Criminology not on the brink

I enjoy reading Jukka Savolainen’s hot takes, most recently Give Criminology a Chance: Notes from a discipline on the brink. I think Jukka is wrong on a few points, but if you are a criminologist who goes to ASC conferences, definitely go and read it! To be specific, in addition to the title here are two penultimate paragraphs in full that I mostly disagree with:

I arrived in Atlanta with a pessimistic view of academic criminology. During my 30 years in the field, the scholarship has become increasingly political and intolerant of evidence that contradicts the progressive narrative. The past few years have been particularly discouraging for those who care about scientific rigor and truth. Despite these reservations, I approached the ASC meeting with an open mind.

The situation is far from hopeless. True, criminology possesses precious little viewpoint diversity. Much of the scholarship is more interested in pursuing a political agenda than objective truth. The ASC’s outward stance as a politically neutral arbiter of scientific evidence is at odds with its recent history as an activist organization.

Although his take on a generic American Society of Criminology experience is again not misleading and accurate, I am not so sure about the assessment of the trend over time, e.g. “increasingly political and intolerant”. Nor do I think criminology has too “little viewpoint diversity”.

The latter statement is to be frank absurd. For those who haven’t been to an ASC conference, there are no restrictions to who can become a member of the American Society of Criminology. The yearly conference is essentially open as well – you have to submit an abstract for review, but I have never heard of an abstract being turned down (let me know if you are aware of an example!) So you really get the kaleidoscope (as Jukka articulated). Policing scholars, abolitionists, quantitative, qualitative, ghost criminology – criminologists are a heterogeneous bunch.

About the only way to steelman the statement “precious little viewpoint diversity” is to say something more like certain opinions in the field are rewarded/punished, such as being in advanced positions at ASC, or limiting what gets published in the ASC journals (Criminology or Criminology and Public Policy). Or maybe that the average mix of the field slants one way or another (say between pro criminal justice or critical criminal justice).

I have not been around 30 years like Jukka, and I suppose I lost my card carrying criminologist privileges when I went to the private sector, but I haven’t seen any clear change in the nature of field, the ASC conference, or what has been published, in the last ~10 years I have been in a reasonable position to make that judgment. I think Jukka (or anyone) would be hard pressed to quantify his perception – but certainly open to real evidence if I am wrong here (again just my opinion based on fewer years of experience than Jukka).

As a side story, I have heard many of my friends who do work in policing state that they have been criticized for that by colleagues, and subsequently argue our field is “biased against cops”. I don’t doubt my friends personal experiences, but I have personally never been criticized for working with the police. I have been criticized by fellow policing scholars as “downloading datasets” and “not being a real policing scholar”. I know qualitative criminologists who think they are biased against in the field (based on rates of qualitative publishing). I know quantitative criminologists who have given examples of bias in the field against more rigorous empirical methods. I know Europeans who think the field is biased towards Americans. I bet the ghost criminologists think the living are biased against the (un)dead.

I think saying “Much of the scholarship is more interested in pursuing a political agenda than objective truth” is a tinge strong, but sure it happens (I am not quite sure how to map “much” to a numeric value so the statement can be confirmed or refuted). I would say being critical of some work, but then uncritically sharing equally unrigorous work that confirms your pre-conceived notions is an example of this! So if you think one or more is “much”, then I guess I don’t disagree with Jukka here – to be clear though I think the majority of criminologists I have met are interested in pursuing the truth (even if I disagree with the methods they use).

So onto the last sentence of Jukka’s I disagree with, “The ASC’s outward stance as a politically neutral arbiter of scientific evidence is at odds with its recent history as an activist organization.”. But I disagree with this because I personally have a non-normative take on science – I don’t think science is wholly defined by being a neutral arbiter of truth, and doing science in the real world literally involves things that are “activist”.

I believe if you asked most people with Phds what defines science, they would say that science is defined via the scientific method. I personally think that is wrong though. I think about the only thing we share as scientists are being critique-y assholes. The way I do my work is so different from many other criminologists (both quantitative and qualitative), let alone researchers in other scientific fields (like theoretical physics or history), that I think saying we “share a common research method” is a bit of a stretch.

When my son was younger and had science fairs, they were broken into two different types of submissions; traditional science experiments, like measure a plants growth in sunlight vs without, or engineering “build things”. The academic work I am most proud of is in the engineering “build things” camp. These modest contributions in various algorithms – a few have been implemented in major software, and I know some crime analysis units using that work as well – really have nothing to do with the scientific method. Me deriving standard errors for control charts for crime trends is only finding truth in a very tautological way – I think they are useful though.

There is no bright line between my work and “activism” – I don’t think that is a bad thing though and it was the point of the work. You could probably say Janet Lauritsen is an activist for more useful national level CJ statistics. Jukka appears to me to be making normative opinions about he thinks Janet’s activism is more rigorously motivated than Vitale’s – which I agree with, but doesn’t say much if anything about the field of criminology as a whole or recent changes in the field. (If anything it is evidence against Jukka’s opinion, I posit Janet is clearly more influential in the field than Vitale.)

To end with the note “on the brink” – it may be unfair to Jukka (sometimes you don’t get to pick your titles in magazine articles). Part of the way I view being an academic and critiquing work I imagine people find irksome – it involves taking real words people say, trying to reasonably map them to statements that can be confirmed or refuted (often people say things that are quite fuzzy), and then articulating why those statements are maybe right/maybe wrong. It can seem pedantic, but I am a Popper kind-of-guy, and being able to confirm or refute statements I think is the only way we can get closer to objective truth.

To do this with “on the brink” takes more leaps than statements such as “increasingly political and intolerant”. “Criminology” is the general study of criminal behavior – which I am pretty confident will continue on as long as people commit crimes with or without the ASC yearly conference. We can probably limit the “on the brink” statement to something more specific like the American Society of Criminology on the brink. I don’t know about the ASC financials, but I am going to guess Jukka meant by this statement more of a proclamation about the legitimacy of the organization to outside groups.

I am not so sure this is the point of ASC though – it derives its value by being a social club for people who do criminology research. At least that is my impression of going to ASC conferences from my decade as a criminologist. Part of Jukka’s point is that things are getting worse more recently – you can’t lose something you never had to begin with though.

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  1. Jennifer Gonzalez

     /  May 19, 2023

    His notes about Criminology (the Journal) and the Stewart situation hit close to home for me. I recall reaching out to an editor of a criminology journal because an article recently published couldn’t be replicated (I had the same data). He refused to investigate it. I ended up writing a commentary in response (and it showed the true colors of the authors when they eventually responded to my remarks), but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. So sad, and I won’t publish there again.

    • So part of Jukka’s main thesis seems to be that behavior like that you describe Jen is due to “precious little viewpoint diversity”. Highly skeptical that is the case though. (I think it is unfortunate that Stewart did work that could be slanted into “critical criminology”, like that is the scapegoat for people’s bad behavior — problems like the Stewart debacle are common across many academic fields.) Vitale having a popular ASC author meets critic is certainly not the cause nor a reflection of that behavior.

      For your situation Jen, if it is the one I am familiar with, imagine you and the original authors had the opposite conclusions. I bet you would have still had the same issues in getting the critique published (more about people have deference for stuff already published, as well as deference to specific individuals).


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