“So What?” Criminology Research Paper

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Despite the continued expansion of academic criminology and the proliferation of publications, the policy relevance of criminology has noticeably decreased in recent years. Some commentators have suggested that academic criminology is becoming irrelevant socially and politically and that it has become increasingly marginalized from the process of policy making (Currie 2007). This has led to the identification of a growing body of what has become referred to as “So What?” criminology.

“So What?” criminology has a number of characteristics according to Elliott Currie (2007) including the use of impenetrable language; the adoption of highly technical research techniques which are often dauntingly quantitative, as well as a tendency to focus on trivial issues; and an orientation towards what C. Wright Mills (1959) called “abstracted empiricism.” This makes research results difficult to read by anyone other than academic experts in the discipline, while the bulk of the literature remains inaccessible to both policy makers and the general public.

This body of work is produced in an academic context where there is an increased emphasis on publishing in peer-reviewed journals combined with a growing reluctance to engage in the challenging and time-consuming business of policy formation and development. Criminology is also becoming increasingly fragmented and organized into different theoretical and methodological silos, which has to some extent undermined the possibility of constructive debate in the subject producing a body of largely incompatible and partial knowledge. In contrast to these developments, realist criminology argues for the integration of theory, method, and practice and aims to move criminology in the direction of developing a more constructive and socially engaged approach to crime control. Thus, it is suggested that adopting a realist approach provides the possibility of developing an alternative to “So What?” criminology, which is both critical and useful.


There is a growing paradox in criminology. Despite the increasing scale of the criminological enterprise involving an increasing number of students, courses, and publications, the policy relevance of criminological research has been decreasing. To make matters worse, this growing body of criminological endeavor suffers from a paucity of theory combined with the adoption of inadequate or inappropriate methodologies. This has provided the basis for the development of what has become known as “So What?” criminology.

This research paper will outline some of the main features of “So What?” criminology, which include weak conceptualization, inadequate methodologies, and limited policy relevance. It will also examine some of the recent developments within criminology that have contributed to the growth of “So What?” criminology. Finally, we will offer some thoughts on the contribution that realist criminology can make to overcoming the limitations of “So What?” criminology.

The Main Features Of “So What?” Criminology

The term “So What?” criminology refers to those forms of criminology that involve a low level of theorization and thin, inconsistent, or vague concepts and categories; embody a dubious or inappropriate methodology; or have little or no policy relevance (Matthews 2010). Currie (2007) has suggested that in order to overcome the deficiencies of “So What?” criminology, researchers should always aim to present their findings in a way that is easily accessible to policy makers, the general public, and practitioners. Thus:

…some areas of criminological research have become so specialized, so technical and so driven by what has gone before that even many people within the discipline cannot really follow it without help. This means that the need for people who can do the work of synthesis and contextualization of research has become ever greater. (Currie 2007: 183)

Research findings and “criminological wisdoms,” he suggests, should be disseminated wherever possible through public debate in order to foster a “public criminology.” However, the problem with this approach is that there is little consensus in the field and that most “criminological wisdoms” are highly contested, and it is difficult to find much agreement among criminologists on any issues of significance.

Others have advocated a sort of division of labor within the subject dividing researchers into professional, policy, and critical criminologists, each developing their own forms of expertise and ideally contributing to each other’s endeavors (Burawoy 2004). However, fostering such divisions within academic criminology is likely to increase the existing fragmentation of the subject and is more likely to exacerbate than resolve the growing irrelevancy of the ever-expanding criminological enterprise.

One of the most noticeable limitations of much contemporary criminology is poor conceptualization and lack of theoretical rigor. This is most evident in the way in which the central concepts like “crime” and “race” are used. Within the criminological community, there is little clarity or agreement how the concept of crime is to be conceptualized, and most criminologists are divided between those who think that it is an act and those that see it is a product of social reaction. Some use essentially legalistic definitions of crime, while others want to dispense with the concept of crime altogether and replace it with notions of “harm” or human rights (Muncie 1996; Hillyard et al. 2004). Realists have argued that “crime” is a process of action and reaction and have developed the sensitizing notion of the “square of crime” pointing out that the construction of “crime” is a process involving four basic elements – the offender, the victim, the state and public opinion, and the social norms (Young and Matthews 1992).

