues out of private troubles, and thus [regenerate] sociology’s moral fiber” (2005: 5). The bulk of his address was given over to eleven theses or propositions regarding public sociology, culminating in Thesis XI, which called on a public sociology “in defense of the social” and the aspirations of civil society. Burowoy’s rallying cry is also a warning and a critique of the danger of engaging in social scientific research and writing that is insular, self-referential, elitist, or otherwise inaccessible to publics. In contrast to this detached ivory tower, Burowoy paints a vision of a sociology that is vibrant, critical, intimately connected to debates about policy and practice, relevant to a variety of publics, and committed to civil society.

Like a rock tossed in a pond, Burowoy’s address sent ripples throughout the sociological field and adjacent disciplines. Questions abounded: What did it mean, in practice, to ‘do public sociology’? How could the principles of public sociology be defined and put into practice? How could we differentiate between ‘good public sociology’ and ‘bad public sociology’? Who should be involved in sociological claimsmaking? How should we identify and engage in dialogues with various publics? And through what medium (or media) should public sociology communicate? These questions, and many others, remain the subject of vigorous debate.

The latter question – through which media? – is of particular relevance for us. Certain forms of communication such as scholarly books, peer reviewed journals, policy papers and conference presentations have long been recognized as ‘normal’ venues for the presentation of social scientific research. These forms are important, but it is the rare academic text, article, or presentation that reaches beyond the academy and informs broader public debates. A commitment to public sociology demands a broadening of venues and experimentation with various means of ‘public pedagogy’ – journalism, broadcasting, radio, blogging, online and community-based teaching, collective research and publishing, the creation of new tools and resources, etc.

Broadening the Debate: From Public Sociology to Public Criminology

Inspired by Burowoy, a number of criminologists began discussing the merits of public criminology. As a discipline, criminology has always been intertwined with the administration of criminal justice systems, the production of knowledge for purposes of public (or state) policy, and efforts to modify or reform practices. Burowoy’s address didn’t start a new debate so much as it reinvigorated an old one. Criminologist Gregg Barak (2007: 191) has long advocated for ‘newsmaking criminology’, defined as “conscious efforts and activities of criminologists to interpret, influence or shape the representation of ‘newsorthy’ items about crime and justice”. Barak’s approach is informed by the recognition that mainstream, tabloid and alternative news outlets – as well as entertainment media – are obsessed with crime (the adage “if it bleeds, it leads” certainly holds true). Crime is overrepresented as a phenomenon in the news and often subject to problematic misinterpretations. Accordingly, newsmaking criminology aims to contribute to, influence, and, where possible, demystify mass-media portrayals of crime and related activities.

The concept of public criminology goes beyond the traditional concerns with ‘policy relevance’ and extends beyond newsmaking criminology’s focus on mass-media. Public criminology, broadly conceived, involves writing and conducting studies “in a way that engages the crime / justice consumer publics (both those who make crime policy and those who are affected by it) in the meaning of the work. This entails talking to, talking with, and talking about those publics in the production of criminological scholarship” (Clear 2010: 722). Public criminology involves a quest for relevance, and precisely what this entails or how it could be defined is open for debate.

From our perspective, public criminology at its best is a movement and a set of practices grounded in a commitment to informed and participatory democracy. It seeks to engage with a diversity of audiences through a variety of means, and to contribute to a wide range of criminological conversations. Our vision of public criminology is informed by conscious efforts to critique existing approaches to questions of crime and justice, demystify concepts and issues that are laden with political and ideological baggage, situate debates about crime control within a socio-historical context, and facilitate the imagination and exploration of alternative ways of thinking and acting in relation to crime and justice.

  1. With the public, let’s watch “Collateral Murder” (released by WikiLeaks on YouTube) and begin a dialogue about war crimes, obedience to authority, and the illegal invasion of Iraq. See or search with the title and WikiLeaks.

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