When discussing pressing social issues I am often asked ‘what’s that got to do with criminology?’ Perhaps unsurprisingly this question normally comes from people who are unfamiliar with the discipline and possibly expect that anything not commonly associated with things like policing or punishment falls outside of its orbit of inquiry. Yet criminology concerns itself with many facets of the social world and makes use of a number of related fields of study in order to explore and explain crime and criminality. Criminology is therefore what we would call an interdisciplinary subject that, whilst may be described in a number of different ways, could be understood as the social scientific investigation of the causes of crime and criminality and of society’s reaction to criminal and deviant acts.
Because of this broad remit criminology is a complex subject and criminologists certainly have their work cut out for them. To adequately explore the complexity of crime and its causes those who study criminology must look beyond common sense notions, administrative pandering and official discourse. We must explore wider social, political, economic and cultural issues because crime cannot be viewed in isolation from these factors. Therefore, far from being confined to issues of policing, punishment, and other mechanisms of criminal justice, criminology tackles a whole range of other pressing social issues that have the potential to cause harm. Rather than functioning as a telescope fixed on one single element, criminology could perhaps be described as being more like a kaleidoscope in that it views a number of different elements together and considers how they interact and potentially influence crime.
Whilst the picture may be less than clear it is the job of the criminologist to try and make some sense of it, to try and put crime into perspective. This requires us to analyse the wider social, economic, political and cultural context within which crime occurs, society reacts and criminal justice operates. What may appear at first glance to have very little to do with criminology may, upon closer inspection, turn out to be of considerable criminological concern. For example, do zero-hour contracts not have the potential to push people into criminality because of their instability? Does the societal drive to both stand out and fit in by having the latest fashion not have similar potential? Do rapid resource depletion and the enforced mass migration that follows not have the potential to fuel trafficking networks? As social scientists criminologists must maintain a broad contextual view of the social world in order to explore not only acts officially defined as crime but also things that may cause harm. What do consumerism, fashion, social competition and the X Factor have to do with criminology? Probably a lot more than you might think.
Justin Kotzé, May 2017