Empowering change: inside activist criminology podcast

Activist criminology seeks to address issues of social injustice, inequality, and oppression within the criminal justice system and wider society. It involves both research and action, aiming to produce knowledge that can be used to challenge and transform the existing power structures and practices that perpetuate injustice. While activist criminology has gained recognition and influence over the past few decades, it is still considered a relatively new and evolving field within criminological research. 

In this podcast, we explore activist criminology and its role in addressing the negative impacts of crime controls on the lives of intersectionally disadvantaged groups in society. Our guests highlight the challenges facing criminologists and their work to address social and criminal injustice. They also discuss their newly launched publication, The Emerald International Handbook of Activist Criminology, which is part of the Emerald Studies in Activist Criminology Series. The series brings together academics, activists, progressive policymakers and practitioners to encourage cutting-edge engagement on topics to effect positive social change.

Speaker profile(s)

Victoria Canning is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Bristol, UK.

Greg Martin is an Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Society in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Steve Tombs is an Emeritus Professor, in the Department of Social Policy and Criminology, at The Open University, UK.

In this episode:

  • What is activist criminology?
  • Why are activist criminologists leaving academia?
  • Should criminologists engage with activists?
  • How can activist criminologists challenge injustice and create systemic change?
  • What is problematic with the term ‘activist’?
  • What’s next for activist criminology?

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Empowering change: inside activist criminology

Rebecca Torr (RT): Hello, I’m Rebecca Torr and welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. As our world continues to experience an unprecedented era of disruption and social change, there is a pressing need for activists and criminologists to work together to expose injustices and challenge harmful norms. Activities must also include ways to tackle the negative impacts of crime controls on the lives of intersectionally disadvantaged groups in society. To discuss these issues, I’m joined by three criminology experts based at universities within the UK and Australia. Victoria Canning is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Bristol, UK.
Victoria Canning (VC): I have done a lot of work with activist organisations, in particular, with people who are seeking asylum and survivors of violence and torture.

RT: Greg Martin is Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Society in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Grey Martin (GM): I've sort of got a combination of background in sociology, law and criminology.

RT: Steve Tombs, is Emeritus Professor at the Department of Social Policy and Criminology, at the Open University in the UK.

Steve Tombs (ST): I started out life as a sociologist, I was a kind of sociologist in disaster. So my PhD was around Bhopal in 1984, the killing of 10s of 1000s of Indians.

RT: Our conversation focuses on the work of activist criminologists, the barriers they face and ways they are challenging injustice. During discussions, my guests also highlight their new publication, The Emerald International Handbook of Activist Criminology, which is part of the Emerald Studies in Activist Criminology Series. Listen in as we delve into the ideas, stories and experiences of these visionary researchers, who are challenging the status quo and driving meaningful change. 
VC: Activist criminology, I think in a nutshell would be criminology, which actively engages in addressing harms of criminalisation, harms of injustice, and other aspects of state and corporate abuses in a way that also works with grassroot organisations, works with also survivors and victims of various abuses and harms. But also, and I think this is really important is, is empirically informed criminology. So whenever we recognise and see abuses or in justices, rather than simplistically documenting about finding solutions to problems and issues, but those problems and issues also do require a kind of, you know, well study, empirical research, ethnography, autoethnography, interviews, survey data, etc, to be able to work kind of conclusively to come to more like proactive outcomes that are beneficial for affected groups.

RT: And so how would you say that criminal justice activism has evolved in recent years?

GM: Well, the actual term activist criminology, was coined by Joanne Belknap, who is an American academic, in a presidential address that she gave to the American Society of Criminology in 2014. That's my, my understanding where the term comes from, she had a fairly sort of generic sort of way of conceiving it as work that's done in a social and legal justice, beyond academia, essentially. So that can be used, you can run with that and use that in any kinds of any sorts of ways really, that then inspired her address, inspired a couple of years later, a special issue of critical criminology in 2015. I think that was, and then really, it's only with our book series, that it's sort of become, I guess, more sort of ossified in a way, you know. So we've got a book series now and the handbook that's attached to that, and you know, the contents of the handbook, pretty much at the moment anyway, because it is a burgeoning sort of area. That is a is a sort of way of thinking about the positioning of activist criminology now and potential ways in which it could develop in the future, but it's a sort of a state of the art as it were, of what is happening in activist criminology as very broadly conceived, at the moment.

