Oakeshott and the New Crime Prevention

By Knepper, Paul | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Oakeshott and the New Crime Prevention


Knepper, Paul, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


Many countries now have some kind of national crime prevention structure. This new crime prevention, unlike traditional criminology, extends the responsibility for preventing crime outside of criminal justice to households, neighbourhoods, and families. Drawing on the work of British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, the article discusses recent prevention trends in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Specifically, the discussion applies four of Oakeshott's central themes--his attitude toward social science, his concept of a person, his theory of human association, and his description of the rule of law to four emerging rationales--evidence-based policy, situational crime prevention, social crime prevention and marketing prosocial values.

Many countries now have some kind of national crime prevention structure. The new crime prevention, unlike traditional criminology, acknowledges the limits of government in responding to crime. The new crime prevention has been defined as those interventions intended to forestall crime without recourse to the criminal justice system. [1] This "responsibilisation strategy," as Garland (1996, p. 451) puts it, represents a new mode of managing crime, with its own logic, means of enquiry and policy initiatives. It directs a program toward potential victims and the conduct of everyday life thought to facilitate criminal activity. The strategy extends the responsibility for crime to a knot of activities outside criminal justice and beyond government: households, businesses, neighbourhoods and families (Garland, 1996; Garland & Sparks, 2000; Pratt, 2001; Shapland, 2000).

To untie this strategy, this article draws on the work of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott is an accidental criminologist, which is to say that he never contributed directly to criminology. A member of the history faculty at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, Oakeshott became the chair of political science at the London School of Economics in 1951. He is best known for his history of political thought, although his work has contributed to several disciplines, including history, political science, philosophy, literature and education (Coats, 2000; Devigne, 1994; Grant, 1990; Farr, 1998; Franco, 1990; Gerencser, 2000; Nardin, 2001). Oakeshott wrote more about horse-racing than he did about crime. Quite possibly, he wrote nothing because he felt he had nothing to say. [2] Yet Oakeshott has a great deal to offer criminology. Criminal conduct raises questions of law, government, human association, and moral conduct--the very questions Oakeshott devoted himself to throughout his life. And, in an age whose leading intellectuals have turned to the prison as a metaphor for social existence, he achieves a unique place by sustaining a fundamentally affirmative outlook (O'Sullivan 2001). Oakeshott advances considerable skepticism but never loses his intrigue for the possibilities afforded by what he called "the poetic character of all human activity".

This essay applies four of Oakeshott's central themes--his attitude toward social science, his concept of a person, his theory of human association, and his description of the rule of law to recent trends in crime prevention in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US). Each section provides an introduction to Oakeshott's thought, drawing on his own work as well as those of his interpreters, and then directs his ideas toward a particular aspect of the new crime prevention, including evidence-based policy, situational crime prevention, social crime prevention and media-based schemes. Dealing with crime prevention in this way does risk oversimplifying crime prevention strategies and their national contexts; there are complexities that are not dealt with here, although they are important. The present discussion focuses on some of the rationales for the new crime prevention, and particularly, those rationales supplied by academics. …

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