Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Notes on the Study of Language: Towards Critical Race Criminology

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Notes on the Study of Language: Towards Critical Race Criminology

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this paper I demonstrate that the study of language constitutes an effective platform for the sociological analysis of 'race' and 'crime.' I also establish that the study of justice-related language provides a powerful tool for the construction of a critical race criminology or the study of racism residing in the discourse about, and the practices of, what is termed the 'criminal justice system.' Specifically, I demonstrate that the study of language contributes to critical race criminology by demonstrating how everyday language (reality) not only criminalizes people of color, but also builds and maintains racist 'criminal justice system' discourses and practices, even while acknowledging the problem of 'race' in matters of 'crime' and 'criminal justice.' I determine that, while to some extent previous research has highlighted the potential of language studies to unmask the racism of modern 'criminal justice' discourse and 'criminal justice' practices, much work remains to be done. To demonstrate the latter arguments, I (1) present previous justice-related language studies in a critical race criminology light, and (2) suggest an agenda for future research that will employ justice-related language studies as a contribution to critical race criminology.

Keywords: race and crime; race and criminal justice; language; critical race criminology; poststructuralism; postmodernism


Edward Sapir (1921) once noted that human beings do not live in an objective world alone, but also exist at the mercy of the everyday language of their society. Sapir demonstrates that language is not merely the incidental means of communication and reflection, but that the real world is built on the language habits of a group. As he writes, "We see and hear, and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation" (cited in Whorf 1956:134).

Sapir's point, that the real world is little more than a habitual language construction, invites criminologists to ponder modern justice language. For researchers interested in the problems of the 'criminal justice system,' the question is clear: what are the justice-related language habits of modern discourse, and what interpretations do such language habits predispose speakers and listeners toward? If Sapir is correct, and merely by using the language we do, we define what we seek to describe, it is critical to ask how the justice we practice is a language construction.

Thinking About Language: Structuralists, Poststructuralists, and Postmodernists

The above proposition, that language demonstrates the world is less objective and more intersubjective, is not without detractors. Today, the debate happens mostly between those who align themselves with structuralism or poststructuralism. For structuralists, human behavior is determined by various structures, such as "society" (Levi-Straus 1969a). From this view, persons are seen as born into a social life that exists independently of them and which significantly determines their behavior. For structuralists, individuals act according to the "institutions," "values," and "culture" of the social life of which they are a product (Levi-Strauss 1963).

For structuralists, meanings are necessarily produced within a "culture." Levi-Strauss (1963, 1966, 1969b), the founder of structuralism, argues that the human mind has structures that predetermine all practices of social life. For structuralists, there is such a thing as "society" and it predates individuals. Language, for example, is seen as the product of the "grammatical structure" of opposites (cold/warm, peace/war, male/female, etc.) and a Saussurean system of signs. Thus, for structuralists, language is a system whose logic can be uncovered by studying the biological and social structures that produce it.

The fundamental assumption of structuralism is that all content is determined by structure and that all meaning is a result of relationships between structures or networks of structures. …

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