Is Communalism Dead? Reflections on the Present and Future Practice of Crime Prevention

By Carson, W. G. | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Is Communalism Dead? Reflections on the Present and Future Practice of Crime Prevention


Carson, W. G., Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


This paper, of which this is the second part, takes up a strange paradox or dissonance that characterises contemporary crime prevention, particularly perhaps in Australia. On the one hand, there is an ample literature pointing out the conceptual and practical drawbacks of community, or more broadly of communalism (incorporating social capital), in crime prevention; on the other, policy and practice seem largely oblivious to these difficulties and hence, by extension, to the need for more appropriate conceptual formulations upon which to base collective approaches to crime prevention. Part One of the article (Carson, 2004) traced the allure and the difficulties of communalism in general and in crime prevention in particular. Part Two takes up the challenge of developing new and more appropriate foundations for a collectively-based approach in this policy arena. This it does by drawing selectively on the insights of radical communitarianism (shorn of its utopian communal overtones), on attempts to go beyond the close ties of social capital to a looser collective efficacy, and on discursive possibilities that address issues of difference, rights and democratisation in relation to crime prevention. By this means, it is argued, crime prevention may be reconnected to questions of social justice and collective capacity without surrendering to the false attractions of an anachronistic communalism.

Part Two: Towards New Collective Visions for Crime Prevention

Part One of this article traversed a number of fairly fundamental problems associated with the deployment of unrefined concepts of communalism in connection with crime prevention. Both the traditional or even primitive notion of community and its newer and ostensibly more sophisticated relative, social capital, were addressed and found wanting in this respect. While many of the criticisms canvassed in that part of the article may indeed be well-recognised across a diverse range of literature, they seem to have had surprisingly little impact at the level of crime prevention policy, at least in Australia, where fairly unreflective and simplistic communalism appears to hold continued and possibly increasing sway.

It would be unfair to suggest or even to imply that crime prevention policy is unique in this respect. For reasons adumbrated in Part One, social policy in Australia and many other developed societies has generally taken on an increasingly communalist hue in recent years, ideas of community and social capital having come to occupy a central position in a wide variety of policy areas far beyond the purview of criminology.

Nor would we be entirely justified in sheeting the responsibility for the dominance of unreflective communalism in crime prevention policy back solely to the intellectual inertia, naivete or even cynicism of public servants and their political masters. Whether through lack of intellectual resolve, the exigencies of research funding and access, or sheer academic faddism, with some notable exceptions criminologists themselves have often been inclined to temporise with the dominant policy paradigm. More often than not, perhaps, we have quailed before our own incapacity to present fully formed practical alternatives instead of insisting that such alternatives must be sought first and fundamentally in a reworking of conceptual frameworks. Seduced by primitive communalism's apparently "ready insertions into a crucial argument" and by the too often unproblematised need for "accessible entries into immediate practice" (Williams, 1977, p. 11), we have been slow to grasp the need for concerted exploration of different discursive possibilities and coherent engagement with quite different models of collective, democratic and solidary life as a basis for crime prevention and much besides.

While those with a sociological interest in crime prevention may indeed have been slow in these respects, this does not mean that they have by any means been altogether stationary.

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