On Some Limits and Paradoxes of Academic Orations on Public Criminology

Nicolas Carrier

Science (...) presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is ‘worth being known’. In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means.

- Max Weber (1922[1946:143])


There is now a significant and diverse contemporary academic literature revolving around the allegedly untapped potential that the social sciences (or social scientists’ orations) present for acting upon modes of social organization and social relations, through their ability to enlighten or otherwise influence the beliefs and attitudes held by ‘the public’.1 This massive and ever growing literature has been described by Nickel (2010) as representing nothing less than a looming “public turn in the social sciences”. Yet, typically, calls for de-cloistering academic communications to more directly target either ‘the public’ or specific ‘publics’ are made with regard to a singularized discipline. As such, they typically take the following form: ‘for a public [enter discipline]’. One can thus read, in highly specialized peer-reviewed journals, articles on public sociology, public philosophy, public ethnography, public history, public economics, public international relations, public anthropology, public criminology, and so on—something that Wacquant (2011) ridiculed as a disciplinary disease, that of “public-itis”.2 This article almost entirely limits itself to its criminological nosography.

Contributions on public criminology manifest themselves within highly specialized academic networks of communications. Most constitute interventions to stimulate its development. As will be critically discussed at greater length below, calls for public criminology typically start by lamenting the diminished influence of criminology, and by evoking an urgent need to reverse this trend, given what is usually referred to as the punitive turn characterizing contemporary liberal democracies. Not infrequently, contributions on public criminology take on a confessional path, recounting one’s frustrating or heroic adventures in trying to be a public criminologist, hoping to provide roadmaps and warnings to an academic public confronted with the normative—rather than cognitive—injunction to ‘go public’. Throughout this article I shall refer to this type of contributions as public criminology’s ‘cookbooks’.

Calls for public criminology suggest various forms of division of criminological labour, frequently begging for a greater academic recognition of criminologists’ involvement in non-academic communication networks, particularly in the mass media. Criminologists are invited to embrace Marx’s (1845) eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, to practice a form of criminology that is relevant, geared towards having an impact outside academia, particularly by making a difference in how people think and feel about criminological objects, and how sovereign power is exercised upon them. A repeated exhortation found in cookbooks is to use a discourse that can easily travel outside of academic frontiers. This article identifies some limits of the core qualities of academic orations on public criminology: the division of criminological labour, the diminished influence of criminology, the framework of relevance, the framework of transmission, and the framework of impact. In some cases, these limits can be observed as paradoxes folded into the work of the proselytizers. Such is the case, notably, in what I will call the paradox of mastery, where critics of social control show themselves obsessed with controlling and manipulating their fellow citizens, as well as in the paradox of exclusion, where critics of exclusionary policies advocate for public criminological discourses and engagements premised on the negation of the validity of certain criminological discourses. To be clear: my object is constituted by communications in the scientific system, not by the many utterances of academics outside academic communication networks. Whether or not the civic engagements of criminologists actually display the limits and paradoxes observable in academic calls for public criminology is a question that could inform future empirical research, and on which I shall not speculate in this article.

From Public Sociology to Public Criminology

In the case of academic contributions and debates related to public criminology, calls for a public criminology are mostly made through a discussion of, or superficial reference to, Burawoy’s (e.g. 2005a, 2005b, 2004) division of sociological labour. Burawoy suggested distinguishing public sociology from three other forms of sociology. Like ‘policy sociology’, public sociology would concern itself mainly with an extra-academic audience. But whereas policy sociology is premised on an instrumental relation to knowledge, public sociology would be mobilizing a form of knowledge characterized by its reflexivity. ‘Critical sociology’ and ‘professional sociology’ constitute the two other types of sociology from which public sociology is distinguished. They both target an academic audience, and, here again, the distinction instrumental/reflexive knowledge would enable us to separate professional from critical sociology.

Burawoy’s typology and call for public sociology have generated many debates and critiques, that he himself described as ‘the public sociology wars’ (2009).3 Leaving aside the question of the influence that these debates have had and continue to have on the minds and practices of academics, it is clear that, to use Burawoy’s types, they show the characteristics of professional and critical sociology: discussions and publications on public sociology take place through mediums targeting an academic audience, usually having to cross the borders policed by the peer-review process. That the same could happen to public criminology—that it could become a self-referential discussion amongst academics within academia—is a fear that has already been expressed by Loader and Sparks (2010a:18) in their influential Public Criminology?
The articulation of many discussions on public criminology to the model provided by Burawoy is made by silencing previous and different calls for public sociology, which did not insist, like Burawoy, on building a consensus between sociology/sociologists and various publics through the maintenance of hierarchical epistemologies. Moreover, they were not “focused on stabilizing and popularizing professional sociology” (Nickel, 2010:696). Prior to Burawoy’s offensive, Agger (2000), Feagin (2001) and Gans (1989) called for a public sociology conceived as “a mode of writing that reveals that it is subjective authoring rather than an objective observation, [which] engages in self-translation with a public in mind, and addresses major public issues” (Nickel, 2010:695). Tittle (2004) has similarly noted, but from quite a different epistemological posture, that Burawoy’s model hides or fails to recognize the fallibility of sociological knowledge. As such, the model that public sociology has oftentimes provided for criminology, through Burawoy’s influence, is not one clearly premised on the intention to avoid the condescension of distributing epistemologies hierarchically.4 Echoing anthropological and philosophical debates on the ‘crisis of representation’ (e.g. Marcus, 1998; Mienczakowski, 1996; Denzin, 1992; Clifford, 1986; Rorty, 1980), but also some variants of postmodernist criminologies and feminist criminologies (e.g. Hannah-Moffat, 2011; Chesney-Lind, 2006; Arrigo and Bernard, 1997; Daly, 1997; Pfohl, 1990; Pfohl and Gordon, 1986), these alternative conceptions of public sociology thus insisted on nurturing public discourses by presenting sociological knowledge as highly contestable, being eminently anchored in contingent assemblages of time and space. Thus, the fact that many, if not most, calls for public criminology are premised on a conception of the criminologist as the master of truth on crime and punishment is not without limitations and paradoxes.

