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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

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Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be forced coerced to do another’s bidding.  It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.

Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.

Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.

It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).

Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.  

Lee,  Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12

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