Courting disaster and indulging the Whiteness of the criminological imagination.

Rod Earle outlines his concerns about aspects of a recent court case in which a judge offered reading advice to a white supremacist criminology student. Drawing on Toni Morrison’s (1993) seminal analysis of whiteness and the literary imagination, Earle suggests the case has alarming implications that have been overlooked and underplayed.

Author Rod Earle

On 31st August 2021 Ben John appeared at Leicester Crown Court to be sentenced for downloading 67,788 documents from Nazi, neo-Nazi and similar white supremacist, antisemitic websites. The documents included information about bomb-making materials and techniques. John had previously been referred to the UK’s counter-terrorism Prevent scheme because he had come to the notice of the police and university authorities at De Montfort University where he was a criminology undergraduate. The police described him as a white supremacist with Nazi sympathies and he was charged with ‘possessing a record of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act.

In court, after considering reports, the judge in the case, Timothy Spencer, a senior resident judge and QC, opted for a two-year custodial sentence, suspended for two years, but it was his remarks to John in court that propelled the case into the newspapers and that should alarm criminologists. Spencer’s characterisation of the 21-year old’s behaviour as ‘an act of teenage folly’ is one thing, but his instruction that John should read more widely and that the judge provided a list of his preferred works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen was another . In passing down his sentence, Spencer instructed that John should be returned to court every four months where he himself would test his understanding of these great authors, remarking: “have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.” (BBC 2021; Richardson 2022)

As the unusual features of the sentence and the judge’s remarks became a news story I was alerted to it by a criminologist endorsing the sentence and the judge’s remarks on social media. For them the sentence was ‘excellent’ because reading such books and being encouraged to ‘really read’ them was far more likely to rehabilitate John than a period of custody. Others appeared to agree that a judge declining to impose an immediate custodial sentence and opting for a particularly ‘creative’ alternative was to be welcomed. I was aghast. The issue of racism had evaporated.

Before becoming a criminologist, as a youth justice practitioner I wrote hundreds of pre-sentence reports for teenagers. I know how difficult it can be, ethically and practically (Evans 2016). On some few occasions in the Crown Court I may have contributed to a surprise non-custodial sentence. Even now, still, as a criminologist that leans toward abolitionism, a small part of me wants to pay tribute to the author of the pre-sentence report if their work contributed to this non-custodial outcome. However, the judge’s remarks suggested a huge can of worms around which the criminological community remained relatively and characteristically silent. As I pointed out in my letter to a national newspaper (Earle 2021) the case clearly raised the issue of white privilege. In courts. In the judiciary. And, by implication, for criminology. It couldn’t be more obvious could it, I thought. A white judge, the white canon of English literature, a white defendant, an issue of white terrorism. Imagine if it had been otherwise and a young Muslim, perhaps named Rafiq Khan, was found to have downloaded thousands of inflammatory documents from ISIS-type and Al Qaeda-related websites. Imagine that this young man had already come to the notice of the police. What books and cultural icons might have sprung into the judges highly trained legal mind as potentially suitable remedies? None, probably. A long custodial sentence and possibly some liberal hand-wringing about a tragic waste of life is the best ‘Rafiq’ could hope for.

In 2008 this imaginary scenario, only worse, came very close to happening. A Muslim student, Rizwaan Sabir, who was reading for a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and an Algerian member of staff, Hicham Yezza, were both arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorism. They were held in custody for seven days in solitary confinement and were eventually released without charge. After a long campaign, supported by no lesser academic figure than Noam Chomsky, the truth emerged. Sabir had downloaded a copy of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual from a US Government website, a publication that was freely available to purchase from Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths and could be loaned via the local library. The police had manipulated the evidence about the 140-page manual in that they misinterpreted the nature of the document to a key witness, Dr Rod Thornton, who was Nottingham University’s in-house academic expert on terrorism and insurgency. In his formal police interview, Thornton was misled by the police into saying that Sabir’s possession of the document was irrelevant to his studies and research. This is because the police told him that Sabir possessed a 5,000-page bomb-making manual known as the Encyclopaedia of Afghan Jihad. Thornton’s statement, acquired through manipulation, was then used by senior officers running the investigation to justify Yezza and Sabir’s arrest (Townsend 2012). After a sustained campaign in support of ‘The Nottingham Two’, and legal proceedings brought by Sabir in 2011, the police were eventually forced to pay £20,000 in compensation to Sabir for his ordeal, apologise for his detention outside his home on suspicion of terrorism, and correct a series of intelligence logs that wrongly claimed he was a convicted terrorist. Characteristically, their internal investigations concluded that no officer was guilty of misconduct and no apology was offered for the way the men had been treated. Sabir went on to complete his studies and a PhD on counter-terrorism, and is now a lecturer in criminology.  