Plural Orations for Public Criminology

When compared to the intensity of debates on public sociology, public criminology has yet to become a strong polarizing theme in criminological academic communication networks. While critical discussions are certainly already observable, harsh and systematic critiques equivalent to Deflem’s (2013) and Tittle’s (2004) demolition of public sociology are difficult to locate. Nevertheless, critical voices are becoming less exceptional in the periphery of a growing constellation of academic productions chanting the potential of public criminology. I will discuss some of these discordant voices below. For now, I want to point out that behind the apparently consensual chorus of criminologists ready ‘to go public’ and ‘to make a difference’ is a (frequently unacknowledged) plurality of the very aims that ought to be those of public criminology.

The most discussed case is probably Loader and Sparks’ call to “realize the unfulfilled promise of modern politics” (2010a:117). Stated slightly less abstractly, yet still quite equivocally, theirs is a call to see public criminology “contributing to better politics of crime and its regulation” (Loader and Sparks, 2011b:736; 2010a:117; 2010b:776). To do this, public criminologists are invited to embrace the ethics of the “democratic underlaborer”. This figure, borrowed from Swift and White (2008), is said to be a politicized update of Locke’s Enlightenment-era figure of the underlaborer, whose (philosophical) work enables or facilitates access to the (scientific) light of truth.5 Following Loader and Sparks, the “criminologist as democratic underlaborer has a commitment both to generating and disseminating knowledge and to a more deliberative politics of big public questions such as the future of punishment and crime control” (2010b:779, their emphasis). They insist that “the public value of democratic under-laboring lies not in ‘cooling’ down controversies about crime and social responses to it, but in playing its part in figuring out ways to bring the ‘heat’ within practices of democratic governance” (2010a:132, their emphasis). Loader and Sparks (2010a:ch.4) thus clearly distinguish their call for public criminology from normative discourses advocating the insulation of penal policy from pressures stemming from ‘the public’ (e.g. Zimring and Johnson, 2006; Zimring, Hawkins and Kamin, 2001).
Other calls for public criminology are less focused on a celebration of the promises of deliberative democracy, yet still abide by a clearly modernist problematic, simply moving the focus of the celebration to the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science.6 Arguing that “reliable knowledge” should be the instrument of social reforms (Matthews, 2009:356), dreaming of increased authority for criminology (as science) over penal policy (as a product of political power), such calls equate the need for public criminology with the need to “fight for” truth and against nonsense (Currie, 2007; see also Turner, 2013). Let me quickly provide some illustrations. In what is probably the first call for public criminology, Carrabine, Lee and South (2000:208) asked their academic audience to go public and to “popularize critical evidence”, allowing for the “empowerment” of “the ordinary public” through sorting good and bad evidence and “emphasizing social justice and human rights”, aiming to undo “social wrongs” and to promote “social rights”.7 Rowe (2012) suggests that a “priority” for public criminology “might be to more effectively establish the nature of the discipline in its sociological form” (p.35), as it would possess better access to the causes of crime, and could thus fight against the “misconceptualization of crime” (p.31), enabling a “more informed public discourse”. Uggen and Inderbitzin (2010) consider that strengthening professional criminology is one of the aims of public criminology, so that science could more successfully erase the gap between “perceptions” and “evidence”, and more fiercely fight against moral entrepreneurs8 and moral panics: “potential for bias, uninformed demagoguery and political partisanship represent important pathologies that public criminologists must address head-on” (p.738). Similarly, Fichtelberg and Kupchik (2011:61) see criminologists as “experts with a unique contribution to make to debates on criminal justice policy”, and believe that public criminology shall “enhance the credibility” of the ‘discipline’. It is from this general perspective of criminology as the master of truth on crime and punishment that public criminology cookbooks are usually published (e.g. Rowe, 2012; Wilson and Groombridge, 2010; Feilzer, 2009; Groombridge, 2007).

Carrabine, Lee and South (2000) have alluded to the intimate proximity between public criminology and news-making criminology (Barak, 2007; 1988). Aspirant news-making criminologists are invited to hear Becker’s (1967) scolding and to take sides, Barak (2007:204) seeing in the blogosphere the condition of possibility for anyone to “speak truth to power” and to “be heard doing so”. He summarized news-making criminology in the following way:

newsmaking criminology refers to the conscious efforts and activities of criminologists to interpret, influence or shape the representation of ‘newsworthy’ items about crime and justice. (...) It strives to affect public attitudes, thoughts and discourses about crime and justice so as to facilitate a public policy of ‘crime control’ based on structural and historical analyses of institutional development; allows criminologists to come forth with their knowledge and to establish themselves as credible voices in the mass-mediated arena of policy formation; and asks of criminologists that they develop popularly based languages and technically based skills of communication for the purposes of participating in the mass-consumed ideology of crime and justice (Barak, 2007:191-192).