ST: One of the things that's changed. Greg alluded to, mentioned Belknap’s speech in 2014, the presidential society speech, where she'd named in a sense named activist criminology, and I think I never thought of what I was doing as activist criminology I was just doing what I did, right. I mean, I was an academic, and I was politically involved. And those things just seem to be natural to me. And I think I can't speak for Greg or Vicki particular. I know Vicky much more well, but I suspect Greg would say the same. I mean, they were doing what they did, and, and this thing then got named. So that's one of the things is changing. So now, I think you have scholars who do recognise themselves as activist scholars, or activist criminologists, or more broadly, activist social scientists. And I think that's probably a very positive thing, because it says to other emerging scholars, that this is a legitimate thing to do, right to combine politics and academic work. That's the first thing I'd say. The second thing I'd say, though, which come upon somewhat counter to that, is that I think it's, I can speak from my experience now, not for others. I started at work 40 years ago in academia, almost 40 years ago. And I think it was easier to be an activist scholar, then, you know, there were far fewer constraints, measurements, performance targets, pressures, as an academic, then, I mean, compared to kind of scholars that we're starting at now, I think it's really difficult for them to plough their own furrow, not seek out state funded work or large research grants, not to kind of worry about their performance measurement in terms of research publications, in terms of teaching rankings. And I didn't have any of those things. And I'm very happy to say that, but I know that that's a privilege to be able to say that. So I think it's, it's also harder to be an activist criminologist now, an activist scholar now, I think, than it was kind of 20, 30, 40 years ago.

VC: Can I just add to that, I think it is something that we address in the introduction, actually, is the harms of the neoliberal university and the impact that that has on two groups. One is those who are involved in activist criminology and, and everything else. And also, I think the potential for harming or impacting upon groups that academics work with, for the reason being that one, you know, there are there is always a risk of co-option, basically being co opted into, you know, REF related impact agendas, etc, which we have in the UK, that's not an international thing. But we've got the Research Excellence Framework. And then the question becomes, well, what is a legitimate political agenda around activist criminology or activist academia, and what has the potential for exploitation or co-opting into university based agenda, indicator factors, etc. And I think that that's something that those who are involved in the high level processes of running in academia really need to recognise as a risk. And as I've mentioned to people previously, but we actually have had some of our contributors, who have been working in academia, since the activist handbook came into fruition, have actually left academia to go and work in other sectors. And only recently, I've also resigned and undecided on whether or not to stay in academia, given the environment that Steve has just kind of outlined, and I don't think we should think of the historic aspects Steve, that you experienced in academia as a privilege, it should be normalised. That's actually what we should have, we should be striving for a university that is ethical, and produces conditions under which we can actually all thrive.

RT: So with so many people leaving academia, is there a way that they can still contribute then to the research part of it? I mean, is that still available to them? Because like, it's, it seems that that would be a lot of knowledge being taken away if they don't, if they're not involved.

GM: One of the sort of aspirations, I guess, of the book series, is to have activists involved in the publications, that's something that we would be, we would very much welcome. And to have a much more sort of creative and sort of expansive way of thinking about a book series with a publisher. So that's, that's how, one of the ways we've tried to conceive of it, but we're running a sort of career research career alongside another career is, is very hard. So whether that's even possible remains to be seen.

RT: I think it brings us on to the questions around engagement with activists, and I think it'd be quite interesting to get your views on sort of how you think criminologists should act, should they engage with activists and what can be gained from engagement? What can be gained from not engaging, maybe standing back?

ST: Look, I think it's not necessarily a choice any one individual can make, I mean, I can speak for myself, I mean, I didn't decide to engage with activists or non academics it was, you know, I develop relationships over long periods of time and, you know, develop that based upon trust and based upon reciprocity. And lots of non academics are quite rightly and communities. I mean, I think, for example of the folk in and around Grenfell, very, very suspicious of, of researchers coming in and seeing this as a laboratory and a place to kind of plunder really, for research rankings or whatever. So I think it's not, it's not necessarily a choice, but I think, you know, as one doesn't engage in as one does work, as I said, reciprocally, then trust is developed. And then the upside of that, to be very frank, I mean, you know, it does then give you access as, as an academic, to places and to people and to experiences you would otherwise never be able to access, right. And it's, despite the fact I've dealt with death for 35 to 40 years, it's been a really, really uplifting experience working with the various people I've worked with. And it's also helped me I mean, I had my own bereavement, I lost two brothers in a very short space of time a few years ago. And the support of people who had been through similar experience really helped me. So I think those things about reciprocity and trust, and long term ongoing relationships are really important, and so I don't think necessarily, you could just make a choice. But I think you have to be open to open to those, those that that engagement and those experiences. But but but for me, selfishly, and luckily, very, very, I feel very, very lucky, very privileged to have had those experiences.

