An undeniable advantage of being a criminologist is that it sounds cool. Granted, the coolness factor of saying, ‘I’m a criminologist’ wears off quickly, usually when you admit that you cannot solve crime, are not a profiler and know little about psychopaths. But criminology is still one of the flashier branches of sociology.
Critical criminology is especially cool. We fight the system and question cultural hegemony. We investigate the criminal justice system and modes of surveillance. We challenge definitions of crime. We like hanging out with drug dealers, refugees, prostitutes or anyone, really, who is perceived as deviant by mainstream society.
There are many different schools of thought within critical criminology. We may have our differences, but we can all agree on who we are not like: financial analysts and bankers, clean-cut, serious people in suits who have starting salaries tenured professors can only dream of – those people we all know who sit in steel and glass towers and play with highly complex mathematical models, who can make millions at the wink of an eye. We criminologists may work with concepts like capitalism, neo-liberalism or consumer culture. But we mostly look at how they affect people at the bottom of the social ladder. Rarely do we look at those prospering from our current financial system.
This is a problem
This is a problem because in 2007 our financial system crashed spectacularly, and we as criminologists have not made any meaningful contribution to explaining why it happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again.
Our failure to tackle this topic is symptomatic of a hole in the very fabric of criminology: the discipline’s failure to research and theorise those in positions of relative power. Most ‘Introduction to Criminology’ textbooks feature a chapter on how corporate crime, state crime and human rights abuse are under-researched, to then just go back to talking about drug-addicts and violent teenagers.
In this post I will speculate on some of the reasons so few criminologists engage with the financial crisis and corporate crime in general. I will also show why we need to overcome these barriers and I will share some ideas on how we might do so.
As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons we shy away from researching the financial crisis. The first is that many of us think we don’t understand the complex workings of the financial market well enough to research the people and institutions involved in causing the crisis. The second is that many criminologists are squeamish about researching behaviour that is not technically illegal.
Reason One: ‘Don’t criticise what you can’t understand’ – Why Bob Dylan might have been wrong on this one
The events that led up to the financial crisis are complicated. I’ve spent at least the last year catching up on economic theory and reading about the crisis. And yet I still couldn’t tell you how exactly securitization works or what Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) are. This stuff is tedious and much less cool than drug dealers and football hooligans. And it is really, really complicated. The algorithms that banks base their actions on are so complicated they are now developed by physicists and mathematicians rather than economists. Many critical criminologists have a healthy mistrust of statistics and numbers to begin with. This makes us feel cautious about venturing into a world where numbers are everything. How are we as social scientists supposed to meaningfully critique work that we don’t even understand?
To answer this question I’d like to share a conversation I had a few years ago with a devout Christian. This Christian told me that I could not reasonably call myself an atheist or claim that the bible was not an expression of the will of god if I had not read the whole bible. Since she had read it all and I had only read parts, there was really no point in even listening to my arguments.
We can easily see the logical error of this standpoint. If I reject the very idea of a supernatural being expressing its will by influencing people to write a book, the content of this book doesn’t much matter. And even if you accept that the content of the bible would have some relevance, only allowing people who have read all of it into the conversation, is extreme.
The effect of this argument is to make any kind of critical discussion impossible. By only allowing certain people into the discussion, you effectively control the opinions that can be voiced. I believe that this is what has happened in the way we discuss the economy.
Much of mainstream economics is expressed in highly complex mathematical theories that I can’t even begin to comprehend, let alone apply. Anyone who really wants to understand the principles of investment banking and financial speculations needs to invest some serious time into the mathematics controlling it all. You need to have read the bible in order to criticize it.
We can see why this reasoning is a load of unsubstantiated rubbish if we look at the people who do understand the maths behind economic theory. All those individuals working out these highly complex, beautiful algorithms and producing such solid and scientific knowledge looked on in ‘shocked disbelief’ as share prices plummeted, firms went bankrupt, and the whole economy took a turn that all their lovely theories had not forcast. Apparently, mathematical theories could not predict that they themselves might not be able to predict reality.
So, how could things go so wrong?