Similarly in relation to “race,” rather than deconstructing this concept, all too often “race” is equated with skin color, and diverse ethnic groups are lumped together as if they formed a homogeneous group. Strangely in country like America that has one of the most diverse ethnic populations in the world, much criminological investigation operates as if the American (criminal) population were divided into “blacks” and “whites,” resulting in a form of “monochromatic criminology.” In this bifurcated world, even Hispanics, which are soon to be the second largest ethnic group in America, are paid relatively little attention.

The theoretical and conceptual limitations of contemporary criminology, however, go far beyond these two examples. Administrative criminology, which emanates from governmental departments and which plays an increasingly major role in funding and conducting criminological research, is notoriously weak conceptually. Its theoretical weakness, often combined with dubious methodological approaches, tends to result in weak or equivocal conclusions and policy proposals. Often, using common sense or taken-for-granted categories of “crime,” administrative and related criminologies veer towards a form of pragmatism which paradoxically is neither very practical nor makes much contribution to developing a cumulative knowledge about crime.

Administrative criminology also tends to gravitate towards empiricism or positivism and assumes that scientific investigation is based on what can be observed. Believing that the lack of theory can be compensated for by the use of “sophisticated” statistical methods, these criminologies tend to reduce the richness and complexities of crime and punishment to a “numbers game” (Young 2004). However, no amount of statistical manipulation can compensate for weak conceptualization.

The problem of method, however, goes far beyond debates about sample size, statistical techniques, and the problems of representation and generalization. Instead, criminological researchers must begin by asking a more fundamental question about how the social world can be best appropriated and understood. Criminologists operate in open systems, which are complex and messy. Social reality does not present itself in an obvious and unproblematic way. To paraphrase Marx: if the social world were intelligible at the level of appearances, there would be no need for social scientific investigation at all. Thus, the aim of investigation is to go beyond appearances and that which is directly observable and to uncover the complexity of a socially stratified and diverse reality. Thus, we need to move beyond simple description of the world and instead try to understand the causal processes involved. At the same time, we need to consider the relation between agency and structure and how the actions of particular individuals or groups are conditioned or shaped by the social structures in which they operate. The ultimate aim of criminological investigation is therefore not to produce descriptions or “facts,” as if these speak for themselves, but explanations.

Empiricism comes in many forms. In criminology, there is a tendency to what we might call “functional empiricism” and “inverted empiricism.” Functional empiricism refers to those approaches which see two observable phenomena that seem to change together and conclude that one must be influencing the other. Thus, Loic Wacquant (2009), for example, claims that there is a “functional equivalence” between the decline of black ghettos in America and the increased incarceration of African Americans and that this is a consequence of neoliberalism. However, why neoliberalism with its commitment to minimal statism would want to expand state provision in this way rather than leaving ethnic minorities to fend for themselves in the ghetto is not clear. It is also the case that in periods of neoliberalism, the number of people sent to prison has decreased as well as increased, suggesting that there is no necessary relation between neoliberalism and penal expansion (Matthews 2009b).

Inverted empiricism refers to those forms of investigation that claim, for example, that there is no causal relationship between crime rates and incarceration on the basis that these two rates do not always covary (see, e.g., Tonry 2001). However, comparing overall crime rates and imprisonment rates is problematic because measurement of these two variables changes over time and between different locations. This line of thinking by focusing on immediate observables tends to neglect a more detailed critical investigation into the attrition rates of different offenses particularly those offenses that are more likely to result in a prison sentence. Thus, naıve empiricists like Michael Tonry (2001) who claims that crime rates and imprisonment rates are unconnected because they do not correlate avoid examining the causal processes in play, and how changing patterns of crime over time as well as changes in the way in which different crimes are processed can influence the scale of imprisonment. An investigation of this type would reveal that the increase in incarceration rates in America is not so much a function of the police and judiciary getting tough on drug offenders, particularly those from ethnic minority groups, as Michael Tonry (1995) claims, but a significant increase in the number of violent offenders being processed (Bureau of Justice 2008).