Turner (2013) has suggested that news-making criminology should not be equated with either public criminology as a celebration of the promises of deliberative democracy (democratic underlaboring), nor with public criminology as a celebration of the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science (fighting for truth). News-making criminology would constitute a third form of public criminology.9 Yet some public criminology cookbooks do not so sharply erect boundaries between democratic underlaboring, fighting for truth and making news. Let me take two examples. Piché’s (forthcoming) confessional piece is about how, in his “capacity as criminologist”, he tried to force greater governmental transparency in relation to the economic costs associated with the expansion of carceral spaces in Canada. It is about ‘making news’, it is about democratic underlaboring, and it is also about ‘educating the public’. Mopas and Moore’s (2012) confessional piece is (at least partly) about how one of their colleague managed (in their eyes) to promote fear in the wake of a sexual assault, while their own involvement in the mass media was allegedly not successful, something they try to explain by the fact that they wanted to adopt a detached and objective stance. They conclude by asking criminologists not only to go public, but to do so in a “more sensational” fashion, ‘connecting’ with ‘the general public’ at the level of emotions, and trying to “redirect (...) people’s fear and anger [which are] legitimate reactions to crime (...) towards more productive ends” (Mopas and Moore, 2012:194,185). Here again, the boundaries between news-making and public criminology are not clearly drawn—and it is also not clear how engaging in an attempt at emotional manipulation outside of a clinical space can be associated with causing enlightenment or nurturing deliberative politics,10 even when it is achieved by trying to mobilize criminological truth claims sensationally.

Discordant Voices

The previous section showed that calls for public criminology are diverse and, to a certain extent, conflicting. Most are a celebration of either the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science or of the possibilities of democratic collective decision-making. Yet many contributions cannot be so easily discretely distributed, nor does adding news-making criminology to build a threefold typology enables a meaningful grasp of the internal complexity of the literature. Because of this internal complexity, some discordant voices focus on particular conceptions of public criminology, whereas others forward their critiques toward this fad in a less specified way.11 I will present some of these critiques here, and introduce others further below, alongside my own discussion of contemporary orations for public criminology.

A general critical reaction of many criminologists has been to suggest that public criminology amounts to nothing more than a new label put on old and constant practices (e.g. Clear, 2010). This rebranding could, cynically or with some ire, be observed as a good way to satisfy “institutional demands for non-stop innovative publishing and (...) social relevance” (Carlen, 2011:97). A second general critical reaction has been to trouble the gospel of public criminology on its messianic evidence: from a narrowly scientist and epistemologically uncritical perspective, as Turner (2013:152) noted, one can advance “that much criminological work is ‘bad science’, and too many criminologists are engaged in ideological disputes and politically partisan projects, using inadequate methods and producing findings that are contradictory, controversial and out of touch with the needs of policy makers” (see also Rock, 2010). Although not speaking from such an uncritical perspective, Carlen (2011:98) has voiced her opposition to the “institutionalization of public criminology” on the grounds that “its proponents, instead of merely canvassing for others to join them in an avowedly political endeavour (about the desirability of their work having an effect beyond the academy) conflate their personal morality/politics with a scientific art form”. A third general critique is not related to the weakness of criminological truth claims per se, but to the quite rudimentary or totally absent theorization of the Realpolitik of policy formation, let alone of political power (Tonry, 2010; Rock, 2010). A fourth general critique, formulated by Ruggiero (2012, 2010), amounts largely to a reformulation of Gouldner’s (1975) classic critique of the criminologists as ‘zoo-keepers’, denouncing public criminology for being “missionary and paternalistic”. Moreover, Ruggiero criticizes public criminology for being potentially unable to be strongly ‘public’, because criminology would try to operate, in terms of the theories/concepts it mobilizes, independently from sociology. Ruggiero himself advocates for a sociology of social movements à la Touraine, and suggests going beyond the “plea to be nice” (2012:157) that public criminologists would be addressing to policy-makers: we should be walking in the footsteps of giants like Hulsman and Mathiesen, embracing “abolitionism as public sociology”.

Amongst the critiques specifically forwarded to Loader and Sparks’ contributions, the strongest ones have converged on their “unarticulated” beatific and consensual conception of political power (Currie, 2011:72; see also Turner, 2013; Ruggiero, 2012; Sim, 2011). Emphasized here is the naive belief that politics is or can be governed by truth, an ingenuousness that critics have illustrated by evoking various ‘pathologies’ of current political institutions, sometimes even suggesting that deliberative democracy might be more a problem than the solution (see also Rowan, 2012). In a similar vein, Wacquant (2011:444) has lambasted the authors for failing to take into account the “political economy of the production, circulation and consumption of criminological knowledge”, laughing at the presumption that criminological research is “conducted ‘for the people’ rather than for state managers”. In the eyes of Christie (2011:709), Loader and Sparks not only downplay the dangerousness of the criminologists as experts, but also “make criminologists a bit too respectable—a breed of kind and useful helpers to our societies” that do not nurture enough a “quarreling society”. Hammersley (2013) has proposed that Loader and Sparks’ underlaborer is as falsely modest as Locke’s underlaborer was. Others have criticized their injunction to be tolerant of the internal complexity of criminological practices and discourses, as if all forms of criminology could contribute to ‘better politics of crime’ (Tombs, 2011; Walters, 2011).

Some of these general and specified critiques will be revisited in discussing the limits and paradoxes that can be observed in the contemporary orations of public criminologists, to which I now turn. In my discussion, I shall frequently—hopefully not unduly—disrespect the internal complexity of the literature on public criminology and speak of it as a whole. This can be justified if one accepts that, irrespective of the political persuasions and epistemological postures of the proselytizers, which are typically not radical nor anarchistic, the unity of the calls for public criminology is located in the normative a priori that truth discourses should be either decisive or influential in the answers provided to questions of justice.