RT: You did and it's incredible. And like you said, when it's based on relationships, it's not like you necessarily choose to make those relationships, they happen or they don't happen. And so and then you you run with it, but you're not, you're not going to let those people down, and vice versa, I guess. So I'm quite interested as well about what you can do as criminologists to work against the negative impacts of crime controls, especially on those that are intersectionally disadvantaged in society, and I know Vicky obviously worked in this area quite a bit. So I mean, what challenges do they face? And what can you do as a criminologist to sort of help them?

VC: I think that there are loads of ways of looking at and addressing that question. One does kind of require perspective and what the inputs are from academia sort of that way round. One important factor for me, and I hope other think also for Greg and Steve, is to inform in ways that don't facilitate the expansion of controls, and this sort of, you know, the octopus hands, which is unfair and occupied. But, you know, the kind of ways in which these can insidiously actually end up expanding. And I think that's something that we try and work against. So that's, that's how we use language is how we use evidence of the harms of criminalisation when we think about places such as, as prison as being places of pain, and injustice as being inherently built on violent ideologies, not only around control, but around the kind of psychological and emotional impacts that this has also on how that impacts on families as well. So Steve was talking earlier about working with families, both from the victims of Grenfell, but also families against corporate killings and stuff. As an example, we forget that there are so many people affected by aspects of both criminal justice and broader forms of injustice, as well as corruption actually, which is facilitated through some of these kinds of the ways in which power, power works through the many facets of criminal justice approaches. And some of those, I think, for me as well, thinking from some of my other perspectives, the problems that that causes in net widening, as Dan Cohen would have said, net widening into so many other non criminal justice arenas, so recognising things like, you know, the way universities are used to control borders, the way in which that social housing facilitates the control of poorer people. I think one of the things is recognising the expansiveness of those harms, and not adding to them. So strangely, one thing activists criminologist can do is not add to the harms of criminalisation and criminal justice by being co-opted into the expansive ways in which they develop. Quite often people who are affected by injustices have got many of the great answers to how that can be responded to. So I think there's something about academics, rather than, you know, addressing or implementing hypotheses is listening first, and then responding. And that's something that I've been doing. I mean, for example, I recently finished a book called Torture and Torturous Violence. And I've worked both with survivors of torturous violence, and other forms of sexualized and domestic abuse. But also, before I published the book, I went out to many of the people involved in the processes, lawyers, social workers, survivors, and ask them if I was on the right tracks, I make sense, rather than just ‘well, here's why I think’, I actually consulted with people who were both experientially and professionally involved in the process. So I think a conversation and reciprocal relationships and discussions between invited parties is really important, actually.

GM: That co-production of knowledge or co-generation of knowledge, where academics, scholars, whatever you want to call us, or them, work with activists to you know, produce. So, you know, there are a few things have changed over recent years, you know, we've, we've seen a kind of an acknowledgement that social movements, for example, and activists are producers of knowledge, and that we, as academic researchers can co-produce knowledge with. So, there's a flattening of the relationship, as it were, between those two actors. But we've also seen, and this goes to something that Steve was saying previously, a kind of debunking of the idea of neutral social scientific knowledge production as well. And it's okay for us to have a sort of politics that we engage with, that isn't objective or neutral, because we can't be objective and neutral anyway, because we're human beings, and so on and so forth. So, there's a couple of things going on there, which are broader kind of trends and developments in the philosophy of the social sciences, I guess, that activist criminology, plugs into. 

ST: One of the charges against those of us who kind of take sides so to speak or we would call ourselves or be called activist criminologists is that we're not being kind of neutral, we're not being value free, we're not taking the kind of the being objective, and so on, which are kind of key claims in certain traditions of social science. But of course, the folks who aren't activist criminologists, or folks who are taking money from the state, they're not being neutral, either, but nobody ever questions their independence, their neutrality, their value freedom. So, I would, I would always kind of lob that charge back at those who would lob at me or us. The second thing to say is quite different, which is that my experience is not all the people I've worked with over the years, but of working with those bereaved by corporate or state killings. As criminologists, we tend to think the answers to a violation, including death, lie in the criminal law, right, that's where accountability is found, because that's kind of what we do is a discipline. And of course, some family, some individuals, some households do want criminal justice responses to the loss of a loved one. But what they mostly want, in my experience, is some form of systemic change where other families or other households or other individuals in that same situation, so they want accountability, which means prevention. They don't want accountability, which means punishment. And that's a really instructive lesson for us, as criminologists, which I think we learned through our, well, I've certainly learned through my engagement with those who've been bereaved by state and corporate killings.

