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«BEYOND DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: FOUCAULT’S CHALLENGE TO CRIMINOLOGY Published in English thirty years ago, Discipline and Punish has exercised a ...»

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M a r i a n a Va l v e r d e



Published in English thirty years ago, Discipline and Punish has exercised a profound and lasting influence on criminological thinking and

research (Foucault 1978). Appearing when Marxist criminology was beginning to decline, Foucault’s book, and subsequent accounts and uses of Foucault’s ideas, breathed new life into critical criminology at a time when—apart from feminism—there was little by way of exciting new ideas.

This article will not attempt to document exactly where and how Discipline and Punish was taken up, though some rather general comments about the book’s influence will be presented in the following section.

Instead, my main aim is to show that if progressive criminologists, instead of taking just a couple of ideas from one book, read and digested Foucault’s work as a whole, we would be in a position to move beyond the by now rather tired projects of criticizing administrative criminology and/or trying to displace it. A more comprehensive reading of Foucault’s work could inspire a radical rethinking of the questions that concern us (which are by no means reducible to crime and criminal justice) and of the tools we use to research those questions. Borrowing a few terms (from Foucault, in this case) to add some shine to existing research agendas and established ways of thinking does a disservice to the promise of the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical criminology’. Furthermore, limiting our reading to works that happen to discuss standard criminological topics such as prisons is increasingly out of phase not only with the ‘critical’ stance but also with the substance of ‘criminology’ — since influential criminologists now study all manner of novel entities, from private security to peacekeeping work to insurance companies.

Discipline and Punish was originally read by criminologists who would otherwise not read Foucault for the obvious reason that the book is largely concerned with the emergence of imprisonment as the default punishment, Beyond Discipline a key criminological question. But an analogy may help to the problem of selective reading. If people interested in using Freud to understand child abuse and incest confine their reading to those bits of Freud’s work (e.g.

the ‘Dora’ case history) that explicitly mention incest and child sexuality, they could get the impression that Freud was not too bothered by adults who molest children (and indeed, many feminists have read Freud in this one-sided manner). Freud’s increasingly tragic view of the profound, structural contradictions of the European bourgeois ‘civilization’ project, however, is the underlying reason for Freud’s attitude towards his case histories.

And in the end, it is Freud’s larger vision that continues to be relevant as a theoretical resource, whereas his comments on his female patients are, for the most part, best forgotten.

Along these lines, I want to challenge the criminological habit of reading Discipline and Punish in isolation, and the related practice of using this book only to answer existing criminological questions. Foucault’s research on the history of prisons did not come out of criminological interests, after all, but rather from a sense that prisons were important laboratories for many of the new techniques of governance used in modern industrial societies after the mid-nineteenth century. In other work he documented and analyzed other governance ‘laboratories’: physician’s consulting rooms, government census bureaus, the texts of economists, the autobiographical musings of Greco-Roman gentlemen, and the ambitions of early public health reformers, to name a few. Each research project gave rise to new ideas that are not general concepts but whose utility is by no means limited to the context giving rise to them. Since many influential criminologists are currently advocating a move beyond the traditional sphere of ‘crime’ and ‘criminal justice’, and instead taking up the broader perspective of ‘security’ and ‘the governance of security’ (Loader 2007, Shearing and Johnston 2006, Ericson 2007), it makes sense to see whether hitherto neglected parts of Foucault’s work may help us to think about the dilemmas of security and the recurring contradictions of liberal legal governance. Reflecting on Foucault’s work without having our reading be blinkered by past habits could effect a profound change in the questions we ask, and, correspondingly, in the tools we use to answer them.

I should underline that I do not wish to argue that Foucault is correct and some other perspective is incorrect: the


and normative arguments that make up much of what the academy calls ‘theory’ are completely at odds with Foucault’s tactical and site — specific conceptual bricolage.

What I wish to point out is that, whether or not we end up finding Foucault’s insights and methods useful — something that can only be deterM a r i a n a Va l v e r d e mined in respect to a particular question or problem—we would very much benefit from knowing more about his work as a whole.

A preliminary note about the critical criminology project is in order, however, before we proceed. It would be misleading to write about Foucault’s work and its impact without first noting that the mainstream administrative criminology that had flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, in the US and in other locations (e.g. the Cambridge Institute of Criminology), has managed to greatly expand its reach and its institutional strength over the last three decades without having to make significant concessions to any of the strains of critical criminology that became available at various times. The success of non-critical criminology in the academy as well as in correctional settings is the ‘macro’ criminological research story of the past three decades, and other subplots (e.g. Foucault’s influence or lack of it) need to be understood within this larger context.