The Limits of the Criminological Division of Labor

Public criminology, we are told in many instances, is not for every criminologist. Loader and Sparks (2010a:6) indicate that they have no grudge with “criminologists who dedicate themselves inside the academy to a dispassionate, curiosity-driven search for knowledge and understanding of crime and justice”, thus appearing to leave the “dispassionate scholar” outside the realm of public criminology (Walters, 2011). The dispassionate scholar is not invited to change what she is doing—particularly if she does not have what it takes to be in the media jungle—while criminologists who consider ‘going public’ are admonished to hone their communicational skills (Rowe, 2012; Currie, 2007), learning to practice a ‘crime talk’ that is “appropriate, relevant, and interesting” (Feilzer, 2009:482). Those who end up being “successful” in doing public criminology “necessarily will be generalists, widely educated” individuals, who shall “have to work to stay apprised of the latest research to be accepted as reliable experts or analysts” (Uggen and Inderbitzin, 2010:739). This seems to suggest that the public criminologist is not conceived as a producer of truth claims but as a popularizerhe would merely adapt and vulgarize complex narratives and data analyses, making them edible for a mass audience. Either mobilizing Burawoy’s typology or developing new ones, calls for public criminology promote a definitive ceasefire amongst various forms of criminological practices, leaving a nice and supposedly respectable place for everyone. Loader and Sparks (2010a) thus suggest that the ‘democratic underlaborer’ can operate alongside the ‘scientific expert’, the ‘policy advisor’, the ‘observer-turned-player’, the ‘activist’ and the ‘lonely prophet’.12 And while “dancing with us all holding hands” (Walters, 2011:731), the proselytizers are asking (e.g. Currie, 2007) for a greater institutional recognition of the academic quality of their involvement in non-academic communication networks—an involvement which, to repeat, is distinguished from scholarly activities motivated by a will to understand.
In debates on public sociology, such attempts to divide the labor of social scientists have been ridiculed, notably by Ericson (2005), for they are based on the idea that some social scientific practices are not public. If meaning is premised on difference (e.g. Luhmann, 2002, 1999a, 1999b; Derrida, 1967), then public criminology is a category that makes no sense, as it does not allow us to distinguish different forms of criminologies. One could reply that public criminology is not replete with jargon and can be mass consumed; the modes of writing/speaking could thus offer themselves as a way to distinguish public and non-public criminologies.13 Criminology stands accused of not having the intention to reach a wide audience, and it could be suggested that this goal enables us to separate public and non-public criminologies. But it is exactly here that we find one major limit of the calls for public criminology: they operate as if the public nature of criminology ought to reveal itself in the form of the popular. Bringing together Deflem’s (2013) attack on public sociologists as “politicized populists” and Ruggiero’s (2012) attack on public criminologists as limiting themselves to “pleas to be nice”, we can see in the proselytizers’ activities an injunction to develop a particular form of populist criminology: a ‘be nice’ populism that aims to oppose penal populism (Pratt, 2007; Bottoms, 1995), both sharing the same anti-intellectual proclivities. If criminologists can obviously oppose populism, one cannot oppose public criminology without opposing criminology itself.

The Limits of the Thesis of the Declining Influence and the Paradox of Exclusion

Contributions on public criminology are not the only set of academic communications to deplore the declining influence of criminological truth claims on penal policies, many seeing in penal populism or in the “punitive turn” symptoms of the inability of criminology to steer penal policies as it once did (see Carrier, 2010). Although these discourses are not devoid of normative underpinnings, they are to be located within an academic quest to make sense of various processes of “penal intensification” (Sim, 2009), and, as such, the diagnosis of the decline of influence has an analytical value, however debatable it might be. In contradistinction, the thesis of the decline of influence operates totally normatively within calls for public criminology. For instance, Currie (2007:177) lamented that “our impact on the world outside ourselves has been nothing remotely like what it should have been, or needs to be”, while Barak (2007:201) complained that, at least in the USA, “criminology does not get the respect it deserves”. If only, complained Groombridge (Wilson and Groombridge, 2010; Groombridge, 2007), the public would think more “criminologically”. Matthews (2009:341) decried the “inverse relationship between the expansion of academic criminology and its policy relevance”, and it is along similar normative lines that Loader and Sparks (2010a:ch.1) see in criminology a “successful failure”, positing an inverse relationship between the expansion of academic criminology and its influence.

