Monday, July 30, 2012

Limits of the Criminological Imagination

For presentation at the annual meeting of the Association for Humanist Sociology, November 7-11, 2012, Nashville, TN, where the conference theme is “When Race and Class Still Matters,” and where Michelle Alexander, 2010 co-winner of the AHS book award, for The New Jim Crow, will keynote.
Hal Pepinsky, Worthington, OH,,
July 30, 2012
                Basically, criminologists have learned nothing new since criminology began.
                When Anglos colonized what became the United States, their prototypic most dangerous person was a young native brave and a rebellious imposing young black slave.  On the heels of the British defeat in the War of 1812, President Monroe declared all of Latin America to be in the US sphere of influence, and a generation later--after early criminologists had declared the most dangerous persons to be “foreign” young men clustered in urban ghettos—Mexicans and their Spanish colonizers became the leading threat to US national security and expansion of empire.  When the slaves among us were freed, as this year’s keynoter Michelle Alexander well documents--from vagrancy statutes and convict leasing on to this day—poor young men have remained the most criminalized class among us, which the most prized, most quantitatively sophisticated criminological analyses of data, let alone ethnographies, conclude that the “best evidence” continues to show that who we most put in prison reflects the kind of people who are the most dangerous among us.
                Happily, critics have continually challenged this criminological “fact.” I myself propose a new way to study violence and how to transform it.  I see two main problems.  To begin with, it’s a tautology: No matter how it’s drawn, the political line between criminality, and lawmakers and enforcers is a power play, and in power (aka “political”) games, odds favor those who get to make and enforce the power of the penal law.  Second, I join outspoken criminologists (among them humanist sociologists in the tradition of C. Wright Mills) who have recognized that the only apolitical definition of social harm we can come up with is the institutionalization of power itself across generations.  There is no practical or moral justification for claims that some classes are entitled to vilify others.  I accept the radical feminist premise that persistent power over others is violence itself.  In the power game as in the leading criminological imagination, competing to prove who deserves to be on top of whom is up for grabs, and in those terms, I’d argue that the most dangerous class among us are those who hang out in gangs of powerful ageing white men.  The question for me becomes: How do we redress power imbalances?


  1. The only ism missing: capital

    Thumbs up!

  2. Hi Hal, What do you think of Jock's newish book on the criminological imagination as it relates to your post? I used his book n a graduate class and we enjoyed the searing critique of so many obvious omissions by traditional criminology, at least from a cultural criminology perspective. Dave Kauzlarich

  3. Excellent article you write in here and i think most of the people are have this virtue. So they find more similarity with this content and they find more information about the Limits Criminological Imagination