What interests me about the John case is that the judge’s ‘affective proximity’ to John, his whiteness, triggered Spencer’s liberal reflexes and paternalistic sentiments, resulting in the extraordinary remarks made in court about the intrinsic virtues of studying a narrow range of iconic English literature (Tickell 2022). And the way some criminologists appeared to identify with this feature of the case above any others.  Despite the lethal attacks of white supremacists in the UK, Norway, the USA and New Zealand, and evidence of the rising frequency of racist attacks in the UK and the increasing traction of fascist ideology across Europe, the judge did not fear the man in front of him, did not sense the threats in his actions or the huge reservoirs of racial animosity that sustained him – he felt sorry for him and found him pitiable – he identified with him. As I stated in my letter, if the characteristics of white privilege are sometimes hard to pin down, here was a case where they were self-evident.  

Equally problematic was the judge’s identification of a ‘solution’ that mobilised the myth-image of the benign effect of an enlightened (i.e. white) cultural education, and the apparent alignment of some criminologist’s with, and sympathy for, it. His sentence and accompanying remarks are not a ‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ feature to be embraced by criminologists, they are a clear expression of white power. They are profoundly and dangerously reactionary (Mondon and Winter 2020; Buck-Morss 2003). The ideas expressed in the remarks are central to the white liberal imagination and the notion of cultural superiority that propelled 19th century colonialism (Morrison 1993). Racism, and its corollary of race, promotes humanity as divisibly hierarchical with white people and white cultures at the apex. This historic crisis in the narration of what it means to be human recurs again and again within criminal justice systems. Casually reproducing the exclusionary violence of race in the phrases and sentiments expressed by the judge is an appalling act of white privilege in which John was only the most obvious beneficiary. It should have no place in the 21st century, no place in criminology and no place in court (Phillips et al 2022 – forthcoming).   


BBC (2021)  Ben John: Right-wing extremist gets suspended jail sentence – BBC News [accessed 19/09/21)

Buck-Morss, S (2003) Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London. Verso.

Earle (2021) A racist, a judge and a clear case of white privilege | Letters | The Guardian

Evans, J. (2016) ‘Artful Dodgers: The role of unreliable narrators in the production of authorised histories and assessments of young people in conflict with the law’, Deviant Behavior Vol 38:9

Mondon, A and Winter, A. (2020) Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, London. Verso.

Morrison, T. (1993) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, New York. Vintage

Phillips, C., Parmar, A. and Earle, R. (2022) ‘Seeing is Believing: How the layering of race is obscured by ‘white epistemologies’ in the criminal justice field’, Journal of Criminal Justice Education (forthcoming)

Richardson, A. (2022) Angelique Richardson | Reading Sentences · LRB 4 October 2021

Tickell, A. (2022) English Literature, Racism and Rehabilitation – OpenLearn – Open University

Townsend, M. (2012) Police ‘made up’ evidence against Muslim student | Police | The Guardian [accessed 25/11/21)

About the author

Rod Earle works at The Open University where he is a senior lecturer in youth justice in the School of Health Wellbeing and Social Care. He helped to form the BSC Race Matters Network and is a founder member of British Convict Criminology.  

[The author acknowledges with thanks the helpful comments and support of the Race Matters Network Co-Chair, Dr Monish Bhatia, Dr Rizwaan Sabir of Liverpool John Moores University in the preparation of this Blog].