GM: That's where the activism part of the criminology thing comes in. Because social movements, and activism is about not only recognising, diagnosing, a problem or an issue or an injustice or whatever, but trying to bring about some kind of change, systemic change. And that's where the activist stuff comes. In many ways activist criminology is a species of critical criminology in that sense that it diagnoses the harms, as Vicki was talking about, the harms that are done by corporations, the harms that are perpetrated by the state, and so on, and so forth. But there's the added aspect of that is the activist side to things where things are in need of change. And that's where the activism comes in.

VC: I've written and been involved in many projects around borders and the harms of borders, deaths of borders, social, you know, the impacts of poor social housing, etc. I didn't wake up one day just coming to conclusions that these were just, you know, oh, here's some problems and I'll just kind of relay these because now I've got a bee in my bonnet about borders. I interviewed more than 100 practitioners, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours of people seeking asylum, as I wrote in the gendered harm book. You know, I've been in asylum housing, I've been in initial accommodation and immigration detention centers, many spaces which the same objective actors including policymakers, who implement decisions around some of these spaces have never been. When I was writing at the time, Theresa May was Home Secretary. Theresa May had never been to asylum housing. So subsequently, the idea that that there is not a process by which these conclusions are made, actually undermines the significance of the research, the ethnographies, the lived experience of the many people that we've worked with, to come to rational, reasonable, well analysed concerns and conclusions about the structural, you know, violences, that are so deeply embedded in so many of people's everyday lives. So actually, quite often, you're going to find the people who are most, have most access, to recognising the realities of situations, are those who are most easily ignored by saying, oh, well, you can't be objective. And that's where this myth of you know, value neutrality and objective academia can just be kind of, you know, addressed, and quashed to be honest. 

GM: Part of the critique of the law, and part of the critique of the criminal justice system is that the law is neutral. You know, that's the critique. The critique is that the law isn't neutral. The law is made, invented, created by certain people for certain interests, and so on and so forth. The criminal law is not objective. It's a certain set of laws that are put on in place on the statute books for certain purposes. You know, one of the other things, and Vic and Steve can talk about this bit more, because they've written a book on it, is that we're interested in as critical criminologist and activist criminologists, things that aren't defined as crimes, things that are harmful things that are harms, not just crime. So it's a much more broad and expansive view and understanding of what's going on beyond the criminal justice system. You know, and I think Vic kind of touched on this, where she talked about all of the various injustices that activist criminology wants to touch upon.

VC: I would add to that, that that requires us, like there were there was a distinction between a zemiological lens, though, and the criminological lens, and that's what we discussed in the introduction, I think, in some depths is that this book, and these kinds of approaches, are addressing the expansive ways that criminal justice, criminalisation,  and those harms of those systems go through, there are many other things that are irrelevant or unrelated to criminology, because they’re zemiological, because they don't relate to the law, they don't relate to transgressions, or criminalisation. That's a kind of separate thing, that we would look at that you know, the kinds of harms of social housing that impacts people's breathing, for example, you know, this is quite often far removed, and never ends up in kind of criminal justice cases. An example I really think is important right now right now is that actually, through these processes, which are silencing processes around objectivity and value neutrality, the term activist can often be used to undermine, actually really relevant and important actions. And only last week, as I was at the British Society of Criminology as it happened, the Rwanda flights, the idea to deport people to Rwanda, had been by Priti Patel called, activist lawyers. So those who were involved in the process, these were activist lawyers, they were getting in the way of, you know, the best objectives of the British government. And in fact, they were able to overturn at the Court of Appeal last week, the process of outsourcing to Rwanda to deporting people to Rwanda as a third country. And actually what you could really see very clearly there was these activists lawyers, in inverted commas, were dedicated professionals who were doing their job and upholding the law against actually what was a corrupt decision making process by the state who would otherwise have been acting unlawfully. So, I think it's also important to say that this kind of term activist is often used to deride actions, which in fact, in the conclusionary phases, can actually be upholding the law against the state's own criminal actions.

