Decolonizing Criminology through the inclusion of epistemologies of the south

Kerry Carrington is a Research Professor at the Centre for Justice Queensland University of Technology, and Fellow of the Academy of SocialSciences. Kerry leads multi-lingual research teams across the globe on southernizing criminology projects. She’s the Founding Editor of the Open Access International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy.

What needs de-colonising?  Metropolitan thinking in criminology

Metropolitan thinking rests on a linear, panoramic and unifying standpoint in which space, and geo-political and social difference, are erased in the imperial narrative of time. This temporal logic constructs societies peripheral to the epicentres of colonial power as backward. Hence the division of the world into ‘developing’ and ‘developed’, ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds, in which the global north is depicted as leading the way to an advanced stage of civilisation (Carrington and Hogg et al, 2018: 6). A multitude of perspectives, de-colonial, post-colonial, Indigenous, southern, southern feminist, and subaltern theories have criticised this way of dividing the world and measuring human progress (Aas, 2012; Agozino, 2010; Brown, 2018; Campos, 2018; Carrington et al., 2016; Connell, 2007; Cunneen, 2018; de Magalhães Gomes, 2018;  de Sousa Santos, 2014; Leon, 2021;  Lui, 2009; 2017; Mignolo, 2011; Travers, 2019).

According to this logic, social phenomena in the ‘periphery’ would be investigated from the standpoint of universal theories and laws of development generated in ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ societies of the Global North (Connell, 2007). The South could be mined for data, as for other raw materials, but little in the way of novel ideas or theoretical insights of anything more than local interest could be yielded by the social scientific enterprise in the South. Connell calls this ‘metropolitan’ thinking (Connell 2007: 215).  We argue this has also been true for criminology (Carrington, Hogg and Sozzo, 2016).

Why southern? A metaphor for centre/periphery relations of power

Raewyn Connell deliberately chose the label southern for three reasons. First, to direct attention to periphery-centre relations of power and the epistemic privilege of the universities of the global north, where around 90% of the world’s journals, universities, resources for doing research reside. The south is conceptualised as a metaphor for the unequal economic, political and intellectual power relations embedded in metropolitan thinking. Second, to highlight the fact that social theory can be developed from the periphery – not just the centres of power and epistemic privilege. And third, that social thought is positioned – specific to place and the land, not universal or timeless (Connell, 2007: viii-ix). This means there are multiple – not dichotomous- epistemologies of south and north, east and west, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.  When taken in its metaphorical sense, the ‘south’ refers to the peripheral voices located anywhere in the world. The South and North are not homogeneous or mutually exclusive spaces or categories. This is a prominent theme in the work of critical criminologists like Elliot Currie, who argues that ‘we cannot begin to grasp either the nature or origins of America’s outsized problem of violent crime (or of punishment) without placing the ‘Southern’ legacy in the foreground’ (Currie, 2018: 44).  He is referring to the history of slavery and transportation of 10-15 million Africans to the Americas (north and south) from the 16th century.

Border thinking and de-colonising knowledge

Boaventura de Sousa Santos stresses that the task of de-colonising knowledge is complex, gigantic, and in some contexts, born of struggle against capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism (2020: 220-27).  He argues there are two main projects of de-colonising knowledge – one negative and the other positive. The negative championed by decolonial theory is to critique and root out ethnocentric, racist and anglocentric biases of knowledge systems. This journey has many champions. The positive and more challenging project is the constructive work of building the epistemologies of the south (de Santos Sousa, 2020: 226). The plural is deliberate as the key to disrupting the hegemony of northern epistemologies is to build diverse epistemologies, through what he calls border thinking. This journey has fewer champions, of which I am one.

de Sousa Santos argues there can be no global justice without cognitive justice (de Sousa Santos 2014: viii). Like Connell, he is critical of the way the history of the social sciences has projected itself as an emancipatory project while its modernist ideals remained based on the experience of metropolitan societies (de Sousa Santos 2014: 71). However, unlike many post-or de-colonial theorists who see little worth recovering from Northern theories, de Sousa Santos does imagine that a non-Occidentalist West is a possibility (de Sousa Santos 2014: 114). Consequently, he rejects the reductionism of post-colonial/decolonial theories that reify and essentialise concepts, such as Eastern or Indigenous knowledge and stand them in outright opposition to Western scientific knowledge (de Sousa Santos 2014: 212). Rather, he opts for border thinking, inter-cultural thinking and ways of knowing which offer an escape from the colonising effects of the global episteme. He defines these alternative knowledges as necessarily limited as opposed to the universalising claims of metropolitan thought (de Sousa Santos 2014: 212). Border thinking occurs in the spaces in between, with the view that ‘knowledges that may be refounded, reconfigured, and reconstructed in such a way that they may be put at the service of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-patriarchal struggles’ (de Sousa Santos, 2020: 225).  It is futile to challenge the global hierarchy of knowledge by resurrecting alternative origin stories or ‘founding fathers’, as some de-colonial theorists have done. This engages in the same rhetorical strategy of producing false binaries as does metropolitan thought (Connell, 2007: xi).

