Social Justice after the "Death of the Social"

By O'Malley, Pat | Social Justice, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Social Justice after the "Death of the Social"


O'Malley, Pat, Social Justice


When I wrote my first contribution to social justice (then crime and Social Justice) in 1980, I took the meaning of the "social" more or less for granted. The article (O'Malley, 1981) dealing with Australian bushrangers and United States train robbers in the late 19th century focused on episodes of what Eric Hobsbawm (1969) referred to as "social banditry." Social banditry was "social" in the sense that it was organically integrated in its community and supported accordingly. The communities concerned were made up of rural laborers and smallholders, who saw in the bushrangers and train robbers (sometimes erroneously) an embodiment of their own communal sense of injustice. They saw in the bandits men whose "primitive rebellion" was directed against their shared oppressors: large landholders, the banks, railway companies, and the police and other law agents who upheld the law of the rich and powerful. In this way, the article linked "crime" with struggles for "social justice," and so it seemed natural to publish it in this journal.

Thinking about crime in such terms, as Left Realist criminologists reminded us (e.g., Kinsey et al., 1986), could generate a romantic image of offending, one shared with much radical criminology of the time, and perhaps it occasionally glorified thugs and ignored victims. Yet the journal's linking of crime and social justice was not meant to lead us to imagine all manner of lumpen thugs as class heroes, as the Left Realists' perspective would suggest. Rather, it was, and still is, concerned inter alia with various connections between crime and social justice. These include: how crime and predation arise out of the brutalization of people suffering social injustice (Platt, 1978); the ways in which people's resistance to oppression and social injustice were legally defined as crime (Brake, 1983); the role of criminal law in reinforcing and defending social injustice (Takagi and Platt, 1978), and so on. This sort of approach, at least in my understanding, was why the journal was then called Crime and Social Justice. Even though crime has moved from being the main focus of the journal, it continues to have a presence on the agenda of Social Justice. (For two examples, see The War on Drugs [Vol. 18, No. 4, 1991] and Justice and the World System [Vol. 21, No. 4, 1994].)

Back in 1980, a key part of the significance of the journal was that it took a radical stance on crime. The journal and its contributors helped enormously to challenge and rupture traditional political and academic notions of crime as pathological or evil, of criminal law as natural and good. True, some other, excellent critical criminological journals emerged about the same time or a little later, notably Contemporary Crises. Yet the distinctive contribution of Crime and Social Justice was that it much more explicitly brought together criminology and the study of issues in social justice. This was by no means the norm, especially in the more theoretically driven radical criminologies emanating from Britain that were prominent at the time. A key aim of Crime and Social Justice was to challenge the idea that the justice in terms of which crime was to be understood was the justice that law created. It made clear, in times when this needed to be made clear, that crime and justice could not be divorced from "the social," and that therefore neither could be thought of as merely analytical subjects. Both crime and justice were to be understood from a radical social perspective simultaneously as analytic, political, and moral. I think this is a legacy of which Crime and Social Justice and Social Justice "together" should be proud.

In all of this, too, there was a sense that analysis of crime and justice had to take account of social collectivities. Common to the times, the "social" had a tightly integrated, double character. On the one side was a collective civility, a responsibility to all others that we bear as members of an organic whole that is "society.

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