From Narrative Justice to Narrative Methodology

Exploring the relationship between narrative representation and the reduction of ideologically-motivated crime and harm


Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University.  His research specialisations are narrative criminology, criminological fiction, and neoliberalism.  Narrative Justice was published by Rowman & Littlefield International in 2018.


In Narrative Justice (2018), I defined methodology as a theory of research, set of principles, and system of methods regulating a particular inquiry or a discipline more generally.  The theories I developed involved research into the ethical and cognitive values of exemplary narratives (narratives high in narrativity in consequence of their circumstantial, causal, thematic, and closural complexity) and concluded that regardless of their truth or falsity: (1) every story has a moral, but that moral may be virtuous, vicious, or somewhere in-between; and (2) stories can provide genuine knowledge just by being stories.  These conclusions were combined in the theory of narrative ethical knowledge, which establishes the first principle for a methodology: (a) stories convey knowledge of what lived ethical experience is like in virtue of their narrativity.  The second principle is widespread and uncontroversial within criminology: (b) explanations of crime or social harms have the potential to reduce crime or social harm in virtue of developing understanding of the causes of the crime or social harm.  The methods employed for the three practical examples in Narrative Justice involved a comparative analysis of two exemplary narratives.  The first employed two biographies, one of a real person and one of a fictional character, in order to establish the former’s responsibility for collaboration in crimes against humanity.  The second employed two narratives concerned with totalitarian oppression, one fictional and one documentary, in order to understand how an exemplary narrative can succeed in exploring the psychology of a torturer while simultaneously condemning his or her actions.  The third employed a comparison of two ostensibly documentary narratives, an article and an essay, to illustrate the fictional basis of both.  With respect to the distinction between fiction and documentary, these can be set out as: (i) the use of a fictional narrative to illuminate a real person’s character; (ii) the use of a documentary narrative to illuminate a novel’s psychological failure; and (iii) the comparison of two documentary narratives to reveal their fictional basis. (i) and (ii) can be collapsed into: the comparison of a fictional and documentary narrative for the purposes of disclosure.  (iii) is the comparison of two documentary narratives in terms of fiction for the purpose of demystification.  In each case, the relationship between fiction and documentary is exploited in order to explain the causes of ideologically-motivated crime.

The method involves the careful selection, analysis, and comparison of documentary and fictional narratives.  One begins with the subject of inquiry and then selects two complementary exemplary narratives, either one documentary and one fictional (if one’s purpose is disclosure) or two documentary (if one’s purpose is demystification).  In the former case, the fictional narrative is employed to illuminate the documentary (by direct or indirect means) and in the latter, the comparative analysis of two documentaries as exemplary narratives (rather than as documentaries) reveals the extent to which they are fictional.  Two brief examples will demonstrate the method in practice.  If one wanted to explore the extent to which wealthy expatriates are complicit in the crimes against humanity the Emirate of Dubai perpetrates against migrant workers, one might select Jim Krane’s Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City (2009) as one’s documentary narrative and Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog (2014) as one’s fictional narrative.  At the general level, the two can be juxtaposed so as to exploit the extent to which the latter’s basis in the imagination complements the former’s basis in fact, combining the representation of objective facts about the relationship between expats and migrants with the representation of subjective experiences that could not be achieved in non-fiction.  More specifically, there is a contrast in the way in which the two narratives represent the relationship between prosperity and deprivation in Dubai.  Krane is for the most part concerned with growth, development, and success, devoting only one of four parts of the history to the cost in terms of human rights violations and environmental damage, whereas O’Neill’s narrative focuses on the moral corruption of the anonymous narrator, of the extent to which his lucrative employment requires him to not merely consent to crimes against humanity but play an active role in their commission.  If one wanted to explore the fallacies employed to justify the crimes against humanity perpetrated by colonial powers against communist insurgents during the Cold War, one might select George Robert Elford’s Devil’s Guard (1971) and Tim Bax’s Three Sips of Gin (2013).  The two can be apposed so as to reveal the identical contradictions in form and content that undermine both narratives from within.  Elford’s narrator and Bax’s autobiographical narration describe situations in which traditional non-combatants are prepared to die for their freedom and combatants to fund their resistance by any means available, belying the colonisers’ claims that the counterinsurgency was in the interests of the indigenous populations.  The comparative analysis of the two texts exposes a multiplicity of self-contradictions that demystify the justifications endorsed by both authors – which are revealed as at best ignorant and at worst deceitful.

