Advancing Critical Criminology through Anthropology

By Brisman, Avi | Western Criminology Review, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Advancing Critical Criminology through Anthropology

Brisman, Avi, Western Criminology Review

Abstract: Since its genesis, critical criminology has been committed to a critique of domination and to developing and exploring broader conceptions of "crime" to include "harms" that are not necessarily proscribed by law. Without diminishing the contributions of early or current critical criminologists, this article suggests that critical criminology can further its goals by looking to anthropology. Such a recommendation is not without risk. Early "criminal anthropology" regarded criminality as inherited and contended that individuals could be "born criminal" (e.g., Fletcher 1891). Subsequent anthropological investigations of crime were and have continued to be sporadic, and the discipline's approach to crime has not been particularly unified. (Anthropology has often considered crime within broader explorations of law, for example, or through related, albeit different, examinations of sorcery and witchcraft.) Despite these limitations or shortcomings, this article presents three ways in which anthropology can speak to, and engage with, critical criminology's "insistence that criminological inquiry move beyond the boundaries imposed by legalistic definitions of crime" and its critique of domination (Michalowksi 1996:11): 1) anthropology can help reveal processes of domination that are pervasive; 2) anthropology can remind us that what constitutes "crime" is culturally specific and temporal; and 3) anthropology can help provide paradigms for better living-allowing critical criminologists to be not just critical, not just prescriptive, but aspirational. A wide range of ethnographic accounts is considered.

Keywords: anthropology; culture; domination; harm; power; resistance


As a subject, "crime" has not generated significant interest in the field of cultural anthropology.1 While one could point to an anthology here or a review essay there, one would be hard-pressed to support the contention that anthropology has approached crime in a coherent, unified, or sustained way-or that it has even generated substantial, ongoing debates about crime.2 Most often, crime appears in the context of some other inquiry, such as disorder (Comaroff and Comaroff 2004, 2006), violence (e.g., Betzig et al. 1988; Knauft et al. 1991), witchcraft and sorcery (Favret-Saada 1980; Geschiere 1997), primitive law (Driberg 1928), the nature of the relationship between law and conflict (Collier 1975), or labor, employment, social stratification, and the effects of deindustrialization (e.g., Bourgois 1996; Phillips 1999; Sullivan 1989), rather than on its own and as the primary subject of anthropological attention (cf. Parnell and Kane 2003; Schneider and Schneider 2008).

This phenomenon may be due, in part, to sociology's near hegemony over all matters crime-related (before criminology became its own discipline or sub-discipline, depending on one's perspective).3 But cultural anthro-pology's lack of attention to crime may also be attributed, at least in part, to the regrettable subfield of criminal anthropology (also known as anthropological crim-inology), which Fletcher (1891:204), in his famous address to the Anthropological Society of Washington, defined as "the study of the being who, in consequence of physical conformation, hereditary taint, or surroundings of vice, poverty, and ill example, yields to temptation and begins a career of crime." Although such efforts to "biologize law-breaking" (Rafter 2007:808) were later discredited and abandoned because of concerns for their racist and eugenicist policy implications (Cullen and Agnew 2006:22; see also Brennan et al. 1995:65; Raine 2002:43), the experience may have left anthropology reluctant to venture into the world of crime.4

Such unwillingness is unfortunate for a number of very basic reasons: 1) anthropology shares sociology's and criminology's forefathers (e.g., Durkheim, Marx, Weber) and canonical figures (e.g., Foucault) - individuals who contemplated issues of conflict and cooperation, power and punishment, which lie at the heart of or are integral to understandings of crime;5 2) while all cultures possess proscribed behaviors, "crime" is still culturally-specific and peoples differ (over time) over what behavior is to be condemned and condoned (see, e. …

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