If one thing emerges immediately from reading “The Variety of Critical Theory,” it is that postmodernism, in its application to criminological theory, certainly may have attempted to clarify criminological ideas but it did so in a dense and sometimes seemingly (unnecessarily?) complicated fashion. Trying to navigate the definitions of postmodernism, quite before arriving at its application to criminology, was something of a challenge. But once it was contextualized chronologically and its emergence explained, its influence on criminological theory – specifically the rise of critical criminology/new criminology – began to make more sense.
In particular, the influence of British criminology and its response to the ‘fall’ of traditional positivism made critical criminology make much more sense. One must recognize the ways in which traditional criminology had tried to make sense of criminal behavior and acknowledge the influence of its attempts, but one must also recognize how it failed to ‘solve’ the problem of crime. In reading “The Variety of Critical Theory” it became obvious why traditional criminology was not able to solve the problem of crime: it had not spent adequate time analyzing its own language and methods. This is made abundantly clear when Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (2015) outline the “three key language-based propositions” – “the centrality of language,” “partial knowledge and provisional truth,” and “deconstruction, difference, and possibility” (p. 211).

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But it is also interesting to note how the socio-cultural challenges of Britain fostered the fall of traditional positivism and underlined the need for critical criminology. Traditional criminology may have categorized crimes efficiently, but it had failed to adequately address them. That this would engender the emergence of left realism, particularly in Britain, is unsurprising (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2013; Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2013) note that left realism “was primarily concerned with predatory street crime” such as mugging with the “primary victims of working class crime” being “in fact working class members themselves” (p. 275). In other words, criminology had effectively categorized crime but had not truly understood or calculated the effect of the crime on the victim or the criminal; left realism – so called because of its focus on “the real aspects of crime” – finally considered that effect and how it could drive research, especially into the “etiology of crime” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015, p. 215).

Of course, society and culture are usually in a state of flux, however subtle, and so what began in the late 1980s and early 1990s with regard to critical criminology had to adapt to the changing tides of economics and technology. One must also acknowledge Hall’s observation that there appears to no longer be “an enduring Good,” that “the very principles of universal ethics and symbolic efficiency have become the villains” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015, p. 227). Though such notions – ethics and symbolic efficiency – were reviled early on in postmodernism, Hall asserts that a return to such ideas is necessary. He asserts that “crime and the culture of consumerism are two sides of the same coin under contemporary capitalistic neoliberalism,” in these times where “substantive inequality is now deeply embedded” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015, p. 228), echoing Marx and Engels. This push towards what seems to be a more philosophical view of crime which is intended to facilitate more real-world solutions for addressing it seems counterintuitive, especially in an era when most criminal justice programs “are pushing for more applied or ‘practical’ criminological programs aimed at helping students acquire jobs…specializing in social control” (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2013, p. 279). One wonders how such programs include environmental, ecological, and animal rights justice, as well as accounting for other viewpoints on criminology, such as cultural, convict, and green?

  • DeKeseredy, W., & Schwartz, M. (2013). Confronting progressive retreatism and minimalism:
    The role of a new left realist approach. Critical Criminology, 21(3), 273-286. doi:10.1007/s10612-013-9192-5
  • Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R.A. (2015). Criminological theory: Context and consequences (6th ed.). Sage Publications.