The limited policy relevance of much criminology is associated with the theoretical and methodological weaknesses outlined above. In addition, many criminologists see themselves as professional academics in the way that Burawoy (2004) describes and largely divorced from policy and practice. Often, under increasing pressure to produce well-cited publications and manage increased teaching and administrative loads, a growing body of criminologists does not have the time or inclination to engage in public or political debate. Among those who are interested in engaging with policy and practice, it is often the case that because they present “facts” rather than credible explanations, their work often does not resonate with politicians or the public. In addition, findings are not presented in an accessible form.

All too often, criminologists dwell on the failures or limitations of different programs and fail to address the question of “what is to be done.” Thus, in relation to major issues such as imprisonment and policing, we see endless publications listing the failures and the problems of these institutions and organizations, rather than engaging in a constructive discussion on how they might be improved or usefully reformed.

The Construction Of “So What?” Criminology

There are a number of developments that have taken place within criminology over the last 20 or 30 years that have contributed to the development of “So What?” criminology in different ways. First, as mentioned above, there has been a considerable expansion in administrative criminology as a result of the increased dominance of government funding of criminological research. Reese Walters (2003) has questioned how “market-led criminology,” which focuses on risk management, privatization, and cost-effectiveness, has influenced the production of criminological knowledge. Governmentfunded forms of administrative criminology, he suggests, are not interested in generating critical and reflexive research and have in recent years come to undermine and sideline critical criminological research. There can be little doubt that the changing nature of the academy coupled with the increasingly narrow focus of much government-sponsored research has produced a growing body of largely atheoretical research with a limited policy edge. Consequently, much “administrative criminology” often involves policy-driven evidence rather than evidence-driven policy.

Second, postmodernism has had a major influence on the social sciences in general and criminology in particular. Postmodernists have been critical of what they refer to as “grand narratives” and of the modernist belief that social progress can be achieved through the application of scientific knowledge to social problems. Postmodernists consequently present a form of relativism and generally express an anti-objectivism and antirealism. Although postmodernists often end up in producing their own meta-narratives and engage in debates which imply at least some degrees of objectivism and an independent reality about which we can debate, the advent of postmodernism has fuelled a relativism that was already present in criminology. This relativism suggests on one side that everybody’s view is equally valid or that certain “standpoints” have privileged position in relation to truth.

Thus, Carol Smart (1992) in her well-referenced critique of “malestream criminology” in which she berates criminology for what she sees as its adoption of grand narratives argues instead for situated knowledge. Suspicious of what she sees as an essentially male-centered criminology, she argues that the truth claims of criminology have to be deconstructed and challenged from a feminist standpoint. Although rightly critiquing partial views of the world that claim to be universal, Smart wants to replace these one-sided views with another set of one-sided views. As John Lea (1998) has argued, replacing the views of the dominant group with those of the marginalized, victimized, and excluded women is to replace one form of fundamentalism with another. In the end, Smart muddies the waters rather than constructing a basis for the development of a feminist criminology. By advocating a form of standpoint feminism together with an anti-modernism and antirealism, Smart gravitates towards relativism and foundationalism. From this perspective, it is difficult to see how she might develop a policy response that would reduce rape, domestic violence, and other crimes that victimize women. Thus, postmodernism tends towards defeatism and does little to move the field forward in developing meaningful and effective criminal justice policies.

Third, in conjunction with postmodern defeatism, there is a significant trend in academic criminology towards liberal pessimism. The implicit message of this stance as Stanley Cohen (1985) pointed out is to try to do less harm rather than more good. This brand of pessimism was popularized in the 1970s with the publication of Martinson’s (1974) report on corrections – a report that was widely interpreted as claiming that “nothing works.” Although Martinson in a subsequent article admitted that certain programs did work for some people under certain conditions, the pessimists embraced the “nothing works” mantra and applied it to different areas of criminology. Significantly, the claim that rehabilitation strategies were ineffective in reducing recidivism allowed a shift away from a commitment to try to rehabilitate prisoners to a policy of incapacitation and “just deserts.” This in turn led to the warehousing of prisoners and the creation of what were described in the UK as “penal dustbins.”

