Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Week 7: Radical victimology

The trouble with the word 'radical' is that it seems to mean so many different things. George Galloway is a radical leftist. Nick Griffin is a radical right-winger. Abu Hamza is a radical Islamist. Andrea Dworkin was a radical feminist... and so on. You can apply it to political policies as well: the Coalition is making radical reforms to the NHS; Tony Blair made radical changes to the Labour Party...

These are all true statements, but what do they mean? "Radical" obviously isn't a political programme: we're not saying that the Coalition's NHS reforms would please Nick Griffin and Abu Hamza. (That may be true, I wouldn't really know.) The clue is in the etymology: "radical" comes from the Latin radix, meaning "root". "Radical" basically means "going down to the root" - it's a way of saying that really big changes need to be made.

So when we talk about "radical victimology" we're talking about a perspective on society which says that things are not all right: we are not living (as the classical victimologists believed) in a basically functional society, with crime as a marginal, manageable problem. Radical victimologists, like feminist victimologists, believe that society is structured by relationships of unequal power; that those relationships are systematically unjust; and that this is the context within which we should think about crime and victimisation.

Let's take those points one at a time.

Society is structured by relationships of unequal power: in everything you do, every day of your life, you are always interacting with people who have power over you. Some of the time the tables are turned and you have power over other people; if you're very lucky, very ambitious or both, you can reach a point where you have power over a lot of other people. Most people spend most of their time interacting with people who have power over them - the boss, the DSS, the police...

Those relationships are systematically unjust: from the day they're born, some people are much, much more likely to grow up to be doctors and lawyers than others; some people are much, much more likely to end up living in poverty and be victims of violence and theft. These differences aren't random: the Bad Fairy doesn't pick every fourth baby in a maternity ward, or all the babies whose surnames begin with an R. Being born into a disadvantaged group is bad luck in terms of future prosperity. And that bad luck doesn't simply get handed out on day one: it's dealt out over and over again as you go through life.

This is the context in which we should think about crime: radical victimologists, like feminist victimologists, argue that this context of systematic injustice makes a huge difference to how we think about crime. Is it a good idea to put security guards on the doors of a shopping centre and tell them to bar suspicious-looking characters? Is it a good idea to double police foot patrols on an estate to address concerns about youths hanging around? If a teenage drug addict has confessed to a burglary, is it a good idea to lock him up? You'll get very different answers to those questions, depending on whether you start from the classical position (society is basically working OK, except for this problem of crime) or a radical position (urban youth are systematically discriminated against in our unjust society).

I said at the outset that "radical" doesn't necessarily mean "left-wing". Radical victimologists generally are left-wing in one way or other, but they don't all see society in terms of class: there are radical victimologists who focus on ethnicity and racism, on white-collar crime, on disability and on sexuality. The key points are the ones I listed above - that power relations are fundamental to the way society is structured; that those power relations are unjust; and that those unjust power relations are the context within which we should think about crime and victimisation.

Two brief points about terminology

1: I mentioned above that the late Andrea Dworkin was a radical feminist. "Radical feminist" means something specific, which I talked about in the lecture on feminist victimology. You can be a radical feminist, and a feminist victimologist, but that wouldn't make you a radical victimologist. Sorry about that, it's just the way the words are used.

2: Sandra Walklate argues that "radical victimology" is something specific, based on the "left realist" school of criminology and the use of crime surveys to measure the prevalence of crime in working-class areas. She advocates what she calls "critical victimology", which would be less class-based. Some victimologists have started using this label, but others haven't. I think it's simpler just to say that radical victimology doesn't have to be class-based and use the label more generally.

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