When critical criminology first developed (e.g. in the British National Deviancy Conference, active between 1968 and 1978), the broader political and governmental context was more hospitable to social-welfare approaches. Today, by contrast, administrative approaches promoting a mixture of incapacitation and risk management and treating ‘crime’ as an isolated concern dominate the field (Garland 2001, Harcourt 2007).

Welfarist solutions still exist, even in the US: but they are largely confined to individually oriented therapy and self-help, rather than to collective justice. Given the marginalization of social inequality concerns that characterizes the recent history of the correctional field (and recent fashions in government programs more generally), it may be pointless for critical criminology to continue arguing against mainstream administrative criminologists. Administrative criminologists were not listening to their critics then and are still not listening today; but critical criminology was in any case not really addressed to them. The relevant difference is that thirty years ago critical insights from criminologists and allies were sometimes heard by sectors within government, and by the informed, voting public: whereas, wiith some exceptions, that is not the case today. To put it somewhat dramatically, the battle for the soul of criminology that began with the rise of critical criminology in the 1960s has been lost1.

It is telling that feminism, emerging alongside and in alliance with critical criminology in the late sixties, has managed to gain considerable institutional credibility not only in the academy but also in numerous government and global governance structures: but by and large, feminism has been isolated and marginalized in criminology by being seen as relevant only to

Beyond Discipline

women’s imprisonment issues. The great potential that feminist criminology had to develop new understandings of masculine patterns of behaviour associated with violence and criminality has been completey ignored by administratively oriented researchers (and indeed even by more progressive criminological thinkers, such as David Garland, though that is a separate story). If even feminism, a powerful and large movement that has proven itself compatible with virtually all methodological approaches, and enjoying the political advantage of speaking in the name of a majority of the population, has had virtually no impact on conventional penological and deliquency-oriented criminological research, it is not surprising that perspectives demanding profound theoretical shifts, such as Foucault’s, have only succeeded in creating a few academic islands. The impunity with which critical perspectives continue to be excluded from practitioner circles and from most academic environments suggests that any discussions amongst criminological researchers who have read Foucault (or, more expansively, who feel a certain obligation to pay attention to those who cite and use Foucault) are subcultural interactions that are unlikely to ever have an impact on what we can call the ASC ocean3. Given this context, it may not be overly pessimistic to suggest that using Foucault’s work to go beyond criminology altogether may be the best option for the current situation.

Having established the stakes of critical reflection on the history of progressive criminology, let us now proceed by quickly reviewing the fate of Discipline and Punish, before we go on to examine other insights developed by Foucault elsewhere in his work that I will argue should inspire us to go beyond the critical criminology of the second half of the twentieth century.



It could be argued that Discipline and Punish appeared just in time to save critical criminology, at a time of the great existential crisis posed by the rapid decline of 1970s Western Marxism. It is telling that the highly influential criminologist Stan Cohen, a self-proclaimed humanist and thus not a fan of any post-structuralist ideas, stated in his best-selling 1985 Visions of Social Control that ‘to write today about punishment and classification without Foucault, is like talking about the unconscious without Freud’ (Cohen 1985, 10).

The inclusion of the word ‘classification’ in Cohen’s remark is very significant. One of the factors that elevated Discipline and Punish to the critical criminological canon was precisely that Foucault’s analysis of modern

M a r i a n a Va l v e r d e

penality was in harmony not only with left critiques of punishment but also with the critical work being done in the 1970s on psychiatric practices and other forms of classification and confinement. ‘Social control’ is a fundamentally pre-Foucaultian term, since it connotes top-down power, in contrast to Foucault’s emphasis on power as a constantly shifting array of flows in which tactical advantage, not structural domination, is the ruling principle. But despite this key difference on the status and the workings of ‘power’, Foucault’s analysis of what he called ‘discipline’ was helpful to people like Cohen insofar as it highlighted the commonalities among various forms of ‘labelling’ and various kinds of ‘control’. The effort made by Cohen and others to break with the tradition that considered criminal justice to be a distinct field, in favour of a broader focus on what was then called ‘deviance and social control’, was facilitated—or perhaps justified after the fact—by Foucault’s insistence that the prison may have epitomized certain modern practices for governing populations and individuals, but that our analytic gaze had to focus on practices—e.g. the examination, the normalizing judgement—that circulated quite easily among institutions and that should be studied independently from the study of specific institutions.

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