One could be tempted here to repeat Hammersley’s (2013) point on the false modesty of the ‘democratic underlaborer’, or perhaps even to speak of the proselytizers’ delusions of grandeur. Like Tonry (2010), I submit the exact opposite interpretation: criminology has been, and continues to be, tremendously influential outside academic communication networks. The thesis of the decline of influence is unsatisfactory because of its implicit conceptual architecture, which limits the empirical manifestations of criminological influence to legislative activities, (penal) organizational practices and political discourses, and only when they align with the political persuasions of the criminologist mobilizing the thesis. All the utterly powerful social work of (what we can conveniently call) mainstream criminology, which continues to reproduce and further naturalize an ontological scission between sovereign power and crime, is totally silenced. None of the booming criminological research trying to locate the causes of crime in biological programs molded and contingently activated by the environment,14 which is highly popular and frequently thematized by the mass media, is to be found in the contemporary orations for public criminology. Yet cookbooks are published by self-congratulatory public criminologists trying to reflect on the transient experience of having had the spotlights of a local newspaper turned towards them. None of the many tools used to sort, manage, predict—such as the ‘Level of Service Inventory-Revised’, an instrument developed by Canadian criminologists who have been instrumental in the revival of the quest for ‘what works’ in corrections—are seen as a symptom of the influence of criminology, nor are they described as the achievements of public criminologists, even though they are supposed to be ‘evidenced-based’ (see Harcourt, 2007). This limited set of examples is sufficient to make visible that the thesis of the decline of influence is premised on the distinction between good and bad public criminology, only the good one being characterized by the trendy yet meaningless predicate of ‘public’. This is particularly obvious in Mopas and Moore’s (2012) lamentations about the alleged influence of their colleague, whose activities are not part of the celebration of public criminology, only because his criminological truth claims happen to differ from theirs, and because he was not attempting to manipulate emotions according to their conception of productivity.
This enables us to see the paradox of exclusion evoked in the beginning of the article: critics of exclusionary policies advocate for public criminological discourses and engagements premised on the negation of the validity of certain criminological discourses. This was perhaps already very clear in my discussion of public criminology as a celebration of the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science. From this neo-positivist posture, obviously, distinguishing strong truth claims from weak or false ones can hardly be problematized (e.g. Carrabine, Lee and South, 2000); criminology would allow for the progressive, if painful, accumulation of knowledge, and public criminologists have a duty to help the public realize that some of their colleagues’ work is rubbish. The problem arises for public criminologists adopting a more or less radical version of constructivism, without which crime remains ontologized. Not only can they not so easily brandish the currencies of truthfulness and falsehood while, speaking in their capacity of social scientists outside of academic communicational networks, they are nevertheless forced to do so. They also cannot, as Powell (2012:91) pointed out in relation to public sociology, “dismiss their opponents as mere ideologues” without undermining the legitimacy of their own truth claims.15

The Limits of the Framework of Relevance

What is the meaning of the repeated yet vague injunction to be relevant within contributions on public criminology? In many calls for public criminology celebrating the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science—most particularly American ones—relevance seems to mean policy-relevance; that is, presenting elements that can be used by organizations, the legal system and the political system, perhaps also by families and individuals (e.g. crime prevention). Such a policy-relevant criminology is clearly pretty healthy, and no one really needs to stimulate criminological practices preoccupied by the issues preoccupying the middle classes (such as sexting, bullying, youth gangs, cybercrime, etc.), which are typically financially well-supported. For Rock (2010:755), the criminology that is “at risk of emaciation” is rather “a criminology that is not relevant in any commonplace, utilitarian meaning of the term, a criminology for which funds and public support are far less secure.” He adds that “Universities are (...) one of the very few sanctuaries left” for those interested in producing forms of knowledge that are not in high demand and that might not be transformed into an instrument by capitalistic or political forces. Will public criminology tightens the already solidly established “structural coupling” (Luhmann, 2004, 1995) of criminology with the political and economic systems (see Walters, 2007, 2003)?

Perhaps we should understand the call for relevance as emanating from an ‘engineering’ perspective, criminology condemning itself to the impossibility to adopt an “overhanging perspective” through which it could perhaps grasp, and engage with, complex regimes of domination (Boltanski, 2009)? This latter role, as we saw, would be the fate of the ‘lonely prophet’. Public criminologists should see that society makes productive use of the emotions generated by situations understood through the grammar of criminalization; they should provide tools to steer or shape state apparatuses’ ways of inflicting pain and doing ‘justice’; they should clear the ground so that ‘the public’ is not embarrassed by unnecessary complexities and doubts in its discussions, making possible a ‘better politics of crime’, etc. As Braithwaite (2010:223) remarked, the institutional success story of criminology can hardly be explained by its “intellectual achievements”. An insistence on narrowly defined relevance is likely to increase “the empirical emasculation of theories” that was so ferociously denounced in The New Criminology (Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973: 278)—an oeuvre to which, interestingly enough, the ‘democratic underlaborer’ is supposedly attached. The division of labor advocated by public criminologists thus sets aside a place for allegedly irrelevant forms of scholarly activities, which in turn are used to establish the validity of truth claims of criminologists inviting their colleagues to busy themselves only with relevant stuff. If one chooses to emphasize an academic perspective rather than a political or managerial one (which certainly does not mean that the observer would then be operating outside a normative realm), the intellectual or cognitive relevance of public criminology is certainly hard to locate.

The Limits of the Framework of Transmission

Criminological work should not only be relevant, it should be easy to understand and easily disseminated by the mass media. Public criminologists’ orations in non-academic communication networks should be sensational, or at least entertaining. Obviously, these injunctions are also articulated through the framework of impact; what I want to quickly convey before discussing impact is a constructivist argument which troubles the very notion of transmission mobilized by public criminology.

A constructivist epistemology does not conflate the identity of nominally shared objects with the identity of their meaning, nor does a social science built on this epistemological posture assume that the meaning given to an utterance (the meaning that you give to this very sentence, for example) is reducible to or deducible from it (Carrier, 2011, 2008a, 2008b). From such a posture, the meaning of increasing incarceration rates, for instance, is not posited as stable when it is a theme of communication (i.e. when it is a reality produced by) the political, legal, scientific, artistic, mass media, educational or economic social systems. Each of these social systems gives meaning to this fact differently, self-referentially, in a way that cannot be reduced to factuality (e.g. Luhmann, 2000, 1998). Many theoretical traditions in social sciences point out that the dichotomy between facts and values is a problematic one, but public criminology shows itself unable to accept the corollary that communication cannot be limited to factual elements.16 To complicate matters further, we could operate within the phenomenological tradition, which insists on the importance of time in relation to meaning, and thus mobilize a concept of meaning that always synthesizes factual, social and temporal dimensions (Luhmann, 1995). This would notably lead us to consider quite simplistic the old input/output communicational model mobilized in public criminology, as well as its unarticulated, commonsensical, theorization of interpretation.17 But such considerations are exactly the kind of conceptual work that many who call for public criminology either dismiss, seek to avoid, or they leave for the allegedly lonely ones kindly authorized to stay busy with irrelevant stuff.18