These examples are textual rather than visual, but the theory and principles underlying the method facilitate its application to any type of exemplary narrative as well as across different modes of narrative representation.  In consequence, one might juxtapose Roméo Dallaire’s autobiographical Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003) with Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004) in order to illuminate the question of responsibility during the Rwandan genocide.  With respect to the methodology I am setting out here, the distinction between minimal and exemplary narratives cuts across the distinction between descriptive and depictive modes of representation.  The method involves the selection of two exemplary narratives, one fictional and one documentary (if the aim is disclosure) or both documentary (if the aim is demystification), and facilitates a variety of combinations within these parameters (including the use of more than two exemplary narratives for sustained analyses).  There is coherence among the theories, principles, and methods described above such that the theories determine the principles, which underpin the methods and although I have identified two methods, these are more accurately described as two instantiations of a single method of comparative analysis.  The central thesis of Narrative Justice, which is that exemplary narratives can reduce ideologically-motivated crime, thus establishes a new methodology for criminology and my hope is that it will be adopted, adapted, and developed by others.



Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University



Images: courtesy of the author

What role should the military, or military methods, have in law enforcement?

John Lea explores the increasingly blurred boundary between crime control and warfare in the context of police shoot to kill and drone killings of terrorist suspects

LeaphotoJohn Lea, Honorary Professor of Criminology


At a recent public seminar at the LSE participants discussed the pros and cons of the militarisation of the ‘war’ against organised crime in the global south. Many of the themes, such as the very different skill sets of military and police with regard to communities, the tendency of the military to ride roughshod over human rights, and the counter-productive role of ‘war on crime’ rhetoric were familiar enough. But one theme I thought was crucial: how should the state respond when organised crime itself comes armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry? In Mexico and many Brazilian favelas, for example, militarised police and drug traffickers battle it out, while criminal justice issues such as arrest and due process are reserved for the few survivors who come out with their hands up.

The issue of militarisation is of course about more than equipment and training. It is about aims. However heavily armed the police may be, a key aim of police work is to arrest offenders, gather evidence and prosecute. Violence is a last resort after warnings have been given. The aim of military action is, by contrast, to identify enemy assets, assess the risk they present, target and neutralise them with armed force. Violence is a first resort and pre-emptive action is legitimate. In historical practice the two paradigms are of course blurred, as various traditions of paramilitary public order policing illustrate.

Today they are merging in new ways. While military deployed in armed conflict zones often find themselves fulfilling a diversity of roles including policing, domestic criminal justice agencies increasingly adopt strategies which predispose us to accept military-style thinking when dealing with criminality. Pre-emptive action based on risk assessment of likely future activity is one example. ‘Pre-crime’ strategies range from anti-social behaviour injunctions to computerised ‘predictive policing’ popular in some US cities. In Chicago individuals on a computer generated Strategic Subjects List considered to be at risk of gun violence are referred to local police commanders for ‘preventive intervention’. But a key driver of risk-based pre-emptive policing is undoubtedly the ‘risk of catastrophic success’ in terrorist activity.

Counter-terrorism brings into the frame a much harder and more straightforward adoption of military methodology: ‘shoot to kill’. There is a history of ‘shoot to kill’ policies not only in British colonial policing, but also in the still clouded history of the ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland as shown by the fate of the Stalker Inquiry. The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes as a mistaken terrorist suspect in London in 2005 raised questions about whether such a policy has ever been adopted by anti-terrorism policing in mainland UK. The shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 raised similar issues

Nevertheless, ‘shoot to kill’ has become overt UK government policy: though not yet in the UK itself – except obviously in cases where terrorist action is underway. With the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria the UK government has been contemplating the prospect of British Jihadis returning to the UK with combat and bomb making experience intent on causing havoc in our cities. Killing them by missiles fired from drones while they are still in the Middle East is now accepted policy. The US has been doing this for some time and so has the UK. In 2015  the British Jihadi Mohammed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John’ was killed by in a drone strike over Syria. Around the same time Reyaad Khan and two other alleged British ISIS fighters were killed by RAF drones.

