Critical Criminology and Neoliberalism

I was shaken to learn that Jock Young had died on 16 November 2013. His obituary in The Guardian is here. We were the same age and I went to two meetings of the National Deviancy Symposium at York, as well as publishing, together with Gerald Popplestone an article on labelling theory. I had also bought three other books of the period Stanley Cohen‘s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), falling apart after decades of re-reading it, Laurie Taylor Deviance and Society (1971) and Eric Hobsbawm Primitive Rebels (1959).

There the similarity ends, as Jock became a leading researcher in critical criminology while I went on to do research on ordoliberalism. Yet my interest in symbolic interaction remained, and has been the one constant in my research life ever since the late 1960s.

I decided to buy the first two volumes of Young’s trilogy (as I already had read the third) and to read them in the sequence they were written. At first I was puzzled by the fact that the first two described “late modernity” is similar terms. It looked as if the first two volumes described a similar world that had much in common with neoliberalism. They also dealt little with symbolic interactionism, in contrast to the third volume which did, in the context of C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination. The Criminological Imagination published in 2011 turned out to be Jock’s last book. It has as a major theme the concept of abstracted empiricism and as Young argues the return to positivism reflects the obsession with statistics, not only as a prime example of what Mills called abstracted empiricism, but also as an example of Grand Theory which has little of nothing to say about the experiences of real life people in everyday situations.

Indeed the combination of abstracted empiricism and grand theory have produced a sterile neoliberal criminology fixated on gobbledygook like statistical measure of journals “performance” in terms of impact factor.

I felt that the cusp of change which is mentioned briefly must contain the reason, as I had also experienced the reversion to neoliberalism, both in Aberdeen and in Minnesota. Coming back to Britain in 1979 to the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS) I felt the early impact of Thatcherism in the land of my birth. There were no symbolic interactionists in CURS, nor was there any hint of ordoliberalism as there was in Sweden. I began to realise that the cusp of change (1965 to 173) after the National Deviancy Symposium was part of a world wide reversion to neoliberalism.

I decided to check out a chapter in a book edited by Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998), where the cusp of change was the subject of chapter 14 by Jock Young Writing on the Cusp of Change: a new criminology for an age of late modernity. Here Young shows how the two first volumes were united by the spread of neoliberalism:

“The two intellectual currents that signalled the supposed ‘end of history’ are neoliberalism – the market philosophy of the new right – and postmodernism, one reviving a laissez-faire past as the key to effective government policy, the other basing its claims on a post-industrial future where all enlightenment certainties are rendered inapplicable.” Jock Young “Writing on the Cusp of Change: a new criminology for an age of late modernity” in Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998) Ch. 14 pp. 262-263). Chapter 6 by Stan Cohen was also of great interest, and there were several others as well.

The tragedy is that now many of the key critical criminologists including Jock Young are dead. Many died surprisingly young. Ian Taylor was only 56 in 2001. I remember the time Phil Strong brought him round to my Aberdeen flat in Prospect Terrace. Stanley Cohen died in the same year as Jock Young, also born in 1942, Eric Hobsbawm also passed away in 2012, aged 95. Laurie Taylor is retired. Anyone who has been to the National Deviancy Symposium has met him, however briefly.

But there are many more to continue the work of the founders, and my folder on critical criminology is rather large. Several have contributed to Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology Revisited (1998). Feminist issues figure prominently. Pat Carlen is now Honorary Professor at Leicester University. Jock Young’s old website has been taken over by Dave Harris and Colleagues. Some of the file on the original website have been retrieved, like this one on Sub-cultures, or this one on techniques of neutralisation:(Sykes and Matza), and on Critical Criminology.  See also Martin Niklaus on Fat-Cat Sociology at the Colorado University website.

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