The Limits of the Framework of Impact and the Paradox of Mastery

Loader and Sparks (2010b:778) have suggested that the democratic underlaborer is “committed, first and foremost, to the generation of knowledge rather than (first and foremost) scoring a point or winning a policy battle; if the distinction between criminologist and activist is to mean anything, then it must entail something of this kind”. But one is left wondering how criminological public-itis could be so widespread without criminologists being seduced by the moral injunction to have an impact—a seduction that is perhaps stronger when calls for public criminology take the form of a celebration of the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science. One way in which this preoccupation with impact manifests itself is through the proselytizers’ critique (e.g. Currie, 2007) of peer-reviewed publications, which, in most cases, are read by a extremely small quantity of individuals. What is particularly condemned here is the self-referential nature of academic communicationscriminologists talking to themselves and failing to go public. One limit or risk that the framework of impact presents is to propose a purely hetero-referential attribution of the value of academic truth claims. In other words, the risk is to replace the norms through which we can identify a form of communication as presenting the quality of scholarship by hetero-referential considerations, such as whether the communication is changing the attitude of the public, participating in effecting socio-political change, educating a public who does not think correctly, or manipulating a public that does not use its emotions productively.19 When the framework of impact is mobilized by ‘critical’ criminologists (as we certainly cannot conflate public criminology with critical criminology), we can sometimes observe the paradox of mastery: critics of social control or moral panics adopt a normativity that define truth claims as good and valuable when they are effectively controlling others.

The framework of impact also manifests itself in the proselytizers’ preoccupations with the lack of media training of current and future criminologists, and I wonder when the first public criminologist will follow the typical political manoeuvre of conducting focus groups in order to devise the most effective way to communicate with ‘the public’. In calls for public criminology, the will to power takes over a will to interpret the reality of the mass media and the ways in which it interacts with criminological objects. Most (but by no means all) proselytizers somehow freeze the present of criminological knowledge, negate the importance of internal debates, strategically select and ignore elements of academic productions, and build various forms of ‘be nice’ populist discourses. One can certainly rejoice in seeing some criminologists inviting their fellow citizens to be gentle with each other and to work towards penal minimalism or penal abolitionism. What is nevertheless morally problematic is the a priori that a supposedly educated normative stance is superior to a supposedly uneducated normative stance. Criminologists can, for instance, go public and try to have an impact in making the public accept their truth claims on the little Utilitarian value that is to be found in mandatory minimum sentences. They can use non-academic tribunes to say something like: ‘research shows they don’t work—they do not reduce crime, they do not increase public safety, and besides they are costly and you are paying for it’ (see Piché, forthcoming). But the superiority of consequentialism over retributivism cannot be established ‘criminologically’, as it cannot be established by a discourse that claims to be true and which is (at least) regarded as such within the self-referential communicational system of science. In other words: criminologists can pretend to know that a given course of penal action is likely to produce an outcome that they value or don’t value, but they cannot find in academic truth claims the foundation or the legitimacy of such valuation. It is thus unsurprising that public criminology is ultimately forced to retreat into a moral argument blaming the ignorance of the others. One alternative to relying on morality in communication is “to cultivate uncertainty and the shared knowledge of ignorance” (Luhmann, 1998:100). Perhaps this alternative is unsuitable for contemporary forms of political communications, but it is certainly unlikely to seduce public criminology, as it rests on the negation of its own ignorance.


Among the themes silenced in contributions on public criminology is the limited accessibility of academic criminological communications published in peer-reviewed journals. Because of the frequent conflation of public with popular, the proselytizers tend to insist on strategies of dissemination that involves a transformation of academic discourses for mass consumption. There is nothing inherently problematic about this, except considering this task as an academic rather than civic one. Such a project rests on the presumption that various publics have no interest in accessing academic communications in all their complexity and nuances or that they won’t be able to make sense of them—a presumption which, in regards to many criminological productions, is, at very least, debatable. Can we find compelling reasons, given the current opportunities offered by communicational technologies, to justify the maintenance of an abject monetization of our articles in most peer-reviewed journals? For those who do not have access provided to them via organizational affiliation, the price of a single article is oftentimes superior to the cost of a criminological book. It is thus surprising that public criminologists are not currently engaged in the promotion of online, open access, peer-reviewed journals, which are still, in many circles, regarded as lacking prestige and peer recognition. Anecdotally, some colleagues refused to take part of this special issue on public criminology, preferring to get their article published in a less accessible journal, regarded as giving them more recognition, credibility and publicity. This illustrates the weight of the normativity of the scientific system on academic communications thematizing the normative injunction to go public, or, from Bourdieu’s (2001) perspective, it illustrates how public criminologists cannot, as academic criminologists, escape the rules of the game through which ‘scientific capital’ is fought over and allocated.

