Thursday 13 February 2020

Historical Criminology and Southern Criminology

by Victoria Nagy, University of Tasmania

In a recent issue of Criminology and Criminal Justice the possibilities of historical criminology were well articulated by Henry Yeomans, David Churchill and Paul Lawrence. To see three articles devoted to the building of theory in historical criminology is gratifying; it is a benefit for those who champion it, and it speaks to those criminologists who may not yet be sold on the benefits of an anchoring in history.

This blog post isn’t a review of the three pieces per se but an addition to the conversation about historical criminology started so well by the thematic section in C&CJ. This involves bringing the Global South into the discussion. The uniqueness to the Global South is what is often missing in criminology and from the theorisations of historical criminology in C&CJ’s thematic issue.

Recently Australian, New Zealand, South American, South East Asian and South African criminologists have been turning attention to the questions of where knowledge is created, who it benefits, and how relevant it is to those living in the Global South. This new theoretical branch of criminology is termed Southern Criminology and employs southern theory (Connell 2007) to consider the power relations embedded in the production of criminological knowledge and how traditional criminology ‘privileges theories, assumptions and methods based largely on empirical specificities of the Global North’ (Carrington, Hogg and Sozzo 2016, 1). The aim of Southern Criminology is not to fragment the field further into those who do southern theory versus those who do not; rather it makes the argument that there is a need for a transnational criminology that is inclusive of the Global South (Carrington et al., 2016; Hogg, Scott and Sozzo 2017; Travers, 2019). As Carrington et al (2016) put it, it is about de-colonising and democratising criminological knowledge.

This leads us back to the articles in C&CJ. The discussions in this thematic issue read as very Global Northern-centric. This in and of itself is not a problem, and it is not surprising seeing as the social sciences as a field are dominated by the Global North: most publishing houses, journals, and conferences that direct how we think about and do social science are located either in the UK or the US (Graham, Hale and Stephens 2011; Carrington, Hogg, Sozzo and Walters 2019). The way in which criminology (and arguably history) has operated has also tended to assume that a relocation of theory was all that was needed, especially with countries such as Australia and New Zealand. For example, well-meaning reviewers have oftentimes outed themselves as not being from either Australia or New Zealand when requesting the use of British laws or examples that have no relevance to either southern colony but are considered fundamental if one views criminology just from a northern perspective.  This does not mean that Australian and New Zealand criminologists are immune from this. There is still a tendency for the theories generated in the North to be picked up and transplanted here in the South thereby ignoring the history and context of the south while evidence is procured to support of these northern theories (Connell, 2014; Carrington et al., 2016).

The history of the Global South is closely interwoven with the Global North. Churchill (2019) rightly points out that our discussions of history as stadial are limiting to how we can do historical research in criminology and there is a perfect example of this in practice. For both Australia and New Zealand, indeed for all of the Global South, history is not in the past but here and now for the people who were colonised by those in the Global North. History has bled into the present through the over-representation of indigenous people in our criminal justice systems. Intergenerational trauma originating from colonisation by the British plays no small role in the poverty, oppression and violence experienced by Australian Aboriginal communities today (Funston and Herring 2016). Discussing the flow of history must go beyond a discussion of flow of multiple dimensions past and present and consider the flow from north to south as well.

For those of us working in historical criminology, Lawrence’s (2019) argument that the past can be used to explain the present in a long-term fashion and that historical data can be an immense support to criminologists today is one we’d all agree with. However, how or what parts of the past are used is important to consider. The violence that was used to subject the rightful owners of these lands in the Global South to their colonisers did not appear in official records. Only the most egregious example of colonist violence appears in our social or legal records, and once the frontier wars in Australia came (somewhat) to an end in the early twentieth century that violence continued in acts such as the forceable removal of Aboriginal children from their families which led to the Stolen Generation in Australia and the intergenerational trauma mentioned above. It is only with mapping the effect of the frontier wars in Australia, for instance, that we’re starting to see emerge the level of devastation wrought on this country by colonisers. Dispossession, bloodshed, and genocide of indigenous peoples cannot be so easily translated or understood by criminology if we do not accommodate it in our data collection and analysis (Carrington et al 2016).

And finally, Yeomans (2019) makes a strong case for the creation of a more “historically sensitive criminology” (p.456) that is three-dimensional, but that cannot be done without understanding that the history of these colonised nations in the Global South is not settled, nor does it manifest in a way seen in UK, US or other northern criminologies. Arguably the Global North where the criminological theories were developed at a time of peace is not reflective of the experiences of many in the Global South who were at the same time experiencing genocide and struggling for democratic freedoms from colonisers or dictators, and these criminological theories presuppose that crime is an urban phenomenon where disorganisation was changing the face of the urban landscape with rural locations as “naturally cohesive” spaces (Carrington et al. 2016).

So what does this mean? It doesn’t mean that Southern Criminology is better than other criminology theories for those of us in the Global South but rather that we need to ask what can be done to ensure that the emerging branch of historical criminology and discussions of its theory is democratic and decolonised.


  1. Victoria

    I really appreciate your contribution to the debate. As you write above who’s history matters when researching & theorising the history of crime & criminal justice from the periphery.

    1. Thank you Kerry! I think Southern Criminology has a lot to offer Historical Criminology and how we understand our pasts and present.


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