Twitter: @rod_earle

In Defence of Decolonisation: a response to Southern Criminology

Authors: Thalia Anthony, Robert Webb, Juanita Sherwood, Harry Blagg & Antje Deckert

Mohwak scholar Taiaiake Alfred has remarked that in settler colonies, reconciliation is another form of re-colonisation. The “reconciliation of Indigenous people to colonialism”, in Alfred’s words, do not challenge structures of power that deny First Nations people substantive rights. We draw on Alfred’s observations to highlight the agenda of Southern Criminology. This increasingly influential school while seeking to engage epistemologies of the South reinscribes colonial relations of power, including colonial hierarchies of knowledge. It does so by uncritically bringing together the North and the South through a working partnership in criminology. 

The standpoint of Southern Criminology was recently updated by lead-author Professor Kerry Carrington in the British Society of Criminology blog. A key purpose of the blog is to take to task ‘decolonial theory’ in Criminology by accusing it of essentialising Indigenous knowledges, making unfair criticisms of Western Criminology and presenting ‘crude simplistic critiques of southern criminologies’. Our blog represents a defence of decolonising frameworks. We point out numerous false claims and inconsistencies in Carrington’s blog. Among these are that decolonial theory is ‘negative’. We contend that challenging colonial legacies in criminology is crucial for building more inclusive ideas and praxes.

Colonisation is not a metaphor

Carrington opens her blog by questioning the division of the world between North and South, centre and periphery and/or First and Third World. She claims these demarcations universalise theories of the North to cast the South as backwards. To buck this trend, Southern Criminology advocates for the equal acceptance of the North and the South, in which criminologists accept that the South is not lesser than the North. A move that, according to Carrington, would contribute to cognitive and global justice.

In conceptualising the South, Carrington describes it ‘as a metaphor’ for inequality. The blog does not contend with real power relations where inequality is not a metaphor. We assert this in a similar way to Tuck and Yang’s contention that ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’. Inequality is countenanced in everyday colonial institutions that dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, destroy sacred sites, steal Indigenous children, kill Indigenous people in custody, condone racist policing, deny Indigenous people basic rights and silence Indigenous critiques and systems of knowledge. Unequal power relations have assured that First Nations people are hyperincarcerated across settler colonial societies and that Australia’s Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on the planet.

Carrington’s choice of words, such as North and South, understates past and present structures of oppression. A telling omission in her language (and analysis) is the lack of reference to geo-political divisions of “colonisers and the colonised”. By failing to confront ongoing colonising relationships, the type of ‘Southern Criminology’ Carrington champions cannot challenge this divide. This is highlighted in its main mission to ‘democratize’ knowledge by promoting a partnership between the North and South through simply expanding ‘the repertoire of criminological knowledges’. The blog rejects the proposition that the ‘epistemologies of the south and north, east and west, Indigenous and non-Indigenous’ are ‘dichotomous’ or ‘mutually exclusive spaces or categories’, hence neglecting the colonising dynamics embedded in the construction of the divisions.

A decolonising lens reveals why these differences exist. Blagg and Anthony contend in Decolonising Criminology that the existence of the colonial world and its epistemologies, including its criminological mindset, relies on the colonisation and assimilation of Indigenous people and knowledges. Inferiorising Indigenous peoples and knowledges justifies colonisers’ self-proclaimed superior ideas and intrusive practises. Colonisers regarded Indigenous people as trespassers on their own land to enable settler violence and land take over. Constructs of Indigenous people as outlaws justified frontier massacres and segregation.

Universities are a symptom of colonial forces and their constructs of Indigenous people permeate the academy and research. Criminology in colonised states is preoccupied with identifying, quantifying, explaining, and fixing Indigenous “criminality”. The blog claims that bridges can be built between these approaches of the North and approaches in the South. However, a decolonial lens identifies that the North’s deficit discourse relating to Indigenous people stands at odds with the discourse of sovereignty of Indigenous people and the colonial harms of penal institutions. How can the colonising impetus of the North sit alongside theories of critical resistance and Indigenous self-determination? Conceivably, they cannot. If there are to be attempts at a reconciliation, the terms should be governed by principles of Indigenous self-determination to recognise the legacy of epistemological oppression.