Liberals, in fact, have found it difficult to develop policies and interventions that are credible and which might resonate with the policy makers and the general public. This is partly because many are antistate or at least minimal statists, while most are anti-punishment. For the most part, their arguments are directed towards the reduction of state intervention and of limiting the use of punishment. Thus, there is a general policy of reductionism among liberal criminologists who argue for a decrease in the prison population and in many cases the use of community-based sanctions instead. However, because liberals often fail to address the issue of who should go to prison and for what purpose and for how long, the question of how far the prison population needs to be reduced can never be answered. The issue of imprisonment is, however, not just a question of numbers. Moreover, as some criminologists have pointed out, the greater use of community-based alternatives to incarceration can lead to “net widening” and the simultaneous expansion of both inclusive and exclusive strategies of control (Cohen 1985).

From the vantage point of liberal pessimists, there is a general wariness about proposing “solutions” or “alternatives.” For some, there is little interest in improving prison conditions as this is only seen to relegitimize the use of incarceration. On the other hand, there is a growing skepticism about the use of community-based sanctions. At the same time, there is some suspicion concerning the use of the “welfare sanction” which is seen to deepen the level of state intervention into individual lives while extending the range of intervention to include the wider community (Cohen 1985; Garland 1981). Thus, liberal pessimists find it difficult to commit to any of these forms of regulation.

More recently, liberal pessimists have claimed that there has been a rise in “populist punitiveness” and that both politicians and the public are becoming increasingly punitive (Garland 2001; Simon 2001; Wacquant 2009). Although these claims are based on thin theoretical and empirical foundations, there is a substantial consensus among liberal pessimists that we are witnessing a punitive turn (Matthews 2005). The main reference points for many of these liberal pessimists are the growing prison population on both sides of the Atlantic. The increase in the number of people in prison coupled with decreasing crime rates is seen as uncontroversial evidence of an increase in punitiveness. However, in relation to the American situation, the prison population leveled off at the end of the 1990s, while in a number of states, the prison population has actually decreased over the past decade. In the UK, we have seen a bifurcated response in recent years with the judiciary giving longer sentences for certain offenses like violence and murder, while giving reduced sentences for other offenses like theft and burglary (Matthews 2009a). This does not look much like the blanket surge in punitiveness that pessimistic liberals suggest. Also, in other countries such as Italy, Canada, and Germany, the incarceration rate has remained stable or declined in recent years (Meyer and O’Malley 2005). In short, these liberal pessimists add little that is useful or constructive to policy formation and in fact in relation to the debate around punitiveness have led us into a conceptual cul-de-sac. Unfortunately, doing nothing or trying to find reasons why proposed interventions are destined to fail creates a form of disengagement that allows policy makers and politicians a relatively free hand to orchestrate criminal justice policy. Criminal justice, however, is too important to allow politicians to make uniformed decisions.

Fourth, the demise of critical criminology in recent decades has contributed to the resurgence of conventional criminology with its natural scientific orientation. At its height of influence in the 1970s, critical criminology provided useful theories on crime and deviance including labeling and subcultural theories. Importantly, critical criminology encouraged critical discussions about the role of power and politics in relation to crime and justice, as well as raising questions regarding values and meanings.

However, critical criminology was unable to offer a credible alternative to conventional criminology. In developing a skeptical view of convention attitudes towards crime, it tended towards a romantic and idealistic view of the criminal while downplaying the impact of crime on victims.

Eventually critical criminology was largely absorbed within the framework of mainstream criminology and became at best the “bad conscience” of conventional criminology. The demise of critical criminology was unfortunate, as it left the door open for positivism to gain ascendency within academic criminology. In recent years, however, we have witnessed the growth of cultural criminology that embodies an important critical impulse (Ferrell et al. 2008). Cultural criminology focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups, emphasizing questions of agency, motivation, emotions, and the generation of meaning. Cultural criminology, though, largely ignores the role of the state and wider issues of power. It has been criticized for acting as “zookeepers of deviance,” while there is some confusion over what is meant by “culture” (O’Brien 2005). The problems are seen to limit its critical capacity, while from a realist perspective, cultural criminology like its critical criminological predecessors has a limited engagement with policy and social reform. Thus, while cultural criminology has no doubt reinvigorated critical interest among academic criminologists and in many respects breathed new life into the subject, its ability to provide a coherent alternative to mainstream criminology in its current form remains limited.