GM: And in fact, activists are criminalised increasingly from both all of our vantage points in UK, increasingly criminalised police given almost total control over protests, whether to ban them or not. We've got several pieces of legislation that have recently been put in place across Australian states, here in Australia that, you know, impose very large fines and prison sentences for locking onto equipment, so on and so forth. We saw during the coronation, you know, where anti monarchist Republic protesters were detained for 16 hours for supposedly carrying on equipment, for locking on, and so on and so forth. So, it goes even further, in a sense, beyond what Vicki’s saying, to sort of extend to activists actually being criminals. I mean, I've written quite a bit over the years about criminalisation of dissent. 

RT: It's so fascinating listening to you, and I think all of what you're talking about is, is an area that is not so much really understood, like in the general population, I don't think people necessarily, you know, have this sort of information, or really understand the different viewpoints. And I think, obviously, you've published this handbook now, the Emerald International Handbook of Activist Criminology, and just, I know you've touched on it, here and there, since you've been talking, but it'd be quite interesting to find out from you why you think it was, you know, the right time to produce something like a handbook? And, you know, and how you think that might impact the field of criminology?

VC: We're at a time where there is a drive, there is a necessity to engage with bringing these various fields together, to get across these concerns to as wide an audience as possible. So not just within academia, we're at a crisis point in relation to the environment, and yet to rather than respond to this in addressing corporate harms and crimes, we respond by developing new laws to kill protest, and to increase the potential for people to be criminalised. So, this this is happening around us now, we're seeing where it is more problematic to save lives at sea, and be criminalised for, for stopping people drowning in the Mediterranean, then allowing more than 24,000 people to drown in the Mediterranean since 2014. So, you know, whenever you've got such a contrast between what the serious issues are, and who was actually criminalised for trying to respond to these ethically, and actually, I would say morally, then that is the time to engage in thinking about how academia can use its force, how criminology can use its force, to make shifts for the positive. 

RT: The Handbook is part of a bigger series, and it might be quite interesting to find out what your aims are for that series and hope it achieves?

GM: We've got one book already in the series, and we're always looking for others. And we've got two new editors involved as well, that bring to the book series, you know, different perspectives, and experiences, and so forth. So that is an exciting development as well. It's exciting, and it's reasonably new. But hopefully, the handbook will provide some inspiration for people who are interested in this area, they can have a look at it and think, well, maybe my research, my PhD research or whatever, plugs into that and submit a proposal and we can take it from there.

ST: What I would say is, if I had a hope for the series, following on what Greg's just said, it would be seen as a place which would publish books that other series wouldn't publish. So, I think it's, you know, it publishes kind of a bit of stuff from the margins, not just, but it's a home for things that otherwise might not find a home. And if it achieves that, which I'm sure it will, then I'm really happy to have been a part of its of its kind of genesis.

RT: That's a wonderful hope, and I think is a really exciting series. And it's quite varied. And you've got a lot of different perspectives and some conflicting ones. And I think it all adds to the interest and challenging each other. And I guess, when we think of activist criminology, it's, it's sort of looking at how it can make a difference to injustice in the future. And I guess my last question to you is, what's next for activist criminology, how do you see it evolving in the future? And what can it really do to challenge injustice? 

VC: I think that what already exists to a degree shouldn't be undermined there, that I mean, I coordinate the European grip for the study of deviance and social control, for example, I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many people engaged in unbelievable grassroot work, we'd like to see or certainly I'd like to see that work come into fruition in their own independent terms. So, you know, be able to drill down on to some of these kinds of relatively unknown subject areas and forms of injustice, even reading the, you know, when we were editing the handbook, you know, I'm learning as I go along, I'm going through the chapters thinking, wow, you know, this, this works that this person has done or, you know, I didn't know what Craftivism was, or there's some colleagues in some parts of the world that I'm thinking, I would never have known this if I wasn't coming to edit this handbook. So personally, I just love to see the capacity for those people who are engaged in such great work to have a platform to be heard and to also shape the fields themselves. We're now welcoming Biko Agozino and Valeria Vegh Weis who have been instrumental in their areas of topics onto the team, we're actually excited to see what they want to do with what we've been doing with the series so far, and where that can go in an international and geographical sense, but also in how they see activist criminology and how they want to influence and as we move forward, which is a really exciting time. 

RT: Thank you for listening to our episode on Activist Criminology. You can find more information about our guests, and a transcript of the episode, on our website. I'd like to thank my guests for joining me and sharing their insights, along with Podcast Producer Daniel Ridge, and the studio This is Distorted.