Criminologists as social scientists cannot but continue to produce truth claims that conform to the norms of criminology as subsystem of science, without which their truth claims would be undistinguishable from non-scientific ones. This, obviously, does not mean that criminological truth claims are truer than other ones, but only that their truth value is established by the self-referential operations of the academic system which, one has to assume, “put to work situations and processes of decision which cannot be reduced to a simple exercise of belief and authority” (Berthelot, 1998:187, my translation).20 From a constructivist perspective, this means that a scientifically territorialized practice like criminology “has to make true propositions about the impossibility of truth” (Moeller, 2012:49). Whether they are regarded as the best true propositions (until further notice, as Giddens (1990) likes to add) or as interpretations (see Bauman, 1992), we cannot presume that the truth value granted by the scientific localization of discourses will be accepted by citizens and other social systems. Critics of Loader and Sparks, for instance, pointed out how politics oftentimes exhibit little respect for science.
Criminologists have very little control, if any, on whether their truth claims will be appropriated by citizens and social systems. Nor can they control, should this appropriation happen, the peculiar interpretation or “productive misreading” (Teubner, 1993) that shall be made of what they communicated. The proselytizers’ apparent conjecture that presence in the mass media equals greater impact is farcical at best. Particularly when he tries to hide under truth claims his own conception of justice, the criminologist following public criminology cookbooks can hardly escape the fate of being constructed as a representative of yet another interest group, thus seeing his critique of penal policies getting “dissolved in the sea of ordinary critiques that go along with relations between groups, and which constitute the thread of the everyday life of politics, in its broad sense” (Boltanski, 2009:21; my translation). One alternative is a civic engagement that neither takes criminology for the master of truth nor rests on the democratic underlaborer’s pretense that his truth claims are a condition for deliberations on justice. Such an alternative could mean, as Foucault (1984b) suggested21, to speak on the grounds of a solidarity established by our common condition of being governed.


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1Thanks to Justin Piché for inviting me to contribute to this special issue. Thanks also to Augustine SJ Park, Dale C. Spencer and Jeffrey Monaghan for their comments on an earlier version of this article, as well as to my audience at the 3rd Critical Perspectives conference in Ottawa, where I first presented my critique of calls for public criminology.

2Commenting on the emergence and solidification of debates surrounding the project to develop, nurture and assess public criminology, Wacquant (2011:439) felt the need to confess his instantaneous reaction: “I thought to myself, ‘‘Not again! Another discipline struck by the disease of ‘public-itis’”, which occurs when you put the nice Habermassian-sounding qualifier ‘public’ in front of its name, in the quixotic belief that something new is thereby being discovered or argued.”

3 For instance, Ericson (2005:371) has suggested that the absence of sociology “in some public spheres may actually be a positive sign that sociology is maintaining its critical role”. Tittle (2004) has mounted a severe critique of public sociology, equating it, among other things, with patronizing tendencies and dishonest sociological claims threatening to further reduce “what little legitimacy sociology has” (p.1639). If Burawoy (2005a:4) suggests that the four types of sociology entertain an “antagonistic existence”, van Seters (2010:1149-1150) has noted how Burawoy “promotes the idea of public sociology as the discipline’s crowning achievement: in public sociology, we need the distinctive qualities of the three other types, and these three feed into and support the distinctive quality of the fourth, not the other way around”. Others have proposed critiques of public sociology from epistemological (e.g. Powell, 2012), feminist (e.g. Creese, McLaren and Pulkingham, 2009) and Marxist (Paolucci, 2008) perspectives. Still others, like Wacquant (2011) and Deflem (2013), have forwarded harsh personal attacks towards Burawoy, locating his campaign for public sociology within the nasty micro-politics of power in American sociological organizations. In a nutshell: the academic debates on public sociology are vivacious and sometimes vicious.

4It is thus unsurprising that feminists (e.g. Taylor and Addison, 2011:3) insisting on the “complexities of dialogue and listening” and on the “limits of writing” do not feel at ease with the project to ‘go public’ as championed by Burawoy.

5 In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke wrote: “The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge” (Locke, 1690[1975:9-10], my emphasis).

6 It is common to distinguish the cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical and expressive-aesthetic rationalities (see, among others, Wagner [2008], Maffesoli [2008], Santos [2002], Touraine [1992], and Habermas [1976]). Criminological celebrations of the cognitive-instrumental rationality of science typically lead to underscore problems in the technical ordering of the criminal legal system and to subsume questions of justice into questions of (scientifically valid) truths (see below).

7 In contradistinction to many others, these authors do not see anything new here, but hope to re-vitalize these aims. They also note that their notion of public criminology is heavily indebted to Carlen’s (1996) invitation to practice a ‘political criminology’. Similarly, references to The New Criminology are found throughout Loader and Sparks’ contributions, enabling them to insist on the political nature of crime.

8 The authors are mobilizing an old and problematic objectivist-normative social problems theory (see Carrier, 2013), notably arguing that public criminology might “build interest in social problems” that do not exist as such for ‘the public’ (Uggen and Inderbitzin, 2010:738).

9 In her eyes, news-making criminology is a third form of public criminology notably because news-making criminologists “abandon any sense that different knowledge discourses can or should be able to gain traction in the world except through the maximization of opportunities for multi-mediated exposure” (Turner, 2013:159, her emphasis). Although one can perhaps agree that news-making criminology aims at influencing rather than educating the public in the way that, say, Currie advocates, Turner’s typology falls short of satisfactorily providing criteria to distinguish news-making criminology from public criminology à la Loader and Sparks. Furthermore, she seems to suggest that because Barak is questioning the possibility of objective knowledge, news-making criminology is not premised on a correspondence theory of truth—something that can be easily debated considering Barak’s insistence to attend to historical and structural dimensions of institutional developments and to articulate mass mediated realities to bourgeois capitalist hegemony. It is also unclear how Barak’s aim to nurture more “progressive” discourses on crime and criminal ‘justice’ differs from Loader and Sparks’ aim to contribute to “better politics of crime and its regulation”.