Decolonisation seeks to disrupt the structures and theories of colonisation that are intent on eliminating Indigenous people. Juan Tauri’s decolonising research calls into question Criminology’s ‘veil of scientism’ that perpetuates ‘myth construction’ of Indigenous people’s inferiority and the colonial state’s superiority. Decolonial research has a different agenda (in relation to furthering Indigenous sovereignty and resistance), asks different questions (about the colonial harms of the state and ruling class) and applies decolonising methodologies (that radically critique colonial institutions, elevate the voices and knowledges of Indigenous people and accept different forms of knowledge sharing – song, poetry, art, film, ceremony etc). It supports a post-disciplinary approach in which university disciplines are not the central repository of knowledge production. It also challenges the focus of much of Criminology on policing, surveillance and prisons, and instead recognises that colonial harms against Indigenous people operate in a broader carceral network for which penality is only one site.

Southern Criminology’s false representation of decolonial approaches

Repeatedly through her blog, Carrington accuses ‘post-colonial/decolonial theories’ of reductionism and essentialism. Carrington states, ‘One of the problems with theories of decolonisation, has been the tendency to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’. Carrington cites Cain (2000) to suggest that decolonial critiques of Western Criminology engage with a ‘romanticization of “the other”’. Cain’s article, however, is not an analysis of decolonial thinkers. Rather, it takes aim at the ‘western criminology of orientalism’ because it ‘romanticizes the other’ (Cain 2000, 239); the reverse of what Carrington claims in her blog. The issue of misrepresentation of other’s work arises with Carrington’s use of de Sousa Santos’ work. Carrington also relies on de Sousa Santos (2014: 212) to argue that post-colonial/decolonial theories ‘reify and essentialise concepts, such as Eastern or Indigenous knowledge’ (Carrington’s words, not de Sousa Santos’). However, de Sousa Santos does not state this about post-colonial/decolonial theories. Instead, he identifies this trend in the Global North. In the cited reference, he critiques

both the reified dichotomies among alternative knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge versus scientific knowledge) and the unequal abstract status of different knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge as a valid claim of identity versus scientific knowledge as a valid claim of truth).

Following on from de Sousa Santos, decolonial approaches recognise that Indigenous knowledge – in its multiplicity of forms – is scientific knowledge. It provides a method for understanding the world and for continuing survival. Decolonial approaches can also use the tools of statistics to challenge colonial institutions. The research of Palawa woman and Professor Maggie Walter’s is a testament to this approach. In these ways, decolonial approaches reject that Indigenous knowledge is homogenous, “romantic” or reified – these are all ideas that stem from the Global North. Rather, it recognises the need to reclaim Indigenous knowledges from the melting pot of colonial knowledge and from misappropriation. As Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2008, 62) attests in Decolonizing Methodologies,

[C]olonialism not only meant the imposition of Western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law arid government, but the imposition of Western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures.

We can draw from Carrington’s use of other scholars’ work that misrepresentation can contribute to false claims. There is a high importance for criminologists to accurately present other scholars’ work in order to further knowledge.

Spurious claims of Southern Criminology

To defend Southern Criminology against decolonial approaches, Carrington claims that Blagg and Anthony’s book Decolonising Criminology reference ‘very few Indigenous scholars’. A careful examination of the text demonstrates that the contention is false. There are over 200 publications authored by Indigenous scholars, organisations and people on the ground that are quoted and cited. There would be few Criminology texts that could make this claim. To name a few Indigenous authors across the settler-colonial lands of Australia, Canada, New Zealand: Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Alfred Taiaike, Jackie Huggins, Eve Tuck, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Peta MacGillivray, Pat Dudgeon, Amanda Porter, Jeff Corntassel, Alison Whittaker, Nicole Watson, Juanita Sherwood, Vanessa Davis, Peter Yu, Gallarrwuy Yunupingu, Willie Ermine, Martin Nakata, Sákéj Youngblood Henderson, Renee Linklater, Eddie Cubillo, Moana Jackson, and Ambelin Kwaymullina. By contrast, Carrington makes scant references to Indigenous researchers in her blog and article she and her co-authors’ published in the British Journal of Criminology, including from the country she occupies, Australia.