There are two main reasons why all those intelligent people who were in charge of keeping an eye on things screwed up so spectacularly. Actually, there are more than two – but these are the two I find most remarkable.
The first reason was originally described by John Maynard Keynes in 1938 and is now being reanimated by Post-Keynesians. In short, Keynes said that classical economists built their theories on incorrect axioms. In other words, although they worked in themselves, these theories were not designed for the world we actually live in. Paul Krugman put it nicely when he said that economists had mistaken beauty for truth. These theories would do a perfectly fine job in a universe in which everyone behaved according to the rules of economic rationality. As long as everybody is led by their own self-interest, the free market will always right itself, managed by an invisible hand.
Obviously this is not the world we live in. People have complex motivations way beyond their self-interest. So this branch of academics has turned out to be, well, wrong. Beautiful, sophisticated, highly intelligent, but nevertheless completely unsuited to the real world.
We nevertheless treat everything involving numbers with a weird kind of reverence, and this is the second reason so few experts saw it coming. This reverence is connected with the definition of what we regard as scientific and scientific methodology. When people use the word science, they tend to mean natural sciences. The very term ‘scientific method’ demonstrates this bias. It implies that there is only one way of doing science and if you don’t adhere to the ‘scientific method’ your results aren’t going to be as valid as those of ‘real scientists’. If you’re a social scientist you probably look at the world a little differently. You know that it’s a messy place and that people tend to have complex personalities that you cannot capture using linear methodology. Social science methodology tries to capture complexities of human interaction, and embraces the messiness of reality.
Nowhere is it more necessary to embrace messiness than in criminology. Whenever we talk about crime or deviance we must remember that these words are ultimately social constructs. We can infer a moral meaning. We can take crime and the consequences of crime seriously and invest our time and resources looking for ways to reduce and prevent it. But we must accept that there are competing definitions of crime, and that these are always an exercise in power. Criminology must always reflect on itself in the tradition of critical social science.
One of the main reasons that economic theory is so screwed up is that it is treated as a natural science when in reality it is a social science. This has been pointed out by Post-Keynesian theorists such as Paul Davidson. Everything that does not adhere to the scientific method is unscientific and thus no good. This scientific paradigm puts economists in a deadlock. Their methodology is taken from natural sciences and mathematics. Their area of interest is human behaviour, which makes it a decidedly social science. By valuing one mode of scientific discovery more than the other, economists ended up with a theoretical framework that didn’t work.
When people did not behave like interacting robots, they were charged with irrationality and dismissed. Something is wrong when you’ve got to start insulting your research subject for not behaving the way your theory predicts.
2. Researching harmful but technically legal behaviour makes us uneasy
The second major point that makes researching the financial crisis difficult for criminologists is that most of what caused it is not even illegal.
There is a significant difference between criminology and other scientific disciplines. The whole nature of our field depends on how we define one simple five-letter word: crime.
Those who research crime have not always agreed on the need to define it. After all, in a black and white world where the law is purely a formalisation of moral norms, defining crime is easy. Criminologists research why people break the law and how we can stop them from doing so. This worked well for a while. And then, along came conflict theorists and constructivists.
Two mantras have stuck with me from my ‘Introduction to Criminology’ class. Louk Hulsman’s ‘there is no ontological reality to crime’ and Howard S. Becker’s ‘deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.’ ‘Crime’, it turns out, is merely a construct. Furthermore, this construct is deliberately used as a means of oppression. Those with the power to define what counts as crime use this concept as a means of social stratification by criminalizing behaviour that challenges their privileged position. Accepting this paradigm means shifting criminology’s gaze away from the simplistic ‘why do people commit crimes?’ to ‘how is the notion of criminality or deviance ascribed to a person or act?’ In this paradigm the way we deal with crime (or deviant behaviour) becomes more interesting than crime itself and the fields of prison research and surveillance studies have rightfully prospered.