In early November (2017) the new UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, told The Sun newspaper he was “insisting we must carry on using drones to hunt down and kill any Brit-born IS jihadis bent on wreaking havoc.” Similar sentiments were voiced by International Development minister Rory Stewart. Earlier in the year the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright called, in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, for the ‘updating’ of international law on the issue. Meanwhile it might be asked who puts together the ‘kill list’. The key decisions are apparently being made by the National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister. At the time of the 2015 killings a spokesperson for the NSC said “It was about what action we should be taking to protect British people here in Britain.”

Such action to protect us is justified by two arguments. Firstly, the chaos in the Middle East makes conventional law enforcement and extradition impossible. Secondly, internet communication makes terrorist conspiracies which would have previously taken months to hatch organisable in a matter of days. So the ‘risk of catastrophic success’ has shifted such that traditional police action – allowing the conspiracy to develop to a certain stage to yield evidence of intent –  is far too risky and it is deemed necessary to take pre-emptive action before the plot has matured sufficiently to yield the type of evidence of criminal conspiracy that would stand up in a normal criminal court.

Such arguments have been around for some time. In the immediate post 9/11 period they were used as justification for pre-emptive arrest or restrictions on liberty by anti-terrorist control orders. Now they are being used as a justification for pre-emptive action against individuals by military forces: the RAF acting in Syrian airspace.

There is no doubt a political assumption being made that the British public will put up with such killings as part of the general chaos in the Middle East. Allowing the Jihadis to return to the UK would make such pre-emptive killing unacceptable. The individuals would rather have to be subject to Terrorist Protection and Investigation Measures (under 2011 legislation) and closely watched for evidence of terrorist-related activity. This would be, so the argument goes, expensive, time consuming and not fail-safe.

Drone killings have of course been the subject of widespread criticism, not to say outrage.  Quite apart from the moral issue of extra-judicial assassination there is also the question of inaccuracy. Military hardware is not designed to kill individuals but groups of enemy soldiers. Rarely is collateral damage avoided. In the US case, according to the website The Intercept, “Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets” and to cover this up the US military were designating all dead as EKIA – enemy killed in action. There is no reason to assume that UK operations are any more precise.

So the military become corrupted by corrupt methods. The corruption of the military was one of the interesting themes which came up at the LSE seminar on the role of the military in the ‘war on drugs’. It was noted how in Mexico the army began as a force against the drugs cartels but then lost its bearings and sections peeled off and collaborated with the traffickers. The ‘clandestine policing’ of terrorist suspects by drone killing contains its own quite different pressures which nevertheless may lead to a loss of bearings by military operatives. Anyone who has seen films like ‘Eye in the Sky‘ or ‘Good Kill‘ will know what I’m talking about.

So what is the alternative? The critique of the ‘war on drugs’ is focused on de-criminalisation and the shift to a harm-minimisation approach.  Such policy is at least relatively straightforward and is gathering momentum, including in Latin America. It is naive to image, however, that it will remove organised crime as a major actor.

It is far more complex and controversial to devise an alternative to the ‘war on terror’ . To publically admit its failure and indeed counter-productive role takes political courage. Even more so to call for amelioration of the socio-economic conditions that give rise to terrrorism. Nevertheless perhaps a revival of the idea of an ‘ethical’ UK foreign policy based on democracy and human rights in the Middle East is now overdue. Maybe Labour will deliver on this? Meanwhile in domestic social policy, working to integrate rather than effectively criminalise the communities in which terrorists may seek sanctuary – the equivalent of a ‘harm minimisation’ approach – remains highly controversial.



John Lea is Honorary Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton UK. He has written widely on criminological theory, criminal justice, crime and war. His publications include (with Jock Young) What Is to Be Done about Law and Order? (1984); Crime and Modernity (2002)

Copyright free images: from author.