Southernizing criminology as a salve for its metropolitan thinking

The southernizing of criminology acts as a salve for the biases of metropolitan thinking (Hughes, 2020: 194). Southern criminologies (and the plural is deliberate as there is no single unifying voice from the global south), contest the universalism of theories based on knowledge specific to English speaking countries of the north Atlantic world. They question linear models of progress and colonialist constructions of justice used in criminology to measure other justice systems as backward, exotic or primitive and challenge criminological theories that erase the historical legacies of colonialism, slavery and structured global inequality.

As a theoretical project the southernizing of criminology seeks to reorient and correct hegemonic biases, to expand the repertoire of criminological knowledges beyond their heavily laden northern gaze. It is premised on the recognition that North and South are globally interconnected in ways and with effects, both historical and contemporary, which warrant careful inquiry and analysis in criminological research, theoretical, and policy agendas (Carrington et al 2016; 2019). De-colonising criminology steers a tricky pathway along what the Bengali social scientist Chakrabarty (2007) calls conceptual pragmatism that accepts knowledge is so embedded with metropolitan thought it is not possible to completely disentangle it from its hegemony (Chakrabarty, 2007) (see Brown 2018). But a criminology that aims to decenter, democratize and pluralize knowledge by injecting it with knowledge from the south and the periphery is possible.  Indeed, rather than creating divisions, southern criminologies seek to build epistemological bridges, based on the premise that an important form of decolonial action is achieved by ‘affecting and transforming the contents of Western science, through the use of knowledge, realities and cosmologies’ of the south (Goyes, 2018: 337).

As an empirical project, epistemologies of the south seek to cultivate knowledges of and from the periphery that have been relatively invisible or marginalized (Alvirti et al., 2021; Carrington, Hogg and Sozzo, 2016; Carrington et al., 2018; Carrington, Goyes, et al., 2019; Goyes, 2019; Fonseca, 2018; Valdés-Riesco, 2020). One of the emphases is to reinsert the historical legacies of colonialism back into analysis of contemporary crime and justice. Not in the same way as comparative criminology has done it, by drawing comparisons framed by an orientalism or elitism that constructs non-western societies as ‘exotic,’ ‘primitive’ or the ‘other’ (Liu, 2011; 2017). Southern epistemologies seek ‘to contemplate life, crime and social order outside the metropolitan North, … (and) to find new ways of thinking about phenomena so that the South is understood on its own terms’ (Brown, 2018: 83).

One of the problems with theories of decolonisation, has been the tendency to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity. This argues Camilla de Magalhães Gomes (2018; 2021), makes invisible the gender of colonality. She is critical of the lack of gender perspectives in the work of de-colonial theorists insisting that ‘gender is a category of decolonial analysis’ (de Magalhães Gomes, 2021: 1). Attempts at de-colonizing feminist theory and social science are not new (eg. Mohanty, 1991; Lugones, 2010). What is relatively new is the emergence of southern feminisms (Campos, 2020; Giraldo, 2016; Lima Costa, 2014; Tlostanova, et al., 2016; Rodriguez Castro, 2020), that aim to docolonise and democratise feminist theory (Connell, 2015: 59), by embracing a mosaic of epistemologies (Connell, 2015: 59) using border thinking (Tlostanova, et al., 2016). ‘Feminist border thinking is a horizontal transversal networking of different local histories and sensibilities mobilised through a number of common, yet pluriversal and open categories’ (Tlostanov, et al., 2016: 217).

As Leon Mossavi (2018) rightly points out, there have been previous attempts to unpack and jettison what he calls ‘westernised criminology’—to trans-nationalize it (Aas, 2012; Bowling, 2011) and to decolonize it (Agozino, 2010; Cunneen, 2011; 2018). What differentiates southern criminologies from these critiques, however, is that it eschews the romanticization of ‘the other’; based on identity, class, race, Indigeneity or ethnicity (Cain, 2000).  That southern criminologies are not in principle oppositional projects which rest on identity politics, does not make them, as some armchair critics suggest, a form of incorporation or a bandwagon (Moosavi, 2020). Nor is it ‘a defensive reflex, designed to exonerate Anglo-spheric theory from complicity in epistemic violence’ (Blagg and Anthony, 2019: 6). Their book titled, Decolonising Criminology critiques criminologies of the south without even referencing a single example. It was reviewed by Tharawal woman, Robyn Oxley an early career Indigenous scholar, who pointed out that Blagg and Anthony quote very few Indigenous scholars, concluding: ‘For non-Aboriginal scholars who have built their careers on the backs of Aboriginal people, the time has come to make space for Indigenous scholars’ (Oxley, 2020: 180-181).