Not only does Decolonising Criminology reference Indigenous scholars in significant numbers, but more importantly, their ideas are centred – not because the authors reify them, but because they provide new understandings, Indigenous understandings derived from Indigenous lived experience. These have been silenced for over 500 years and, to use the blog’s own words, giving voice represents ‘cognitive justice’. The book is a challenge to criminological research that largely neglects the impacts of penality on Indigenous people and practises of Indigenous resistance and sovereignty. Key ideas in the book include Gaykamangu’s and Gaymarani’s analysis of the relationship between Indigenous and Western laws; Marie Battiste and Sákéj Youngblood Henderson’s notion of Indigenous Knowledge; Larissa Behrendt’s examination of the colonisation of Indigenous women; Audre Simpson’s concept of Indigenous refusal; Irene Watson’s critique of international law in the context of Indigenous sovereignty; Yin Paradies’ analysis of institutional racism and Juan Tauri’s critical examination of restorative justice. Decolonising Criminology includes a foreword by Wiradjuri woman and Pro Vice Chancellor First Nations Engagement, Professor Juanita Sherwood who states (2019, ix), ‘This book challenges the colonial epistemology of one truth and explores the expertise of First Peoples of Australia and their ways of knowing, being and doing regarding their experiences, circumstances and unfair treatment.’

Southern Criminology’s inconsistencies

There are a number of inconsistencies within the Southern Criminology schema and claims as set out by Carrington in the blog.

First, despite arguing that decolonial approaches essentialise Indigenous knowledge, Carrington claims that she herself has adopted a decolonial approach. Indeed, the title of her blog reads, ‘Decolonizing Criminology through the inclusion of epistemologies of the south’. She writes in the blog, ‘the southernizing of criminology pursues practical decolonizing projects’. The attempt to criticise decolonial approaches, on the one hand, and claim them, on the other hand, is inconsistent. It signals Southern Criminology’s gesture of claiming the decolonial space on its own terms while actively marginalising its decolonial and Indigenous detractors.

Second, Carrington criticises scholars who perceive the decolonial limitations of Southern Criminology, on the basis that they publish in ‘privileged journals in United States and England’. She does not appreciate the irony that her seminal piece on Southern Criminology was published in the British Journal of Criminology. In her blog, Carrington prides Southern Criminology on a conference co-hosted with the University of Oxford. With no disrespect to these forums, it is disingenuous to criticise decolonial thinkers who may engage in these forums. It also neglects the journals that are founded or edited by decolonial scholars such as the open-access journals, Decolonization of Criminology and Justice and Journal of Global Indigeneity. In response to Carrington’s claims on this issue, it can be argued that the best place for decolonial and Indigenous scholars to ensure their critique reaches Southern Criminologists is to publish in the journals that they clearly prefer because they do not cite or submit to decolonial or Indigenous journals.

Third, despite Carrington imploring intercultural exchange, she refutes a resurrection of ‘alternative origin stories or “founding fathers”, as some decolonial theorists have done’. Without identifying who these decolonial theorists are or the nature of these origin stories – in other words, without offering evidence to support her claims – these claims amount to an unevidenced rejection of alternative knowledges. Does she intend to demean stories about Country that are passed down by ancestors? Her denial of alternative stories is inconsistent with Southern Criminology’s calls for a cross-pollination of knowledge and perpetuates the dismissal of Indigenous knowledges.

Fourth, the blog suggests that the tendency of ‘theories of decolonisation … to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’ makes invisible the ‘gender of coloniality’. Carrington claims that ‘southern feminisms’ aim to ‘decolonise and democratise feminist theory … by embracing a mosaic of epistemologies’. However, Carrington’s own work eschews the epistemologies of Indigenous women. As discussed in the following section, deep seated concerns by Indigenous women scholars, including Amanda Porter, Crystal McKinnon and Marlene Longbottom, with Carrington’s methods and findings in her numerous publications on women’s police stations have remained unaddressed in her work.