10 The same could be said about other contributions. For instance, Kramer (2009/2010:89) sees the role of public criminology as contributing to “define certain harms as state crime and legitimate targets for social control efforts”. Kramer’s piece is unusual in that calls for public criminology are typically domestic in scope. But there is a pretty healthy form of “entrepreneurial criminology” that aims to claim its mastery over aspects of international relations increasingly described with the grammar of criminalization (see Carrier and Park, 2013).

11 It remains to be seen whether or not one could simply transpose critiques of public sociology to public criminology, something which might appear warranted given that many criminologists, particularly British ones, tend to see criminology as an excrescence of sociology, typically silencing the vitality of sociologically ill-informed criminological practices and discourses. If one wanted to ‘apply’ some of Deflem’s (2013) critiques of public sociology to public criminology, then one would suggest that public criminology is, among other things, the symptom of the marketization of the discipline (or field) which, having lowered its scientific standard and seeing graduation as a question of justice rather than of merit, is now populated with people too dumb to see that we need to save criminology from public criminology.

12 Wacquant (2011:) criticized this ‘subjectivist’ typology, of which the process of construction is not transparent, and confessed being “amused and bemused” of being slotted on a desert island as a ‘lonely prophet’. He also pointed out that Loader and Sparks forgot to make room for the academic as ‘grant manager’, who produces graduate students and publishes largely by exploiting their labour.

13Outside of debates on public criminology, Christie reportedly confessed (Ruggiero, 2010:13) that his advice has always been: “when writing, keep your favorite aunt in mind”. The argument is that social scientists have nothing to say about society that cannot be expressed colloquially—all the rest being, to speak colloquially, intellectual masturbation. The sophistication of specialized social theory language is sometimes condemned for its obscurity, but it is also defended as a necessity to meaningfully engage with the complexity of the subject matter of social sciences (e.g. Teubner, 1989). But given that criminological productions are typically unencumbered by this kind of jargon, it is not the sophisticated language of social theory but the symbolic performance of scientific objectivity through the manipulation “off-putting cultural codes” that is seen as distancing “criminology from engaged public discourses” (Ferrell, Hayward and Young:2008:171). Ferrell, Hayward and Young provide some quotes from criminological journals that would be inadequate—dehumanizing—ways to talk about people, associating (some) criminological practices to vampirism, “systematically suck[ing] the life from those they describe”. What is denounced is thus the “abstracted empiricism” (Mills, 1959) of criminological communications.

14 See Carrier and Walby (forthcoming, 2011), Walby and Carrier (2010).

15The latter point has been the locus of criminological debates on postmodernism, which many criminological practices have resolved by opting for an “ethical” or “part-time constructivism” (see Carrier, 2006), enabling some criminological objects, such as harm or justice, to escape the supposedly debilitating sword of relativism. The anarchism of radical constructivism could certainly trouble many conceptions of (institutionalized criminal) ‘justice’ and of the ‘legitimacy’ of collectively binding decisions visible in contributions on public criminology.

16See Turner’s (2013) compelling analysis of Loader and Sparks’ (2010a) debatable rapprochement between the ‘democratic underlaborer’ and Latour’s (e.g. 2006, 1999) ‘diplomat’.

17I formulate this critique from the perspective of social systems theory, although it could mounted from different theoretical angles, notably from Foucaultian, Habermassian, Bourdieusian and Boltanskian ones.

18This sometimes leads to surprising practices. For instance, Larsen wrote (Larsen and Piché, 2010) an academic article on the need to stop describing the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre (a Canadian carceral space seen as an instantiation of Agamben’s (2005) State of Exception) as ‘Gitmo North’. Yet, in one of the footnotes, we learn about the media coverage of the orations of Larsen who, as a public criminologist, tried to generate public outrage towards that space because it is ‘Gitmo North’.

19The moral outrage that some public criminologists express towards the norms of the contemporary academic system and of academic organizations, such as the value placed on the quantity of peer-reviewed publications and on a purely quantitative appraisal of ‘impact factor’, is unlikely to compel Universities to revise their norms and to allocate value based on narrowly defined relevance, extra-academic popularity and impact. This contemporary academic normativity continues to offer itself as a support for the disrespect that many scholars show towards demands that non-academic activities be appreciated as an extension of scholarly activities.

20 Obviously, academic individuals will oftentimes experience differently the peer-review process when its outcome is negative and appears to them poorly justified.

21Foucault’s political engagements were ultimately always justified by nothing more than his own subjectivity (in the same way that his intellectual work was articulated to his own self-transformation; see notably Foucault [1984c]). This has been made particularly clear, I think, in the beautiful and generous book written by his friend Paul Veyne (2008). See notably Veyne’s short anecdote on Foucault’s reaction to a television coverage of the Israeli-Palestian conflict, that Veyne uses to illustrate Foucault’s “individual decisionism” in the realm of political action: quand c’est insupportable, on ne supporte plus (“when it is unbearable, we can no longer tolerate”) and “jabbering” about reasons can “at best be useful in terms of rhetoric or propaganda” (Veyne, 2008:180; my translation). Always absent in Foucault’s political engagements is the need to prove that his positions are just, that they are the right ones, that they are anchored in a scientific truth. In this regard, to espouse Foucault’s perspective is to abandon the desire to lay down the law for others and to try “to mold the political will of others” (Foucault, 1984a:1495; my translation).