Countering “So What?” Criminology

By focusing on identifying causal connections between phenomena, realists seek to understand how and why change occurs. In contrast to postmodern defeatism and liberal pessimism, realist criminology involves a modernist perspective, promoting an evidence-based approach to social reform. Following its critical criminological predecessors, realist criminology aims to deconstruct key concepts like “crime” and “race” and to provide explanations rather than present a series of facts or decontextualized descriptions. Also drawing on the work of cultural criminologists, it aims to incorporate an appreciation of the cultural dimensions of crime control recognizing that policy formation will always be subject to cultural variations. In this way, realist criminology aims to develop a joined-up approach that incorporates sophisticated conceptualization and a robust methodology while making a contribution to policy formation.

Realists on Theory. First and foremost, realists recognize that “crime” is not simply a given nor is it an “act” or simply a product of “social reaction.” Rather it is a process which involves a complex and changeable relation between offenders, victims, the state, and the public. It aims to avoid the relativism of postmodernists and the idealism of some forms of critical criminology. The aim is neither to romanticize nor demonize the offender but rather to understand the motivational and structural dynamics that create crime and victimization on one hand and which shape formal and informal responses on the other. Understanding the “square of crime” is important in order to remind ourselves that “crime” is neither a “top-down” construction imposed by the criminal justice system nor a “bottom-up” process involving certain “acts” or “behavior” or changing levels of tolerance but a complex relation between these different determinants. For realists, the development of theory is important but is not seen as an end in itself. Theory must be useful and usable.

Realists on Method. Although realists are critical of empiricism and positivism, they are also critical of those qualitative approaches that are purely descriptive. Consequently, from a realist perspective, purely descriptive ethnographies are of no greater value than the most dense and impenetrable forms of inferential statistics. Realists also reject those forms of “cookbook criminology” that claim that there is one methodological approach that is intrinsically superior to all others and should be followed on all occasions. In many respects, realists are methodological pluralists and argue that the selection of methods will be dependent on the nature of the object under study and the type of research questions that are developed (Sayer 2010).

Rather than rely on statistical correlations, the aim of realist investigation is to identify causal connections. The objective is to find out not only what works but how and why it works. It is also recognized that “what works” will vary according to context and also according to the subjects that interventions are directed towards. As Pawson and Tilley (1997) point out, it is not so much that certain programs “work” but that they are effective to the extent that they connect with the capacities of the subjects to whom they are directed.

Realists on Practice. The move away from “nothing works” (Martinson 1974) to “what works” (Sherman et al. 1997) has been a welcome break from the pessimism and impossibilism that permeate contemporary criminology. While the field today focuses on using evidence to form policy, the evidence for “what works” has been disappointing, largely due to a low level of theory and poor conceptualization combined with inadequate and inappropriate methodologies. A great deal of administrative criminology adopts an instrumentalist view of “what works” and pays scant regard for differences in contexts and in the capacities and propensities of the subjects at whom interventions are aimed. Given the complex and ever-changing contexts of social life, the difficulty is to find situations in which successful interventions can be replicated. Indeed, nothing works for everyone all the time. Thus, instead of claiming that a program or policy “works,” perhaps it is more appropriate to claim that some programs work for some people under certain circumstances.

Critical realists also have a distinctive view of the nature and meaning of interventions. Interventions are not just practices but theories or hypotheses that postulate the possibility of bringing about an improved outcome. Consequently, interventions are potentially fallible particularly because they deal with complex social realities, as well as dealing with different groups of subjects and will invariably be implemented differently in different contexts. Intervention provides tests for theories and hypotheses and potentially offers a basis for developing cumulative knowledge about what works in different contexts and for different populations.


Realist criminology, it has been suggested, offers an alternative to “So What?” criminology and aims to provide a coherent and constructive alternative that is able to provide an evidence-based approach to social reform. The task facing criminology is to develop a coherent and integrated approach that emphasizes the role of a theory and which is critical but grounded. Realist criminology argues for the deployment of methods of investigation that are responsive to the object under study and are designed to identify how and why measures work and ultimately to fashion interventions that are aimed at making tangible improvements in the world. In short, realist criminology is theoretical but not theoreticist, critical but not negative or impossibilist, Utopian but grounded in lived experience, methodologically flexible but rigorous, practical but not pragmatic, and policy relevant rather than policy driven.


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