Southern Criminology in practise 

Carrington’s recent research on women’s police stations signify the importation of assumptions of the Global North. Far from questioning the role of the police in women’s lives, especially its brutalising impacts on Indigenous women, Carrington seeks to layer gender into police operations. Injecting gender into policing operationalises Carrington’s objectives for Southern Criminology ‘to decenter, democratize and pluralize knowledge by injecting it with knowledge from the south and the periphery’. 

Carrington et al assert that the Argentinian model of women’s police stations ‘would be good for Aboriginal women’. She states (2020),

Australia does indeed have much to learn about how women’s police stations respond to and aim to prevent gender violence. If appropriately staffed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous teams trained to work from both gender and culturally sensitive perspectives, police stations designed to specifically respond to gender violence, have the potential to significantly enhance the policing and prevention of gender violence across Australia.

Carrington assumes that place-based practices from one side of the globe can be exported to another side of the globe. This is reminiscent of Western Criminology which applies, for example the family violence model from Duluth, Minnesota (which centres police and courts) to Indigenous people in remote Australia. Conversely, because the women’s police station model is from Argentina, ostensibly part of the ‘good South’, does not make it any more appropriate for Indigenous women. Carrington’s universalising methodology – where all practises from the South can be transferred – is tantamount to essentialising the South. This replicates one of the key critiques of the domination of ‘the North’, which is at the forefront of Southern Criminology, namely its long hegemony over the development and global transfer of theories, policies and interventions.

What this body of research reveals is that Southern Criminology reinstates the penal institutions that threaten Indigenous communities. This is because Southern Criminology ‘is blind to coloniality and, therefore, has yet to break away from criminology’s modern epistemological and ontological underpinnings’, as Eleni Dimou describes. It ignores calls by Indigenous scholars and campaigners to defund police. When Southern Criminology speaks of building bridges in Criminology, it amounts to incorporating elements of the South into the penal structures of the North. It has no regard for the fact that Australian Indigenous women who die in police custody often do so under the watch of women police officers. Women police officers served as the custody supervisors and lockup keepers when Indigenous women Tanya Day, Ms Dhu, and Rebecca Maher died in custody in Australia in recent years.

Confronting oppressive criminal institutions as a pathway to unity

In her blog, Carrington describes decolonising research – which identifies the colonial logic in penal enforcement – as ‘negative decolonial projects’. She claims that they ‘damn all criminologists as “racist”, “westerncentric” “control freaks” on some sort of “bandwagon”’, and once again she does so without providing any evidence to support her assertions. By contrast, Carrington venerates Southern Criminology’s projects for ‘bridging global divides’ and not setting out to ‘denigrate the contribution of metropolitan criminology’.

However, it is racism, its manifestation in Criminology and translation in carceral practices that are divisive and negative. By calling into question the deep-seated precepts of Criminology – namely, the criminality of the ‘Other’, the defence of penal institutions and the righteousness of universalising Western methods – we can imagine a different world. We can imagine a world that promotes collectivity, human rights, and Indigenous self-determination rather than one that depends on exclusion, hierarchy, and racism. A decolonising agenda is based on unifying humanity by dissolving the structures that divide us.

About the authors

Collectively and individually, our research identifies the colonial legacies in penal institutions, criminological thought and the broader carceral network. In our work and activism we seek to decolonise the carceral and criminological agendas so we can move beyond them.

Thalia Anthony is a Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney

Robert Webb is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Auckland

Juanita Sherwood is a Professor and Pro Vice Chancellor First Nations Engagement at Charles Sturt University (NSW).

Harry Blagg is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Western Australia.

Antje Deckert is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Auckland University of Technology.

Main image courtesy of Montecruz Foto

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.


Professor Kerry Carrington,


Project website: Home – Preventing Gender Violence (

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”.


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