The State of Critical Scholarship in Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies in Canada

Article excerpt

Introduction: Promising critique

In early 2006, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) Division on Critical Criminology professional e-mail list became the site of commentaries and debates related to semantics. These exchanges were initiated by an American scholar whose department of affiliation was then in the process of changing its name from "Criminal Justice" to "Justice Studies," in an effort to reflect more adequately the breadth of the paradigmatic underpinnings of its teaching programs and research. In preparation for his department's meeting with higher university administrators who sought enlightenment regarding this new emphasis and why "Justice Studies" was more appropriate than "Criminal Justice," this scholar was in search of "data" and "formal endorsements" for the name change. His quest generated enthused responses from the three Americas, and several critical scholars whose departments or faculties of affiliation had undergone either confrontational or conciliatory name changes were eager to share their experiences. Respondents quickly shifted the debate toward issues of semantics: "What is in a name?" Some argued that there was nothing much in a name, while others countered that although academic disciplines, faculties, departments, and programs are artificial constructions, they are nonetheless rational methods for organizing curriculum and reality. Thus, the name selected by an academic entity matters--notably--as its identity marker.

One of the essential arguments underlined by many respondents related to the growing realization that the term "Criminal Justice"--a term derived from the 1960s "war against crime"--was becoming too narrow for the contemporary experience of critical scholarly inquiry. All observed that a wind of change (although modest) was blowing in their respective institutional affiliation and that epithets such as "Justice and Social Inquiry," "Law and Justice Studies," "Social Change and Development," "Integrated Justice Studies," or "Criminology, Justice and Policy Studies" reflected a growing acknowledgment of the permeability of disciplinary boundaries and of the fruitful melange of epistemological, theoretical, and methodological approaches used in critical scholarly endeavours. These epithets also reflected an ambiguity among critical scholars as to what it is that they actually do: Are they criminologists? Socio-legal scholars? Both or neither?

Reflexive engagement with names and titles, then, is of tremendous import. A title, a rubric, or a disciplinary heading, for that matter, promises content. Even before individuals and scholars turn the pages of this special issue, its title denotes an obligation on the part of the editors and contributors to bequeath something "critical." Toward comprehending the essence and promise of "critical criminology," discerning the term's meaning in language would be of some benefit. To be certain, everyone, all of us, is critical to some extent. Indeed, as Immanuel Kant articulated over two centuries ago, our ethos is one of criticism, in which everything and everyone, it seems, is fair game.

Is this brand of generic "critique" promised by our title? Certainly not. There is, of course, no more indistinct "thing" than "critical" in criminology. Anything and everything written about crime--even the most journalistic accounts--can and has been counted as "critical." Whereas governments and criminal justice organizations can safely integrate this brand of "critical scholarship" within what is a rather robust framework, the promise implied by "critical criminology" assures a type of critique that prefers "to take the system to task rather than tinker with its parts" (Ratner 1971). Thus, for institutional arrangements to receive such scholarship favourably would be to invite their own destruction (Pavlich 2005). By encouraging and, in some cases, soliciting rather superficial critical investigations of policy and programming, government agencies encourage more efficient forms of governance and control while eschewing exegesis that would fundamentally destabilize the status quo. …