Recognizing the constructed nature of what we usually mean when we use the word ‘crime’ has opened up many new and prosperous areas of research. But it has also robbed us of something. It has made us reluctant to see the word’s moral component. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and when people harm other people (or the environment, or animals) knowingly to further their own self-interest, that is wrong. Obviously this statement is open to criticism. There is too much disagreement on what is morally rightfor us to find a definition of ‘crime’ as a moral wrong. This makes working with moral concepts complicated, I get that. But saying it is difficult (or maybe even impossible) to agree on one moral belief system is not the same as saying that such a basis does not exist.
Another reason critical criminologists like to pretend there is no moral basis to the word ‘crime’ is that it makes us vulnerable to attacks from our peers. The worst insult you can throw at a critical criminologist is calling them a moral entrepreneur or to accuse them of ‘left punitivism’. Calling others ‘criminals’ is what the powerful do to delegitimize their enemies, to discipline their young. It is our job to expose that. How can we offer a critique of how society reacts to deviant behaviour and at the same time argue that all bankers should be locked up? We can’t, the argument goes, criticize the way the label ‘crime’ is used by the state and society and then go ahead and use it ourselves.
Let’s take a moment to deconstruct this argument. It is based on the assumption that a critical criminologist will, by definition, always have a political agenda in looking at things. If this agenda is typically harm reduction and decriminalization when we talk about street crime, it only stands to reason that we are going to argue for criminalization of white collar and corporate crime. Alternatively we would have to accept that criminalization might be as bad an idea for unethical behaviour in the financial sector as it is for drug abuse and prostitution. I don’t know if more punitiveness in the way we deal with white collar and corporate crime is a good or a bad idea. But the mere fact that a question only has uncomfortable answers cannot be reason not to ask it.
Whose side are we on?
Critical criminologists like to think of themselves as fighting for the underdog. Admitting to a moral component of crime seems to endanger that. If we start calling other people ‘criminals’ we turn into the people we have been previously criticising. What is there to stop us from calling everything we don’t like a crime? If we grant ourselves the power to define, what is there to stop us abusing it?
These are legitimate concerns that need to be answered. But they are answerable. Letting this kind of reasoning stop us from developing new definitions of crime amounts to little more than theoretical cowardice. If we keep relying on legal definitions of crime to determine what kind of behaviour we can or cannot study we let the state continue to decide what criminology should be about. We may look at our topics more critically, but we are still only looking at what we’re told to look at.
One way of dealing with the moral component of crime is to use a social harm approach. This approach enables us to define a crime by its victims. And the financial crisis has more than enough of those. The criminology of the financial crisis might stand to learn a lot from green criminology in how to approach technically legal but harmful behaviours. (See also these guys)
Focusing the gaze of criminology on behaviour that is harmful yet technically legal will not only enrich criminology, it will also make us re-examine some of the fundamental theoretical frameworks of our discipline. If we start looking at economic behaviour that is formally legal but causes harm, we have to look at the rest of our theoretical framework. What happens to a control theory when following orders is what makes you cause harm? What role do deterrence or shaming play in controlling risky behaviour? Can the ideals of restorative justice or abolutionism be transferred to dealing with bankers who’ve lost billions of dollars of other people’s money?
By being afraid to look at technically legal behaviour through the lens of criminology we are putting ourselves in a theoretical deadlock that makes it hard to see the world clearly. We recognize that something is wrong with how the term ‘crime’ is used and we start to investigate exactly how we use it. To then start looking at legal behaviour and point a finger and cry ‘crime’ seems hypocritical, so we don’t do it. And as a result we just don’t look at certain things too closely.
So what now?
What all these things boil down to is that we are letting other people decide what criminology is all about. And we spend our energy and time looking at tiny bits of what is an intricate and complicated aspect of modern life. And while we are looking at riots or gentrification or privatization of prisons, we quickly loose sight of the big picture.
Why are we letting this happen? Because it’s the easiest thing to do. Not necessarily in terms of the work involved. I am not charging those researchers who struggle with gatekeepers like prison administration and who put themselves in dangerous situations in the course of their research with being lazy. By staying clear of the financial crisis as a research topic we avoid having to explore our own ideological and theoretical limitations. And we waste all the potential that criminology has to illuminate one of the most significant events of our time.