The crude simplistic critiques of southern criminologies published in privileged journals in United States and England overlook the many shared similarities between those who aim to decolonize knowledge through decolonial critique, what Dimou refers to as ‘the decolonial option’ (2021:1), and those who seek to decolonize knowledge through constructing southern epistemologies through border thinking and intercultural collaboration (i.e. Aliverti  et al., 2019; Carrington, et al., 2016; Carrington, Goyes et al., 2019; Fonseca, 2018; Goyes, 2018;  Goyes and South, forthcoming; Lui, 2017; Travers, 2019; Walklate, 2016; Zaffaroni, 2015). Those who critique it as a project led by a bunch of Australians completely misunderstand how the southernizing of criminology pursues a series of practical decolonizing projects all over the world, involving hundreds if not thousands of scholars from a great many cultures, continents and languages. Many initiated by scholars in other languages, whose activities are rendered entirely invisible by these crude critiques. These projects create opportunities for border thinking and intercultural communication through real world conferences, discussion groups, open access journal publication, supporting scholars with southern criminology scholarships, mentoring, bi-lingual events and other collaborations. International conferences seeking to southernize criminology have been convened five times in Australia and twice in Latin America, both times with simultaneous translation, funded by QUT Centre for Justice. Recently the Centre of Criminology, University of Oxford co-hosted a multi-lingual conference with Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Argentina on Punishment in the Global Peripheries  and formed a discussion group on southernizing criminology. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research has established formal links with universities in the global south as a practical commitment to bridging global divides and decolonizing criminology. Universities in Latin America have been at the forefront of developing southern epistemologies, criminologies and southern feminisms for decades (eg Lugones, Mignolo, Sozzo and Zafaroni, leading figures in these debates are all from Argentina). The Asian Criminological Society, has also been pioneering alternative knowledges to anglo-centric northern criminology since 2006 (Carrington, Goyes, et al., 2019).

Another practical form of decolonisation is citing and publishing in Open Access journals which disseminate knowledge outside the capitalist model that makes knowledge a commodity behind paywalls. Criminology Open  championed by Scott Jacques from Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, Atlanta, is a practical illustration of how all of us can contribute to the democratisation of criminology, regardless of positionality or identity. This website provides open sources for students, academics and the public, and urges  ‘we must make our works freely available to everyone’.

The open access journal published by QUT Centre for Justice, International Journal for Crime Justice and Social Democracy, of which I am the founding editor, is dedicated to de-colonising and democratising knowledge through open access publishing, creative commons copyright ensuring authors retain their own intellectual property rights. It has:

  • 112 Editorial Board members from 22 countries, 2 Indigenous to Australia, one Pacific Islander and many multi-lingual members from Latin America, Asia and other parts of the global south and north.
  • 1230 authors from 60 countries have cited the Journal’s articles affiliated with 441 institutions around the world
  • contributing authors have come from 38 countries and 157 institutions
  • 10% of the published articles are about Indigenous/Aboriginal or First Nations Issues – one of the highest proportion in the world (Goyes and South, forthcoming)
  • publishes and funds early career researchers to do translations
  • publishes some articles in multiple languages

The democratisation of knowledge through open access publishing that is free to download and publish disrupts the profiteering of corporate publishing giants like Elsevier. Anyone in criminology can participate in the project of decolonising knowledge by supporting, citing, founding, and publishing in open access journals and modes of publication.

Unlike the negative decolonial projects (which have their place), the project of southernizing criminology does not set out to denigrate the contribution of metropolitan criminology– or to damn all criminologists as ‘racist’, ‘westerncentric’ ‘control freaks’ on some sort of ‘bandwagon’. Rather than creating divisions the projects of southern criminologies seek to bridge global divides precisely as form of a decolonial praxis in action.

Contact

Professor Kerry Carrington,

Email: Kerry.carrington@qut.edu.au

Project website: Home – Preventing Gender Violence (qut.edu.au)

Staff page with links to publications: QUT | Staff Profiles | Kerry Carrington

Images courtesy of author

Kerry Carrington took the photograph at the top of the article in Argentina in 2019. “It’s a mural painted by a survivor of domestic violence, it says ‘Break the Silence’. The research was done in Spanish with a team from Argentina. Here’s the link to the project and team”. https://research.qut.edu.au/pgv/

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The BSC Blog

all about current issues on crime, criminology and criminal justice

1868 A Civilizing Moment?

A one day conference reflecting on 150 years since the abolition of public execution

Race and the Death Penalty in Britain

An interdisciplinary research project at the University of Sussex

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

BSC Policing Network

Connecting Policing Researchers In The UK And Beyond

BSC Learning and Teaching Network

For Everyone Interested in the Scholarship of Teaching Criminology and Criminal Justice

Postgraduate Blog

Produced for criminology postgraduates, by criminology postgraduates.

BSC Victims Network

Criminology, law, sociology, victimology

Irish Criminology Research Network

criminal justice issues of critical concern.

Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC)

The home of criminology research at The Open University

Border Criminologies blog

all about current issues on crime, criminology and criminal justice

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

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